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The Women of 2022 K-dramas

South Korea leads the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations in gender wage gap. Based on the latest data available across some of the wealthiest countries of the world, the median earnings of Korean men are higher by 31.1% than those of Korean women. And having less money—in the worst-case scenario, poverty—translates into “powerlessness and voicelessness."

But the people behind k-dramas depict a different world for Korean women (and women in general). Far from being delusional, k-dramaland celebrates the strength of women in spite of their general powerlessness. In celebration of Women's Month, here are 2022’s most dynamic women characters, exerting their influence or even steering events to their will, either for selfish reasons or for the greater good.

GwenchaNoona | 2022 In Review: Women in K-drama (photos of Jung So-min in “Alchemy of Souls”, “Kim Hae-so in “Juvenile Justice”, Park Eun-bin in “Extraordinary Attorney Woo”, Park Ji-hu, Kim Go-eun, and Nam Ji-hyun in “Little Women”, and Lee Joo-myung, Kim Tae-ri, and Bona in “Twenty-Five Twenty-One”

Kim Hye-soo, Juvenile Justice and Under the Queen’s Umbrella

Kim Hye-soo transformed into Judge Sim Eun-seok, a cold and seemingly apathetic judge who confesses to “hating” young criminals, resulting in a high conviction rate in her court. Nominated for Baeksang Best Actress for Juvenile Justice, she is respected for lending her star power to such a socially relevant series. And this popular court k-drama makes an important rather than an entertaining watch—it is unafraid to take a hard look at the perils that Korean youth face without pandering to sentimentality or unrealistic drama. It takes its subject matter so seriously that it eschews the need for a soundtrack, for a love arc, or any humor. At its core, the show plainly asks: Who is to blame for juvenile crime?

Later in the year, Kim traded the robes of a judge for a queen’s, returning to sageuk (historical show) after 20 years. She portrayed Queen Hwaryeong, a politically savvy queen who struggles to turn most of her sons into proper princes. She must keep them under her "umbrella" to protect them from corrupt ministers, competitive concubines, and her scheming mother-in-law, the Queen Dowager (Kim Hae-sook, Inspector Koo). In sageuks where the political sphere is dominated by the king and the ministers, the k-drama shows how she, the Queen Dowager, and the rest of the concubines shape the fate of Joseon. And Queen Hwaryeong shows us how while being morally good.

Kang Han-na, Bloody Heart

Yoo-jung (Kang Han-na, Start-up), is a noblewoman whom the king Lee Tae (Lee Joon, The Silent Sea) desires and eventually marries. In the Joseon era, women must either scheme their way into relevance or allow themselves to be used as a tool. Yoo-jun must go against the grain and forge her own path if she wants to fight for the man she loves, her integrity, and her people. Kang Han-na’s performance in her first major leading role does not disappoint. In this drama, she doesn't play second fiddle to anyone and holds her own in a credible performance that has the audience rooting for her.

Seo Hyun-jin, Why Her?

Rom-com queen Seo Hyun-jin transformed into ice queen Oh Soo-jae in Why Her?, further proving that her Baeksang Best Actress award for the 2016 comedy Another Miss Oh was no fluke. In this legal mystery thriller, she plays a brilliant, ruthless lawyer who has become the first female partner in a major South Korean law firm. Her alleged involvement in a high-profile suicide derails her career, and she is exiled to teach at Seojung University Law School, where she investigates the incident and plots her comeback. While Why Her? features a noona loveline, this mystery drama is at its best when Oh Soo-jae is taking on her formidable male foes with utter ferocity and a killer wardrobe.

Kim Ji-won, My Liberation Notes

“Worship me” became one of the most memorable lines of 2022, especially coming from the most unexpected of characters: the introverted graphic artist Yeom Mi-jeong, played by Kim Ji-won. While Mi-jeong is neither plucky nor ballbusting, as k-drama female leads tend to be, she has a quiet, dignified strength of her own, and we couldn’t help but root for her in her journey towards finding her liberation.

Cho Yi-hyun, All of Us Are Dead

Choi Nam-ra, played by Cho Yi-hyun (Hospital Playlist), is the seemingly cold and misunderstood class president in the Netflix high school zombiefest All of Us Are Dead. At the beginning of the series, Nam-ra is a studious but withdrawn student, painfully aware that she's only been made president because of the influence of her rich parents. An introvert, she is intensely observant and quickly pulls information together in her own objective style, a trait that becomes a huge asset in the fight to survive the impending zombie horde. As the infestation spreads throughout the school, Nam-ra remains reliant on hard facts and tangible evidence to make judgment calls. Her innate sensibility keeps her head above the noise and the drama of her more fearful classmates. As the chaos grows, we find that Nam-ra is wiser than she lets on, and that she does have the interests of her classmates at heart. What also makes Nam-ra such a refreshing character is that she's not relationship-obsessed as most teenage girls on TV are portrayed to be. And having newfound friends turns her into an even more confident leader who helps strategize the group's next moves.

Bae Suzy, Anna (Director’s Cut)

Bae Suzy (Start-up) convincingly takes on her darkest, most complex role in this Coupang Play miniseries. Based on the bestselling novel Intimate Stranger by multi-awarded writer Jung Han-a, this quiet psychological thriller revolves around Lee Yu-mi, a talented and intelligent woman of humble origins who becomes entangled in a web of her own lies. As Yumi and then “Anna,” Suzy manages to keep a liar merely just that—a liar. She’s not without remorse or guilt, and she even reacts with incredible dread when on the verge of being found out. Her Anna is not a simplistic psychopathic charmer or even some sort of genius who can conjure solutions from a gifted mind. In fact, “Anna” succeeds because she's such a relatable and ordinary liar. Yumi’s frosty exterior conceals her deep desperation to keep looking the part, as well as her daily fear of being found out. Instead of watching a remorseless charlatan rip off one man to another, we have a very human interpretation of what a life built on a lie is like.

Jung So-min, Alchemy of Souls Part 1

In Alchemy of Souls Part 1, Jung So-min (Because This Is My First Life) plays Mu-deok, whose body hosts an extra soul, that of the wanted assassin Naksu (Go Yoon-jung, Law School). While recovering after using the forbidden spell “alchemy (switching) of souls,” Mu-deok disguises herself as a maid and teaches rookie mage Jang Uk (Lee Jae-wook, Do Do Sol Sol La La Sol) practical magic.

Jung So-min drew rave reviews for effortlessly switching personalities between the servile Mu-deok and the ruthless Naksu, delicately balancing the power dynamics between the main characters (usually tipping it favorably in her direction without anyone noticing). She is truly a master artist in her banter with the male lead, her interactions with the other actors, glimpses of her fighting skills despite her clumsiness, and her spunk in the face of danger.

Lee Jung-eun, Our Blues

When veteran screenwriter Noh Hee-kyung selected the cast for this slice-of-life drama, she sought to assign her actors to roles they’d never played before. Often cast in mother roles (When the Camellia Blooms, The Light In Your Eyes), Lee Jung-eun really got to dig her heels into her Our Blues character Jung Eun-hui, the de facto leader of fictional Pureung Village in Jeju Island. The hardest working and wealthiest (though there’s no way you would guess it based on her lifestyle) business owners in her community, Eun-hui is highly respected and relied on by everyone.

Park Eun-bin, Extraordinary Attorney Woo

The heartwarming legal series features Park Eun-bin as Atty. Woo Young-woo, the first lawyer in Korea with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Every time she handles a case, she draws on her unique strengths, complementing the skills of her high-performing team led by Atty. Jung Myung-seok (Kang Ki-yong, Moment at Eighteen). As the rookie lawyer in the country’s second largest firm navigates her way through society, she adds more allies by her side, especially litigation team member Lee Jun-ho (Kang Tae-oh, Run On).

Park Eun-bin received positive reviews for depicting a person with ASD delicately and realistically. Her character knows a lot of whale facts, but that’s precisely how she learns about life (and the metaphors turn out be spot on!). Though aware of how smart she is, she bravely and humbly learns from others. And for a character that is supposed to have difficulty interacting with others, she relentlessly tugs at viewers’ heartstrings in every episode.

Kim Se-jeong and Seol In-ah, Business Proposal

Food researcher Shin Ha-ri (Kim Se-jeong, The Uncanny Counter) agrees to go on a blind date to help her best friend, chaebol (conglomerate) daughter Jin Young-seo (Seol In-ah, Mr. Queen), scare off the guys her father wants her to marry. There are no damsels in distress in this k-drama, with the two female leads perfectly smart and capable women (except when they need to kill a cockroach).

Kim Tae-ri, Bona, and Lee Joo-myung, Twenty-Five Twenty-One

The series follows the lives of the Taeyang squad as they grow from being adolescents to young adults in the late '90s in the midst of the economic crisis in Korea. There are three women in the five-member squad: Na Hee-do (Kim Tae-ri) is the feisty, never-say-die fencing athlete who has dreams of competing against her idol. The beautiful and talented Ko Yu-rim (WJSN's Bona) is the number one fencer in Korea but sees her sport as a means to end her impoverished life. Finally, Ji Seung-wan (Lee Joo-myung), is the cool, uncompromising, and idealistic class president. What is remarkable about this group is how they unwaveringly support each other. Seung-wan is never made to feel bad for deciding to quit school; Yu-rim isn’t asked to justify her reasons for leaving the country; Hee-do and Yu-rim’s rivalry is never played up.

Lee Sun-bin, Han Sun-hwa, and Jung Eun-ji, Work Later, Drink Now 2

Three 30-something women—nearly alcoholic by any standard—try to get through their problems with work, family, and men by discussing everything over incredible food and copious amounts of lukewarm soju. Together, Ahn So-hee (Lee Sun-bin), Han Ji-yeon (Han Sun-hwa), and Kang Ji-gu (Jung Eun-ji) try their best to live sober lives in between drinking sessions at their favorite bar. But the trio can only go dry for so long, and in no time, life throws them one massive curveball after another, to which they respond with...what else? Shot after soju shot.

Kim Go-eun, Nam Ji-hyun, and Park Ji-hu, Little Women

Three sisters, bookkeeper Oh In-ju (Kim Go-eun), reporter Oh In-kyung (Nam Ji-hyun), and student Oh In-hye (Park Ji-hu), are trying to make ends meet in modern-day Seoul. They have enough on their hands with their bills piling up and their absentee parents. But their situation changes drastically when oldest sister In-ju finds a huge amount of money. Kim Go-eun deftly plays both the fragility and hidden strength of the eldest sister who is neither entirely heroic nor virtuous. Middle child In-kyung not only writes about them but puts her life on the line in the process of uncovering a story. Nam Ji-hyun has a tough challenge in trying to make her character likable when she’s so darn stubborn. Finally, Park Ji-hu embodies the stoic and scheming In-hye. Next to her outspoken sisters, she’s hard to read and you always wonder what’s behind those observant eyes of hers.

Little Women thrives not only from its highly competent cast, but also because it is the product of three of the best female brains working behind the scenes today: When you put together Jung Seo-kyung’s decades of screenwriting experience, the tense but elegant directorial style of Kim Hee-won, and the impeccable taste of art director Ryu Seong-hee, we get an exquisitely shot and gorgeously cinematic atmosphere that adds to the enjoyment of an already intriguing story.

Which female character do you identify with the most? Choose your fighter against women's "powerlessness and voicelessness."

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