In a country where patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes remain deeply embedded in the mainstream culture and television shows and dramas confuse dating violence as romantic acts, fighting back through popular culture mediums is probably the most effective way to reconstruct the toxic cultures as movies and television series have long been used as weapons of cultural propaganda as they infiltrate the audience’s mind subconsciously.
I always believe that the gender equality and feminism movements in South Korea will have a smoother ride on dramas than on movies. The argument is quite straightforward, actually. Most drama writers are female, whilst the movie industry is basically still a men’s playground, though these female writers probably are the same ones that romanticise misogyny in the first place. Or not. But we have seen a pleasant progress where in recent years as more and more writers are bringing up the gender equality and feminism issues in their works. This trend seems specifically significant among the cable TV networks. Some bring them with subtle hints, while others are quite literal, like this one.
In Because This Is My First Life we have three couples who each have their own style of relationships. The anchor couple is Yoon Ji Ho (Jung So Min) and Nam See He (Lee Min Ki), who agreed to live together upon a contractual marriage to which both are in for practical reasons and solutions. Se Hee needs a housemate to pay off his mortgage faster, while Ji Ho needs a living space without having to pay the deposit. A win-win solution.
Yang Ho Rang (Kim Ga Eun) and Shim Won Seok (Kim Min Seok) are the typical high school sweethearts. Both are living the relationship within the conventional path. Date, live together with marriage as their final destination because they could never have thought of any other way. At least Ho Rang does.
The last, and probably the ones that unexpectedly steal some of the focus from Ji Ho and Se Hee, are Woo Soo Ji (Esom) and Ma Sang Goo (Park Byeung Eun). Sang Goo is Se Hee’s colleague who unknowingly finds himself falling deeply in love with the charm of Soo Ji, a business partner and an old one-night-stand buddy. Despite her constant refusal to be involved with him in a romantic relationship, but his sincerity eventually melts her icy heart. Cliché, yes, but it is delivered in the most charming way possible.
Soo Ji is a suppressed feminist, which resulted in her complicated attitudes. She plays along with the sexism and sexual harassments in her work place because that’s what many women forced to do as a survival system in order to not lose their jobs, but in doing so, she became frustrated, thus putting up a defensive and offensive fronts at the same time.
Sang Goo (and Se Hee) is a metaphor of how an ideal male partner should be in this war against deep-rooted sexism and misogyny. He never pushes his opinions or plays the patriarchy card, instead he stands by her and be her support when she needs it. He only enters her territory when he is invited and allowed to. I especially love the flipped stereotyped gender roles and characters with this couple, with Soo Ji is the one always having the upper hand, though at times it’s a little uncomfortable that she uses the sex card to have it. I found it quite lame. But then again, maybe it is an unavoidable survival mode to challenge the oppressed sexual freedom women suffered in such society. These two characters have the most progression in their relationship as they constantly argue and converse to meet it in the middle, compromising without sacrificing their values, ideals and feelings.
What immediately sets this drama apart from the romantic and romantic comedy K-dramas convention is the distinctive consensual acts. All of our main and supporting characters always ask first to get their counterparts’ approvals and permissions, even to the smallest things considered trivial. None of them ever crossed their partner’s territories. No silly misunderstandings because our characters communicate. Communicate. A simple act which seems really hard to be understood by the conventional K-drama makers. Hence, I call it Consent 101 because everything is delivered in a very literal manner, like giving a lecture to very clueless and backward students, but it still manages to keep its sense of romanticism. A manual on “How to be in a Mature, Consensual, and Respectful Relationship”.
In classic K-drama’s formula, there is always (a) third person(s) to intensify the conflicts which many times are plain unnecessary. I respect the idea of not demonising the third person in this drama. Se Hee’s ex, Go Min Jung (Lee Chung Ah) is described as a smart and composed woman that makes Ji Ho even has a girl crush on her. Ji Ho and Min Jung share a level-headed working relation even when they know that they are once and still involved with the same guy. Only a reasonable level of jealousy is shown, never destructive. Shin Young Hyo (Kang Sung Wook) who tried to approach Ho Rang with a well-prepared marriage plan accepted Ho Rang’s rejection also with a level-headed attitude. Same response from Yoon Bo Mi (Yoon Bo Mi of Apink. Her deadpan expression is spot on and adorable I must say), the female version of Se Hee, who ask Won Seok to date her by giving him a match rate analysis.
Because This Is My First Life not only addresses the problematic and deep-seated patriarchy and misogyny in the society but also challenges the burdensome traditional values and demands that come as heavy baggage to every individual entering marriage institution. Ji Ho and Se Hee agreed to revise their contract every year. One of its clauses stated that they will visit their families on holidays separately as to avoid the ‘unpaid labour’, in Se Hee’s term, which is an uncommon practice experienced by South Korean daughters-in-laws And it’s only fitting that such literal description comes from an exceptionally literal and logical person with a stoic facade, which by the way is portrayed wonderfully by Lee Min Ki, in his first leading drama role after Dalja’s Spring in 1997.
Put aside the multiple plagiarism accusation, I learned that the show feels like a call out for deep-seated patriarchy and misogyny shown in 2016 Man Booker International Prize winner’s Han Kang‘s “The Vegetarian (채식주의자)” (2007) and Cho Nam Joo’s best-selling novel “Kim Ji Young Born 1982 (82년생 김지영)” (2016). Some subjects look like lighter visual translations of structural and cultural violence Kim Ji Young and Yeong Hye have to endure as expected behaviours for women, depicted in Soo Ji’s forced submissiveness to South Korea’s workplace culture of sexism and misogyny and her dislike of wearing bra or Ji Ho’s unpaid labour at her in-laws. Hats off to writer Yoon Nan Joong for her meticulous writing despite the initial premise’s alleged similarity to Japanese drama, We Married as a Job/The Full-Time Wife Escapist/Nigeru wa Haji da ga Yaku ni Tatsu (逃げるは恥だが役に立つ) (2016). Though it will be problematic if this drama is later proven to be a compilation of plagiarisms from different sources.
Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian” (2007) and Cho Nam Woo’s “Kim Ji Young Born 1982 (82년생 김지영)” (2016)
The last two episodes did feel slightly anti-climax for me, maybe because in the end they still try to conform by being a crowd-pleaser. Or maybe because despite the dim reality, the writers chose to offer an alternative in hope of becoming a more equal and better society, thus a happier place to live in. Regardless the slightly unsatisfying ending, I guess it has been a wonderful 14-episode ride, still.