In Defense of "Unlikable" K-drama Female Leads

“When a man gives his opinion, he's a man. When a woman gives her opinion, she's a bitch.” 
― Bette Davis

I was scrolling through reviews for Producer (haven't gotten around to watching it yet, so don't ask my opinion), and I noticed a trend:

"I freaking hate IU."
"Gong Hyo Jin's makeup is it's the same old narcissistic hard nosed female role again..."

Which reminded me of these kinds of reviews on Divorce Lawyer in Love:

"That girl should b fired"
"I don't like the lead actress. She is coming on too strong and annoying." 
"Can't stand the lead female part. Having trouble making it through ep. 2. Her character doesn't seem to be getting any better."

Etc. Etc. Etc.

I guess my main beef with these kinds of complaints isn't that people dislike the characters; it's that complaints about "selfish," "annoying," or "too strong" personalities seem to be leveraged against female characters to a disproportionate degree.

Pretty much all of the negative reviews I just cited came within the first 2 or 3 episodes of the series—you know, the part where they're still establishing personalities and setting the scene for the rest of the drama. That's why I find it odd that someone would complain about the female lead not getting better fast enough before the typical 2-episode drama intro is even finished. Why would she be getting "better" before we've even started? Isn't that what the other 16 episodes are for?

Sometimes I see similar complaints with male characters, but more often than not, there's an implicit understanding that the cold-hearted rich jerk isn't going to be a cold-hearted rich jerk forever. I've seen male drama characters get away with way worse in the introductory episodes than most female characters ever could, but since we're used to it, it barely even phases us.

Consider, for example, this scenario: Within two episodes, the lead character has physically pushed women onto the ground and into life-threatening situations not once, but twice. Neither woman actually died, but this character had no way of knowing that was true when making the choice to push them.

Pretty "unlikable" and "annoying," right? Nope. If it's Hyun Bin, all you care about his whether you like his hairstyle or how cute his dimples are.

So why is it that Hyun Bin basically gets a free pass, but people totally write off Jo Yeo Jung's character for a much lesser offense? 

I had a similar thought with the much-maligned female lead in Discovery of Romance. Back when everyone was saying "Why would a nice, handsome doctor like Nam Ha Jin want a horrible, selfish monster like Han Yeo Reum," I was actually thinking the opposite. Why would a smart, accomplished, fun-loving woman like her want a boring wet blanket of a man who keeps seeing another woman in secret against her wishes? I mean, really now.

Even if it's somewhat true, she's not the only one...

I have a couple of theories on this. The first is that we're so used to seeing male leads as rich jerks who gradually change that we're trained to accept and even expect churlish behavior in the first few episodes. The vast majority of female leads, however, are unwaveringly nice and selfless, so when we see them acting in mean or rude ways, we forget that they'll probably learn and grow over the course of the series.

Perhaps for female audiences, if you're identifying with the female lead, you want her to be someone for whom you can cheer from the very beginning. If you're fantasizing about how you could reform the wealthy bad boy with your sweetness, you don't want to imagine yourself being the jerk. It ruins the whole illusion.

Then, of course, we can't ignore the oppa factor. I think there's a definite subset of K-drama fans who just like to look at handsome faces and don't really care about character development. Oppa can be a serial killer, but if he has chocolate abs, he's automatically ranked higher than all of the women in the series.

Well, whatever the case is, here's my response: I'm tired of well-behaved, constantly kindhearted, docile women. I'm tired of hearing viewers clamoring for "sassy" female leads, but then seeing those same leads written off the first time they exhibit actual human weaknesses like selfishness or anger. I'm tired of doe-eyed sweethearts who would never hurt a flea. Give me some interesting, flawed women!

Guess what? Not all women are nice all the time. *Gasp!* And that means that if you care about character development, every once in a while you're going to have female characters who are self-centered in episode 1 instead of working 7 jobs and giving all of their hard-earned money to homeless cats or something. That's how you create a satisfying character arc.

Now, there are some ways that creating flawed characters can go wrong, but I think the rule applies equally for male and female characters. Audience members have to be able to connect to the characters, or there's no reason to keep on watching. This means that you can't write mean characters who are also boring. Why would we want to stick around to see them change if we don't even care what's happening to them? I get that sometimes, it's not so much that the characters are flawed as that they just aren't very interesting to watch, and that's a fair critique.

In addition to making characters we want to watch, dramas also have to be careful not to draw the unlikability out indefinitely. If the whole point is to watch characters learning and progressing, you can't spend 14 episodes on how terrible they are and expect people to feel satisfied with the end result. My classic example of this is You're Beautiful. I have been pretty vocal about my dislike for that drama, and a lot of it revolved around Tae Kyung's lack of progression. Yeah, he sorta got better, but he was so unbearable for so long, even after he confessed his feelings to, Go Mi Nyu, that being kind of nice for a little while didn't really cut it for me.

I know I already brought up Discovery of Romance in defense of the female lead, but I actually came pretty close to dropping the whole series after about 8 episodes. It wasn't just Yeo Reum who was the problem, though; at that point, Eric was the only one in the entire cast who appeared to be making progress, which got tiresome. Fortunately, we started digging into the back stories a little more thoroughly after that, so it got better. 

I will also say that sometimes characters do such terrible things at first that it's hard to root for them at all, regardless of what they do later. This response varies from viewer to viewer, but for me, the list of generally unforgivable flaws goes something like this:

1. Murder
2. Attempted murder
3. Sexual assault

I had to stop watching Bride of the Century when the male lead pinned the female lead in a bed against her will in order to intimidate her, and then two scenes later, she was gazing at him with lovelorn eyes. It was just too much for me to handle. On the other hand, I don't think having a bad hair day counts as an unpardonable offense.

I don't care if it's Hong Ki. That's an automatic DQ on my list.

I guess all I'm saying is that I get tired of the double standard on K-drama leads. If you don't like certain types of characters, that's fine; just make sure you don't like it across the board, regardless of gender. I, for one, find it refreshing when I see K-drama women who aren't just "sassy" sweethearts waiting around to be domesticated, but rather multi-dimensional women with character arcs of their own. 

To all of the "unlikable," "annoying," "too strong," "hard nosed" female leads out there:

Even if everyone else hates you, I'm on your side. Fighting!

Now that's what I'm talking about.


  1. *slow clap* Excellent excellent thoughts! About Bride of the Century, I found the murderous mother in laws (who literally murdered young girls to fulfill some weird prophecy crap) also quite terrible. I also HATE forced k-drama kisses. I have been noticing lately that there have been more and more real kisses in K-drama as of late, and a lot more female leads who take initiative. I hope for more changes in like manner.

    I really don't know what all the fuss about Producers is. I really think that most people do not understand understatement and deadpan. IU was neither flat not particularly bitchy in the first two episodes (I haven't watched the next few episodes yet). She's playing the role of ice princess, which was well established from promos. I have no idea why people are giving her crap about it. If anything, she already showed chinks in her ice princess armour. As for Gong Hyo Jin, well, she's just playing the same character she always plays with maybe a couple of adjustments.

  2. I agree with the messager of your piece but disagree about one of the Drams you use to support that message. I've only seen two of the Drama you mention - Divorce Layer in Love and History of the Salaryman. The latter has one of my all-time FAVOURITE female characters, the former just awful. She wasn't "strong" or "assertive" in the first four, she was a physically and verbally abusive bully. Shrill and one-dimensional. VERY badly written, especially given the sudden transformation to demure lovestruck mouse from about episode 6.

    JRW's character in HotS stayed true to her character throughout the whole Drama, and was never guilty of the sort of abuse we saw from the DLiL lead. For what it's worth, when male leads behave the way the female lead did in the early episodes of DLiL, I don't give them a free pass either.

  3. Thank You!!! Thank you!!! Thank You. Such a double standard. I have dropped shows that everyone has loved because the lead male was such a jerk that I knew there was no way I would forgive him--no matter how much he was going to fall for and love the heroine later. Why are women not only supposed to put up with that but actually for for that behavior? I am constantly having second lead syndrome because of this because so often, the second lead IS the guy that any friend of the female lead would support. Being physically manhandled and insulted in public in often very cruel and personal ways is NOT the way to win a woman's heart people!

    More importantly, to me writers often cannot distinguish between being a nice, good person and someone who is a whipping post for everyone else in a drama. One of the reasons why I liked the Korean version of Fated to Love You is because Jang Nara was able to portray what would have been the stereotypical wimpy good girl but with a strong backbone. She didn't have to be wimpy to be a good person. I love that picture of Kim Nam Joo up there because in both those shows, yes she could be hard-nosed, but she was also really good at her job and she expected others to work hard, too. Why is it that male leads (and men in real life) can be demanded and call people out on their poor performance bad/or behavior, but women are supposed to be nice? The thing I find the most upsetting about all of this is that it is often women who are the hardest on other women. That women belittle these strong heroines and expect them to be docile concubines in waiting rather than supporting them.

  4. I definitely agree. There've been several dramas I've dropped because of the crimes of the leading man. Fantasy Couple is an example. It's hard to forgive kidnapping.

    I won't watch anything from the high school hazing genre for similar reasons.

    About the Cindy character in the Producers, she's just jaded & world weary and doesn't want to be. Watching her leaves me both sad and amused, which is kind of contradictory.

  5. I also noticed that there are more natural kisses instead of forced kisses in dramas lately. I don't know if it's a trend or if it just happens to be the dramas I'm watching, but I hope it's the former. I would be perfectly happy without any more forced K-drama kisses.

    Even though I haven't seen Producer yet, I agree about the promo materials. Every single character described her as an "ice princess" who was trying to hide her vulnerable side. What did people expect?

  6. I definitely agree with History of the Salaryman. She is my all-time favorite character as well, and the way she was written is easily head and shoulders above most female characters. I particularly loved that even though she became a better person overall, that didn't mean that she became a completely different person (like in Prime Minster and I, for example).

    I guess we'll have to agree to disagree about DLIL. I wouldn't say that I really enjoyed her portrayal in the first few episodes, but I don't think she was much worse than most CEO male leads (self-centered, arrogant, verbally abusive). I also felt like they tried to give us enough hints that she wasn't going to be that way forever that I didn't mind waiting it out. Is she going on my list of favorite characters of all time? No. But did I think she was the main problem with the first few episodes (which I didn't particularly enjoy)? No. It was poor writing all around.

  7. Ditto on high school hazing. Boys over Flowers infuriated me the first time around. I don't know if I could handle watching it this far into my K-drama watching.

  8. I wonder if part of this double standard also applies to second female leads. Why do the guys usually get to be the nice ones, but most romantic competition from the female side is so generally nasty? It encourages women being hard on other women not only as viewers, but within the drama as well.

  9. " I particularly loved that even though she became a better person overall, that didn't mean that she became a completely different person (like in Prime Minster and I, for example)."

    Wow! Going striaght for the jugular, I see, ouch! PMAI's lead was gutted in the end, thanks to the return of zombie Mum, which was shame because until then she was like Yeo Chi from HoTS. As you said above, what made BYC so great was that she grew but didn't change who she was, right to the end. A sadly rare state of affairs in K Drama, it seems

  10. Great read. (IU's Cindy is currently my favorite thing about Producers.) I was going back throw the list of dramas I've watched, and the shows I like best definitely have flawed, not-always-sweet female characters.

    I think one way that double standard plays out is that heroines can only be purposely mean to the hero to have our sympathy. (They can be abrasive and hurtful to other characters, but it has to given some hidden reason, or they have to be redeemed.) The hero can be a jerk to everyone, but he only has to be nice the heroine to be fully "redeemed."

  11. I also hope it's a trend. Forced kisses are just not attractive at all. I did have a conversation with a Korean friend about them though and she said that Korean girls don't want to appear experienced; that they want to appear innocent. So when they don't reciprocate hugs or kisses, they are showing they are innocent and demure. Obviously it's a portrayal thing and not true reflection necessarily, but it's part of a worldwide culture of demanding sexual innocence from women. It's definitely not just a Korean drama thing.

    I feel bad for Producer in that it was trying to do something different, but because of public opinion, they have had to back off a bit. I hope the new PD still maintains some of the first director's Indie approach.

  12. I agree with you!

  13. You took my words exactly. SLOW CLAP and a resounding AMEN!

  14. Can you make a review on Ex Girlfriend's Club?

  15. Can you make a review of Ex Girlfriend's Club?

  16. I've been meaning to write a mini-review for days! It'll be up one of these days...

  17. I love this article so much. It's nice to read some feminist perspective on Kdramas. You said all of the things I think when I'm watching many dramas. The double standards drive me crazy sometimes. I love Producer and am glad it has picked up in popularity. I was a little afraid they would cancel it before it was finished. I love IU. She's adorable, and I think she's doing such a good job with her character.

  18. I like IU's character in Producer! wow. I can't believe people actually hate female leading characters. Well, believe it or not, according to this best dramas on viki,, producer is ranked on top.

  19. Oh my gosh, I seriously couldn't agree more! You wrote it excellently. Female leads with superiority complex are being hated immediately. But gorgeous jerks are loved for just being like that cause they find it attractive. lol


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