Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the South Korean Netflix drama series Crash Landing on You. Two of the articles I cited in the column were written by women, who make up the bulk of the Japanese audience for K-dramas. Both writers refer to themselves as feminists, so it struck me at first that they would like such a conventionally sentimental love story, but, in fact, both go out of their way to assert that the series, as one said, “upsets existing gender norms.” For the first half of the series, the female South Korean protagonist, Yoon Se-ri, is stranded in North Korea, so the usual gender dynamic seems to be in play. She has to rely on the strong, stoical army captain, Ri Jeong-hyeok, to keep her safe, and he does so at considerable risk to his life. However, the second half of the series takes place in Seoul, and these traditional roles are reversed. Though Jeong-hyeok has snuck into South Korea to save Se-ri from a devious, ambitious soldier who is planning to kidnap her, it is Se-ri who basically protects Jeong-hyeok, and she also does it at considerable risk to her own life. The two writers point out that Se-ri is already identified as a “strong woman” because she has built a successful company from scratch, though they don’t mention that she was probably able to do this because she is from one of the richest families in South Korea. Similarly, Jeong-hyeok is the scion of one of the most politically powerful families in North Korea. These respective elite positions of the two main characters are exploited constantly throughout the story, so in a way the series doesn’t “upset” gender norms completely because the two lovers are already extraordinary in socioeconomic terms.
But what the two writers want to say is that the love story feels different because it is one that is based on two equals, and it’s obvious they think that this aspect was carefully built into the story, whose main hook, of course, is that the love is forbidden because the two countries our lovers represent are technically at war with each other. Traditionally, K-dramas address social class and what one writer calls “blood taboos,” meaning inter-family strife (including incest). These cliches are, in fact, derided throughout the series by North Korean characters who secretly watch K-dramas and remark on the development of the story they are living through as if it were a K-drama. Crash Landing on You does address social class in both the North and the South, and the blood taboo aspect is also a feature of the plotting, but not in the central love story itself, which is elevated to such a high ideal that Se-ri and Jeong-hyeok become avatars of a romance that transcends not only political limitations, but gender differences as well. In one of the articles, a woman is quoted as saying she enjoys watching it because there’s no sex, which is true. Se-ri and Jeong-hyeok’s love even transcends sex, which may be the most revolutionary thing about the show.