Strong Woman Do Bong Soon started off great, continued a little shaky, but ended with some resounding triumph for the little girl within me who always, just wanted a role model of the same gender (not even going to talk about race yet).
SWDBS should be given credit for being the long overdue show to finally note the same existence (since acceptance has a long way to go) of homosexuality in the conservative environment. While it does reflect tolerant attitudes, they could do with a little less stereotype exaggeration, from portraying the gay man (Dong-pyung, played by Kim Won Hae who also plays a gangster who is the epitome of someone who just doesn’t know how to quit a losing battle) as being very feminine, hostile towards a straight romance that includes a man he is attracted to which I know is for comic relief but there has to be a limit to the number of times gay jokes can be made right? So that we can reduce the legitimisation of their sexuality as a mere comedy? Still, he does redeem himself somewhat at the end not as the delusional gay man’s jealousy towards a straight girl’s man. Another way to view this would be that it is his PERSONALITY that gives rise to that type of hostility, as Secretary Gong does state “why would you put her under the guidance of him? He’s known to be mean to interns” which is an indicator of the type of person he is, outside of his sexuality.
The potential red flag was when Bong Soon’s mom showing disappointment in being told of Min-hyuk’s supposedly being homosexual – as it would ruin her daughter’s chances of being married to a rich heir. Still, it wouldn’t have been problematic had she not said “Well, not everyone is perfect!”. If you watch it with the prior knowledge of the (mostly) conservative views of the older Koreans, this would be accurate, even a mild reaction. And if you’re feeling particularly open-minded today, this could be a blanket societal reflection of the overall traditional mindsets of conservative Koreans, although thankfully no one else seems to be anywhere close to Mother’s enthusiasm nor her hope to convert his sexuality. It is a quiet acceptance, a kind of acceptance that is played down for the better because your sexuality is not meant to be a dramatic broadcast, or a spectacle to be scrutinised at, in which SWDBS has done quite decently, and to their credit, it is still a step forward. I still find it funny (like, not humour funny but theoretically speaking, a strange discomfort that makes you laugh nervously) that when gay people fall in love, it’s used mostly as a comedic device, where any possibility of authentic romance is ruined by exaggerated sexual advances – and we all know that portrays gay relationships negatively.
The Strong Woman Trope
The real question is whether Do Bong Soon was strong, besides the obvious emphasis on her physical strength that has been played down as comic-book-esque superhero attribute, I kind of also wished that she’d show competence outside of the physical strength.
I do love her character though, it is hard not to when she is, as the male lead says “peanut-sized king Kong” which I find an interesting title of endearment because King Kong – animalistic yet with some human instincts, obviously masculine in role, is compared with Bong Soon who is small, and undeniably looking very harmless. I suppose we could call it the very typical /don’t judge a book by its cover/ which is essentially a recurring theme in the drama when men, particularly misogynistic, prideful men encounter Bong Soon, whose appearance says so little about the spitfire within her. It is a cliché, but such a satisfying one simply because we have been bombarded with ‘strong women’, who ultimately, require male(s) to make up for her ‘feminine weakness’. Yet, throughout this show, Ahn Min-hyuk has demonstrated that he need not show any form of alpha lead in the relationship, and has been in AWE of her strength. It could be that little kid within him that doesn’t see the gender of the superhero, but a saviour from all the darker and lonely reality he had to face daily. I love that in spite of size, in spite of strength, and well both of them have headstrong personalities, they stand equal and reinforce each other’s abilities and beliefs. Unlike Bong Soon’s mother who had until the end of the show (spoiler) had showed little urge to put in similar effort in handling work, considering both her and her husband benefit from the walnut shop.
It would be extreme to call it as such but it was close enough. A lack of physical abuse (as clarified in the last episode on how Bong Soon’s father got his black eye) does not mean that verbal abuse is justifable. The reason why Bong Soon’s mother never got her powers back remains clear-cut – she never actually learnt to use it wisely, and even without powers has managed to be an ungrateful wife. While she redeems herself at the end (grudgingly), it was only because her husband eventually ran away (I don’t blame him) and it shed some (I repeat, some) light upon her actions. We can argue that it was all for a dramatised portrayal of the Superstitious Conservative Asian Mother but clearly it isn’t doing any good to empowering women, if not serving as a reminder that equality comes with effort from everyone, and regardless of gender, abusing your privilege or power should always be an unacceptable thing.
As much as SWDBS made a lot of ground in terms of subverting very obvious gender roles (with the irony of a petite, adorable, unassuming woman), it’s still, after all a kdrama (thus adhering to a lot of the traditional formulas). The main couple has to get married to seal a life-long eternal love (because we would worry about breakups otherwise, also because divorce is unheard of) It’s not there’s anything wrong about marriage, because ultimately it is a happy union, but I guess given the whole fairy-tale-like (albeit with a twist on the princess saving the prince) story we’ve been given, ending it with marriage (in which, the male proposes) seems alright. It would’ve been great if Bong Soon accidentally broke the ring though. BUT they did end it on her saving the world which was a great move – the story of bong soon ending WITH Bong Soon’s full acceptance of her powers, not with her love story.
Min-hyuk unapologetic mannerisms
The show could not have been as successful without the inclusion of a male lead who is able to demonstrate a great deal of balance between breaking out of gender stereotypes that govern a LOT of male roles to become 2-dimensional surrealistic princes (which is also, why I did have second-lead syndrome in many dramas – because who would prefer the sullen rude and almost abusive male lead rather than the nice, funny, albeit with a less sympathetic family background second male lead right?)
How is a grown man squealing to himself in bed after receiving a text acknowledging him with an affectionate nickname (Min-Min) so endearing? It is iconic, and also because he reflects the reaction of how a person hopelessly in a love trance would be. To be unable to repress the overwhelming feelings is relatable for most, and openly showing that fan-girl/boy behaviour is a good start towards how we do not need cold-hearted male leads to win us over with hypermasculine gruff tactics.
There has been some discussion on how his gay rumours were handled. Honestly I think it was alright, given that he had to the board that he wasn’t gay – but also to indirectly tell Bong Soon that a relationship between them was not impossible (as she’d liked to convince everyone). Then again, take heart that he didn’t hurriedly deny rumours on his sexuality, because really, it is his personal life and there was no need to clarify anything, and his sexuality would not have made him less of a person capable of success.
The female lead’s best friend
This role had always been a filler, a reason for to push forward the heroine’s own oblivious nature towards love by being the cheerleader. In this case, Bong Soon’s best friend (Na Kyung-shim) is the catalyst for her to use her powers for the greater good and no other man could have achieved the kind of personal significance – not even Min-hyuk. He had hired her to be his bodyguard, which she took, relatively seriously (once again subjective) but it was her best friend being kidnapped that led to her own watershed. I did like the while it was Min-hyuk who constantly encouraged her to embrace her powers, it was her friend’s situation that pushed her into action, that altered her entire perspective. Putting in effort in appearance was seen as part of Kyung-shim’s unique quirk, an interest, (not a vanity to be condemned) not as a girly thing that she had to teach Bong Soon.
She was your very average girl in all the best ways, she was simply the honest, straightforward, supportive friend that every person would be grateful to have – her background story was never really delved into, but she is the the figure that made Bong Soon the a little less isolated in a world that she had to be cautious to conceal her strength, with Kyung-shim she is just, another average girl crushing over her childhood friend. Even so, Kyung-shim is the realistic one of the pair, she is the voice that gives Bong Soon practical advice, though not in a way that is imposing (cough, Gook-du), is perceptive. From knowing that Min-hyuk was not gay based on her own intuitions – (though, it is pretty obvious to everyone except Bong Soon) NOT that there is a clear way to tell whether a person’s sexuality or not, but then again you don’t just assume someone who is attractive and rich to be in the closet due to their prolonged single status. People can have better things to do than date – such as, create a game company from scratch. Did I mention how I love this side-insert? That Min-hyuk was not some miraculously attractive man who had never dated or showed interest in dating but was just too busy building his company to have the time. Like, way to go for realism. And this knowledge is also not based on a desperate attempt to get Bong Soon to marry a rich CEO (cough, Mother) – she merely tells it as it is, that Bong Soon should give him a chance since well, Gook-du has hardly come into terms with his own (!)confusing(!) feelings at that point.
The Kidnapper Plot
Definitely better than the whole 2 generation gangster side-plot which just really took up a lot of unnecessary screen time because they just had no character development, neither were they a beyond mediocre source of comic relief. The ending of his capture and the aftermath impact on the victims was real, it did not sugarcoat it into an ambiguous consequence of only focusing on his capture, but that his capture transcends beyond merely relief for the victims. They still have to face months, years of psychological trauma from the experience and him being behind bars is only solving half of the real tragedy.
Losing Powers? Back to the Weak Woman
Episode 14 made me the most apprehensive because Bong Soon losing her strength essentially equated to her losing her identity, compartmentalising into the trope of the woman who had to be saved. I prayed they weren’t going to allude back to the fact that she was going to be a useless, helpless female who needed a male saviour, though her mental will and continued resolute spirit had diminished those worries. But if it had dragged on longer, it might have turned out very differently.
Parallel to Healer
just a sidenote: In the kdrama ‘Healer’, an ahjumma that was in charge of the mechanics behind the screen whilst ‘The Healer’ was in the frontline of the battle field, to put it metaphorically. In this drama, the roles were a complete reversal because Min-Hyuk was the one who handled the computer data and handy gadgets whilst Bong Soon, similarly mysterious (somewhat) and hooded did the fighting, which is (unintentionally) fantastic progress. Both important roles, but it was just that satisfying to watch the woman having the overtly active role (not that Min-hyuk’s role was of any less importance or was a passive one, just that he had a role usually delegated to women who ‘couldn’t’ fight and the next best alternative was to put their use behind hacking systems and security cameras).
Superwoman and her Sidekicks (aka love interests)
Let’s just be optimistic and believe that finally the female lead gets to lead, physically, and emotionally, throughout the arc of the story. She gets help, she doesn’t do it alone, and that’s the beauty of it all because she allows herself to be helped and doesn’t see it as a dent to her own abilities, but to enhance their effectiveness. We have had too many characters that dumbly go all out to save the day and hurt themselves (and in retrospect, the people that care for them), whereas she takes that all into account and knows she needs the adequate help for other attributes she may be lacking (say, police inside information, contacts with gangsters and maneuvering high-tech technology). The scene of which she marches forward with her two sidekicks behind her is just. so. beautiful. It is like that childhood dream where you just want to watch a similar version of yourself kick ass and the males respecting every bit of that gift.
Justice Versus Authority
To be honest I think I was more side-tracked by the incompetence of the main police force to be drawn into the personalities of the investigators. We never really get to see them truly bond, with Gook-du concealing Bong Soon’s identity and a murderer on the loose, I saw it more as Bumbling But Acutally Strong-Willed Chief + Rebellious Police Officer with Good Intentions + Nameless Sidekicks and it was hard to string it all together to form a cohesive unit that the audience could fully be attached to. (though, I don’t think they were the selling point) It did display the problematic nature of a hierarchy that cares more about image than justice, and its corrupt effects, though it would have been tremendous to see the two-faced policeman get a slap at least (though unrealistic), if not a broken bone for being that authority figure that evidently abuses his power to conserve his position.
Gook-du is VERY guilty of this, until he made up for it (somewhat) in the end, though it was really at his own expense. He is the guy that could not see past the thin facade of a girl, and perceives outwardly fragile people to just be people he needed to protect, out of goodwill but also because he probably been brought up to think that way. He wanted to be that Prince Charming, to save the girl and protect her (Bong Soon), but instead he had failed to really get to know her beyond the surface and that is really the misfortune of it all. If he could have garnered more insight on his feelings, if he had known the girl he was crushing on liked him already, if only he had been honest with himself. As much as the right relationship is about timing, it’s also about the ability to openly communicate. Bong Soon and him could never reach the point of any relationship besides friendship because they were too cautious, cautious enough to only tip-toe around the comfortable boundaries of friendship.
You should still watch it though
Not that a single opinion matters, but I do recommend it. Why not sink into a feel-good drama that strives to prove that strong women (however blessed they may be with mystical superpowers) do exist, and have every right to? And the chemistry !! With its flaws, its nonetheless worth watching if you ever wanted a kdrama with a superhero FEMALE, because it just inexplicably divine.