The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Problem with Makeover K-dramas

When I heard the premise for Oh My Venus, I just about reached through my computer and strangled everyone involved with the production. On the one hand, it's Shin Min Ah and So Ji Sub! On the other hand, it's a makeover drama, which may just be my absolute least favorite type of K-drama on the entire planet.

Coming on the heels of another makeover K-drama  (She Was Pretty) and following a similar "sad-fat-girl-turns-skinny" formula of last year's Birth of a Beauty (and casting poor Jung Gyu Woon to play basically the exact same role he played in the earlier drama), Oh My Venus made me especially wary.

In the end, though, Shin Min Ah and So Ji Sub won out, and I found myself watching the series. It's been an interesting experience thus far, with alternating scenes of things I hate and things I really appreciate.

Since K-dramaland seems so intent on making these types of shows over and over again, I want to have a conversation about why they're so troubling to begin with and what (if anything) makes them work.

"I Love Myself — But I Also Look Nothing like Myself"

Makeover K-dramas are inherently problematic for me. Often, the plot descriptions will include feel-good phrases like "she learns to love herself" or "They come to value personality over looks." Those things are awesome and all, but it's hard to cheer fully for a message about positive self-esteem and body image when the only way the heroine learns to love herself is by changing absolutely everything about her outside and conforming to Korea's strict beauty standards.

Take Birth of a Beauty as a prime example. To give the writers credit, the last few episodes were full of Geum Ran talking about how she learned to love her true self, and they even made some (horribly clumsy) attempts to "prove" that Tae Hee also loved her for who she was instead of the "Sara" exterior.

That's great! But wait — how, exactly, did she learn to love herself? Oh yeah, she got full-body surgery to look like Han Ye Seul. And sure, they included images of the heavier actress to remind us that she was still the same person on the inside — but right now, she still looks like Han Ye Seul. And she will always look like Han Ye Seul. 

Similarly, even if Tae Hee used a crazy contraption to see Geum Ran as her former self and was like "nope, I'm not disgusted by her fatness," at the end of the day, he's still going to bed with Han Ye Seul, and there's simply no getting around it.

Buying into the Stereotype

The other central problem with makeover dramas is that even the okay ones buy into the very same beauty standards they claim to undermine. It's enough to give you emotional whiplash to cheer in one scene and cringe in the very next.

So far, that's exactly what's happening with Oh My Venus. On the one hand, the writer seems to be handling the premise with more care than I expected. I love how Joo Eun believes in and stands up for herself even when other people mock her appearance. I also appreciate that if they had to put Shin Min Ah into a fat suit, it's one that makes her face look realistically chubby instead of saying she weighs 170 lbs and making her look like she weighs 400 lbs. (The face is good, but can we all just ignore the full-body fat suit, please? Random lumps everywhere, but nowhere they belong!)

And yet, even as the show seems to be making strides on one side, it backpedals on the other. It's one thing to have characters constantly commenting on her weight and making fun of her, but it's another when the show does the exact same thing. If she supposedly weighs 170 lbs, why do a UFC fighter and a top-tier trainer have so much difficulty carrying her on an airplane? Why does she make the sound of a freight train crashing when running into a glass door? Why, above all else, IS THERE JOKEY CIRCUS MUSIC PLAYING EVERY TIME SOMETHING EMBARRASSING HAPPENS TO HER?!?! 

What were your seven shirtless workout scenes for if not for this moment?

If the show was going to act like overweight people are sooooooo clumsy and it's soooooooo funny, then I almost wish they had made her fat suit bigger. Otherwise, it just seems like anyone who weighs more than real-life Shin Min Ah or Yoo In Young is a walking joke waiting to happen. 

The same goes for So Ji Sub's character. The charisma of the So Ji Sub-Shin Min Ah pairing is already impossible to resist, and I love how his character sees the good in her and wants to be around her even before she loses any weight. But please, please, can he never utter the words "Your body is mine" ever again? Please? Thanks.

Supporting one Beauty Standard

Of course, there's also the problem of Korean beauty standards in the first place. When K-dramas say a character is "ugly," half of the time that means frizzy hair and bad clothes, and then the "makeover" involves making her look exactly like every other Korean actress out there.

She Was Pretty fell into this trap. Why was everyone so horrified by her looks in the first place? I actually liked her curly hair and rosy cheeks, and I was annoyed that her makeover tamed everything interesting about her and made her look like a clone of everyone else. 

I get that she worked at a fashion magazine and needed to be taken seriously, but she could have done so by using some hair product and thinking about her clothes more carefully instead of changing her entire look. Once the makeover happened, Hye Jin's personality also kind of disappeared. It's like the second they tamed her hair, they also drained her character's life force. 

Because "ugly" = curly hair and "pretty" = stick-straight hair. It's like Princess Diaries all over again.
Also, I may just hate this look because that shirt ruffle looks suspiciously like my childhood nemesis dress.

Fortunately, the show's writer seemed to recognize the problem and actually allowed Hye Jin to go back to her original style at the end. Without that backwards transformation, the makeover would have been a total miss for me.

Can a K-drama Makeover Work?

Although I'm not 100% sold on the idea that focusing an entire show around physical appearance is ever a good idea (unless you're Miss Korea, in which case I love you and you can continue about your feminist business), there are some approaches that are better than others. Here's what works for me, personally:
  1. Give us a reason for the makeover: If makeovers are to work, there needs to be a reason other than "I want my ex to love me again!" or "This rich man is suddenly interested in me, and I need to look 'worthy' to hang out with him!" This is a point in favor of Oh My Venus. By putting the emphasis on her health from the start, the series becomes less about looking good and more about overall well-being. Healthy lifestyles I can support. Getting skinny to win a man I cannot.
    I love her for this line. Even if her boyfriend doesn't take her back, it's still worth it to her.
  2. Let the female lead take the lead: In a similar vein, the character receiving the makeover should be the driving force behind it. I know there's the whole Pretty Woman cliche of having a wealthy man pay to dress you up, but the whole idea of a guy forcing a woman to change her appearance to suit his tastes makes me vomit in my mouth a little. Boys over Flowers, I'm looking at you.
  3. Stay true to character: I already talked about this with She Was Pretty, but instead of changing absolutely everything about a character, why not embrace that quirkiness as part of the character? So often, the makeover turns into a symbolic turning point where the quirky female lead suddenly turns into a domesticated doll, like in Prime Minister and I. In contrast, a fantastic K-drama makeover that bucked this trend was Oh! My Lady. She was an ahjumma through and through, so when she got her "makeover," it wasn't necessarily a look I would have chosen, but it suited her personality perfectly.
    To be fair, I wouldn't have picked Jan Di's "makeover" getup either, so....
  4. Skip the makeover: I can't think of a good example where this happened, but wouldn't it be refreshing if a drama just skipped the makeover entirely? Let the "fat" or "ugly" woman find love without changing anything. I guess you could count My Lovely Samsoon, though I didn't know Kim Sun Ah was supposed to be fat until the characters pointed it out, so that doesn't really count for me. If that's too radical for K-drama writers, you can always go the She Was Pretty or Dream High route, where the character gets a makeover, but decides that she really was happier before. Did I love IU's fat suit? No. But I liked the sentiment that her character settled to a weight were she was healthier than where she started, but not killing herself over every calorie.

How do you feel about makeover dramas? Do you hate them? Do you tolerate them? Am I overthinking this entire thing? How do you feel about the Oh My Venus approach so far? Share all your thoughts!

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