Female K-Drama Characters We Wish Had More Backbone

The women we love from Korean dramas of the past decade have been passionate, strong-willed, hard-working, inspiring, and sometimes even hilarious. They are original characters that have broken a mold in Korean television, from initiating first kisses to physically carrying their crushes, completely turning the damsel in distress trope on its head. It’s difficult to make a list of weak female characters in K-dramas, so this is not that list. This is, however, a list of characters we wish had shown more backbone in certain situations.

Cha Eun Sang – “Heirs

“Heirs” follows a poor high school student (played by Park Shin Hye) struggling to fit in among elite students from chaebol families. Long story short, Eun Sang is a poor girl from a poor background, and she meets rich boy Kim Tan (played by Lee Min Ho). They start to crush on one another, but the social hierarchies at school and at home work against them and keep them apart, as well as Tan’s fiancée — from an arranged marriage — and his ex-best friend, who has become a school bully and targets Eun Sang.

Eun Sang works a dozen part-time jobs alongside schooling, she helps her mom out at work and is a kind, caring student. However, it’s frustrating to watch her pity party in every episode, especially alongside the brazen, outspoken characters Rachel (Kim Tan’s fiancée, played by Kim Ji Won) and Bo Na (a rich, popular girl at school, played by f(x)’s Krystal). These two women are insistent that those around them treat them like royalty, but Eun Sang almost insists on being treated like Cinderella, before the ball! Her character is ripped to shreds, mistreated, misjudged, and looked down on, all while she stares at the floor with tears brimming, threatening to fall.

Now, it’s important to mention that Park Shin Hye plays the character expertly. Her performance in “Heirs” is engaging and her character well-portrayed. Eun Sang is not an unlikable character, and her chemistry with the male lead is gripping, but I couldn’t help but sit and pray she would speak up, yell, or tell everyone to take a hike! Even Kim Tan is aggressively pushy with her, and though she pulls back from the kisses he forces on her and tries to avoid him at school, I would have liked to see her be stronger, insisting on some of the respect the other female characters demand.

We’re all familiar with the “stand still and don’t move” tactic in Korean kiss scenes, maybe even the “push away for a bit then relent,” so it’s nothing new in “Heirs,” but it’s a happy day in 2019 that this cliche is becoming more and rarer in K-dramas.

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Kim Hye Jin – “She Was Pretty

The entire plot of this drama is that Kim Hye Jin (played by Hwang Jung Eum) used to be pretty (when she was like 10) and now she’s not (only she is), and she’s too ashamed of her transformation to meet up with a childhood crush (played by Park Seo Joon), who she then starts working for. She continues to show a depressing lack of self-love and esteem throughout the drama, even requiring a makeover to feel she could earn her crush’s approval, and it is just such a downer to witness.

She’s professional, smart, career-driven, a great friend, and to top it all, she’s not unattractive in the slightest, so why does she shy away from a man she herself accepted despite his flaws when they were children? (He was pretty adorable as a kid too; the whole thing is a little judgey).

She works as an underling for the magazine he edits, and though he treats her badly, not knowing she is his first love (which doesn’t excuse his behavior at all), she still adores him. She asks her friend, who she thinks is prettier than her, to pretend to be her, and then stands by as romance blossoms between her friend and her crush. She is even willing to sacrifice a great opportunity to work at the magazine so that she can avoid him recognizing her… I mean, can you say exasperated sigh? We’re used to female leads in K-dramas falling head over heels for their men, but it’s a step too far when they’re willing to sacrifice career opportunities simply because they don’t have confidence in their physical appearance.

All that said, “She Was Pretty” is an enjoyable show with a bright and fun production design that makes it worth a watch, and I know there wouldn’t be a drama to watch if Hye Jin just met him in the first place and said “this is me, accept me as I am.”

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Geum Jan Di – “Boys Over Flowers

”Boys Over Flowers” is another rich-man-poor-woman drama. It follows Jan Di (played by Ku Hye Sun), a hard-working girl from an ordinary background, as she attends an elite school for chaebols. Among the students are the F4 gang, who are essentially very rich, supposedly attractive (but the perms say otherwise), bullies.

Jan Di proves herself to be outspoken, confident, and concerned with things like morality and justice. She stands up for other students, and she even stands up for herself in many situations throughout the drama, so it’s confusing to watch her submit to kidnapping and forced makeover montage in the guise of a romantic date. There are zero romantic prospects in this show: the male lead, Gu Jun Pyo (played by Lee Min Ho), is just a bad person who believes his wealth will make up for his terrible attitude and behavior. The drama explains this away by the fact that his home life is not great, despite his family’s money, he isn’t happy, and he feels alone, taking refuge in Jan Di when his heart starts to warm to her… but Jan Di can do better and should have nothing to do with him, just saying.

The other members of F4 relentlessly bully her too, at the command of Jun Pyo, before he starts to fall deeply in love with her. Even after his feelings change, he’s blinded by his own wealth and position, acting as if he is entitled to Jan Di instead of trying to make amends for his previous actions. People can change and better themselves, and Jan Di clearly has some feelings of her own, but the sheer amount of hurdles she has to jump over to maintain a relationship with Jun Pyo just seems below her.

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Nam Da Jung – “Liar Game

The twists and turns of this show make for an exciting watch, but if there’s one thing that remains the same throughout, it’s Da Jung’s (played by Kim So Eun) insistence that she will remain honest. Which okay, is great in any other situation, but not during a game about lying where every other contestant is fully aware of the rules.

This drama requires you to suspend belief a little, as it introduces a high stakes game show that selects its contestants somewhat without their consent. They’re then thrown into a series of puzzles, competing against each other to move onto the next round and eventually win a hefty cash prize. There are no rules, and lying and cheating are encouraged, even if it puts another contestant in danger.

Da Jung is struggling to pay off her absent father’s debts and is failing to avoid some overly chummy loan sharks when she falls victim to a social experiment that wins her a chance to compete in the Liar Games. An elderly woman asks for help and Da Jung gladly obliges, offering to watch the lady’s cart until she comes back, only she doesn’t come back, for six hours! And Da Jung waits for six hours! Even though she had her own things to do. When she’s offered a place on the show and learns she would have to deceive someone to win, she declines, and she continues to decline even when she’s told she would make a lot of money if she simply tried. But she doesn’t want to lie. Throughout the show, she’s repeatedly deceived because she’s naive and believes that she can win by being honest and working together — this is eventually shown to be somewhat true, but it’s unrealistic.

Having empathy and compassion makes Da Jung a likable character, and we feel for her when she loses and root for her when she wins, but even without lying, standing up for yourself and not being taken advantage of is not immoral, and Da Jung doesn’t seem to see that.

To top it all, if her goody two shoes behavior weren’t enough to make us wish she showed a little backbone, her literal posture is just sad. Girl, straighten up and stop looking at the floor.

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Eun Tae Hee – “Tempted

You may be sensing a bit of a trend here, as Tae Hee (played by Red Velvet’s Joy) is another great character who simply falls head over heels for some rich boy with family issues who doesn’t treat her right. She seems to have convictions, to have her head screwed on straight, and then… nope, apparently not. The drama is an adaptation of the novel “Dangerous Liaisons” by Pierre Choderlos De Laclos, and follows a chaebol as he attempts to seduce a young innocent woman, Tae Hee, for revenge, to win a bet, to prove a point, and eventually because he has actually fallen for her.

Tae Hee is at first completely against romance with no interest in love, to the extent that she mocks people who have fallen prey to it. Then she meets an attractive brooding young man (played by Woo Do Hwan) and all that goes out the window. She decides not to love him, fails, cries, tries again, and fails again. She lets his friends walk all over her, sacrifices her own beliefs and responsibilities, and for what? He shows a little vulnerability that essentially comes across as baggage (again, that she does not need) and volunteers at the retirement home she helps at (a clear stunt to impress her). She keeps bumping into him “Fifty Shades of Grey” style as he seems to always know where she is, and despite the fact that she even questions it herself, she still falls for him.

Every time they stumble or she finds out what a horrible person he is, that he’s been using her for his own agenda, it is so heart wrenching. She feels it so deeply, yet she doesn’t walk away. She doesn’t step back to her original convictions to see that she never really should have buckled to begin with.

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Kang Mi Rae – “My ID Is Gangnam Beauty

The drama starts with a montage of Mi Rae (played by Im Soo Hyang) as a young adult getting cosmetic surgery spliced with flashbacks of her traumatic childhood as a victim of bullying. She’s called fat by some horrible little boys and cries in the bathroom, which leads her to lose weight. She is finally accepted by her peers for a little while, and she even confidently confesses to a boy at school. However, she is cruelly rejected, and her self esteem takes a huge hit. Suddenly, she doesn’t want to show her face, hiding behind her hair, and she feels as though no one would love her. Juxtaposed with scenes of the literal pain she is willing to endure to change her appearance, the result is heart-wrenching. Add to this her mother’s desperate positivity in an attempt to make her daughter feel good about herself, and you can’t help but feel for them both.

After the surgery, Mi Rae is a different person on the outside, but inside, she still has the same insecurities and self-hatred. She judges the women around her based on the cosmetic surgeries she thinks they’ve had, gravitates towards people she thinks are pretty, and generally shows no confidence despite everyone reacting positively towards her when she starts a new life at university. Mi Rae is described as and shown to be very smart: she’s a grade-A student, she’s quick-thinking and capable, and she comes from a lovely, supportive family. However, she doesn’t value any of those aspects of her life because other people don’t value them either.

Mi Rae recognizes an old middle school classmate at university and hopes he doesn’t recognize her back, even when he’s kind to her and seems to know her. Despite the drastic changes in her appearance, she worries that he will judge her based on the way she looked before. The boy, Do Kyung Seok (played by ASTRO’s Cha Eun Woo), doesn’t care about looks, and the two grow together throughout the show, falling in love and healing each other’s scars through their acceptance of each other. The drama really shows a positive transformation in Mi Rae, as she realizes that she is putting too much emphasis on being beautiful and that it’s affecting her relationships with others. It’s just a shame the growth didn’t come before the physical transformation. It would be nice to watch a drama with a female lead who is not typically attractive but still loves herself and gets the guy and a happy ending.

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Soompiers, what K-drama characters do you think should be on the list? Let us know below!

MizWest, an English Teacher working in South Korea, finally climbed a mountain! But still can’t use chopsticks… 

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