Pandemic Diary October: History and Gender Roles

What is time anymore? October was a week ago and I cannot even conjure in my mind what it looked it. Looking at my calendar, I packed up my office for an office move. I went to a beer garden and panicked the entire time not taking off my mask. I reviewed some really good theater that was kind of also not theater. I got swept up in a work project that took over my life and literally lost time because of it. When I came through to the other side, I felt shipwrecked.

I’m still trying to get back to some kind of equilibrium. I feel like I don’t have the same kind of mental bounce back. The trauma of the past 8 months has taken a real toll.

On to the dramas…


Rookie Historian: Goo Hae-ryung

Rookie Historian: Goo Hae-ryung hits all the right notes up until the final reel.

It’s a charming piece of historical fiction that mixes a mostly lighthearted meet-cute romance, with intriguing palace machinations. It’s like Kingdom, with more romance, less zombies, a royal mystery, and more cow pus.  The central romance is winsome, but the real appeal is the how all the narrative strands, supporting characters, and plot incidents are used well to build a constantly surprising and fascinating story. So, I was a little crushed that the well-executed narrative tension based on real consequences was kind of tossed out at the end for a feel-good contemporary fantasy. Even so, this is 19 (of 20) episodes worth of a taut, fun, and emotionally gripping drama.

In it, Prince Dowon (Cha Eun-woo) writes romance novels that make all the girls swoon, but he encounters a highly educated independent woman, Goo Hae-ryung (Shin Se-kyung) who derides them. She wants to become one of the first female historians at the palace and does so, only to discover that romance novelist she’s had a feud with and has treated with contempt is actually a prince. Meanwhile, he’s the second son of the King and locked away in a small area of the palace and has never really been in the world. Suddenly, this woman upends his small world view.

The show focuses on the powerful role of these historians. They functioned in some ways like the power of a free press—they are meant to record everything the royals do in a neutral fashion. The royals are not permitted to edit or read the historic tracts that are written. But the fear of how history will be written and how they will be perceived can influence the royals’ actions. The historians are a check on this otherwise unfettered power and throughout the series there are naturally battles with the King and others.

Adding women into the historian role in the court throws things out of balance, as the female historians are not like the court ladies who serve quietly and invisibly. They are in fact quite vocal and present and must insist on their involvement at times in rooms women do not usually enter. But no one is prepared to treat them like the rest of the male court bureaucrats.

There is also an undercurrent of a changing Joseon—influences from the West, fear of losing their values, and what progress might mean—including with the female historians.

The show is anachronistic stylistically and thematically, but the central conflicts are often still rooted in issues of the time—arranged marriages that benefit the fathers at the expense of the daughters, anti-democratic efforts to maintain the power in the nobles, and rigid class structures.

The show benefits from a panoply of handsome, righteous men in this show. First, there is Prince Dowon’s older brother, the Crown Prince (Park Ki-woong) who is trying to push Joseon forward while his not-dead father the King is making a lot of bad decisions. The King is like a k-drama bad chaebol dad and honestly makes a good case for justified regicide. My heart was personally won by the leading nerd and best historian, Officer Min (Lee Ji-hoon). He’s upright, uptight, and quietly noble—truly my ideal. He also gets so flustered by Goo Hae-ryung but is always trying to figure out the right path for himself and the court.

Prince Dowon is by no means as smart as these other men (who might be better suited for Goo Hae-ryung), but he tries so hard and is such a swoony romantic. Goo Hae-ryung is much more grounded. He is truly useless in any emergency, but he’s very pretty and goodhearted. He also has the best costumes. A+ royal robes.

Honestly, a wonderful series to get lost in as the pandemic winter comes upon us. Just be prepared for the world’s most annoying eunuch.


Sungkyunkwan Scandal

I wanted to stretch out the pleasure of watching Rookie Historian so I started to watch a much older series, Sungkyunkwan Scandal, at the same time. Interestingly there were some overlaps--terrible dads, daughters caught in the political crossfire, banned books, rigid gender roles desperately in need of revision. 

But Sungkyunkwan Scandal turned out to be essentially a low budget Korean She’s the Man. Not quite tracking the plot of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, but it’s got a cross-dressing leading woman, a romance tinged with sexual orientation confusion, a woman in love with a woman who she thinks is a man, a man in love with a woman who he thinks is a man, and another palace mystery to solve. There’s an archery tournament with many training sequences that could substitute in for the soccer one in She’s the Man.

I was surprised by the raunchy humor of it and the very bro-ey Joseon…Broseon if you will.

The elite send their sons to the best university, an all-boys school, Sungkyunkwan, to become court officers. Technically it is open to all but poor people would not have access to books or the time/resources to study enough for the entrance exam. But in this story a poor woman finds her way there. 

For years, Kim Yun-hee (Park Min-young) has pretended to be her brother Kim Yun-sook so she could work to feed and support her family. Her brother was too sickly and her father was dead. She writes study guides and copies illicit books for cash. She tries to make some money helping people cheat on the Sungkyunkwan exams, but she gets caught by Yi Seonjun (Park Yoo-chun) the stick-in-the-mud son of the most powerful councilor to the King. In the end, he ends up getting her admitted to the school herself. She finds herself thrust into a complicated situation that could change her life as long as no one discovers she’s a woman. 

She befriends the dark and mysterious senior Geol-oh (Yoo Ah-in) in the school and his bff Yeo-rim (Song Joong-ki). She finds herself at odds with the evil class president who is always trying to take her or her friends down. She also falls for her nemesis Yi Seonjun. Then a gisaeng falls for her! What a mess. 

The show is from 2010 so the video quality is pretty poor and has some uncomfortable attitudes that make it feel even older and creekier than it is. It somehow ends up feeling more sexist than feminist a lot of the time.  And it's not sure how to frame the perceived homosexual attraction Yi Seonjun has for his male roommate Kim Yun-sook (while she's actually a woman). Sometimes it's handled quite tenderly and other times not so much. 

Maybe the best-worst piece of dialogue ever? 

For a while, I was sustained with the tension between Yi Seonjun’s secret feelings for Kim Yun-sook and hers in return. But that eventually dissipates. Once Yi Seonjun finds out she’s a woman, he becomes incredibly domineering. Snooze. Straight people in rigidly backwards, traditional dynamics. The show then stops focusing on the romance and on a “mystery” the King has been trying to solve which I was not invested in at all. It was actually connected to a real historic incident. 

It lead me down a Wikipedia rabbit hole on the real history behind Prince Sado. And whoa, that’s a trip and a half and involves a lot of eunuch murder.


Strong Woman Do Bong Soon

I know there are a lot of fans of Strong Woman Do Bong Soon, but I found it oddly playing into stereotypes about masculinity and femininity when it was trying to challenge them.

On top of that, I thought there was a heavily homophobic undertone to a lot of the show. Add in a scary sadistic murderer running and it was a weird tone shift that I could not come back from.

Also, 900% of Do Bong Soon’s personality is crying when things go wrong. She is wholly incapable of communicating besides through tears. I spent a lot of time yelling at the TV and demanding she pull her shit together and get a plan. Shockingly, no one ever listened to me.

The entire plot depended on all the characters making obvious, bad choices.  Do I even have to explain the plot? There is a curse that is also irritatingly literal. It also suffers from a sugary romance overload by the end. Not one for me.


Stranger 2

As much as I liked Stranger, Series 1, I thought Series 2 got off to a very slow start. 

Even as someone deeply interested in legal issues, it took a while to get to the heart of what this show was going to be about. It is centered on a kind of arcane fight between the very specific criminal law procedural powers between the prosecutors and police. Then a mystery unfolds. Eventually,  it becomes about showing the consequences of corruption in both the prosecution and police. 

Whether through manipulating process, evidence, or events to maintain their own power or to cover up for their colleagues, it shows how easy it is to stray from what is proper, legal, and right. Rather than a flashy story about fat cats getting rich off corruption, this is a more realistic slow slide into malfeasance by a weakening of resolve, ethics, and morals. 

I just wish the show had spent a little more time on the characters Hwang Si-mok (Cho Seung-woo) and Han Yeo-jin (Doona Bae 4-eva) and their emotional stakes. There was so much plot they almost felt sidelined in a show that was technically all about them.