Transgender Character In ‘Itaewon Class’ Reflects Changing Attitudes In South Korea

Over the last two decades Korean dramas have become more open to exploring LGBTQ issues. Gay characters—or characters people assumed were gay—have appeared in several TV dramas, with Gong Yoo falling for a girl disguised as a boy in Coffee Prince (2007), Lee Min-ho, playing a supposedly gay character in Personal Taste (2008), Lee Jong-suk playing an openly homosexual character in Secret Garden (2010), Infinite’s Hoya playing a gay high schooler in Reply 1997 (2012) and most recently Cha In-ha playing a gay bartender in Love With Flaws (2020), but transgender characters have taken longer to appear in even secondary roles.

The successful drama Itaewon Class, starring Park Seo-joon, Kim Da-mi, Yoo Jae-myung and Kwon Nara, is not the first drama to feature a transgender character, but it might be the first one to celebrate a character’s transition. As a drama with a strong focus on love and acceptance, the script has emphasized the courage required for transgender individuals to claim the gender they feel most comfortable in.

In the drama Lee Joo-young plays chef Ma Hyun-yi. She gets the job at DanBam, the pub owned by Park’s character Park Sae-roy-i, because they worked together at a factory, not because she really knows how to cook. As the drama progresses she becomes an accomplished chef and more comfortable about revealing her gender identity. An attempt to undermine the pub uses her gender history against her, but it backfires since Park’s character lets her know how brave she is and how her feeling okay is more important than the pub’s success.

It’s Okay That’s Love (2014), starring Jo In-sung and Gong Hyo-jin, was the first drama to feature a transgender character. In that drama actress Lee El plays a trans woman, but finds the transition does not make her as happy as she expected, so she visits a psychiatrist, played by Gong, to explore her feelings.

Transgender characters have also appeared in Korean films, including Man on High Heels (2014), in which actor Cha Seung-won played a detective who wants to transition. Ahn Yon-joon plays a transgender character in Half (2016) and Lee Ha-na played a trans woman in Lady Daddy (2010).

Korea’s transgender population is estimated at between 1,000 and 1,200 people. While transgender Koreans can now legally have their gender changed, they may still face difficulties in finding work and acceptance.

Although the South Korean constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of social status, many transgender individuals choose jobs that do not require identity cards to avoid discrimination, jobs such as working at a factory, where the character Ma Hyun-yi met Park Sae-roy-i, or in a kitchen like that of DanBam.

The research paper Public Opinion of Transgender Rights in South Korea analyzed data from The Global Attitudes Toward Transgender People survey, South Korea panel, to provide insight into the acceptance of transgender realities and challenges.

The awareness of LGBTQ rights as a human rights issue continues to evolve. Survey data found that more than half (59.1%) of the respondents said that transgender people should be able to have surgery so their body matches their identity. Over half (56.9%) agreed that transgender people should be protected from discrimination.

The survey also found that a majority (80.2%) of participants reported having seen transgender people but not knowing them personally. The character of Ma Hyun-yi may provide some viewers with a more personal look into the challenges transgender individuals can face.

Nationwide Korean Nielsen ratings for the Itaewon Class episode in which Park’s character supported Lee’s character continued the drama’s successful ratings arc at 13.398. Itaewon Class is based on the webtoon of the same name.

by Joan MacDonald
Source – Forbes