Yoo Eun Jae, Wild Romance (2012) x Go Eun Chan, Coffee Prince (2007)
Yoo Eun Jae (one of writer Park Yeon Sun’s many Eun Jae’s—she also had characters named Eun Jae in Age of Youth, Evasive Inquiry Agency, and Ms. Kim’s Million Dollar Quest) has short hair. She wears suits, ties, collared shirts, puffy jacket vests, oversized sweaters, and an ever-present backpack.
In Coffee Prince, Go Eun Chan wears baggy hoodies and jeans, and is often mistaken for a boy. The entire conceit of the show is that she falls in love with a man who thinks she’s a man. In one scene, Eun Chan tries putting on make up with disastrous results; in another she dons a long-haired wig, heels, and a white dress, and ends up crying on a bus on her way home because she’s failed at performing femininity—note that her failure isn’t so much that she didn’t look feminine, or that she wasn’t believable (or passing/able) in the wig and dress and heels, so much as that she wasn’t able to get Han Gyul to notice her, to see that she is a woman and desirable “as a woman,” despite her brief makeover. We see Eun Chan wearing a dress one other time: when Han Gyul imagines their wedding. So much of femininity—the performance of it, its intentions, how it is seen, acknowledged, and received, whether or not its execution or performance succeeds—is rooted in the male gaze. That’s what Eun Chan reveals to us.
When we meet Eun Jae in Wild Romance, she’s never been in love…with a man. But she shares a very close and sweet friendship with her best friend, Kim Dong Ah. She’s a judo champion, knows how to box, and works as a bodyguard. She doesn’t wear make up or heels. She isn’t dainty when she eats, and she tends to laugh maniacally. So she eschews many of the immediate trappings of femininity. In fact, I think she looks more boyish than Koo Jae Hee in To the Beautiful You, and she was supposed to be masquerading as a boy! But Eun Jae is not in a gender-bending (hiding?) drama, and her almost soft masculinity is never mentioned.
Eun Jae does engage with femininity, though. Part of it exists outside the immediate text of the show itself, in that Lee Si Young is physically smaller than Lee Dong Wook, and this was a show after his army service, when he had bulked up from his previous flower boy days. There’s even a scene where she climbs him. One of the things that defines femininity is women being smaller than men—that’s why fat women, heavily muscled women, and tall women aren’t immediately considered feminine.
The other way Eun Jae engages in femininity is one that brings her even closer to Go Eun Chan. Like Eun Chan, Eun Jae wears a dress once, a no-shoulder red number, and of course it’s at a public event, where she can be seen and admired. She never puts on a wig, but she does practice aegyo in an effort to be more girlish. But she has an even more complex relationship to femininity: Eun Jae very deeply wants to be protected. She can beat Moo Yeol up, and in fact there’s a scene where she lays him flat out. But she wants to be the kind of girl Moo Yeol would fall for. Like Eun Chan had Yoo Joo, the woman Han Gyul was pining over, Eun Jae has Jong Hee, Moo Yeol’s super-feminine, fragile ex. Eun Jae is jealous of Yoo Joo even as she wants be be seen as, if not fragile, then at least delicate. At one point Eun Jae says, “I want to be changed, too. I want to change into a girl that he could like, but…but can’t he like me as who I am?” Eun Jae’s desire to be recognized (as a woman), specifically to be recognized through being protected, despite her strength and the fact that it’s her job to protect others, to protect a man, comes to a climax in the last hours of the show, when she and Jong Hee are kidnapped by the mentally ill housekeeper who’s obsessed with Moo Yeol and tied and thrown into a pool for Moo Yeol to choose one to save (…what’s a Park Yeon Sun drama without some crazy shit going down in the last episode?). Moo Yeol saves her, and that’s how, finally, she knows and believes that he loves her.
Unlike Eun Chan, Eun Jae doesn’t grow out her hair and wear a skirt, doesn’t become more comfortable with or adopt immediate markers of femininity. What happens with her is something much darker, something that involves immediate violence that puts her very life at stake; it’s something that makes me uncomfortable, and makes me look closer at my own willing (though often compulsory) engagement with femininity.
Han Yeo Jin, Yong Pal (2015)
How do I articulate why I find Yeo Jin’s relationship with femininity so compelling? Let me start with a list of the ways she upends her position as a woman:
- instead of being proposed to, she proposes marriage
- she wields more financial and societal power than her husband
- she is eaten up by revenge, and outright rejects those pillars of feminine virtue, forgiveness and understanding
But there are more complex ways in which Yeo Jin both fulfills the dictates of femininity, and challenges them. The first is obviously her looks—played by Kim Tae Hee (she’s the woman every woman in a kdrama jokes about wishing she looked like), Yeo Jin always wears make up and never has one hair out of place. But this presentation isn’t an act she preforms herself. When we first meet her Yeo Jin is being kept in an induced coma by her brother, who wants her position as heir to the family conglomerate, but can’t kill her off just yet because of legal and political machinations. And so it’s a nurse, who the camera takes the time to show us likes eating her steak extra-rare, who bathes her, washes her face, and keeps her looking so pristine. It’s that nurse who dresses her. It’s that nurse who parts and combs her hair. All while Yeo Jin herself is completely inert, totally unable to move her body. What makes this all the more striking is that Yeo Jin is conscious; she’s aware of being touched, of being made up. It’s a potent metaphor for women’s relationship to how we look: as Yeo Jin’s very body is being kept as close to death as possible, it’s being groomed (conditioned) to look a certain way—beautiful.
Throughout the drama Yeo Jin’s body is turned into a literal object. Whoever has physical ownership of her body is who has power of the company, and in the first half of the show there’s a constant fight over who, in effect, owns her. In one climactic scene, she has to be smuggled out of the hospital where’s she’s been kept against her will, and to do so she’s replaced with a dummy. But Yeo Jin is also owned metaphorically, in that her brother is her guardian and decides what gets done to her medically. He spreads the false information that she’s mentally ill, and so cannot make any medical decisions for herself, even when she “wakes” from her coma. The way Yeo Jin frees herself from this is by getting Tae Hyun to marry her—before she can bring both the hospital and her company, which are dominated by men and are spheres of masculinity, under her control, she finds a way to get, if not freedom, then breathing room and a measure of power in marriage, a private sphere, a feminine sphere. She doesn’t stop there. Yeo Jin started out a complete object, with her brother and the doctors under him deciding whether or not she would live. At first the only way she could gain a measure of autonomy was by choosing to kill herself. After she “wakes” from her coma, she’s the one who has the power to decide whether her brother and those very doctors get to live or die. And the place where she makes that decision is not in the boardroom, not in the hospital, but at the dinner table, a domestic, feminine space.
Finally, what I find most compelling about Yeo Jin’s relationship with femininity is the tension inherent in the contrast between how she looks and what she wants. Yeo Jin is spoiled, cold, vengeful, and murderous; she has that thing that appropriately feminine women absolutely shouldn’t have, an appetite that is out of control, only what she hungers for isn’t food, but revenge in the form of the deaths of her brother and everyone who supported him is taking power from her. Yeo Jin is beautiful, with the pale skin and red lips women are supposed to have—and she’s a monster.
Honorable mention: Jung Ye Eun, Age of Youth (2016)