I could be red or I could be yellow
I could be blue or I could be purple
I could be green or pink or black or white
I could be every colour you like!
– Stella Jang, Colors
The PRIDE month is soon coming to an end, but the celebrations aren’t. The LGBTQIA+ community has given everyone the courage and the support to flaunt their true colours in society. One of the main things that the community demands are equality and support from their peers and family. The LGBT+ community has often been stereotyped in the mainstream media. Often been used as a butt of sexist and racist jokes, the community is severely misrepresented in the media. Being of any other sexual or gender orientation than “heterosexual” has been considered as something that is “abnormal” or an “illness”.
In regards to the K-Pop industry, the scenario is changing, albeit at a brisk pace. With artists like EXO’s KAI, SHINee’s Taemin, F(X)’s Amber dressing up in gender-fluid clothing, and groups like MAMAMOO and GOT7 actively showing their support for the LGBT+ community, the times and society’s thoughts are surely changing. Monsta X also made a bold step by showing a homosexual story in their music video, All In. The boys are shown to have been abused by an authority figure for falling in love with each other.
In the past few years, the community has received support in short amounts with non-stereotyped and realistic representation in K-Dramas. K-Dramas like Reply 1997, Itaewon Class, and Run On, tackled the topics such as homosexuality, transgender, and asexuality in their storylines without complicating the main plot, or harming the character’s story. The seamless blend of the characters in the story, and a valid focus on their story was one step towards achieving equal and adequate representation. Despite the screen time being less, these characters were memorable for those who watched these dramas. Writers and the actors made their attempt to do justice and present a fair image of the community. Let’s take a look at the representation of the LGBTQIA+ characters in a few hit K-Dramas over the years.
1. Reply 1997 (2012)
While most K-Drama portrayal of the LGBT+ community is stereotypical, Reply 1997 does a much better job, using the storyline of a gay secondary character with much sensitivity. The boy’s love is not used as a catalyst or a plot twist nor is it used to create a melodramatic love triangle. While it may be unrequited love, there is no shame or negativity with the writer’s beautifully handling and weaving his sexual orientation into the plot. It’s also worth mentioning that Joon-hee, the boy who is in love with his male classmate is none other than K-Pop idol, Hoya of Infinite. Since K-Pop fandoms and K-Netizens have a reputation of being sensitive, credit should be given to Hoya for portraying one of the first LGBT characters despite the potential backlash in a still conservative society. Starring opposite Seo In-guk whose character is straight, the two actors handle the story arc delicately, making sure that Joon-hee feels accepted and is a positive comfort character for those who had yet to have their queerness and identity represented in K-Dramas at that time.
2. Itaewon Class (2020)
Worldwide-hit series, Itaewon Class which emphasizes the resilience of staying true to oneself and one’s ideals, also portrays the journey of a transgender character, Ma Hyun Yi towards prideful self-acceptance. Played flawlessly by actress Lee Joo Young, the character sticking to the theme of Itaewon Class, struggles to stay true to her gender identity despite the fears of being condemned by society and her friends. Hence, this heartening courage of the character when her identity is exposed by ill-wishers also brings to light the subtle-yet-changing attitude of South Korea towards the LGBTQIA+ community as Chef Ma Hyun Yi actually receives praise and support for her culinary skills and courage rather than harsh denunciation.
3. Run On (2020)
A fresh take on adult characters and romantic relationships, Run On is a ‘healing’ drama. Starring Yim Si Hwang and Shin Se Kyung in the lead, the drama is progressive in quite a few aspects. What brought an interesting turn in the drama, is the character of Lee Mae Yi aka May, portrayed by actor Lee Bong Ryun. She is a well-known film distributor and a friend of Oh Mi Joo (Se Kyung). She is portrayed as an asexual character. That car scene with Yim Si Hwang where she comes out about her sexuality won quite a few brownie points. Cut to a few episodes later, she is seen dating Seo Dan Ah’s (played by Choi Soo-young) secretary Mr. Jung Ji Hyun (played by Yeon Jae Wook). This comes to light in a funny encounter at a park where all the characters cross paths. When she says that she is indeed dating, the characters look at her with confusion because of the limited knowledge of the LGBT+ spectrum. She said that it has its own variations and she’ll explain later. The characters, still reeling in from the surprise of the dating news nod along. May’s portrayal of an asexual character, which does not face any resistance from her peers is indeed a positive representation.
4. At Eighteen (2019)
Jung Oh-Je is one of the supporting characters in the K-Drama, At Eighteen. Played by ASTRO’s Moon-Bin, Oh-Je is a handsome, athletic high school student who appears as a helpful and caring person. He gets into a relationship with his girl classmate (Da-Heen) but feels awkward and soon breaks up. Later while setting things straight with her, it is revealed that he is gay and has a crush on another classmate Ma Hwi Young (played by Shin Seung Ho). After his coming out, there are scenes where he tackles the prejudice of many people but his peers defend him. He expresses that this is his first time experiencing these feelings and he can’t help it but seeing his friends’ support for him brings a smile on his face. Those scenes certainly brought a smile to the face of many viewers.
5. Love with Flaws (2019)
Love With Flaws has a subplot that showcases LGBTQ+ representation. Won-Suk, the character portrayed by the late Cha-Inha is a bartender who works in a gay bar. Won-Suk is shown as a character who is confident about his identity and loves himself but has a deep emphasis and a background story. He had a major difficulty while coming out to his family which also lead him to attempt suicide. But at last, his parents accepted him and told him that being queer was not something he should apologize for.
Ho-Dol (played by Jang Yoo-Sang) is a closeted gay character who is slowly coming to terms with his sexuality. He soon meets Won-Suk at the bar. His encounters with Won-Suk soon buds into a relationship as Won-Suk helps him to accept himself. Ho Dol struggles with bullying due to his identity but Won-Suk defends him. He also has a hard time coming out to his parents but Won-Suk helps him through it too. The relationship between these two characters stole the spotlight many times during the series and melted the hearts of many.
K-Dramas and K-Movies with LGBT characters
Earlier the characters were limited to gay and lesbian only, but with dramas like Run On and Itaewon Class, one can sure hope that in the future the rainbow spectrum will be represented the way they deserve. There has been an increase in Korean BL (Boy Love) dramas as well, with dramas like Where Your Eyes Linger, Mr Heart, To My Star, You Make Me Dance, to name a few. These stories focus on gay love stories in bite-sized episodes. They are often romcoms, but they also portray the bullying that a homosexual individual has to face. There is ample angst, love, and zero stereotypes thus making them a good watch with a positive message.
In addition to these dramas, Korean movies have made an attempt to represent the transgender community with films like Man on High Heels (2014) starring Cha Seung Won as Yoon Ji Wook, a homicide detective. Yoon Ji Wook is no less than a legend amongst his peers and is feared by the criminals as well. But underneath all this hard-as-nails personality is a suppressed desire. Although born male, Ji Wook wanted to live as a woman since his teenage years. The movie offers the portrayal with the best intentions at heart and much-needed sensitivity to the character.
Lastly, the 2016 movie In Between Seasons, starring Lee Won Keun also sports a good storyline. Adapted from a webtoon of the same name, the movie tells the story of a boy whose relationship is discovered by his mother after quite a few years. The drama is a slow, steady-paced slice-of-life drama that comments on the filial relationships between a son and his mother. The mother’s coming to face with the reality forms the crux of the story.
Which of these K-dramas or K-movies did you like the most? Tell us in the comments below!
(Please note: These inferences are drawn after careful consideration and selection of the K-Dramas or K-Movies watched by the team. The views are solely the writers’ and do not represent views of KHIGH as an organization. If you feel something is incorrect or missing, please take the conversation through proper channels. We are always open to hearing your thoughts.)