Struggling with Sexism in East Asian Dramas

When it comes to “problematic things I enjoy anyway,” my biggest guilty pleasure is East Asian dramas. Typically Japanese ones, as that’s the language that I (sort of) speak, but now I’ve started to study Chinese, I’ve added those to my viewing line-up too.

Most recently, I’ve been watching a very silly Taiwanese drama called Miss In Kiss, which is a remake of a remake of a Japanese manga called Itazura na Kiss, or Mischievous Kiss. The show’s tropey romcom set-up is pretty typical of these sorts of dramas — the girl (Xiang Yue, in this version) is in love with the smartest and most popular boy in school, but he dismisses her as too stupid to pay attention to. When her house is destroyed in an accident, she and her dad move in with her dad’s best friend and his family — including her crush. Misadventures ensue.

It can be a fun show to watch. The bright colors and zany adventures are definitely refreshing compared to a lot of western dramas. But the supposed love interest is consistently a cruel jerk to the protagonist, and any vague sign of decency on his part is treated as a Hint of True Love. Meanwhile, another guy decides that he has ownership over the protagonist, because he loves her, and so he calls her father “dad,” insists they’re basically married, and plans his life around “protecting” her and building comic schemes to kickstart their love.

If you’ve never seen East Asian drama, this sort of set-up is pretty par for the course. I’d love to argue that there’s some hidden feminism in watching these shows, but nope. Although not every drama is like this, many of them are, and whenever I watch them, it’s with the knowledge that I’m enjoying the lighthearted drama and practicing my language skills at the price of attempting to ignore pretty consistent narrative misogyny.

I’m not sure if it’s just because it’s been a while since I watched one of these dramas, but Miss in Kiss seems particularly bad. We’ve got the “they MUST be together” trope, despite the guy’s indifference and cruelty to her. We’ve got the forceful hand slamming into the wall beside her head (multiple times), the grabbing her by the wrist to pull her around (multiple times), the guy she’s not even interested in getting violent to protect her honor from the guy she likes (multiple times) and basically acting as a stalker (almost every episode). It’s a really messed up representation of romance. And sure, it’s a silly show. But it’s uncomfortable to dismiss those elements as “well, that’s just the genre,” even though, in many ways, that is the genre.

I hit my limit about 20 episodes in, when the “oh my god, are you kidding me??” elements overwhelmed any possible benefits, and I quit. I wouldn’t have even lasted that long if I didn’t desperately need the practice listening to fairly straightforward Chinese. But as I spent my days writing about feminism in media and spent my evenings watching this “lighthearted” but messed-up romance, it got me thinking, again, about what it means to watch something that you know is problematic. I don’t just watch these series for language practice. I enjoy them. I like the music, the bright colors, the often farcical plotlines, especially the epic melodramatic romantic moments. My favorite in college was Hana Yori Dango, which has such gems as “guy and girl get trapped in broken elevator” and “guy gets amnesia,” as well as the familiar arc of “guy is horrible to protagonist but actually they’re in love.” I watch for pure entertainment value, with bonus learning on the side. But I’ve watched many of them while studiously ignoring certain elements, and quit several when those elements got too much.

I think, for me, it depends how far the story takes these elements, and how integral they are to the plot. These dramas aren’t doing anything particular new with their sexist plots, and they’re not doing anything that feels like it was taken from the 19th century either. These are all very familiar tropes, in series full of familiar tropes. They fit comfortably in that context, so it’s much easier to ignore them and accept them as just part of that sort of show. And we are all experts at ignoring run-of-the-mill sexism in entertainment. It’s presented as normal, so we either take it as normal, or accept it as a price for watching whatever the most popular shows and movies of the day are.

And so, honestly, I’ve trained myself to accept a certain level of “weak girl, controlling guy” sexism in my East Asian dramas, just as I’ve trained myself to often watch American series with two brains — the “I’m enjoying this” brain, and the “critical thinking” brain. And the same divide comes into play here. If the sexism is emphasized too much, or plays too big a role, I may quit, but a certain level of it… well, if I was writing about the show, I’d analyze it to death, but if I’m just watching for light entertainment, I often accept it as an unfortunate price of admission. I don’t really think that’s a good thing, but perhaps it is a necessary one.

But if anyone has any recommendations for any cute but non-sexist dramas in Japanese or Chinese, I’m eager to hear about them! Especially if they’re on Netflix. 🙂

18 Replies to “Struggling with Sexism in East Asian Dramas”

  1. If you can somehow manage to get your hands on a copy of Queen Seondeok, you should absolutely watch it…both the main character and the antagonist are women and OMG the antagonist in particular is FANTASTIC and so much fun to watch! There’s a little bit of in-universe sexism because it’s medieval Korea, but not nearly as much as you would expect, to the point that when the princess gets a lecture that she can’t go sneaking out at night to meet with a young man because her reputation will be ruined, I had a surprised “Oh, right…..” moment because I was so used to the protagonist constantly running around having all kinds of adventures (usually disguised as a boy, granted, and incidentally the “boy” the princess was trying to meet, but the show doesn’t shy away from letting her Do Stuff), and the Queen-In-All-But-Name-Power-Behind-The-Throne antagonist is an evil badass who gets away with a LOT, all while maintaining the veneer of a highly-honored noblewoman.

    The only downside is that while it deservedly received widespread critical acclaim, it later got hit with a plagiarism lawsuit, the result of which is it can no longer be aired on TV and no more DVDs can be made, so I don’t know where you’d get a copy (I got my DVDs before the lawsuit surfaced).
    But if you can somehow find it and want a female-action-driven period costume drama, you have to watch it!

    1. Ooo, that sounds so, so good! I’m googling for an English subbed version right now. Thank you for the rec! 🙂

  2. I’m about halfway through Netflix’s ‘Atelier’, about a custom lingerie shop in Tokyo. The lead character is quite ‘cute’, but there are other strong women on the show who make interesting decisions and have agency. Plus there’s a really engaging debate about the nature of beauty, and why one would want to wear beautiful things that aren’t visible to the public. Also, I discovered it while in the process of learning to sew my own lingerie, so that’s fun.

    So far there are really no love interests at all. A bit of flirtation, but lead character Mayuko is all about business. She gets a makeover, but it’s for improving her work and making her feel powerful, not for landing a man.

    1. Oo, I’ve been eyeing that one on Netflix for a while. Thanks for the rec!

  3. Natalie Monroe says: Reply

    There’s this Cantonese drama from Hong Kong called You’re Hired that’s really good. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You%27re_Hired_(TV_series)) The female protagonist is this shopaholic type girl who loves luxury items, and the male protagonist is a former businessman from the States who comes to HK to help his decreased business partner’s wife to pay off her debts.

    It’s a funny, feel-good drama with minimum sexism. There are some with regard to marriage values and all that, but the romance itself is very sweet and Sophie Kinsella-ish.

    1. I’ve never watched a Cantonese drama before. I’ll have to check it out!

  4. Lars Sjöström says: Reply

    Stalking should be treated as the destructive behaviour that it is. The victims could at worst have their lives torn apart. Stalkers need to be disciplined, for their victims sake but also for their own. A piece of fiction doesn’t need to have a happy ending, but should treat a destructive behaviour for what it is.

    Still I am interested in that the male love interest is the smartest guy in school. In western fiction, the smart guys are usually less popular, have less leadership abilities and are unattractive to women. This is certainly the case for many smart men, but might also be self-fulfilling if it affects the viewers self-image. Still I laugh at the problematic storyline were the smart guy has to take over the popular atheletic guys date(who wasn’t asked her opinion), and objects that he can’t dance. He invent shoes that dance for him, a not-nice-but-not-evil guy steal the shoes and use them in a dancing contest. The inventor sabotage the shoes and the cheater makes a fool of himself.

    I can recommend playing computer games with language settings on chinese. It helps my french when I must understand quests and choose which dialogue line to respond with.

    1. I found it interesting that the super smart guy was the one everyone in school was swooning over as well. Although later on he turned out to be perfect at all things, including sports, haha.

      I’ve been playing Pokemon Sun in Japanese, and that’s been so good for learning. Sadly, my Chinese isn’t good enough for that yet. I’d just end up not having a clue what was going on!

  5. RubyHerondale says: Reply

    They’re quite well known, so you may have seen/read them already, but two of my favourite manga series that have been adapted into anime are Full Metal Alchemist and Fruits Basket. I haven’t watched either of them in a long time but enjoyed them both very much during my teens. Fruits Basket definitely has traces of some of the tropes that you mentioned but it also deals with some difficult subjects and has brilliant unusual female characters with close relationships. FMA is mainly about two brothers, so there aren’t a huge number of female characters but those that are there are great, and all the characters are compelling and it’s very funny, at least in the English language version! I can only vouch for the original animated series, I never watched the FMA; Brotherhood remake. But it’s definitely the series I recommend to people as soon as they mention they like manga or anime, and they usually get addicted too!

    1. RubyHerondale says: Reply

      I know you weren’t specifically asking for anime but I also know you’re not the type to reject it just because it’s animated, plus they’re the only series I’ve ever watched that are originally in Japanese!

    2. I’ve seen a few episodes of FMA Brotherhood, and I still fell a bit emotionally scarred by that girl/dog hybrid plotline. I’ve never had much luck getting into anime, but I’ve not really tried much shoujo, since all my friends are into more mecha stuff. I’ll have to check Fruits Basket out. 🙂

  6. There’s a really cozy smallish? korean drama that’s about 12 episodes long called Age Of Youth, but on Netflix it’s known as Hello, My Twenties. It’s about a girl in college who has to room with 4 other girls, and the girl on girl friendships are incredibly satisfying to watch, especially since these relationships are the center of the show. Not to mention, each girl is given a compelling story and not one girl is left undeveloped, and this is great because at least two of the girls are ones whom we are taught in society as girls we shouldn’t like, girls with negative labels, and yet the show makes us love them and understand them anyway. As a bonus, the landlord is an awesome lady who gets her own few moments to shine in taking care of the girls.

    And now I’m rambling but I really hope you give it a watch! It’s sadly quite rare to find shows so unashamedly girl-centric, and also tackles sexism and patriarchal systems.

    1. Ooo, that’s actually already on my Netflix list! I haven’t been prioritising it, because I don’t speak Korean (and Korean sounds just enough like Japanese that I end up feeling like I should be able to understand it and that my Japanese just sucks, haha), but it sounds really cute! I may watch this next now.

  7. If you are interested in/can access Dramafever, they have a lot of drama options for a relatively decent streaming price. Unfortunately, I moved to Korea and lost my access before I could watch a whole lot, but there’s an amazing Chinese drama on there called Nirvana in Fire that, while it doesn’t have a lot of female characters, all of them are strong and powerful and the overall story is very, very good.
    I started watching a kdrama called She Was Pretty but I didn’t get very far. For what I did see, it was really interesting and featured a strong and supportive female friendship between a very pretty girl and the unattractive lead. It was also tackling issues of beauty from a lot of angles which I found fascinating. I’ve heard it recommended a lot though from more feminist inclined ladies who watch kdramas.

    1. Haha, I actually didn’t even know about Dramafever. I’m only just getting into watching them again, after watching loads in college, and back then the idea of paying to legally stream them would’ve been laughable. It’s kinda weird to me that these sites have gone legit! Checking it out now!

  8. I’m not sure if this is really the spot for this, but I’d REALLY like to hear what you’d have to say about an anime called Yuri on Ice. I don’t want to say too much, but even though it has two main male characters, it has a wide range of awesome supporting female characters, an highly ethnically diverse cast, and deals with LGBTQ characters too. It’s also really uplifting.

    1. I’ve been thinking about watching Yuri on Ice for a while. I know people absolutely love it, and it sounds like something I’d enjoy, but I’ve always had difficulty getting into anime in the past. But I know I’m going to give it a try eventually!

      1. I enjoyed Yuri on Ice which says quite a lot, because I can’t usually stand sports anime. But it was beautifully animated and the relationships, whether established or developing, were very enjoyable. Plus, it’s only 12 episodes (good luck getting the opening out of your head, though).

        Another cartoon I have been enjoying a lot recently is the French/Korean production Miraculous Ladybug (yeah, it’s a kids’ cartoon but my 30-year old self enjoys it regardless). It’s a magical girl meets superheroes genre, very diverse (main character is a Chinese-French girl), the romance is Shakesperean comedy level of confused (two people in a love square), friendships between characters are amazing, villains are ridiculously over the top while still appropriately threatening. English dub is very good and it’s available on Netflix still, I think.

What do you think?