Should you ever find yourself perusing Netflix, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll come across “foreign” TV shows. They’re usually shorter than the average American TV series—ten or eleven episodes in length and rarely more than one season long—and more often than not, they are romantic comedies with Asian characters and settings.
In the last decade, Asian dramas have charmed audiences around the world, with dozens of popular shows ending up on legal streaming sites like Netflix, Hulu, and DramaFever. Forums, blogs, and entire websites are devoted to recaps of currently airing shows, and indeed, the popularity of these dramas around Asia and the rest of the world has even boosted tourism. The proliferation of these shows has made it even easier to run into that ever-popular trope: crossdressing.
WWAC note: This trope is commonly referred to as “gender-bending;” a less than respectful term with historically wide application, that has been used to hurt and belittle. Having discussed the matter, we have chosen to use the term crossdressing throughout this post.
Which is not a new phenomenon. William Shakespeare uses it to both comical and dramatic effect in As You Like It and Twelfth Night, with his female characters slipping into male disguises to hide their presence or fool another character. Tamora Pierce’s Alanna series has influenced both the trope and the high fantasy genre. Movies such as Mulan, Victor/Victoria, and Shakespeare in Love have continued the tradition to varying degrees of success. More often than not, women are the ones taking on a mantle of masculinity, and it almost always affords them more freedom than they’ve known as women.
It’s easy to find crossdressing dramas among top ten Korean drama (hereafter referred to as “k-drama”) or Japanese drama (“j-drama”) lists. Coffee Prince (2007, Korea) is often spoken of with a rare reverence among drama fans and not just for its deft portrayal of gender stereotype. Ouran High School Host Club (2011, Japan) became a hit beyond its intended manga fan audience. The popularity of these dramas speak to a modern female audience that is powerfully engaged (perhaps more so than their TV counterparts) with the gender biases that are portrayed on TV. These dramas continue to find success in a region that sometimes lives up to its stereotypically conservative reputation when it comes to the role of women in society. They have also gained a notable female audience outside Asia–not an easy feat to accomplish.
So what is crossdressing? With regards to Asian dramas, it commonly refers to one of two scenarios:
- A character has to pretend to be the opposite sex, usually in order to accomplish something; or
- A character’s gender is temporarily switched to the opposite sex, usually an occurrence out of their control, and the change is reversed once the character has accomplished a task/passed a test.
Like their Western counterparts, it is almost always the Asian woman who takes on the challenge of the first situation. There are some dramas in which a male protagonist finds himself in the second situation, but they are not nearly as common; this trope can tie into transphobia and body dysmorphia. On a personal level, I’ve found myself gravitating to the dramas that take the crossdressing trope and twist it up, push a different boundary than the ones viewers are used to seeing.
In You’re Beautiful (2010, Korea), for example, we don’t just have a regular young woman taking on a masculine role. Mi Nyeo Go (Shin Hye Park) is a novitiate, a nun-in-training, whose clumsiness and penchant for getting into scrapes will call up memories of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Mi Nyeo’s life is otherwise humdrum, punctured only by the arrival of a man claiming to be her twin brother’s manager. Mi Nam Go has joined a boy band, and his manager’s aesthetic advice has landed him in a hospital bed to recover from plastic surgery.
His inability to perform with the rest of his bandmates pushes Mi Nyeo into the spotlight to keep her brother’s secret. That said, she’s still reluctant to leave the abbey until her brother’s manager confesses Mi Nam’s real reason for joining A.N.JELL—he wants to find their long-lost mother. Mi Nyeo can’t begrudge him that hope, and she agrees to pretend that she is Mi Nam for a month. It’s a task that will require both changes to her physical appearance and her personality, especially since there won’t just be one boy to fool, but three, along with their legions of fans.
Hana Kimi (2007, Japan), on the other hand, has a female protagonist who is so determined to meet and befriend her hero Izumi Sano (Shun Oguri) that his attendance at an all-boys school is a moot point. Luckily—or unluckily, as the case may be—Mizuki Ashiya (Maki Horikita) is not only assigned to Izumi’s class, but also becomes his roommate. The plot might seem more straightforward than You’re Beautiful, but it is similarly complicated by multiple love interests.
Gender stereotypes provide both advantages and disadvantages to the female characters in crossdressing dramas. The perception that women are naturally feminine blinds most of the other characters in these shows, allowing the main female character to slide through a few awkward situations.
In her 1990 book Gender Trouble, feminist writer Judith Butler discusses the concept of “gender performativity,” or the idea that gender is an act that all people perform in a context lacking other socially acceptable choices. The ability for female characters in crossdressing dramas to perform the masculine role is the standard by which their success will be measured.
The girls both have a set reason for pretending to be a boy: Mi Nyeo wants to protect her brother and use the platform to find their mother; Miyuki wants to work with her track hero. Western movies provide reasons for their female characters as well. Mulan wants to save her father’s life, Viola of Shakespeare in Love wants to pursue an acting career at the Globe. Watching She’s the Man actually gave me Hana Kimi flashbacks, as soccer star Viola fights to be taken seriously at the rival all-boys’ school. Whether or not they accomplish those goals is dependent on how well they can pull off their masculine disguises.
The female leads usually share a similar attitude regarding stereotypical femininity—they don’t believe in it. More often than not, they are tomboys, uncomfortable in “girly” clothes, and uninterested in flirting prettily with the boys around them. They are usually also disinterested in the trappings of what a woman’s career should be. Mi Nyeo is far from being comfortable with the sexuality that idol groups have to utilize to keep their fans interested. While at first Miyuki dresses casually and comfortably, she isn’t as good at maintaining the illusion of masculinity.
And so Mi Nyeo cuts her hair just short enough to pass as a slightly androgynous pop idol, leaving just the right amount of feminine physical qualities to heighten her appeal to A.N.JELL’s fans. Contrary to what Western viewers might be used to seeing in bands like the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, many Korean and Japanese boy bands have members who might easily be mistaken for short-haired women and only become more popular for it.
I’ve always found it quite telling that Mi Nyeo employs androgyny to pass as her brother. She doesn’t have to give up her feminine features to make people believe she’s a man and treat her accordingly, and she begins to adapt some stereotypically masculine behaviours during her time as Mi Nam. The expectations set for her as an idol may be restrictive at first glance, but they also provide her the most freedom she’s had her entire life. Her abruptness and avoidance of attention only fuel the fans’ devotion and make “Mi Nam” even more popular. It’s a stark contrast to the sensation of being trapped that the boys experience as the dramas truck along.
Her seclusion in an abbey aids her here as well; she doesn’t know the things many teenage girls know or are conditioned to know at her age, and she picks up what she should know about men from her bandmates. The presence of Mi Nam’s manager provides backup in the event that her real identity might be discovered.
This lack of interest or investment in femininity helps them in the first few days of their mission, but like most missions, it becomes more challenging to maintain the deception the longer it goes on. With Mi Nyeo living in the same dorm as her bandmates, it’s really only a matter of time before her real identity is discovered. Miyuki is similarly caught in an awkward living situation, made all the more difficult by the lack of privacy in the room she shares with Sano.
Proximity is definitely a factor in the events that play out in crossdressing dramas, complicating the girls’ undertaking with inevitable relationships. It also creates the platform for the boys’ main inner conflict: the questioning of their own sexuality and what that curiosity means for their social standing.
This is the first part of an essay on gender performance in Asian dramas. Find the second part here.