To mark Women's Month this March, we have prepared a series of female-centric features that celebrate the best that k-dramas have to offer.
In this first installment, the GwenchaNoonas reflect on the strong female leads who left a lasting impression on us. Most of these characters are from dramas that aired over the past few years, signaling a rise in the number of unconventional strong female leads in k-dramaland.
Goo Hae-ryung (Shin Se-kyung) of Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung (2019)
Goo Hae-ryung from Rookie Historian, the eponymous role played skillfully by Shin Se-kyung, is one of the most interesting female characters to come out of a sageuk (historical drama). In 19th century Joseon, Hae-ryung’s very existence is anomalous. For one, she is an unmarried 26-year-old. For another, she can read and write. And to top it all off, she holds a job interning to be a historian in the Royal Palace. Most sageuk noblewomen are portrayed as scheming mothers and wives plotting masterfully behind their husband’s and son’s backs, or helpless young women waiting to be traded off by their fathers and brothers for political gain. But Hae-ryung surprises us by choosing her own destiny and inadvertently alters history in the process.
She is the young, independent, forthright career woman who solves mysteries and pushes for reform on one hand. And on the other, she is completely believable as an awkward, inexperienced, spontaneous woman in love with a younger man, who happens to be the sheltered and innocent prince (Cha Eun-woo). While the story is entirely fictional, with many anachronous events and storylines (there were never any female historians in the Joseon era), Hae Ryung’s character shows a very real longing for every woman’s desires—to be treated justly in the workplace, not to be judged for the choices she makes, and to define her romantic relationships beyond society’s standards—desires all women can relate to in any century and country.
Shin Ga-Hyun (Nam Ji-hyun) of 365: Repeat the Year (2020)
Shin Ga-hyun (Nam Ji-hyun) is a webtoon artist who attempts to alter an unfortunate event in her life by agreeing to go back in time with nine other people. The time travel sets off a series of murderous events that result in the death of each of the time travelers. Ga-hyun’s life is at stake and yet she refuses to play the victim in this highly suspenseful story. She doesn’t sit around waiting to be saved by the police detective (Lee Jyun-hyuk), and instead forms an equal alliance with him in order to solve the mystery. Using both intellect and intuition, she sets off on her own investigation, confronts the villain(s), and makes sacrifices when the need arises. Without resorting to guns or unusual physical strength, Ga-hyun shows that a woman is just as capable of saving the day.
Go Hye-ran (Kim Nam-joo) of Misty (2018)
Kim Nam-joo delivers a flawless performance of the flawed—and incredibly complex—broadcaster Go Hye-ran in Misty, a drama centered on one woman's fight to survive the cutthroat (and often misogynistic) world of Korean broadcasting and politics. Not many k-dramas deal with the unpalatable realities of women in Korean workplaces, or even touch sensitive issues such as abortion, female-initiated adultery, and divorce, but that is exactly what Misty is all about, and only a few veteran actresses like Kim Nam-joo could have pulled it all off with the requisite nuance and finesse.
Helmed by The World of the Married director Mo Wan-il, the drama further gilds the lily of Hye-ran's performance with incredible cinematography and topnotch visuals, making Misty a sharp and stylish commentary on the price some women have to pay to fulfill their most honest ambitions.
Oh Sunny (Jang Na-ra) of The Last Empress (2018)
Makjangs (a Korean drama genre similar to the Mexican telenovela) are rife with outlandish and badass characters, but the strongest of them are usually those who are able to keep their cool in the midst of the crazy storm. Enter Oh Sunny, a naïve theater actress who, by force of circumstance, marries the emperor of a fictional modern-day Korean monarchy. It is fascinating to watch a woman come to terms with the harsh realities of palace life, and once Oh Sunny wakes up to the manipulations of everyone around her (including her husband), she quickly battens down and uses her skills and wits to plot her way out of the madness. Despite rousing the affections of both the emperor and her bodyguard along the way, Oh Sunny stays focused on her mission and in the final twist, chooses to yield to neither. After all, when a woman needs to bring down an empire... well, as the meme goes, "ain’t nobody got time for that."
Dr. Ji Sun-woo (Kim Hee-ae) of The World of the Married (2020)
Betrayed wives all over the world found their voice—and drew much strength—in the electrifying performance of Kim Hee-ae as Dr. Ji in 2020's runaway hit, The World of the Married. As a wife whose seemingly perfect marriage comes crashing down upon the discovery of her husband's infidelity, Dr. Ji is the farthest from a meek victim, and Kim Hee-ae brings tremendous nuance to the complexities of the female psyche undergoing such incredible stress. She can be a doting mother and wife, but when the callousness of both spouse and the mistress get to her, there's no telling how far a woman can go to save her child... and herself.
Ko Moon-young (Seo Yea-ji) of It's Okay to Not Be Okay (2020)
As soon as she dangerously toyed with her dinner knife in the first episode of It's Okay to Not Be Okay, it was clear that we were about to have another "interesting" female lead. But Ko Moon-young would become more than that. In fact, she would come to evolve into the unexpected anti-heroine we did not know we needed to see onscreen.
Not only does Moon-young (repeatedly) make the first move on her man, but her character is also complex enough to accommodate all the dark female desires often considered taboo in Asian society: resentful of one's parents, too comfortable with being alone, overtly sexual, and resistant to domesticity, among other traits. It was a role made perfect by Seo Yea-ji, whose acting chops and trademark huskiness would make Moon-young the lovable savage we would all end up rooting for. Of course, it didn't hurt that Seo Yea-ji's face and features fit her incredible couture wardrobe perfectly, taking Ko Moon-young from just being an "interesting" character to making her one of the most stylish and compelling characters in k-dramaland.
Lee Se-young (Park Eun-bin) of Hot Stove League (2020)
Hot Stove League, the first k-drama about professional baseball, has a cast of about 20 ahjussis plus Park Eun-bin as Lee Se-young, the baseball fan-turned-operations manager of the struggling, bottom-ranked Dreams. The only female manager in the league, she’s such a feisty little firecracker, and never lets herself be intimidated by the men around her. Although she gets off on the wrong foot with the unconventional new general manager (and male lead, Namgoong Min) she ultimately turns into his ally, using her wits to help him transform the team into winners. As most workplace romances have a side of romance, it was so refreshing to see a strong female lead play opposite a very attractive male lead without even the slightest hint of attraction or anything more than a professional relationship based on mutual respect.
Lee Ji-an (Lee Ji-eun/IU) of My Ahjussi (2018)
Lee Ji-an (Lee Ji-eun/IU) is an impoverished temporary office worker to whom life has been unjustly cruel. Her circumstances have driven her to cunningly manipulate people and situations in order to survive, regardless of who gets hurt. Unlike most "poor" female leads who live in cute rooftop apartments and inexplicably have killer wardrobes, she lives in a dark, dank studio and owns a single pair of sneakers and maybe three outfits. Lee Ji-an starts out as a hard, isolated, and cynical character who is downright unlikable, even as we can understand her situation and motivations. But over time we see this young girl, who carries the weight of a “30,000-year-old soul" in her diminutive frame, grow in humanity. She has arguably one of the best redemptive arcs in any k-drama. With the depth of her portrayal, IU made her mark as a serious actress to watch.
Yoon Se-ri (Son Ye-jin) of Crash Landing on You (2019)
Yoon Se-ri (Son Ye-jin) may be from the "Top 1%" of Korean society, but she's definitely not a typical spoiled chaebol (conglomerate-owning family) heiress. An illegitimate daughter always made to feel like an outsider, long estranged from her wealthy family, she founds and grows her fashion and beauty empire, Se Ri’s Choice, all on her own. As Chairwoman, she runs a tight ship and works through holidays, her motto being “You can sleep when you die.”
When Captain Ri (Hyun Bin) joins her in the South, she uses her smarts, resources, and totally badass gangster moves to protect not just herself but her man as well. (And gives him the gender-switched “Pretty Woman” makeover we didn’t know we needed in our lives!). On more than one occasion, Yoon Se-ri was equally willing to sacrifice her safety, freedom, empire, and her very own life for his --- for this and many other reasons, she will always be remembered as one of the most iconic k-drama heroines.
Liam Yeon Kimin
Mo Seok-hee (Lim Soo-hyang) of Graceful Family (2019)
Mo Seok-hee (Lim Soo-hyang) is a refreshing take on the bullied chaebol heir. She’s smart and rich, and isn’t taking the bullying sitting down. Exiled to the US to prevent her from making a claim on the family’s conglomerate, Seok-hee decides to come back and fight for her rightful place, crushing societal expectations and k-drama tropes along the way. Though she fights them with the help of a young lawyer, Heo Yoon-do (Lee Jang-woo), she’s no damsel in distress. She can throw a punch—or pull hair—if needed, whether in overalls or couture.
After portraying the sheepish lead in My ID Is Gangnam Beauty (2018), Lim Soo-hyang is far more impressive here as the kick-ass Seok-hee. The smart, strong, and sassy character clearly looks good on her.
Kim Bok-joo (Lee Sung-kyung) of Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo (2016)
Kim Bok-joo (Lee Sung-kyung) is a college weightlifter who goes through the throes of first love and has to balance the competing pulls of love, friendship, family, and athletic glory. Fully confident in her skills and in her body, her life falls into disarray when she falls in love with a weight loss doctor and she pretends to be a patient to catch his attention.
Even though the plot and her circumstance might not be the typical setting of a badass female character, the way she never internalizes the traditional standards of beauty is something quite refreshing in a young female character. Her identity crisis in the show is never about her weight or how she looks; her stepping away from weightlifting was not even about a guy. Her identity crisis is about her identity as an athlete and what it means to lose your passion for something you’ve sacrificed everything for. The male lead in the story (Nam Joo-hyuk) is more of a supporting role who is there for her, yet he is not central to her crisis resolution. She handles her crisis on her own terms and heals herself with the help of family and friends. This is a damsel in (existential) distress more than capable of saving herself.
Eun Dan-oh (Kim Hye-yoon) of Extraordinary You (2019)
After discovering she is merely a comic book character, has a severe heart condition, AND is set up to unreasonably love someone who loathes her (believe me, more twists await), Eun Dan-oh (Kim Hye-yoon) tries to break free from her pre-determined story.
She fiercely calls out the laziness of the creator for recycling love stories across manhwas (Korean graphic novels) and for relying on tired tropes to move the plot forward. While we, as viewers, may have helplessly been lulled into expecting the next cliché, Dan-oh refuses to have any of it! In her own meta way, she jerks us out of the ridiculousness of it all: How could a girl fall for a tsundere (read: jerk)? She knows if a boy cannot treat her well, then he doesn’t deserve her. While avoiding that loser like the plague, she later teams up with a character she named Ha-ru.
Finally, she is more than an “object” of affection: She is curious and smart enough to figure out why there are gaps in her memory and where the strange flicking sounds come from. Dan-oh does not wait for things to happen, but takes action. She also knows when to get help. She takes initiative, not just in revealing her feelings to Ha-ru, but also in overcoming what she can of her own destiny and reaching for her happiness.
Hong Seo-jung (Go Joon-hee) of Possessed (2019)
When it comes to a female lead, there’s nothing more badass than rational thinking and a sense of responsibility! Ignoring the supernatural aspects of the series, Hong Seo-jung (Go Joon-hee) is a wonderful mix of campiness, mystery, and tears. She hustles through her daily life relying on her skills fully intent to prove to herself that her worth is not based on blood nor her tragic past. Even more impressive is how Hong Seo-jung reverses a classic k-drama trope. She is cool-headed, street-smart, and more knowledgeable than her love interest, Kang Pil-sung (Song Sae-byeok). In fact, a good chunk of the series centers on this trope reversal! Ultimately, her ability not to get distracted by short-term gains AND be emotionally vulnerable at the same time make Hong Seo-jung a female lead to watch for.
Weol-ju (Hwang Jung-eum) of Mystic Pop-up Bar (2020)
You would think that a female lead seeking cosmic atonement would be cool as ice...an aloof and impenetrable statue...and then comes Weol-ju. As the proprietress of the ssangappocha (an outdoor food cart where people feel equal in stature), Weol-ju is abrasive and loud. She dresses in bright and revealing (for a hanbok!) clothes and offers shots of alcohol to her clients while spewing curses at them. Not sophisticated at all. In fact, Weol-ju is a combination of everything that society says a woman should not be and that is what makes her a female lead to watch out for. Weol-ju shows that you can yearn for connections with people AND be self-motivated at the same time.