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Affirming the Value of the "Other"

K-dramas are Korean TV soap operas that explore the tensions Korean women face navigating the traditional expectation of Confucianism and the contemporary opportunities of modernity. They are an Asian analysis of contemporary cognitive dissonance experienced by the modern Korean woman. This dissonance is woven into the very fabric of the genre. In that the scripts are almost always written by women, though typically directed by men. Their scripts raise tensions with the latent misogyny of traditional Confucian society but generally resolve with a reaffirmation of traditional values. This means that the emotional weight of K-dramas will be missed by most Western viewers who have no appreciation of the way in which Confucianism is coterminous with the Korean language, schooling, families, and relationship.

These felt tensions are a reality in Korean churches in America, which must decide whether they will follow the cultural patterns of Korea or the United States. First generation-oriented churches go in one direction and second-generation churches go in another. This becomes an existential crisis for Korean women who are often caught trying to navigate these two worlds in their dating life. A Westernized Korean woman—whether a woman educated in the West or the child of a Korean diplomat who has grown up outside the country—will have difficulty accepting the expected cultural norms of a traditional Korean man. These tensions provide the emotional backstory to most K-drama rom coms. They are Hallmark Christmas movies with a cultural feminist twist to the plot. These are highly fictionalized stories expressing a highly nonfiction reality. Inspired by K-dramas, women from around the world are travelling to South Korea to find love. The global scope and power of K-dramas should not be underestimated.

Korea is not immune to the dictates of cancel culture. Moreover, the aim of these dramas is finding a wide popular audience. Cultural critique must be closely monitored. When the stakes are high a cinematic foil is used as a stand-in for a direct critique. When Hollywood was under scrutiny in the 1950s by the McCarthy Hearings held by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, films were made as a social commentary on these hearings—Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront (1954), and Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind (1955). The plot was structured as a parallel to the situation facing Black-Listed Hollywood, a critique was made, but always from the structured distance of a Western, religious bigotry, or mafia corruption. The point was made without having to make the point directly—which would have never passed cultural or political enquiry of the day.

It is for this reason that the recent K-drama, the Extraordinary Attorney Woo, by relative newcomer Moon Ji-Won is so significant. She tells the story of a genius woman attorney working at one of the two most influential law firms in Korea who has autism spectrum disorder. Here we have an extremely capable attorney whose disorder causes her to be misunderstood, alienated, and bullied—systemically othered by society. Her immediate legal team protects her, comes to value her capabilities, even as they juggle competitive tensions, and personal priorities. Woo Young-woo honestly acknowledges her disorder, tries to navigate its extreme behaviors, accept the misunderstanding of others with patience and equanimity. Her self-awareness is commendable as is her commitment to doing the right thing. Moon heightens the tensions by making Woo an intellectual genius and top graduate of Seoul National University Law School (the Korean equivalent of Harvard Law School). In this K-drama a woman attorney on the autism spectrum is a stand in for the experience of all Korean women. More universally, it is a study in how to treat "the other," in a society that is inherently othering.

The results of this drama are remarkable. The Extraordinary Attorney Woo now ranks in my favorite top three K-dramas. The sensitivity and understanding by which Moon sees people with autism is uplifting. Moon spent a year studying autism under the counsel of Professor Kim Byng-gun of the Department of Early Childhood Special Education at Nazarene University. The acting of Park Eun-bin who plays Woo Young-woo is award worthy. Her ability to do facial acting, a staple of K-dramas, is powerful. Moon's ability to make the courtroom drama parallel the personal dynamics of the attorneys is exemplary. This is cultural critique at its finest.

Woo Young-woo is "strange." But by the end of the sixteen episodes, we come to love, admire, and root for her strangeness. This is a TV series that teaches its viewers the value of loving the other. In our day of partisanship, cancel culture, and overheated rhetoric, this is a K-drama that in the end comes to critique our own attitudes towards the "others" in our lives.


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