More than just being a third-rate, convenient, superficial, and mostly unnecessary, this female character trope is also a wasted opportunity.
Mix beauty and wealth with a dollop of popularity, a dash of renown to a base of irrationality, amorality, and egocentricity and you have the ingredients for one of the mainstay characters tropes in Korean romance dramas.
The trope I have creatively described as the “I Need Oppa No Matter What,” can be categorized as the antagonist or villain archetypal character. By definition, this archetype directly opposes protagonists or heroes, who are usually the main characters, acting as an obstacle to prevent them from reaching their goal.
Narratively, written and developed antagonist create tension by challenging protagonists. In response, the main character grows and strengthens. In addition to being tools for character development, they also directly support the momentum of the plot through repeated or anticipated clashes with lead characters.
On a deeper level, the conflict between antagonists and protagonists is a result of opposing goals in their story arcs. Think DC Comics’ Batman and the Joker; one wants order, justice, safety, and peace while the other desires chaos and violence.
However, the female antagonists at the center of this article fail to create character or plot development due to the very nature of their particular design. As characters, they are designed with the singular goal to be in a relationship with a male protagonist.
The ramification of this design is that the “I Need Oppa No Matter What,” herein referred to as “oppa-driven,” is without any other developed goals. Consequently, their characterization is shallow and cannot support a real story arc.
While their singular goal drives them to clash inevitably with the main female protagonist, the result of their disputes are rarely, if ever, grievous enough to manifest real obstacles for the protagonist. In effect, due to the poor character mechanics, these oppa-driven roles fail to be valid antagonist or villains.
For this article, I have chosen to use older, but popular, dramas to reduce to possibility of spoilers. As another caveat, I will only be focusing on the drama adaptation for “Cheese in the Trap,” which was based on a webtoon and has an upcoming film.
Beak In-Ha: The Rat in “Cheese in the Trap”
Beak In-ha, Lee Kyung-sung‘s character in tVN’s 2016 hit “Cheese in the Trap,” is an extreme example of this kind of character. Beautiful, demanding, obnoxious, vindictive, materialist, manipulative and at times violent, In-ha definitely adds drama to “Cheese in the Trap.” Shockingly, with all these great qualities to work with, her impact is insignificant.
Most of the fault for her lack of impact is because of her driving motivation and goal: to marry Yoo Jung (Park Hae-jin). In-ha’s motivation for interacting with the lead characters, including her brother Beak In-ho (Seo Kang-joon), is Jung. Sometimes it is her desire for material possessions, but mostly Jung. Moreover, this is a long-standing goal that In-ha is characterized as having since in high school, if not earlier. As a result, since In-ha has not had another goal for many years, she has stopped developing.
“These different elements paint her as unreasonable, possibly delusional, and amoral — and they are all without a means.”
In play with the three main characters, Yoo Jung, the female protagonist Hong Seol, and Beak In-ho, she does little for any of their development and progression:
First, her overly persistent pursuit of “oppa” Jung does not reveal any more aspects of his character that viewers are not already well aware of at this point. Nor does it motivate him to do anything but cut her off financially; he already mentally and emotionally distance himself from her before the current storyline.
Second, In-ha’s consistent proclamations that she knows Jung better than Hong Seol (Kim Go-eun) does not plant any new seeds of discord; Seol has reservations about Jung’s true character since episode one.
Third, Beak In-ha’s relationship with her brother Beak In-ho is just one of inconvenience and burden. Perhaps she can be thought of as a character who vocalizes the internal insecurities that In-ho already has, but that is about it.
Furthermore, because In-ha lacks complexity, the show’s writers doubled down on her one goal in the show. Unfortunately, due to her “oppa-driven” characterization, In-ha is one of the most irredeemable characters I have seen in a K-drama. In addition to having little to offer that balances her negative qualities, her motivations and backstory are honestly not strong enough to explain her actions.
Beak In-ha continues to passionately pursue Yoo Jung, even who has rejected her multiple times. She uses and emotionally abuses her brother and is, directly and indirectly, violent towards Seol. These different elements paint her as unreasonable, possibly delusional, and amoral — and they are all without a means. They do nothing to move her close to Jung or prevent Seol from continuing her relationship with him.
In the end, the scriptwriters messily scapegoat her decisions and actions as a result of mental illness in the last two episodes. However, it should be apparent to even the most casual viewer that the writer realized they did not have enough time for In-ha’s redemption arc and had to find a way to end the story without her confronting her flaws.
This ending is hugely unfortunate given that she has so much potential to be a great villain and character. Had she hit her low-point earlier in the story, the writers could have created new goals for her redemption arc such as being financially independent and repairing the relationship with In-ho. If they had done this, she would have been redeemed and approachable as a human character.
The Intern Who Fight Her Way for Oppa
KBS2’s “Fight My Way” is unique and ambitious drama with a concept of fighting, literally and figuratively, for your dreams. And just as the show’s title implies, all of the major and supporting cast fight for their dreams, including intern Jang Hye-jin (Pyo Hye-jin).
The resident oppa-driven character of the show Jang Ye-Jin is a sickeningly sweet, naive, innocent intern at the company where stagnant couple Kim Joo-man (Ahn Jae-Hong) and Beak Seol-hee (Song Ha-Yoon) are also employed. As her superior Joo-man helps Ye-jin with some tasks and in return, she grows increasingly infatuated with him.
However, rather than being a dynamic and opposing force for Seol-hee as an antagonist, she is more so kindling. Her presence brings the weaknesses of Joo-man and Seol-hee’s relationship to center stage. Inevitably, their short-comings and insecurities are exposed.
Throughout the couple’s arch, she remains the ignition and not an overt nemesis to either them. Seol-hee does not directly conflict with Ye-jin until the end, and at that point, the interaction only demonstrates the former’s character growth. Consequently, while positioned as the antagonist to these characters, she actually supports them instead.
“Her character is imbalanced because her pursuit and desire of Joo-man are purposefully overinflated to fit the needs of the plot. “
Ye-jin’s failings as an antagonist part her character design, and partially Joo-man and Seol-hee’s fault. Like Ye-jin, her only goal in the show is to be with Joo-man, she “likes him too much,” and goes to extraordinary lengths to win him over.
Her infatuation with Joo-man drives her to text him multiple times a day, ask him out on coffee and food dates, and at one point even forces herself on him. While Joo-man initially ignored or naively accepts some of her offers, this changes once her intentions become clear.
Joo-man refuses her offers and explicitly asks her to stop contacting him multiple times. However, Ye-jin becomes even more insistent. When she finds out that Joo-man has a girlfriend and her identity, she disregards the information and continues to pursue Joo-man.
While insistence can be an admirable characteristic, her actions regarding Joo-man are dumbfounding. Unless she has never experienced kindness in her life, which is doubtful, how can she grow so attached to someone? More, how did her feelings increased to such a level that she is willing to not only break up a relationship but also wholly ignore Joo-man’s requests for her to stop? It is nonsensical.
Whereas the other couple in the drama, played by Park Seo-jun and Kim Ji-won, say and pursue their dreams actively, Joo-man and Seol-hee do not. On Joo-man’s part, his goals and motivations are unclear for a significant portion of the show. His work ambitions and wishes for his relationship are cloudy at best, Soel-hee is the same. Her driving motivation to be with Joo-man is unavailable until she clearly states it in a later episode.
Since the writers did not set out goals for the couple until later in the series, Hye-jin cannot develop into a proper antagonist — she has not goals to oppose or block. For this reason, they made Hye-jin’s pursuit of Joo-man doubly important because it was necessary for the show. However, this backfires for her characterization.
Her character is imbalanced because her pursuit and desire of Joo-man are purposefully overinflated to fit the needs of the plot. As a result, while cute and sweet, Ye-jin also comes across as unintelligent and incapable of accepting or understanding Joo-man’s rejection.
Moreover, due to her persistent interference and the subsequent end of Seol-hee and Joo-man’s relationship, viewers cannot sympathize with her. Further, Ye-jin’s constant proclamations of her feelings coupled with her girlish naivete do little to redeem her by the show’s conclusion.
In the end, what could have been a complicated character filled with emotion in a difficult situation was reduced down to a dim-witted oppa-driven character that viewers were happy to see get her comeuppance.
More upsetting then the number of oppa-driven characters, is that almost every single one has the enormous potential to be complicated and sympathetic characters. How do we know? Becuase it has been done before.
Ha-ri in “She was Pretty”
MBC’s “She Was Pretty” came out in 2015 and still stands as a great romantic comedy with a likable and relatable cast. Romance, comedy, and the drama are not the only enthralling parts of this drama, but the character’s friendships as well. The relationship between the main female protagonist Kim Hye-jin (Hwang Jung-Eum) and Min Ha-ri (Koh Joon-Hee) is grounded, sensible, and stable. Moreover, it can survive as they inadvertently end up in a love triangle with an old friend, Ji Sung-Joon (Park Seo-jun).
The love triangle resulted from Ha-ri’s developing feelings for Sung-joon, even though it is clear that he is interested in rekindling a relationship with Hye-jin. However, the time that she spends with him inspires Ha-ri to seek a relationship with him behind Hye-jin’s back — while using her identity to entice Sung-joon. However, the “oppa-driven” decisions Ha-ri makes are not single-minded. Unlike Beak In-ha and Jang Hye-jin who do not understand or care how their quest for their chosen male character affects others, Ha-ri is painfully aware of her actions and how it can affect those around her.
Resolving to date Sung-joon should have been a gleeful experience for Ha-ri — after all, she had gotten the guy. Moreover, she had feelings for him, and it appeared that he liked her too. She had successfully maneuvered the situation in her favor so that she could have a relationship with Sung-joon. Despite this, Ha-ri clearly understands what she has done: in addition to stealing the identity of Hye-jin, she is also keeping a secret and lying to her — something she has never done before.
The show writers have distinctly established earlier in the show that while very different the two women love each other unconditionally and without judgment. In this way, Ha-ri dating Sung-joon is more than a slight against the lead female protagonist as it has been in the two dramas mentioned before. It is also a blow to a long-lasting and vital friendship. Thereby positioning the bond the two women have as more valuable and beneficial to Ha-ri than the “oppa” Sung-joon will ever be.
Additionally, Ha-ri’s existence and character development do not coincide or parallel Sung-joon’s. Besides her romantic relationship and friendship, she is also developing who she is and who she wants to be in relation to her domineering and affluent father and absent mother. All of these different elements work to construct an elaborate, multifaceted, and vivid character that is grounded in the story and drives the plot organically.
Song Shi-Ho in “Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-Joo”
The aspects that make Ha-ri a good character is found in Kyung Soo-Jin’s character Song Shi-Ho in the 2016 winter drama “Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-Joo” too. Focused on the lives of student-athletes the difficulties that the cast face is manifold. Besides romance, grades, and social standing, the students also deal with their identity and physical performance as athletes. Further, the constant need to train, perform, and compete runs many of the characters into a state of distress and worse.
In the show, Song Shi-ho is an accomplished acrobatic gymnast who has a history with the lead male character Jung Joon-hyung (Nam Joo-hyuk). They went out, but Sho-ho broke up with Joon-hyung when so that she could focus on her athletic career. Unfortunately for her, her projected rise to stardom did not go as planned. As a result, she had to return to school for training.
Battling against her the feeling that she is not good enough, she attempts to restore her life externally to something recognizable; internally it is a different story. As a result, she works to regain a romantic relationship with Joon-hyung. However, unlike Ye-jin, she does not merely like him a lot. Nor is her pursuit similar to In-ha or even Ha-ri. Her pursuit of Joon-hyung is desperate because to her he is more than her exboyfriend she — he represents what she used to be.
Due to Joon-hyun’s symbolic importance, Shi-ho goes to desperate measures as she attempts to pull him back into her life. Consequently, the formally peaceful relationship between Shi-ho and the lead female protagonist Kim Bok-joo (Lee Sung-kyung) sours. Their conflict includes a physical confrontation and a revelation that leads Bok-joo to be harshly disciplined by her coaches.
“Her desire for Joon-hyun stems from not just having strong feelings for him, but something far more complicated and weighty.”
However, while it may initially appear that Shi-ho’s the underlying motivation for her actions is Joon-hyun, that is only partially true. In fact, the real motive stems from Shi-ho herself. Her desire to preserve a sense of who she was before she failed professionally prevents her from being able to deal with the current issues she faces. In an act of desperation, she lashes out at Bok-joo when Joon-hyun, the only thing she can cling onto pre-failure, becomes increasingly distant.
Besides this, Shi-ho encounters familial strife, financial insecurity, mental and emotional illness, and loneliness. More, in the end, while she does not fully overcome her problems, she is at peace, accepts her situation and is talking identifiable step to move forward.
As a character, Shi-ho feels real. Her desire for Joon-hyun stems from not just having strong feelings for him, but something far more complicated and weighty. Accordingly, as viewers watch her encounter and react to different challenges, it is easy to be sympathetic and understand — even if the actions she takes are unseemly. The manner in which she conflicts with the other characters it is exciting, nuanced and supported by a sensible backstory and characterization.
With all this said, there is, of course, much to say about the quality of the story, the script, and the main characters’ aptitude and intricacy. Regardless, what this really boils down to is the realistic depiction of women. The “I need oppa by any means” female trope is a third rate and facile character construction. These characters have little depth, lack goals not connected to the male lead, as people within the story are unrealistic. Accordingly, so are the show in which they appear cheap.
Since the female antagonist is typically situated between the show’s leads puts them in a central and distinct position where they regularly interact, react, and conflict with them frequently. Should this primary antagonist be weak, then the conflict resulting from these interactions along with the fundamental tension and momentum of the story is unstainable. For this reason, out of the four dramas mention in their opinion piece, only the last two are rewatchable, and much of that is owed their antagonists.
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