Everyone knows that the vast majority of Korean drama watchers are women. And everyone knows that women watch most dramas for the handsome main guy characters. We even cheer on the male antagonists sometimes, if they are clever or evil (or hot) enough. And sometimes, when the female protagonist is not totally naive, headstrong or just downright annoying, we also cheer for her. But the one character that I don’t quite understand is — you guessed it — the female antagonist.
The female antagonist is an archetype that exists often in Korean dramas. She’s the female character that goes in direct opposition to our female protagonist. Everything our female lead tries to do, the female antagonist tries to sabotage. She’s often the rich, snobby, privileged, and very annoying character we all love to hate. And most of the time, her presence adds very little to the drama itself. What she does add is a whole lot of frustration for the audience, who may or may not be already somewhat disappointed by a slow storyline.
In Winter Sonata (2002), the enemy of our heroine, Yoo Jin, was Cherin — the feminine, popular, pretty girl who always seemed to get her way. Her character was annoyingly stupid – she had no real thoughts or genuine desires of her own — she just seemed to want whichever guy Yoo Jin loved. She was quite frustrating at first, but thankfully over the course of the drama, her involvement and screen time decreased.
All About Eve (2000) is a completely different story. In All About Eve, the female antagonist is not just a secondary character there to provide a little bit of a roadblock for the heroine. All About Eve’s female antagonist, Young Mi, is the main antagonist and the catalyst that propels our heroine Sun Mi to make all the major decisions in her life. I remember watching this drama and going, “Oh, why oh why does Young Mi exist at all?” Our heroine Sun Mi was doing just fine before Young Mi came around. Young Mi took Sun Mi’s father, her boyfriend, and even later, her job. And she did this all with seemingly no effort whatsoever, leaving the audience with no choice but to vehemently hate her.
In most situations, the actress playing the villain would be hated by audiences, and she may even have difficulty gaining fans in the future. Kim So Yeon (the actress who portrayed Young Mi) did fall into a bit of a slump for many years after All About Eve, not returning to prominence until her roles in the 2009 dramas Iris and Prosecutor Princess.
With all this said, what is the current state of the female antagonist in Korean dramas? Korean dramas, like all storytelling mediums, evolve and improve over time. So have the amount of female antagonists decreased since the early twenty-first century?
Perhaps the most popular of recent dramas is Boys Over Flowers, the quintessential drama of poor girl meets rich boy. Despite Boys Over Flowers not having one consistent female protagonist, there are plenty of female characters that we grow to really hate. Topping the list for me are Kang Hee Soo (Jun Pyo’s ridiculous, over-the-top mother) and Ha Jae Kyung (played by Lee Min Jung — Jun Pyo’s fiancee). And, we cannot forget the three witches Ginger, Sunny, and Miranda that made Jandi’s life at school a living hell.
Overall, I don’t consider Boys Over Flowers a good drama. Having annoying, over-the-top, and pointless female antagonists is one thing. However, the entire drama is a bit of a train wreck, with a lackluster plot and a poor script. The only thing that makes up for it is the plethora of eye candy for female viewers, which, in my opinion was probably the main reason for Boys Over Flowers’ explosive success across Asia, which sparked the second Hallyu wave (the first being created by Winter Sonata).
Another popular drama that came out around the same time as Boys Over Flowers — You’re Beautiful — starring Park Shin Hye and Jang Geun Suk — was, in my opinion, a much better-written and acted drama. Unfortunately, You’re Beautiful also did not avoid the bad female antagonist cliche. In fact, You’re Beautiful’s antagonist, Yoo He Yi (played by UEE), is probably the most annoying K-drama female antagonist in recent years. I cannot think of a single redeeming trait in UEE’s He Yi character. Her character is dumb, incompetent, and frustrating through and through. She provided little in terms of plot development, but she is still a Hong sisters creation, which means that she at least provides a bit of comedic relief, if nothing else.
Looking at the popular dramas of the past two years, however, I see a general decrease in the use of female antagonists, which in my opinion, inevitably leads to better dramas. Other than the decrease of female antagonists, the amount of mixed female antagonists (characters that aren’t completely intent on sabotaging the heroine) have increased, which shows the growing maturity of drama writers. The mixed female antagonist isn’t outright evil – she may try to be a foil to the heroine, but she is not a cold-hearted villain with no emotions or conscience. Throughout the drama, she tends to develop more redeeming qualities that make her seem more human, and most times, she ends up on the heroine’s side. It takes a good drama writer to create a well-rounded female antagonist that audiences can grow to stand or even like. These female antagonists are hard to find, but when they exist, it means the drama itself is probably very well-written and impressive as a whole.
Okay, enough lecturing. Now I want to know what you think. Do you think the female antagonist is a good archetype for Korean dramas? Who are your least favorite female antagonists? Comment and discuss away!