The Curious Ahjumma: Strong Female Characters

A decade or so ago, female K-drama characters are usually described as friendly, lovely, and bubbly. While those with bolder personalities are called spunky and sassy. But they are never described as strong. It was as if the word ‘strong’ is reserved for male leads alone. 

Yes, we do have what we call the Strong Female Characters (SFCs). But this stock character, in the past, was usually seen as villains or relegated as support characters in K-dramaland. But in the past years, we’ve seen that Strong Female Characters are being promoted to lead roles.

Strong Female Characters, as I came to know them, have defining characteristics that set them apart from other candy-type female characters or the damsels in distress. I have nothing against candy characters and I do enjoy Cinderella stories in the past and sometimes, until now but as I aged, I have to admit that I’ve become fonder with SFCs. They are most of the time amusing, relatable, and inspiring. SFCs showed us that female characters – especially in K-dramas – are more than just male leads’ arm-candy. They proved that a woman’s story can be more than just a love story.

That’s why when we say Strong Female Characters, the alpha female characters would first come to mind. After all, they are the loud manifestations of female characters going against the traditional archetype. They have traits and personalities that rebel against the gender order theory. These characters, most of the time, are shown as the bosses of their own companies, millionaires in their own right, and are thriving in a male-dominated environment. These characters are the pantsuit-wearing and power dressing experts like Hong Cha-young from Vincenzo and Jung Geum-ja from Hyena. Sometimes, they are even gun or sword-wielding fighter types like Jang Man-wol from Hotel Del Luna and Go Ae-shin from Mr. Sunshine.

However, I’ve also noticed that some alpha females are given the usual masculine characteristics of being stoic, frank, and ruthless in getting their way. Granted, these characteristics are also used as the starting point of an SFC and her character arc will revolve around how she’ll change for the better without losing her feisty streak. I love those stories as well. But I also love SFCs who have the right kind of balance in both physical/mental and emotional strength.

These are the characters that you wouldn’t believe are SFCs unless you’ve watched the series itself. The glasses-wearing neurosurgeon of Yulje Hospital, Chae Song-hwa is as bad-ass as any other SFCs out there if you’ve seen her move in her own battlefield – the operating room. She excels in her field and a respected professor. She’s well-loved by Yulje residents not just because of her medical expertise but because she’s a life mentor/adviser as well. She can relate to them because she’s emphatic – a characteristic that sometimes the usual alpha female lacks.

Another thing that is often overlooked during discussions on SFCs is characters who chose motherhood as their life path. Emphasis on the word choice because motherhood – choosing to parent a child – is a decision women make because they want to and not because it’s what society dictates them to do. They are as strong and as successful as those with white-collar professions or A-list level kind of fame. And most of the time, they are even underappreciated and are left on the sidelines. So here’s to all great mothers in K-dramaland who are SFCs from head to toe.

When talking about SFC, we also often picture women who already succeeded in life. But there are characters out there that represent the youngbloods of the SFC Queendom. The likes of Sung Bo-ra and Goo Se-ra use their idealistic young minds to prove they can do as much change as their male counterparts.

Strong Female Character rose in prominence in female-centric stories. The most recent and good example of that is Search WWW. They’ve shown that we can have female characters competing fairly without the backstabbing and gossipy intrigues. But SFCs can also be used as love interests in romance stories. They bend the notion that a male leads’ love interest should be submissive and a pushover. Take for example Oh Mi-joo from Run On. She’s a heroine who got her full circle in life and doesn’t need character development anymore. That’s why she’s a good partner to a character like Ki Sun-gyeom, who still needs a steady companion that can help him in his development as a character. Oh Mi-joo isn’t pantsuit-wearing nor an unselfish mother but she has the level of self-awareness that most of us wanted to have. That’s why she knows and decides on her own what’s good and what’s not for herself regardless of what other people may think. 

Whatever ‘sub-types’ of Strong Female Character you prefer, what’s important is that the word ‘strong’ should not limit a female character into another modern stereotype but instead would add more depth to their stories. Female characters standing for themselves because they are strong enough to do so. Female characters choosing love over anything else because that’s what makes them happy and not because of any other reason. Female characters embracing their femininity because wearing pink and being florid isn’t a factor in determining one’s strength. Female characters getting top jobs and breaking the glass ceiling with their own capabilities without falling into the trap of the patriarchal definition of alpha females. Because for me, the word ‘strong’ in the label ‘Strong Female Characters’ means having the choice and control in their character arcs so that it can somehow reflect real-life women’s stories. And that’s the kind of representation I would like to see. 

Image/GIF Credit: 1, 2, 3

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