kaigou: this is what I do, darling (4 life is pain)
[personal profile] kaigou
One of the other threads in Where the Girls Are was a discussion of one of Bette Davis' earlier melodramas (co-starring a young Humphrey Bogart), Marked Woman. Loosely based on real-life case, Bogart's character convinces Davis' call-girl ("hostess" for censorship purposes) character to testify against a big mob boss. Over the course of the film, it becomes apparent that there's a strong attraction between Davis' low-class character and Bogart's upper-class prosecutor character. Yet at the end, when Bogart's character obliquely suggests that they try and make a go of it, Davis' call-girl turns him down.

The book's assessment of this was that the introduction of reality -- that there was no future in a relationship that crossed such class barriers -- actually turned the film into a subversive work. By showing all the potential of such a relationship, and then reminding the audience of the reality (and thereby removing any chance of a Cinderella-like unrealistic happy ending for the sympathetic female lead)... it actually pissed women-audiences off. It made them say, "why must it be like that? why can't she finally get a decent guy?"

I was reading that book while also working my way through one of the kdramas -- can't recall now which -- but not like it matters; many of them run together when it comes to the Cinderella themes. (Per my previous post, especially when it's poor-girl-who-works-hard manages to snag the chaebol/rich-boy prince. Hell, if you watched kdramas and mistook them for reality, you'd think chaebol-boys grow on freaking trees.) Over and over, the dimwitted but hard-working and well-meaning poor girl gets chosen instead of the highly educated, cultivated, and ambitious rich girl.

The reality of that is... well, it can happen, but it's so rare as to rival hen's teeth. It's not just class; it's also what you have in common and what you were raised to value, and what you can contribute (mentally, emotionally, and even financially) to a relationship. And, of course, there's the fact that humans almost always look to an ingroup for potential partners, and it takes definite circumstances for them to start looking beyond that. When your overall group is relatively homogenous (as it is in Korea, compared to places like Europe or the US), then the divisions may not be as wide as religion or ethnicity, but that doesn't make class any less of a serious division. It can just as easily become a way to distinguish ingroup from outgroup. Basically, the cards are stacked against your average poor girl attracting, landing, and keeping, the first-born son of a multinational company.

Yet over and over, this is what kdramas tell the audience is possible. Is this the ultimate in anti-subversion, a final anti-Marked Woman, offering the pap of this pipedream that even the audience knows would never happen? Is the production of repeated Cinderella-type stories (down to the prince who whisks her away from a life of sanitized-television poverty) nothing more than pop-culture opiate for the masses?

Or is it potentially something to make the female audiences push for what's on screen to become actual fact? The kid from a poor background who makes something of herself, who's valued in the workplace, who's seen as attractive and interesting regardless of how much money her parents made... which, maybe, sometimes, that might be showing the brass ring. As in shows/stories where women are shown working side-by-side and just as valued, it could be that the stories act as a kind of, "this is what the world could be like." (Science fiction has done that route, using its "this is not your world" as the basis/excuse for exploring alternate potentialities, but that has dangers of its own, which I've gone into before so won't here.)

CP's argument was that such fantasy-endings inspire hope/ambition that this is how it could be, and create a kind of template for female audiences, and a point-of-reference for male audiences looking to understand/relate to stronger female characters. "She's not that different from such-and-such a character," and in seeing/understanding that character, perhaps it might also educate the male audiences. Maybe. Or maybe it's that CP's watched only jdramas, which do seem to have this stronger take on things -- and also seem to frequently make it clear that the woman who succeeds, and who gets our sympathy, is a woman with drive, ambition, education, and the will to keep getting better.

Me, I think this may be true of jdramas, but it's far from true of kdramas. In fact (as I mentioned before), the prevalence of kdrama heroines with a complete lack of education, training, or experience (or even self-awareness, in many cases) tends to completely undermine the entire self-empowering aspect of such fantasies.

Here's another thing: in kdrama romance plots or subplots, almost invariably Another Woman is going to pop up. She's also going to be gunning for the chaebol-prince, but unlike the heroine -- who is, of course, a Good Girl and therefore harbors not even a speck of sexuality or worldliness to grasp that the guy is that into her, which usually comes across as a dimwitted kind of naivete and obliviousness that apparently kdrama heroes find sexy -- the Anti-heroine is... Well, she's a jdrama heroine. She's probably pretty successful in whatever she does, she's ambitious, she works hard at what she does (including her efforts to catch the guy), and she's frequently pretty sexually self-aware. (The Anti-heroine in My Girlfriend is a Gumiho was unusual in that she didn't seem to be any more sexually experienced than the hero, while it was Miho herself who was all for the smexxing.)

I don't even have enough fingers on my hands to rattle off the anti-heroines I've seen in kdramas who fit that bill. Not all of them end up total antagonists, and in the rare story they may even get a side-plot of their own (for all its other flaws, Secret Garden got that much right), but... these second-lead female characters are, in a word, smart. Their intelligence and ambition is stark contrast to the female lead, who's stupid and relatively unaspiring (or who aspires on a very small scale).

In jdramas, the female lead is more likely to be intelligent (even if, sometimes, she's still quite naive when it comes to relationships), ambitious, hard-working, and probably also has a decent-to-better education. The old line about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels, seems to be taken to heart by many jdramas: the woman is clearly, textually, working twice as hard as the men around her, and she gets half the credit. And the anti-heroine? She's lower-class, less educated, less intelligent, and forced to use her feminine wiles to lure the hero, because she can't compete on any other level than being kittenishly sexy.

I find it hard to watch too much jdrama in a stretch, though, because it wears on me, this repeated representation of how male coworkers will wear down the ambitious, successful woman in their midst -- and when there's a rare respite, the heroine must still be on guard against other women backstabbing her. With the exception of the bald-faced "play stupid or men will hate you" message from other women (though it's certainly implied enough, in USian culture), jdramas are often showing a reality that's... realistic, but damn, is it sometimes wearing to keep watching it. I mean, I've lived that. Do I really have to go through it again, via my sympathy with a lead character?

On the other hand, the absolute unreality of the kdramas wears on me equally, but for a different reason: how many young girls are watching this fantasy-nonsense and concluding that education, ambition, and intelligence are only going to make you end up the bitter and lonely rejected second female lead? I know that we are subtly, but often strongly, influenced by what we see on television and in movies; if the constant message is that a woman need only be cute, unaware of her own sexuality, and scatterbrained and she'll end up much happier, how many people (especially women, but also the men in the audience) are buying into this too-many-times-repeated package of lies?

Which is better? To watch the fantasy and have it fire you up to believe the world could be like that? Or to see the reality and get really freaking pissed off because you hate living through that yourself, and want to work for a day when that onscreen misery is nothing but a distant memory?

Date: 19 Feb 2011 05:28 pm (UTC)
leorising: (gollumbiteus)
From: [personal profile] leorising
Well, my mom lived that "Some Day My Prince Will Come" fantasy, and what she ended up was far, far from royalty. I think the discrepancy between her dreams and reality led her to an almost psychotic break because of the conflict. But my mom was less than stable at the best of times.

And you've put your finger why I hate the endings of both Sleeping Beauty and Pretty Woman. Strangely, Cinderella bothers me not the least, perhaps because she gets to compete on a level playing field with the rich socialites, from whom she is only separated by money, not breeding/manners.

And it's also why I love the relationship between Belle Watson and Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind. Belle is content enough with her lot that she doesn't have mainstream social aspirations. She's a good woman, though, and Rhett is pleased to hang out with her despite _and_ because of all that.

The peasant girl who gets the high-class prize when she's patently not qualified and despite great odds? Totally absurd and utterly annoying, IMO, usually. There are exceptions for an unusually charming story, but...bleah. :P

Date: 19 Feb 2011 07:54 pm (UTC)
leorising: (gollumbiteus)
From: [personal profile] leorising
Just a note, when I said I didn't have a problem with Cinderella, I meant the classic N. Euro. children's story. I loved Ella, too, oh yes. There are a lot of iterations of it I don't like.

I wonder, is the older-woman-younger-man coupling you describe is perhaps fanservice for men who hate competing in the workplace? Men who fantasize about the "lazy" (they think) life of a househusband? Hm. Probably not, because those kinds of guys don't read/watch these kinds of stories?

Maybe more a fantasy for the ambitious but unfulfilled women -- "I can concentrate on my career like a man, and someone will take care of me and my home and fix my meals." You have to admit, men in traditional marriages have a really sweet deal going -- of course women stuck in those cultural roles would envy them!

Date: 19 Feb 2011 06:06 pm (UTC)
mediumrawr: (Default)
From: [personal profile] mediumrawr
The conceit, which we buy into when viewing (or, I assume so, though I've little experience with this material) is that the girl is appealing to the male lead because she is sexy/sexless. The reality is of course that the girl is sexy/sexless because she must be appealing to the male lead. That reality isn't confined to kdramas. One example in particular occurred to me as I read:

Spider-Man's primary love interest, Mary Jane Watson, was introduced as the aggressive, beautiful foil to Gwen Stacy, the extremely attractive but uncomfortable science major. Then Gwen (forty-year old spoiler alert) dies. Abruptly, Mary Jane is a struggling actress, demure, with a wardrobe suddenly replete with sweaters and long skirts.

More importantly, that shift extends to all of the major Spider-Man adaptations. In many, Gwen is even pushed into the position Mary Jane had been in so that Mary Jane's purity can be highlighted by contrast.

No matter who it is who's Spider-Man's primary love interest, she exhibits personality shifts that make her ideal. This happens as well with other love interests, including Kitty Pryde and the Black Cat - neither of whom are originally that kind of character.

(This kind of shift is very prevalent in superhero comics, in which female characters are often depicted as very strong until the very moment when they have to kick off a romantic relationship.)

Maybe the broader implication isn't quite that "education, ambition, and intelligence are only going to make you end up the bitter and lonely rejected second female lead", but rather that they are supposed to become irrelevant when you find the right man. That is, of course, no less problematic.

Date: 19 Feb 2011 09:43 pm (UTC)
soukup: Eleanor looking sinister (fleurs du mal)
From: [personal profile] soukup
Maybe a stupid and sexually timid/clueless girl is supposed to be more relatable because education and worldliness are intimidating? It worked for George W.

Also, regarding your final paragraph: Eeee. For similar reasons, I have always tended to identify with the villain instead of with the heroine -- the villain is off plotting world domination while the lead couple is busy canoodling. (I mean, the villain also usually gets to be queer instead of sickeningly vanilla, and worldly instead of innocent, and to have an amount/type of agency the female lead doesn't often get. But the ditzy heroines definitely were a factor too.)

Date: 19 Feb 2011 08:50 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] taithe
That's an interesting perspective. Having grown up in a Korean household, I was actually told the exact opposite by my mother and everyone else. That no man would look at me if I was not educated, cultured, and ambitious. The social pressure of getting into the right school, knowing how to play multiple instruments and speak fluent English, and be the best in your field is enormous. This isn't just applicable to girls but I think Korean girls have the extra pressure of needing to look both beautiful and capable. Appearances, names, money, and attitude can, and often times is, everything.

Kdrama may be responding to this societal pressure by showing that you don't always have to meet social expectations to be lovable. In my childhood there was an implicit message beneath the "you must be driven, successful, and highly educated". It was that if you didn't have the ambition, couldn't achieve the success, or somehow didn't get an Education you were less worthy, both as a daughter, a wife, and woman. In a way the anti-heroine reflects everything you're supposed to be but can't live up to. Maybe it's cathartic to see that perfect woman struck down because that woman is basically your goal and your enemy. You want to be that person, but that person reminds you of your shortcomings. You'll never be as pretty, as smart, as cultured, as driven as she is. Society will always favor her.

Having grown up in America, I agree with you there are issues surrounding this kind of narrative motif. But I can also understand, from cultural-psychological point of view, why it may be appealing.

Date: 19 Feb 2011 10:30 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] taithe
*nods* I think it's universal, but in my experience American parents are generally a bit more lax about their interpretations of success and standards for their children. Maybe the pressure was coming more from the external environment vs. home life? It may also be a class distinction as well -- my friends in childhood were mostly poor and didn't have the same kind of messages broadcast to them. I sense this notion of the Perfect Woman is universal but its burden lies among middle/upper class women.

Hmm if you see yourself as being intelligent and your self-worth is based on such characteristics it's pretty painful to watch the anti-heroine get crushed. I think it's more trying to appeal to girls who don't see themselves as being as smart, ambitious, beautiful, rich, etc. as their peers.

I don't know about whether it's cathartic, though. In a way, it makes me feel this slight tinge of bitterness (which might be stronger if I were in my early 20s and didn't have the experience/perspective on things). Like: what the hell am I doing, working so damn hard, if all these characters can bumble their way through, and everything ends up perfect because some guy thought they were cute? What was the point of all those hours of studying this and that, of learning this and that, of overtime and extra effort and weekend training? Is this like some cosmic joke on me, for trying to do so much?

Cathartic is probably not the right word -- oy, sleep deprivation. I have a bitterness about such messages, but it stems largely from my distaste for romantic love being the end all be all of love/life. It's not so much a question of what was the point of my efforts, but why it is that "love" is capable of discrediting it. The idea that being alone and childless as a woman is somehow freakish is also bothersome.

Date: 20 Feb 2011 09:02 am (UTC)
cyphomandra: fluffy snowy mountains (painting) (snowcone)
From: [personal profile] cyphomandra
Tough choice. I find the fantasy problematic, but that's largely because I've spent a not inconsiderable amount of time getting educated, being ambitious and so forth - if I hadn't? Hmm. I still think the failure of the world to provide me with the recognition that I deserved would become apparent fairly soon - the Cinderella story doesn't really spend a lot of time being content with their lot, or being just like all the other happy peasants out there (there has to be a better way to put this, but I guess I've always felt that that particular archetype reinforces existing hierarchies far more than it challenges them). I do feel the need for escapism, but into other sorts of stories!

I like your comment about power as (for females) forbidden fruit. A lot of older (pre 1950s) girls' literature struggles with this, where you have all these interesting, talented characters, who when they grow up have to be "rewarded" with a husband and family - which suddenly, and dramatically, shrinks all their options. Anne of Green Gables, for example, or British series such as the Chalet School that cover thirty years or more with their characters - hard to do while staying true to the characters, but they can't stay young (and relatively privileged) either.

Date: 20 Feb 2011 01:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kraehe.livejournal.com
This would be why I skip dramas and watch DIY shows, which have kick-ass babes knocking down walls and using power tools. (Double entendres intended.) They're not perfect -- some of these shows do stick closely to gender roles -- but overall I think they're empowering in that they do have women like Amy Matthews wielding sledgehammers.

SciFi (while far from perfect) also tends to have better roles for women -- probably another reason why I watch more of that.