LGBTQ Characters in 2021 K-dramas
K-dramas haven't really been the gold standard for LGBTQ representation. While some series have sincerely attempted to push the envelope with characters and storylines, they have sometimes been met with a huge backlash from a largely conservative public. In fact, a 2019 report shows that Korea lagged behind other OECD countries when it came to acceptance of homosexuality. So we were quite surprised that along with an increase in BL (boys love) content, there also seemed to be more characters in both mainstream and niche dramas who identified themselves as members of the LGBTQ community in 2021. Far be it from us to determine whether they were accurate representations or not, as those kinds of articles need a more in-depth and nuanced discussion, we still think it’s worthwhile to get the conversation going with some of these characters below.
Also, SPOILERS AHEAD!
Hwang Min-sung, Vincenzo
What’s keeping Vincenzo, played by Song Joong-ki (Descendants of the Sun), from his life goal is the shady Babel Corporation. To block the Shinkwang Bank investment in Babel, Vincenzo is forced to disguise as Tae-ho and date the gay bank CEO Hwang Min-sung, portrayed by Kim Sung-cheol (Our Beloved Summer).
While Vincenzo and Min-sung’s interactions were unapologetic fan service to women (Vicenzo’s co-lawyer Cha-young), non-women (Min-sung), and even non-fans, they drew mixed reactions from the audience. With LGBTQ representation scarce in mainstream South Korean media, some were displeased with the gay character being written as abusive and criminal, whose mental health issues were not at all addressed. Others found the scenes okay, reflective of real life: after all, gay men could be evil, too. Even if their sexual orientation were changed, Tae-ho and Min-sung could still represent any couple. Vincenzo’s discomfort arises not from homophobia, but from being forced to date someone against his will. Min-sung could be any person so head over heels in love that he remains loyal to Tae-ho, even after unraveling his "ex's" deception.
Jung Seo-hyun, Mine
The female-centric drama Mine is the story of what happens when strong, capable women band together to achieve a common purpose. The high society murder mystery featured the charismatic Kim Seo-hyung as Jung Seo-hyun, a chaebol executive who has to hide her sexual orientation as she is locked in a vicious fight for succession. The groundbreaking role of the first lesbian lead character in a k-drama seems tailor-made for the formidable Kim Seo-hyung, who has always exuded a strong and no-nonsense charisma that has long enabled her to play unfazed straight characters. Now she uses that talent to portray an elegant queer character, with all her hopes and frustrations, and the k-drama landscape is a tad more diverse and beautifully enriched by it.
Yoon Sol and Seo Ji-wan, Nevertheless
While Nevertheless focused on the complicated relationship between Yoo Na-bi (Han So-hee) and Park Jae-eon (Song Kang), the college campus drama drew attention for the love line between Yoon Sol (Lee Ho-jung) and Seo Ji-wan (Yoon Se-ah), best friends who slowly started to realize they would like to become girlfriends. Seo Ji-wan may have come across as a little bit too needy, but they still made for a sweet, adorable young couple.
Samantha, Mad for Each Other
With a male lead getting therapy for anger management issues and a female lead trying to heal from trauma, Mad for Each Other had a lot of drama going around. But perhaps one of the most likable characters in the whole series is the male lead’s cross-dressing neighbor Lee Sang-yeob/Samantha (Ahn Woo-yeon). Despite facing discrimination and false accusations, Samantha is resolute in accepting and expressing herself and in doing so, helps bring out the best in others.
Jennifer, You Raise Me Up
In a drama that attempted to talk about the taboo topic of erectile dysfunction and to challenge the stereotypes about masculinity, it wasn’t surprising that the main character Do Yong-shik’s (Yoon Shi-yoon) best friend was a trans shaman named Jennifer (Kim Seol-jin). Jennifer was empathetic and supportive but also quite shrewd with her business of fortune-telling. Her character’s self-confidence and assertiveness were a good foil to Yong-shik’s insecurity and self-loathing. In a show that had very questionable behavior by healthcare professionals, Jennifer’s straightforwardness was refreshing.
Chae U-gi, Yumi's Cells
Yumi’s Cells opens with a hot bait-and-switch scene between accountant Yumi (Kim Go-eun) and office crush U-gi (Choi Min-ho). U-gi invites Yumi out, who turns so ecstatic that she even thwarts the threat that is Ruby (Lee Yu-bi). After so much anticipation, Yumi finds out that U-gi is only setting her up on a date with his friend Woong (Ahn Bo-hyun) AND that he is not interested in women.
The k-drama adaptation of the eponymous popular webtoon does not “straightwash” U-gi's character, though U-gi's boyfriend is not shown in the first season. U-gi has never intended to lead Yumi on or break her heart, but unfortunately, Yumi still ends up hurt by her own expectations. However, his relationship with Yumi does have a happy ending as later, U-gi is shown to have a healthy friendship with both Woong and Yumi.
Yoo Cho-hee, Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha
It was supposed to be a plot twist when shy and reserved primary school teacher Yoo Cho-hee (Hong Ji-hee) professed her love to her friend Yeo Hwa-jung (Lee Bong-ryun), rounding out the love triangle with Jang Young-guk (In Gyo-jin) and unraveling one of Gongjin’s mysteries. But no one was really that shocked. It just made a lot of sense that the pretty, young teacher had been quietly harboring unrequited love for her female friend and was suffering under the weight of her own mother’s disapproval. It was a liberating moment for Cho-hee to finally express her feelings—one that was even made more poignant when Yeo Hwa-jung continued to offer acceptance and friendship.
Kang Ji-goo, Work Later, Drink Now
As a show that celebrates friendship and binge drinking, it would be remiss if we were not shown how the characters started drinking in the first place. While all three main characters have their unfortunate reasons, it is Ji-goo's (played by A-Pink's Eunji) who has the saddest backstory.
We learn that Ji-goo left her teaching job and started drinking after the death (or some say, just the disappearance) of a female student who confessed her attraction to Ji-goo. Her student had also opened up to her about the struggle of being a lesbian in Korea and while Ji-goo did what she could, in the end, it was tragically not enough.
While Ji-goo's character is shown to be straight by the end of the first season, one can't help but feel that the writers had been coding her as queer in prior episodes. Still, however they write Ji-goo in the next season, episode 7 of the first season will still have one of the more heart-wrenching and honest scenes involving an LGBTQ character in k-drama.
Jang Bong-hwan, Mr. Queen
What could viewers expect from a story about a present-day playboy chef (Choi Jin-hyuk) who falls into a swimming pool but emerges from a lake in the Joseon era as a queen (Shin Hye-sun)? Hijinks from the usual gender-benders, of course! But it also had surprising commentaries on women in politics in particular, and gender norms in general.
Chef Bong-hwan eventually recollects Queen Cheorin’s memories and begins to understand her pain. He also finds his thoughts slowly taken over by the queen (literally a female voice-over), his desires changed by female hormones, and his body being intimate with the husband King Cheoljeong (Kim Jung-hyun). Initially antagonistic towards the queen, the king starts to trust Queen Cheorin and the royal couple becomes each other's support.
At some point, it didn’t matter if the chef’s actions were justified because his mind and body are slowly being reclaimed by the queen. Or if he was acting as a man or a woman. Or if labels mattered at all. While having no LGBTQ character whatsoever, Mr. Queen is such a clever, delicate storytelling designed to introduce homophobes and the uninitiated into Boy’s Love (BL), or some version of it.