kaigou: this is what I do, darling (3 break out of prison)
[personal profile] kaigou
Back when I was reading the book on women in media (Douglas, I think it was), I recall a chapter that discussed Charlie's Angels in-depth. I'm pretty sure I quoted that section at length, but one part I didn't quote but has stuck in my head was how Charlie's Angels -- the show, not the characters -- attempted to have its feminist cake and eat it, too. Or maybe I should say: to eat the cake while denying the cake existed.

Here's the logic: patriarchy is, in simplistic television terms, when men as a sex, a gender, and as a rule, strive to keep women in the position of second-class citizens. Okay. Demonstrating/illustrating the patriarchy in television, therefore, is showing men being male chauvinist asshats. So far, I'm still with the logic.

But here's what Charlie's Angels was arguing, by having the consistent villain of the piece be a sexist asshat: they were reducing -- Douglas argued -- the concept of 'patriarchy' as 'something all men buy into and intentionally (or unconsciously) support, engender, propagate, and generally make sure men stay the only sex with any significant rights or privileges' to 'here are some guys who are asshats". In short, the reduction subtly undermined the feminist argument that the patriarchy is a problem with men as a self reinforcing whole, by positing that if you could just get rid of these (specific, bad) men, there'd be no patriarchy. Rainbows and puppies for everyone!

Which is where the having the cake -- men are sexist! -- and denying it -- but only certain bad men! -- comes into play.

Elsewhere -- now, I can't recall where but I think I linked to it, somewhere back there -- I came across some data plus arguments that show a major -- if probably too-often unremarked -- issue with USian television. In the mid-70s, I think was the earliest stats listed, you'd get a named female character for every three male characters. In the mid-90s, I think the number had risen.. to a breathtaking one-point-seven female characters to every three male characters. Which is admittedly a rise of about SQUAT. (And I seem to recall the stats for female characters on television have actually gotten worse since then.)

Therefore, first issue: what's really a complete dearth of female characters on television. From a writer's point of view, that means if each male character is doing single duty as Male Character, each female character is doing triple-duty. Either you're shoveling three statements about Female Characters/People In General onto this female character, or you're showing only one-third of a character's breadth, compared to the variety shown with male characters.

Frex, let's say the average cast is six men, two women. Among the men, you could have a fool, a stoic, an uptight suit, and a playboy. That leaves two extra for the random 'message' characters, like including an Asian guy and a gay guy, who expand the 'here is a range of male humans' a little. For those six men, you get two women. So what do you pick? The earnest college grad, the player, the goofy girl, the ditz, the housewife, the career woman, the divorcee... Or you just slap some stereotypes on them and don't explore further.

Sure, it's obvious from interviews that some big-name screenwriters don't think female characters are worth exploring. But for others, sometimes I suspect the script-writers are really well aware that they've short-shrifted the female half of the cast... but don't amend this, knowing that any attempt to develop the female characters would reveal just how sketchily they were outlined in the first place. Sort of like: don't look to close, or you'll see the props holding up this cardboard character backdrop.

Okay, so we've got a paltry number of female characters, so we're not going to see a wealth of women's experiences or perspectives -- via the POV of those female characters, that is. Add in the chauvinism that women's perspectives are only worthwhile if about women-stuff, and that means -- I suspect, no hard facts on this, but just observations -- that issues like sexual harrassment in the workplace is a woman's issue (and therefore ignored). The issues of trying to balance career and home: another women's issue.

Mix well, and I think those are major elements in what we get: a lot of television shows where the only time it's ever mentioned that it's freaking hard to be a career woman in the US is when it's a Very Special Episode and the message is almost inevitably that women must be masochists for trying to be Woman and also be Career Person (that is, Male). Otherwise, it's women in the workplace alongside the guys, and never a whisper of sexual harrassment, or the glass ceiling, or the weight of dealing with all the crap society pushes on women and pushes on them twice, three times, four times as hard as the woman hits her thirties, forties, or fifties. No, see, that would require we develop the character, and then people'd see how shallowly she was written, so just have her smile and carry on.

The result: if you just watch pop culture, things look pretty freaking good for women in the workplace. Triple that dose of unreality in Korean dramas.

The irony of some of the kdramas is just... too much, sometimes. Female characters have decent jobs, with decent to more-than-decent apartments and they wear nice clothes (even if, being a kdrama, these clothes are often wildly inappropriate). But most importantly, with a few rare plot-related/contrived exceptions, the female characters appear to be treated relatively fairly in the workplace. (I say 'relatively' because there are almost no examples of women being treated truly fairly, with the possible exception of Black & White, come to think of it. Hmm.)

Which is absolute bunk, once you're aware that when the South Korean economy took a downturn, the government actually encouraged businesses to fire all the women. That way, the logic goes, the men -- the 'real' breadwinners -- would continue to keep their jobs. Women who'd been in an industry for over ten years? Gone. Women with some of the highest levels of education in the modernized/first world? Gone. In something like the space of a year and a half, the employment rate of women vs men, in South Korea, went from women being more than half the workforce to like only 10%. (I can't recall the precise numbers, too tired to look them up, but it's a stretch about that dramatic. Like, jaw-dropping kind of drop.)

This, of course, is also ignoring the fact that when it comes to income parity -- equal pay for equal work -- South Korea is the worst among all developed/first-world nations. Like, forty cents on the freaking male dollar, badness the US hasn't seen since the 50s.

Yet there on television, all the women are gainfully employed, have job security, and (this I find most bizarre) seem to frequently manage this without a college degree. Frankly, the first six or seven kdramas I watched, I gathered the (totally wrong-headed) impression that women in Korea have it better than most of their Asian counterparts.

But keep watching, and beyond the research that showed such depressing statistics, I also started realizing several trends in how women are represented in the workplace. Setting aside the fact that they're almost always dressed like five-foot-two pin-up dolls -- who the fuck wears hotpants in an office environment, except a Korean career woman office girl -- and often dressed significantly younger than you'd expect, compared to the suit-and-tie men around them... there's also the backgrounds they get. When a character does have a degree, it's often in an industry they're not even working in, like the female lead in Coffee House who's treated like she's a complete twit yet she was supposedly a chemistry major. Last time I checked, that's not a major for idiots who can't add; that degree requires some level of smarts.

The rest of the time, the female characters are likely to be literature majors, if their degree is mentioned at all. Again nonsensical, because apparently Korean women are not only the greatest percentage of graduate degrees -- masters, doctorates -- but they're also much stronger in the maths and sciences than other equivalent nations. Yet here are all these teeny, three-inch-heeled, mini-skirt-wearing, job-secure pretty girls on television, and never a word about downsizing and all women over thirty-five must go.

Kdrama women don't work their asses off for years in advanced education and training in their industry, who bring significant value to the company and yet get dissed and harassed and trivialized anyway. No, the women in kdramas get their jobs because they're pretty, because some guy takes pity on them, because they might only be a literature major but they're really a go-getter! You'd honestly get the message that you could have a successful career in Korea, as a woman, and not really need a college education at all... which, I'm sure, is a completely self-defeating message that serves the woman-firing patriarchy just fine. (Right now, Dalja's Spring is the only exception to this sweeping generalization that I can think of, honestly.)

That's an abrupt difference from watching doramas/jdramas, which startled me in contrast by doing something I hadn't even seen on USian television: the display/illustration of the sexism women have to deal with, in the workplace. And unlike Charlie's Angels (or even the past-decade television series I've seen), where sexism is treated as an individual crime -- most men are all for equality! except this one character, who's our series' representation of Sexist Asshat as a character-type -- the Japanese dramas textually treat the sexism asshatism as near-universal. Non-personal, you might say.

The jdrama whose sequel has me so excited, Boss, is one of those. Osawa gets sexist flack from her superiors, but also from her colleagues, and even from those assigned to her team. It's often blunt, too, like being told outright that a crime scene is no place for a woman, and she should study up on how to interview pretty for talking to the media (instead of, y'know, doing actual police work). But it's not treated as personal, that is, I never got the impression that -- unlike what I'd expect in a USian series -- the bosses just don't like Osawa. It's very clear that it could be a Fujikawa or a Saitou or a Izumi, and as long as the character wears a bra, she'd get the same treatment.

That persistent attitude is reflected in the way the other female characters get treated, like the young woman on Osawa's team. Kimoto has to put up with daily inappropriate comments from Nodate -- the prosecutor who is otherwise supposedly one of the rare 'good guys' (seeing how he's the reason Osawa was appointed to her position in the first place). Nodate even goes so far as to refuse to let Osawa fire Kimoto, on the grounds that he likes having a cute face around, who can come to his arranged gokons (group dates). Nothing about her skills, her technical knowledge, or the benefit she brings as a team-member. It's all about her looks and the fact that she's a girl, and Nodate's constant heavy-flirtation with Kimoto (hell, all the female characters other than Osawa) grated on me. Which is worse? To be dismissed and discounted, as Osawa gets from her bosses, or to be trivialized into eyecandy, as Kimoto gets from Nodate?

I had thought such an attitude was, perhaps, unusual in its representation, and perhaps it was being highlighted as one of the obstacles Osawa faces in her drive to solve the story's various crimes. Then I watched Ohitorisama -- an otherwise forgettable older-woman-younger-man rom-com -- and the same consistent sexist attitude is there, too. The other-woman-maliciousness is toned down a little, and there is at least the benefit of the principal being female, but the chauvinism is still present in many episodes.

Curiously, Ohitorisama (a pun, I believe, that translates something like 'one person' but with an implication of 'higher station' from the -sama honorific) has a main character who declines marriage because the benefits aren't worth the cost. Akiyama's backstory includes turning down a proposal on the grounds that she enjoys her career, and that marriage would mean (in not quite so many words) taking on a second 'job' -- that of taking care of a household/husband, as well. She didn't feel herself up to that, not in her mid-twenties when she wanted to focus on her career, rather than cut it short to do home-caring full-time (and possibly doing the kid-route, too).

Side-note: although the romantic element in Ohitorisama had all the chemistry of wet bread dough, and that's a insult to wet bread dough -- the rest of the story passes the Bechdel test all the way up to advanced level. I think there are two or three conversations solely between three or more women, so it may even hit the expert level. The scenes between Akiyama and Tajima (the principal) should be excerpted for screenwriting classes as a top example of Doing It Right. Plus, when Tajima and Akiyama do get into discussing relationships, it's not the romanticized early-twenties someday-my-prince crap. It's a much more realistic, worldly understanding of what it means to have a valuable and co-beneficial partnership with another person. (And thus it makes sense that the 'younger man' Akiyama ends up falling for is also a nurturer who does the cooking and cleaning, rather than expecting her to do it for him.)

Last week, I saw the news that the kdrama world is remaking yet another Japanese manga, which I noted mostly because I've gotten to the point that I'll watch a kdrama solely on the grounds of it not being based on a manga, or being a remake of a Japanese drama. Sheesh. Anyway. Comments were made by bloggers about the original Japanese series, so I looked up Kimi wa Pet.

Yeah, there are parts that are problematic, and I think the script was weak in parts... but it also highlighted the sexism women deal with, in patriarchial workplaces. At story-start, Iwaya is one of the leading journalists in the External Affairs department (International Affairs/World News, from what I gathered). A visiting dignitary gropes her ass, and she corrects him. We don't see that; we only see her boss reprimanding her for correcting the dignitary. To quote, because the text treated his response as unexpected/normal, but at the same time it treated her anger as justified, which I thought was an intriguing counterpoint:
Manager: Just because they touched your back a little, you don't have to get out of your seat like that.
Iwaya: Excuse me, but they didn't touch my back, they touched my rear.
Manager: Ah, is that so? *visibly relaxes, folds hands casually* Only Official Suzuki would have the guts to touch the butt of a fearsome woman like you.
Iwaya: *hands go on hips*
Manager: Normal men would be too scared to do that sort of thing.

Which goes to show, I suppose, that this kind of shit is more universal than I realized: because the manager has taken an incredibly offensive and sexist behavior and turned it into a compliment to the chauvinist asshat. Wow, he's a really amazing guy, for daring to do that with you! Which means he's also adding insult to the existing injury, too, even as he enjoys his little joke that's only funny if you're another guy and would never be subjected to such offensive and demeaning treatment.

Anyway, as Iwaya's annoyance (and frustration) clearly grows, the manager tells her: "Don't look so scary. Would you like me to touch it too?" When he goes to do just that, Iwaya uses her years of aikido training and punches him out cold. The last part, obviously, is playing up the comedy, and the shift is where he offers to touch her ass as well -- the camera, which had previously been at a distance, shifts to have him in frame, with her at the edges so we're looking over her shoulder. It's subtle, but I think the exaggeration also acts as contrast: sure, this is beyond the pale and played for the humor, but it's humorous because it's pushing to eleven the previous part... which is not all that unusual, or at least the presentation and actor delivery seem to imply.

Of course, punching out your boss is usually a bad thing (and worse if you knock out his front teeth), and Iwaya ends up demoted to the Lifestyle section... where she has to deal with bullying from her boss and coworkers for being 'an elite' (who graduated from Tokyo University in journalism, and had additional education, the backstory goes, at Harvard). But it's not just 'elite' that gets her that treatment; it's being an elite woman. Nearly every episode with workplace scene, and someone -- not just her boss, but the basic and straightforward assumptions of her coworkers -- make it clear that sexism is very much at work to trivialize and dismiss anything she delivers. Double so, given the circumstances of her transfer, and the fact that she won't -- unlike the other women in the company -- play stupid just to make the men around her feel good.

It's carried on right into Iwaya's possible engagement to another journalist... and the male coworkers immediately conclude that she's going to get married and leave her job. They all agree (and the boss reinforces this) that this is why it's pointless to have women in the workplace. You teach them to do stuff right, then they get married and leave, wasting all the time you spent on them. Iwaya listens with growing annoyance, and aggravation, and a bit of heartache, because marrying another journalist seems to come with the assumption that she'll follow him to his next position in Brazil... and that means giving up her career.

As she complains to her friend, in language I've not heard so bluntly since maybe... well, a long while in USian television -- that she doesn't see why women have to be the one to pay the price of marriage. She'll lose her career, her independence, her home, even her name. All of these are things she values deeply, and is being able to live with someone you love enough to offset losing everything that makes you you?

...and meanwhile, her coworkers continue their blatant and bald assumptions about what a woman really wants (marriage), what a woman is really worth (not much), and so on. The overall story may be a romantic comedy, but there's a mile-wide streak of dissatisfaction with what a career woman faces in the Japanese workplace, especially if she's very good at what she does, more intelligent than the men around her, and too busy to spend her time acting stupid just to soothe their egos. It was most definitely a note of realistic bitterness and frustration that I didn't expect in a rom-com.

In another drama that looked good (but turned out to be filled with possible OTP male-half being Unbelievable Entitled Jerkass), there was an unusual note in that the main character's workplace has women outnumbering men by like two-to-one (though, notably, the men appear to be the managers). In the first episode, the boss announces the company's won the contract, and goes on to say, this was in large part because the client really liked the parts done by "the female office workers". My reaction: how could the clients freaking tell? Did each person sign the part of the architectural design, or is there some kind of belief in Japanese design world that you can identify gender by materials and geometries chosen?

Unlike the other jdramas I've mentioned, this one was blissfully ignorant of its undertones. Because after the (male-delivered) compliment to the parts done by "the female office workers", the women all went out for drinks together... to celebrate this recognition. And while I'm all for recognizing when team-members have put in a good show, I'd have to say that in their position, I'd still be back on the "why were we singled out, as though it's a surprise that we could contribute?" That series, though, was completely unaware of this, and didn't even remotely meta it the way many other jdramas I've seen would've done, in a similar situation.

(To put in context: if the boss said, "the client really like the Interface Design," and the ID team just happened to be all women, then that's one thing. But to specify, "the female workers" means the compliment isn't being paid to their skills -- the Interface Design team -- but is being used to highlight their sex: the female team-members. It's mentioning only what's between their legs, and nothing about their actual abilities as part of the team, and that's just not good enough for me.)

Taiwanese dramas, incidentally, are somewhere between the two. Like Korea, Taiwan went through a process of laying off massive numbers of women in order to protect mens' jobs, but like Japan, Taiwanese women are educated but not the excessive-levels of Korean women. For the most part, Taiwanese female characters get the "everything is okay job-security-wise" that Korean female characters get, but there are also more shades of the Japanese presentations of sexism in the workplace. (At the same time, the Taiwanese dramas are the only ones I've seen in which any female employees are explicitly valued for skills/contribution as a worker/team-member, without a mention of how pretty or sexy they are.)

Another thing: the Taiwanese dramas, I'm pretty sure, have had at least a few instances where a female coworker calls out a male coworker or manager for sexual harassment. Except that (and here I must depend on the fansubbers, since I don't know the Mandarin term for 'sexual harassment') it seems to be that the female characters don't label the act; they're more likely to simply say, "stop that," or to warn that continuing will get the guy in trouble. It's almost like they don't have to say it's sexual harassment, because this shouldn't be a newsflash to the guy doing it -- in context, it's as though the Taiwanese female characters are saying, "you know exactly what you're doing, and I'm telling you to stop, and I don't have to spell it out because you already know what it is and that it's wrong." (A few times, I've seen female characters sidestep chauvinist harassment with something like, "that's not appropriate," which I guess would be the diplomatic early-warning signal.)

Big difference from Japanese dramas, where so far, every series I've seen with office/workplace male-female interactions, at least once (and usually far more often), one of the male characters shows his asshat colors. At some point, a female character will snap, "sexual harassment!"

What's notable is that in each instance I can recall, the guy jerks back in surprise. It really feels to me as though the male reactions are saying that, gee, they had no idea! And that what makes it sexual harassment isn't what they said or did... it's that the woman used the term, and suddenly their so-called innocent flirtation/paternalistic chauvinism suddenly became bad. Because the woman used the magic words, and wow, newsflash to the guy. Who, of course, had no idea before she said something.

I was going to snark about this creating a reverse logic that if no one says outright that such-and-such an act or statement is sexual harassment, then it's not actually sexual harassment at all. Except that this snark applies firmly to nearly every kdrama I've seen that has working career women characters. (The sole exception so far was, unsurprisingly, Dalja's Spring, in which the main female characters do sometimes actually call male coworkers on inappropriate remarks. Not always, but more than 'never' is still more than most kdramas.)

I think the kdrama logic goes like this: to be able to identify sexual harassment, you have to know when something is sexual in the first place. Since kdramas are bound and determined to convince you that Good Girls -- regardless of age -- would never ever have pre-marital sex or shack up with a man they haven't married or even have sexual fantasies let alone ever get handsy when making out -- then of course a Good Girl can't call a guy on his sexual harassment or even his sexism. She's have to be aware of the sexual/sexist overtones, and if she were, it's as good as saying she's a slut.

So instead, kdramas are loaded with implied -- and sometimes explicit -- behaviors I'd consider patriarchial/paternalistic and sexist at best, and misogynist/harassment at worst. But the text rarely ever calls attention to this fact, because the female character getting that treatment almost never shows any reaction at all. It's like the least hint of sexism and female characters become instanta-bots: just add asshattery! The female characters don't blink, don't flinch, and if they do look uncomfortable, the text and their physical reactions make it clear that they're doing an awww, shucks thing (oh, he's complimenting little ol' me) and not a my-god-get-me-away-from-this-sexist-jerkward moment.

It's sort of like this, if I were to broadly generalize:

Male manager/employer: We like having you around because you're so pretty.
Taiwanese female character: Watch it, buster.
Japanese female character, v1.0: *looks annoyed and changes the subject*
Japanese female character, v2.0: Sexual harassment!
Korean female character: Who, me? Oh, you're so sweet!

Somehow I am not surprised that in the kdrama remake of Kimi wa Pet, Iwaya has gone from a high-powered, incredibly educated and brilliant international-politics journalist... to a fashion reporter. So not surprised at all.
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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to remember

"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

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