The male characters’ reluctance to accept their attraction to their female leads plays into another concept that Judith Butler explores in her piece “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” She talks of the strict repercussions Western cultures, especially in the United States, force onto people who stray outside their assigned gender binaries. It’s not really any different from the pressure both girls and boys feel in Asian countries where their family’s honour is at stake with every action they take, though there’s no question that women feel that pressure more heavily than men and are punished more severely for trying to escape it.
The vast majority of Koreans still practice Confucianism, as they have throughout history, and those tenets still influence gender roles today. Under Confucianism, women are considered to be secondary citizens, their submission to men deemed necessary and for the woman’s own good. They are spoken of in terms of their relationships with men, and it’s those relationships that define their worth:
“Girls were taught to revere their fathers, devote themselves to their husbands, and obey their sons; at each stage in her life, a woman belonged to a man. They were not trusted to dictate their own lives, and men made their decisions for them.”
— “Korean Perceptions of Chastity, Gender Roles, and Libido: From Kisaengs to the Twenty First Century”
Korean women are still ideally subservient to the men in their lives, maintaining restraint and silence. Likewise, Japan also developed under Confucian ideals, with a similar importance placed on the idea of a woman as a “good wife, wise mother,” and nothing else. Mi Nyeo’s choice to become a nun is still in line with the ideal of the Korean woman, but her choice to impersonate her brother is decidedly not. Mi Nyeo’s absent mother is held up as an example of the kind of woman that should not be imitated, a woman who left her family and gave in to her selfishness. Miyuki is a quiet girl, but she chooses to pursue success in a male-dominated field. Her innocence keeps her from going too far down the path of masculinity, however, and it’s what draws both Sano and Shuichi to her.
The friendship Miyuki begins to build with Sano leads him to doubt his identity and to feel bothered by the attentions their friend Shuichi begins to shower on Miyuki, even after Sano discovers Miyuki’s real gender identity. Shuichi is not as troubled by his feelings for Miyuki, despite her presenting as a boy, which I’ve always found to be the most interesting thread of the drama.
Mi Nyeo’s innocence as a novitiate sets up both physical and emotional situations in which each of the three boys begin to wonder if the attraction they feel for their bandmate could possibly mean that they’re not as straight as they believe. They react in different ways: bad boy vocalist Tae Kyung Hwang fights it tooth and nail to the end, Jeremy is more curious than turned off, and Shin Woo Kang is quietly perturbed until he realizes “Mi Nam” is really a girl.
All of the boys in You’re Beautiful and Hana Kimi instinctively recognize that pursuing someone of the same gender could destroy them socially. It’s never stated outright, but both dramas play up the shame several of these male characters feel once they realize they’ve begun to feel something for the female character masquerading as a boy, driving the point further into the viewer’s subconscious. Homosexuality is almost always used for laughs, never as a real possibility for its characters, and certainly never as part of the happy ending.
The closest exceptions are Shuichi and Jeremy, who both come to terms with their emotions by choosing to see Miyuki and Mi Nyeo simply as people they could love, regardless of gender. Shuichi in particular transcends the caricatures that Hana Kimi focuses on to be a full and realistic character, whose connection with Miyuki feels more real than anything else in the drama. But then again, neither of them end up with the girl they love.
It’s the boys who are gruff, frustrating, the ones who match the representation of masculinity accepted by both Western and Eastern societies, who stand by our female characters’ side at the end of their respective shows. Tae Kyung is rough, difficult to deal with, and sometimes downright mean, but he intrigues both Mi Nyeo and viewers, and it’s so easy to let yourself be swept away by his brusque temper, because he harbours a sensitive side that only Mi Nyeo can draw out. Sano is aggravating in his dismissal of almost everything in his life, and he bears his pain stoically, never letting anyone in. But Miyuki gets through to him, brings him back to himself, and saves his ambitions at the same time.
As entertaining as they are, both dramas never really push the limits of the gender-bending trope to its breaking point. They are content to settle back in the last few episodes and let the story take the usual course for romantic comedies. Mi Nyeo and Miyuki slip off their masculine disguises, having already established the beginnings of a relationship with their male counterparts. Both the characters and the viewer are neatly led back into the same gender binaries that they started with in episode one, with no further comment on what the experience has added to their personalities or perspectives.
I find this particularly frustrating in Hana Kimi, though You’re Beautiful doesn’t exactly do much better. I enjoyed the show the first time I watched it, but the rewatch I did for this piece only highlighted the boundaries and limits the story slipped around its characters, especially Miyuki and Shuichi. Perhaps those limits were made more obvious by the focus on humour in this specific Japanese adaptation—I can’t speak to the 2011 j-drama or the Korean adaptation, To the Beautiful You, as I have yet to watch them. But rewatching Hana Kimi only made me wish that there had been time spent on exploring the presence of women in sports and how that has not shifted gender stereotypes in Japan. I wish there had been more time spent on the idea of sacrifice and how Sano’s frustration is indicative of the expectations placed on him as a male track star as well as the sacrifices Miyuki makes to pursue the same career.
I’ll admit that I’m more partial to You’re Beautiful and a little more forgiving of its faults in general. That said, it is guilty of pressing the tired cheerleader versus nerd stereotype to sell Mi Nyeo’s virtues to the viewer, pitting her against a very feminine, very catty, very cruel female celebrity. It plays into the “cool girl” fantasy, given the name by Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, setting Mi Nyeo as the “right” kind of girl, easy for boys to get along with, but still feminine enough that homosexuality won’t be a concern. It sidelines possibly its best character—Jeremy—after a confession that I never expected to see in an Asian drama and loved for its very real honesty. Like Hana Kimi, it pulls back from really committing to an exploration of the expectations we place on each other based on gender and how that affects the way we see ourselves.
And maybe I’m asking too much of dramas that are produced for entertainment, for an audience to unwind with at the end of a long day. But gender-bender dramas are representative of the societies that produce them, and their popularity opens a space for conversation and discussion and the expansion of boundaries that may not have been visible before today. They may not be anything more than a fun romantic comedy to some viewers, but they can serve as points from which we observe our own gender biases and start to pick away at them. If nothing else, gender-bender dramas make us look at a person and ask ourselves what assumptions we’ve made about them and keep asking.
This is the second part of an essay on gender performance in Asian dramas. Find the first part here.