How’s that for a sensational title 😉 ? I do apologise. I suck at writing titles (just browse my past posts), and this was really the best I could come up with. The answer to that question is no, it’s not. But when I saw the hair-grab move in The Master’s Sun which debuted last week, it struck me that is is in some ways like the dreaded wrist-grab.
Let’s rewind a little bit. So here I was happily tucking into Gong Hyo Jin and So Ji Sub working their magic. Literally, sparks were flying the first time they meet on a rainy night. The next day, Gong Hyo Jin’s (playing a ghost whisperer) character Gong Shil is trying to meet someone to convey a message from a ghost she sees. Just as she approaches him, So Ji Sub’s character Joong Won spots her and tries to stop her by doing this: She flinches, then smiles shyly at him. He lets go and tells his security guards to kick her out. And I’m like, ugh.
I was not prepared for such manhandling of the woman lead so early. It was barely 30 minutes into the first episode of the show. Since this is K-drama, I expect a certain number of wrist-grabs, but aren’t wrist-grabs and such supposed to come a little later? You know, when the man is already struck by jealousy, and is so frustrated that he just needs to impress upon his woman how much he lurves her by physically grabbing her and dragging her off against her will?
Rumblings of discontent immediately erupted on the show’s Soompi forum thread. The scene sparked a lively discussion on what constitutes violent or abusive behaviour in dramas, what it means for the dynamics of the characters, and what should and what shouldn’t be taken seriously in entertainment. There have been some appeals to contextualise the act in view of Joong Won’s asshat character who is trying to rid himself of a crazy woman exhibiting stalker-like behaviour, and that Gong Shil is so desperate to rid herself of her ability to see ghosts that all she wants is to get close, hence her silence in being hair-grabbed.
My view is that the whys don’t matter since it has no bearing on the story (one assumes it’s just to show how much of an asshat he is), and coming up with whys comes across as justifying bad behaviour. What’s disturbing is that the manhandling was played for comedic effect which glosses over the act of disrespect that it is. Would his character have done that if Gong Shil were a man? I don’t think so, and not because a man is likely to not have hair long enough to grab hold of. It’s likely that he would’ve thought twice before putting his hands on a strange guy like that or risk getting his ass kicked. A woman is less physically threatening and therefore easily dispatched. Grabbing her hair is an expression of Joong Won’s domination over her, and he’s inflicting physical pain while he does it. From a directorial standpoint, was it even necessary?
Wrist-grabs are similar displays, but played for romantic effect instead. We are expected to swoon at a man’s ‘assertiveness’. And since this is rom-com territory, this kind of behaviour is rarely called out for the (not so) subtle sexism that it is within the narrative itself. Quite the opposite–he is rewarded for it by gaining the love of the woman. We’re lucky if the guy registers a change of heart in the process, let alone apologises for any crap he’s pulled on her.
One reason why the hair-grab raised a few hackles I think was that it also raised the question of if Joong Won is already capable of this when Gong Shil is practically a stranger, what else is he going to do to her when they become more intimate? We’ve been down this road enough to know that it will likely get worse before it gets better. How much more is Gong Shil going to have to put up with? How much are we going to have to put up with?
The fact is, if this was a wrist-grab, I wouldn’t be writing a post about it. I confess I’ve become somewhat desensitised to the wrist-grab. I swat it aside with a sigh when I notice it, in the same way I sigh when I read about another dumb remark made by a politician or another case of theft in the news, and then turn the page. So this new iteration of the wrist-grab made me sit up abit.
Watching K-dramas as a feminist often requires you to file away the many disturbing things you come across while simultaneously enjoying the many pay-offs that dramas can bring. It’s challenging, but I would argue that enjoyment of any form of entertainment should done with a critical eye. To dismiss dramas as just silly entertainment and therefore shouldn’t be taken seriously (i.e. check your brain at the door) strikes me as a little naive. Unquestioning consumption of pop culture is dangerous in this day and age where the warped demands of the marketplace and harmful social norms are packaged and embedded so seamlessly together with the product.
Besides, contrary to what some might think, being a feminist and being a drama fan need not be mutually exclusive. Sometimes I just want to ogle the pretty faces and hot bods, or swoon and melt. But I can do that and be aware that what I’m watching can be extremely problematic at the same time. It’s multitasking. And it’s not like I can switch off my inner feminist. Most I can do is tell her to calm down and reach for the aspirin. And then blog about it ;).
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to the next episodes of The Master’s Sun. I’ve got my aspirin ready.