I discovered Korean dramas as a mental health panacea when I was at a really low point in my life, and they have given me endless joy ever since. For years I struggled to explain why I like them so much, until a recent wave of TikTok videos on TV shows that are filmed with the “female gaze” in mind (Bridgerton being a prime example) made me finally put two and two together: Korean dramas are as female gaze as it gets! Watching any K-drama as a (straight) woman—be it action, thriller, police procedural, or high school romance—will make you feel like this, truly, was made for us.
So, what do I mean when I talk about “the female gaze”? Well, without getting too boringly academical here, the concept of the female gaze was coined as a sort of counter-concept to the “male gaze,” a critical lens that helps dissect popular films and TV shows that force a compulsory (straight, cis, predominantly white) male perspective on their audience. A classic “male gazey” trope would be those by now pretty embarrassing to watch “sexposition” scenes in the first season of Game of Thrones. Women are basically there to support the men’s stories and character development or to look pretty, preferably wearing as little clothing as possible.
For years I struggled to explain why I like Korean dramas, until a recent wave of TikToks made me put two and two together: Korean dramas are as female gaze as it gets!
A drama or movie that is filmed with the female gaze in mind, on the other hand, will focus on women’s perspectives, placing them at the center of the narrative. Again, Bridgerton is a prime example here, with their focus on female pleasure. Another movie example I’ve seen mentioned dozens of times on TikTok is the 2005 Pride and Prejudice movie—you know, that famous close-up of Darcy’s hand flexing involuntarily after it touched Elizabeth’s. This, to many women, is a hell of a lot sexier than any explicit sex scene zooming in on women’s nude bodies for no reason.
Now, I want to just give a heads up that when I speak of “the female gaze,” I do not want to exclude the desires of nonbinary or gay individuals, and I also realize that not all women are attracted to men. The female gaze is a first and second wave feminist term, which was still based on a somewhat restrictive view of gender as “either/or.” It is still useful to apply when it comes to pointing out how differently female desire is framed in male-centric versus female-centric TV shows and movies. Most Korean dramas are still painfully heteronormative (as are, of course, most Western dramas), and this will likely not change overnight, although the recent mega success of Itaewon Class, which featured a diverse cast including a trans woman gives hope. So, forgive my own heteronormative language here!
Here are five popular tropes that show how Korean dramas favor the female gaze.
The Obligatory Male Lead’s Shower Scene
I have yet to see one Korean drama without this most blatantly female gaze centric trope, which also usually happens in the first half of the very first episode. The male lead is shown showering, in an often almost shamelessly long scene that honestly doesn’t serve any other purpose than for us to longingly gaze upon the sheer male beauty of the drama’s main guy. In The K2, we even get a full-on fight scene in the men’s communal showers, with action superstar Ji Chang-Wook fending off a group of naked mercenaries with his towel as a weapon. It truly may be the first time I’ve seen an action scene filmed entirely for the purpose of pleasing a female (or a “men-loving”) audience.
Every time that shower scene is shown in a drama, I get all flustered and almost shocked at how the camera lingers on the stunning male lead’s physique, highlighting their abs and biceps in particular. And the thing is—we never get a similar scene for the female lead, who is in fact rarely if ever shown without clothes, and even then, her nakedness is at best hinted at. Of course, this also comes from a tendency to slut shame Korean actresses and idols who show too much flesh, but the fact remains that when it comes to K-drama, it is almost exclusively the men who get framed as objects of desire, to be gazed at and fantasize about for the predominantly female audience.
Feeding the Female Lead Home-cooked Meals
This is another pretty common trope found in most K-dramas, but I feel one scene in the otherwise somewhat mediocre drama Cinderella and the Four Knights really nails this in terms of showing a mashup of female desires. Female lead Ha-won (who comes from a humble upbringing) is hungry, so she asks her rich family butler friend for a little snack. The gorgeous man rolls up his shirt sleeves, puts on a cute apron, and produces a multi-course meal, including a whole fried chicken and every side dish a Korean could wish for, all the while managing to look perfectly groomed, not a hair out of place.
Not every male lead is such a gourmet cook, but even when all they do is throw together a bowl of ramyeon, most of us will still swoon over how lovingly and carefully they feed their starving love interest. We also often see male leads clean the messy apartments of the heroine, or carefully bandage them up after a clumsy fall. In most countries, including of course the highly patriarchal South Korea, household chores are still overwhelmingly done by women—even if they work full-time—so of course this idea of a caring, cleaning, cooking man is true female-centric wish fulfillment.
Showing the Female Lead Desires the Male Lead
Again, Korean drama revealed to me how very rarely we actually get to see female-centered desire in Western drama. Oh sure, we get scenes where women discuss their love and sex life in extreme details—something that the more prudish Korean dramas certainly never would do—but ultimately, showing a woman outright enjoying the beauty of a man still seems almost revolutionary. The main drama where I noticed this being played out to a degree that almost felt like a complete reversal of the usual gender dynamics is It’s Okay to Not Be Okay. In this drama the female lead instantly decides that beautiful heartthrob Gang-tae needs to “be hers,” expressing her enjoyment of his sheer beauty freely and openly.
There is even a (somewhat uncomfortable) scene where she sneaks into his locker room while he changes for work. Now, the drama apparently also received an unusually high number of complaints about inappropriate sexual content, so I guess I wasn’t alone in feeling that showing female desires is one thing, but showing a woman pretty much sexually harassing a man doesn’t really smack of sexual liberation. But other dramas have done similar scenes with a much more toned-down but equally obvious expression of pure desire by the female lead while she admires the masculine beauty of her love interest. Crash Landing on You also comes to mind here, where we get a reverse gender “Pretty Woman shopping montage” that made me smile from ear to ear.
The Male Lead Freely Expresses His Emotions (While Also Being Badass)
K-drama has come a long way from their early days of aggressive wrist grabbing, with a needlessly angry and frustrated male lead surprise kissing the girl. I feel the newer generation of Korean shows has become really good at showing the personal growth of the male characters, and the women put up with far less nonsense from the men, calling them out freely and repeatedly. Men realizing that they have been absolute jerks and working on changing that may be my favorite female gaze K-drama trope, with What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim a prime example of this.
It is also normal to see men openly cry in Korean dramas, framed in a way that makes their emotional vulnerability attractive and not ridiculous or embarrassing. I was struck by how beautiful it was that combat-hardened North Korean soldier Jeong-hyeok (played by swoon-worthy superstar Hyun Bin) freely showed his terror over potentially losing the love of his life, Se-ri, in Crash Landing on You. The camera work in Korean dramas really emphasizes this emotional vulnerability of the male lead, with long close-up scenes of their faces twisted in pain, fear, or potentially puzzled confusion over feeling so many strange new feelings.
And it isn’t just the romance dramas that do this. Be it an action piece, police or hospital drama, and no matter if the male lead is the CEO of a billion dollar company or a tough hitman, there will always be plenty of lingering shots showing us how the men wrangle with their inner turmoil and heartbreaks.
The Noona and Reverse Harem Drama Genres
We are used to seeing older men being chased by younger women, while the opposite is still somewhat taboo, especially in the romance genre. May I introduce you to the noona drama genre, Korean dramas where an older woman—referred to as noona by a younger male friend or close acquaintance—is being courted. The age difference between the older woman and the younger male lead can often be quite significant, with the noona character usually in her mid-30s, a time when rigid Korean gender norms make her feel like an old spinster already if still unmarried. Something in the Rain is a classic noona romance drama, with megastar Son Ye-jin playing an unlucky-in-love office worker who tentatively starts dating the significantly younger brother of her best friend.
The “reverse harem” genre is another staple in the Korean drama world, depicting situations that force one very lucky female lead to share her living situation with a group of gorgeous men who, of course, all fall in love with her. The 2009 classic You’re Beautiful with Park Shin-hye was actually the first K-drama I ever watched, and I will probably never get over that one scene where she visits a 24-hour supermarket in the middle of the night with three idol band members-slash-roommates, who all scramble to impress her with their shopping and cooking skills.
Clearly, the female fantasies shown in Korean series have forever ruined my chances of ever finding love in the real world. Because if I can’t have a man who shows emotions openly, then fights a bunch of baddies naked in the shower, and finally cooks me a gourmet meal, what’s the use of romance, really?