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?
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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"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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