As someone who loves K-Dramas, after a certain point, you can spot the tropes and cliches pretty quickly. Poor, plucky girl meets rich snobby guy (who is secretly misunderstood). There’s a rich girl who wants to be with the lead guy for whatever reasons; there’s some mysterious older figure who knows more than they’re letting on and the mysterious new player who just arrived at the airport? Keep your eye out for them, who knows what they’ll do…..
I say that with no judgments. Every genre has their reliable list of tropes, and these are some used in Korean dramas. But today, I want to talk about how the drama “My ID is Gangnam Beauty” used some of these tropes and made something greater than the sum of its parts.
Based on the webcomics of the same name, the series follows Kang Mi-rae (Im Soo-hyang), a girl who was bullied for her looks all throughout school. Before college, she decides to get plastic surgery. The series follows her first year of college. Now, as much as I’d love to list all the things I love or tropes they used, I want to focus on how the writers used their platform to talk about society’s veneration of beauty.
As Mi-rae arrives on campus, we watch as she learns how to navigate the world with her new face. She’s startled whenever someone asks her a direct question and awkward whenever they compliment her looks. Throughout the series, we see flashbacks of what she endured: classmates locking her in a bathroom stall while hurling insults at her, being kicked out of her own class pictures and even confessing to her crush only for him to harshly reject her and call her “Kang Hulk.” Every insight into Mi-rae’s past and feelings drives home that she didn’t get surgery to become a bombshell. She did it so she could merely LIVE.
This is a story of an abused victim working through her past traumas and rediscovering her self worth. She wants to just be average, and rediscovering her fears as Kang Hulk triggers (and I do mean trigger) visceral responses from her.
This message of beauty doesn’t just stop at her. Among the others in her department, we meet Tae-hee (played by Lee Ye-rim), a second year plus sized student, and Yoon-byul (Bae Da-bin), an awkward second year who wears men’s clothes and has short hair. Neither one of them fit the typical pretty girl image, and their male classmates make frequent comments about this, saying things like, “If only you lost some weight, you’d be so pretty”; “Such a shame you dress like that, you could really get a boyfriend if you spruce yourself up a bit” or “I don’t understand what’s so wrong in wanting a girl to get dressed up a bit.” As a plus-sized woman who grew up a tomboy, these moments really got under my skin because I’ve heard some of these comments about my weight, how I dressed, how I did my hair, etc.
Yes, other dramas have done scenes like this, but it’s usually done to gain our sympathy for the lead or for them to be heroic and stand up for the little guy. Here, it’s done in the hopes of the person FINALLY rising to their potential, and that makes it even worse.
Even our antagonist, Hyun Soo-ah (Jo Woo-ri), the beauty of the class department, realizes this is all a game, a part she has to play, and she does it to the best of her ability. I won’t spoil anything, but she too has seen the harsher side of things and carries the experience with her.
This is one of the issues “Gangnam Beaut”y touches on. It also explores sexual harassment, male entitlement, people abusing whatever social status they have and what true friendship is.
It isn’t a perfect drama, and there are moments where they backslide into problematic habits (such as the appetite surpassing drinks featured throughout), but I would argue that it’s an important one. Media is a useful tool to tackle difficult topics such as #MeToo, toxic masculinity and mental health and help people recognize the signs. “Gangnam Beauty” uses Mi-irae’s shy but brave voice to speak out on all of these in.
I highly recommend this drama. It’s currently streaming on VIKI for free.
(My Drama List, YouTube.)