Why it is important to normalise female strength and healthy romantic relationships
Info: 16 episodes; original runtime: 16 Nov 2016 – 11 Jan 2017 on MBC
Genre: Coming of age; Sports; Romantic comedy
[some minor spoilers ahead]
Weightlifting Fairy, although much of it is about lifting weights, is a light-hearted show meant for an audience in their teens and twenties. It manages, however, to deliver some important messages that many more serious shows try to convey. It differs a lot from what is available on the Korean market when it comes to the values it aims to propagate. Among so many stories, driven by patriarchal or simply misogynistic views, this show is a breath of fresh air. Although I watch Korean dramas regardless of what ideology they promote, mostly because I can effectively fish out what’s wrong in characters’ opinions and behaviours, it’s refreshing to finally not oppose every word that comes out of the protagonist’s mouth.
The story itself presents us with a sports university student(s). A male-driven environment shows how ‘special’ it still is for females to take up sport professionally. There are some female-perceived disciplines like ballet, however, it is not the one our main character specializes in. Bok Joo is a weightlifting major, and she lives up to the expectations of being primarily masculine according to Korean standards. Other female athletes either despise weightlifters or fear them, as they are stronger than most of the students (including guys). Bok Joo herself does not really care about what other people think – she enjoys sport, wants to achieve academic success, and her family (dad and uncle) and coaches support her in that. She does not care about her image, when it comes to both her visuals and behavior. Like all of her teammates, she eats a lot and behaves loudly.
The second main character, Joon Hyung, a swimming major, is already a successful athlete shown in a period of slump. He’s a friend of Bok Joo from their early school years. Back then, the slightly overweight and already very strong Bok Joo used to be a protector of the then frail and small Joon Hyung, who enjoyed their relationship while still teasing her a little (or in fact a lot). They meet again at university, when Joon Hyung is much less frail and small, and very much conventionally attractive, and Bok Joo is taller but still (according to the story but she’s actually not) slightly overweight, strong and unattractive (but really, it’s just her haircut). Their initial foe relationship turns into a great friendship where they both support each other in academic endeavours while still teasing the crap out of each other.
It is at the beginning of the story when Bok Joo develops a crush on a man who helped her move furniture. The guy turns out to be a doctor specialising in weight loss. Bok Joo, to gain his attention, signs up to his clinic having no previous intention of losing weight. It is in fact the exact opposite, as her coaches try to make her gain a few kilograms to join the next competition. Her struggle begins when she tries to impress the doctor with her results and her (strangely similar to his) interests while not trying to disappoint her team. She attempts to manage a feminine façade in front of her new crush, trying to be thinner, majoring in music, and dressing in skirts. It gets even harder, when she finds out her crush is actually her best friend’s older brother. Joon Hyun, however, does not betray her, and never tells his brother that Bok Joo is actually a sports major. The act doesn’t go on for too long as Bok Joo gets frustrated with lying about herself and her team finds out she joined a weight loss clinic and she gets a serious whooping for that. Although the doctor is happy to later find out her real academic major and tries to show his enthusiasm by cheering her on in a competition, Bok Joo breaks down completely when her crush sees her at her most unwomanly.
Joon Hyun’s support for Bok Joo is always there. He only later realises that all his teasing and care for her is actually romantic, although it is hard for his friends to believe that. He knows that Bok Joo is way out of his league, him breaking the hearts of multiple girls and her usually being a laughing stock at the campus, but he cherishes her support and the fact that Bok Joo is always herself next to him. They slowly develop a very healthy relationship, with some extremely cute moments throughout the episodes that will make even very mature viewers squeal with affection.
The show leaves no room for superficially-written characters. Whether they are athletes or their families, each person has a back story which explains their current behaviour. What is more important, female characters are written in a way to show that their femininity can be expressed in many ways. We can see their struggles are different and they have different ways to resolve them – effectively and ineffectively. They are surrounded by good friends who support them even when they fail. No matter what role they take in life – a weightlifter, a ballet dancer, a doctor, or a coach – they can show strength and professionalism in each of them.
The drama does, however, lack a little in portraying the struggle of the slump of the main character. There is only a brief moment towards the end of the season where Bok Joo does not want to pursue sports anyone with no profound explanation. It lasts such a short time, it’s hard to believe it’s not only some little kid’s whim. The idea is much more developed in the case of her boyfriend, who struggles to come back to his best mental state for most of the show. So I do think this issue was not presented equally or at least more seriously in the case of Bok Joo.
Weightlifting Fairy gives its viewers an ending with a wonderful message. Bok Joo achieves athletic success much earlier than her previously more promising boyfriend. He’s very happy with that even though that means they will have a long-distance relationship because of Bok Joo place of training. This in fact motivates him to be a better athlete as well, to join the national Olympic team just like his girlfriend and have the opportunity to train together with her. They put their professional career and being athletically the best first and promise each other on their Graduation day they will get engaged only if Joon Hyun will finally win a gold medal again.
[/end of major spoilers]
All in all, the drama gives a wonderful message – it is completely okay to be a masculine girl or a feminine boy and the right people are going to love you for who you are. OR, in fact, your characteristics have nothing to do with you being a woman or a man. It may be not so ground-breaking in the west, however, in South Korea, where gender roles and representation is strongly maintained, it feels really fresh to stumble upon a story like this. It manages to break some stereotypes without the feeling that the feminist agenda is shoved down your throat, which maybe undesirable for people who are naturally against those kind of ideas from the beginning. It is actually some sneaky, shady job, as it does so through a light and supposedly not serious form but, hey, whatever it takes, right?