I Feel More Seen in K-Dramas than Pakistani Shows and Their Problematic Storylines
BY ARSH KHAN
The Korean culture wave has been taking the world by storm for a while now, and Pakistan is no exception. With the ever increasing global fanbase for K-pop, Grammy-nominated superstars BTS, the K-beauty phenomenon and Oscar-winning Korean cinema, South Korea has seen a significant increase in touristic interest - with a cultural and economic impact that can’t be denied.
When my best friends suggested I watch K-dramas with them, I wasn’t easily convinced. Listening to BTS’ music was one thing, but I was reluctant to watch full episodes of a TV series, or a full length movie in a language I didn’t understand.
I finally caved in on my 24th birthday, and watched the first episode of ‘Because This Is My First Life’. I was expecting to be bored out of my mind in the first few minutes, but as the episode went on, my attention to the storyline grew, and my heart somehow felt heavier.
The main character, a screenwriter, was trying to find a place to live, as well as a purpose to her career and life. As I saw her dealing with incredibly sexist parents who expect her to move out to accommodate a brother they dote on, I felt seen. I watched her feel lost, confused, hurt and depressed, quit an unfulfilling but high-paying job after standing up to a superior who sexually harassed her (on her 30th birthday, might I add), and I could relate.
I was dealing with incredibly dark thoughts myself, and terrible mental health. More than anything, I felt incredibly alone and useless, like life was coming at me from all sides and I just wanted to cease to exist. Seeing Jung So-Min portray a character constantly overlooked, ignored, tormented and treated with insidious cruelty by others with no regard for her feelings made me feel more represented than I ever had been.
Four years later, I now enjoy Korean series more than the shows coming from other regions, the West and Pakistan included. Pakistani shows are more or less centred around the same, usually problematic, storylines. They usually involve an overdramatic and conniving mother figure, an incredibly patriarchal father figure, a restrictive and abusive-of-all-sorts husband, and an innocent, naive and fair-skinned girl, who’s a picture of all things pure. This girl is, more often than not, the victim who eventually falls in love with her abusive partner when he does the bare minimum to become better, or is killed and becomes a source of everlasting regret for the abusive family.
There is not much to be taken from Pakistani dramas, in my opinion. They romanticise abuse and toxicity, normalise submission and oppression of all forms, and put it all across as “our culture.” Meanwhile K-dramas touch upon the ugly parts of society and portray them as what they are: ugly. I know ‘beauty lies within’ for a number of things, but there is nothing beautiful about mental illness, harassment, emotional torture, burnout, and capitalism. K-dramas portray these as things that the characters will overcome through strength, integrity, and most of all, with a kind heart. Despite hilarious and often far-fetched storylines, they do not sugarcoat the bitter things, and it’s a refreshing kind of raw honesty.
In ‘Tomorrow’, four grim reapers are given the unusual task of saving people from committing suicide so they may live their designated lifespan. Each episode shows them dealing with a new case, and it starts with a disclaimer for the viewers to reach out for help if they deal with suicidal ideation. Each episode is incredibly heartbreaking; each person deals with immense grief and heartache for various reasons that are incredibly real, such as bullying, loss, feeling under-appreciated or useless, and more. TV usually never makes me cry, but episode six had me bawl my eyes out.
The K-dramas I’ve watched touch upon real issues in a way I’ve never seen anywhere else; even in a fantasy genre, the issues and feelings covered will be incredibly real. There may be grim reapers, gods, time travel, meet-cute romances and spies, the characters will still deal with grief, depression, trauma, family problems, and will usually find a beautiful and inspiring way to overcome them all.
‘Crash Landing On You’ may be about a cross-border romance between a North Korean soldier and South Korean heiress, but the drama covers much more than that. It touches upon family, community, property, honour, collectivity and belonging in a way that feels relatable.
It’s no wonder K-dramas garner so much love and attention from all over the world. Those themes are real life, and they’re universal. And while watching them unfold on the small screen, it feels good to feel seen.
Image credit: Netflix