With the rise of the entertainment industry in East Asia, Taiwanese TV dramas and other East Asian dramas such as Japanese and Korean dramas have been rapidly climbing up to popularity. Taiwanese TV series mostly focus on romance, sometimes being based on well-known Japanese manga targeting young women and girls which may have also contributed to its widespread popularity across Asia. Aside from this transnational aspect, if we analyze and compare the most popular Taiwanese dramas, we can find similar “formulas” or patterns. The plots are often constructed around the dynamics of stereotyped and ideal gender roles, which justifies the frequent feeling of “deja vu”. So how are gender roles represented in Taiwanese TV dramas and what do they provide to the audience? Through dramas such as Why Why Love and Fated to Love You, I plan to research on how these gender roles are unequally flexible between men and women. In fact, at first it seems that men have more flexibility in regards to blending the feminine and masculine, while women have one underlying role of endurance and faithfulness. However, I will argue that even men’s gender roles seem to be “boxed”, maybe more so than women, simply because they are made to depict an unrealistic ideal for the female population.
Why Why Love, a Taiwanese drama aired in 2007, tells the story of a girl, Jia Di, with family debts and financial difficulties which she tries to mend by taking many odd jobs. With a series of coincidences, she meets two brothers with whom she starts a love triangle, Huo Da and Huo Yan, who are both potential heirs to one of the wealthiest companies in the country. Huo Da is depicted as a rebel who dislikes his illegitimate kind brother because Huo Yan’s mother’s affair is what pushed Huo Da’s own mother to commit suicide. As such, his overall bad or rude attitude, mischievousness, taste for dangerous activities such as racing on motorcycles are justified by a deep scar from the past. His bullying Jia Di gradually transforms into affection as he sees her sincerity, both eventually falling in love. As such, the audience sees through his cold and sometimes heartless attitude that there is tenderness to him as well, thus showing his more feminine side. As a final plot-twist, Huo Da finds out he has a terminal disease. He makes an effort to push Jia Di away in an attempt to avoid the pain she will receive once she knows their fate but Jia Di finds out and prompts them to stay together.
At first, it seems as though Huo Da’s character is given a lot of flexibility in terms of gender roles as he is the one that has the most character development. In the beginning, he is depicted as a cold and rude man, his masculinity being shown through his edginess, rough speech and gestures, as well as his careless attitude in racing on motorcycles and putting himself in danger. However, by the end of the series, his feminine side takes over as he sheds tears and reveals his vulnerabilities and feelings of love or loneliness. According to Marc L. Moskowitz in “Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow: Chinese Pop Music and Its Cultural Connotations”, he perfectly fits the definitions of the “wenrou” or tender male stereotype.[i] Thus, his transformation from one extreme to another could be argued as a proof to male role flexibility. However, I will argue that male characters are more restricted than they seem to be. In the drama, Huo Da’s masculinity is what prevents him from being happy: his dangerous speed racing gets him into accidents and his cold attitude towards his brother and others isolates him and blocks him from having relations with people or getting emotional support. Stereotypical masculine attitudes such as pride also prevents him from expressing his inner emotions, leading to pent-up anger, misunderstandings or the inability to reach out to the woman he likes. It is only when he gets in touch with his feminine side that the plot flourishes with character development and effective problem solving. Through Jia Di, he becomes more docile, understanding and even sheds tears as he reveals his inner feelings about his deceased mother. Through his femininity, Huo Da not only finds love and peace of mind, but also a sense of purpose. He expresses to Jia Di: “I always thought that I had a lot of time ahead of me to waste. But now, without expecting it, in a moment, I suddenly seem to have no more time left.”[ii] His hyper-masculinity in the beginning of the series is associated with living frivolously and carelessly while his attainment of femininity by the end of the series gives him depth and an understanding of his identity and goals. Ultimately, Huo Da’s only option for self-development was getting rid of his masculinity and reconstructing his feminine side.
On the other hand, female characters can be both feminine and masculine in terms of “female” masculinity. Jia Di embodies traits of femininity such as docility, kindness, understanding and generosity in her warm attitude towards others. For example, she carries out her values of “bringing good fortune to others” by donating blood or consoling and helping a lost child. She also fulfills traditional feminine ideals of faithfulness and supportiveness as she once tells Huo Da, “I want to be with you. I’ll withstand it if you drive even faster. When you want to go on an adventure, I’ll accompany you. […] I want to be there with you when you’re in the most danger. During your darkest hour, I’ll accompany you until we find the light”[iii]. This also shows a glimpse into the fact that she is well-versed, which could come back to how “women are expected to have a greater degree of refinement than men”[iv], as explained by Hsi-Yao Su.
However, she also displays “masculine” attitudes such as independence, wisdom, courage or endurance. Indeed, she takes on many odd jobs and goes great lengths on her own to pay off her family’s debts, underlining how she is depended on to make money. She shows independance as she isn’t fazed by others and sticks to her own values. She also displays signs of strength and self-sustainability as she explains, “when i want to cry the stars in the sky seem like my dad’s eyes. They seem to tell me Jia Di, you must persevere. Don’t cry, you must be brave.”[v] Lastly, when she finds out that Huo Da is dying from his illness, she tells him: “We shouldn’t lose the chance to love each other because of fear”[vi]. She takes the lead and finds an answer to the problem, underlining her bravery and grasp of reality.
As such, the masculinity depicted by male characters such as Huo Da is one that is undesirable, whereas the masculinity depicted by female characters is one that is praised. At the same time, femininity seems to be an overall desirable trait regardless of the character’s gender. It gives a wider spectrum in terms of identity while male’s masculinity seems rather limited. It is also important to note that Jia Di was Huo Da’s model and inspiration to change. Indeed, rather than seeing a mutual influence on each other’s sense of self throughout the series, only Huo Da seems to change his ways closer to Jia Di’s, while the latter already possessed the ideal character type from the beginning.
So why are males’ roles in Taiwanese dramas such as Why Why Love so “boxed” even though the opposite prevails in real life? I think the answer largely resides that it is precisely because these TV shows are targeted towards young women and girls. In the eyes of the audience, Jia Di gets the power to completely influence a character that seemed out of reach because of his good looks and financial superiority. Towards the end of the drama, Huo Da declares to Jia Di: “Next time, every star you see in the sky is Huo Da saying, “I love you”. The wind that blows softly by your ear is Huo Da saying, “I miss you”. The warm sunshine that shines on your skin is because i opened my arms to embrace you. If it rains, it means that, Huo Da, without Jia Di by his side, feels really lonely.”[vii] It is clear that he completely changed his originally rough speech style to a speech style that uses metaphors, soft images and most importantly is revealing of his emotions and exposes his vulnerability since he says that he wouldn’t be able to function properly without her. This is a major development and indicator of the importance of the female character’s role in the male character’s self-construction, thus empowering the female character and, in majority, the female audience. Perhaps this “empowerment” was created in order to escape real life gender stereotypes such as beauty being one of the few desirable aspects in a woman in Taiwan and the social pressure that comes with it. In “Language and ideology: gender stereotypes of female and male artists in Taiwanese tabloids”, Hung-Chun Wang explains how his “study showed that [a] clear sexual image is attached to women in the Taiwanese tabloid culture, rather than men. […] women were often portrayed in relation to their manipulation of youth and beauty for various decorative functions in the media […] [His] study also demonstrated that female artists’ physical attractiveness was largely highlighted as one essential characteristic of their representation in the tabloid.”[viii] As such, women could be pressured into thinking that physical attractiveness is a necessity. However, Jia Di is suggested to dress unfashionably and is not very conscious or worried about her appearance. In the beginning of the series, she even competes against the two brothers’ previous love interest who was regarded as beautiful, elegant, dressed classily and looked like a woman of high-status, the complete opposite of the main character. In a sense, her ability to attract, win over and profoundly influence a high-class man’s view of the world through sheer individual virtue and despite her appearance or financial circumstances gives the female audience what they want to imagine and fulfills their ideals, the sense that this could happen to them as well. However, the male characters portrayed in the show mostly put the male audience at a disadvantage: the drama gives unrealistic expectations to fulfill the female audience’s fantasies of a perfect ideal man who has a lot of money, power, sensitivity and unconditional, complete devotion.
These same ideas can be deciphered in Fated To Love You. Fated To Love You tells the story of Chen Xin Yi, an unfashionable office lady who does all the odd chores and is unable to say “no” to her coworkers, who wants to lose her virginity with her boyfriend on a cruise trip. With a series of events, both Chen Xin Yi and Ji Cun Xi, a heir of a big company who was planning on proposing to his girlfriend Anna, mix up their room numbers and end up accidentally sleeping with each other. Chen Xin Yi becomes pregnant and after much struggle between the two protagonists, Xin Yi decides to keep the baby. When Anna finds out, Cun Xi is torn between his successful but very absent girlfriend who abandoned him for a job and Xin Yi with whom he gradually started falling in love. After a misunderstanding, Xin Yi has a miscarriage and decides to disappear and start over her life, but the two protagonists meet again two years later and end up rekindling their love.
In the very beginning of the show, Cun Xi is depicted as a rich and somewhat arrogant character through his disposition and speech as a trait of his masculinity, similarly to Huo Da in Why Why Love. However, he is able to attain understanding and compassion for the people around him through Xin Yi who, despite her inability to refuse others, embodies the feminine ideal of a pure and hard-working woman that is eager to help out others. In other words, there is nothing “negative” to reproach her apart from her unfortunate circumstances. Cun Xi, who wore suits, highly priced watches and makes sure he looks groomed, even ended up sleeping on a stack of hay in jogging clothes in order reach out to Xin Yi, yet again showing the influence of the female character. When Cun Xi comes to the conclusion that it is best to marry and keep the baby, he confesses to Xin Yi: “When you make a wish, I wants to fulfill it right away. […] When I see you ignoring me, I will do anything and everything to make you notice me. I don’t know why we met on that cruise, I don’t know why we have a child together either but maybe this is fate.”[ix] This not only shows his devotion but also his expression of a new-found feminine belief in concepts such as “fate”. It is also important to note that it is in moments like these where he expresses his emotions and gets in touch with his femininity that the audience has most sympathy for him; in other words, masculinity seems to be yet again something to overcome rather than a desirable part of identity. By the end of the series, while Xin Yi keeps the same values she had at the beginning of the show despite her temporary change during her struggle and feelings of betrayal, the main male character was obliged to change and had to the most character development into a more feminine persona in order to attain the ‘happy ending’. Another important aspect to point out is the similarity between Why Why Love’s Jia Di and Xin Yi’s physical appearance. Even though Xin Yi wears completely unfashionable clothes or doesn’t make an effort with make-up, she was able to attract a man supposedly out of her reach solely through her inner values. This not only goes against real life sexism where women have the pressure to “look pretty” in order to be desirable for men but it also proves yet again Cun Xi’s feminine side: instead of judging her from her outer-appearance, like he did in the beginning when his masculinity was prominent, he was touched by her inner-qualities, showing his sensitivity. Ultimately, these ideas underline how male characters are shaped by female audience’s fantasies, hence their “boxed” identity and one-way road to development.
However, one cannot disregard the existence of oppressing standards or ideas in regards to female gender roles. This is especially apparent in female character’s relationship between social life and their career. In “Graduate Women’s Beliefs about Gender Roles in China”, Virginia Navarro explains how there are “ambiguous feelings towards women who do compete and succeed in a man’s world. The metamessage seems to be summed up this way: If you are successful in outer world as a woman, then you must be single or be neglecting your family. […] [quote] Generally speaking, a capable woman might be single or her family functioning is poor according to social stereotype. She might have some male traits such as being vigorous, decisive and lacking tenderness. I don’t want to be such a woman.”[x] This idea can be related to Cun Xi’s previous girlfriend Anna’s inability to find her own happy ending. Indeed, it was because of her career that tensions and misunderstandings started to set into their relationship. When Cun Xi was planning on proposing to Anna on the cruise in the beginning of the drama, Anna suddenly changed her plans for a call about a career opportunity. As such, her ambition and “masculine” independence is what ruined her relationship and pushed Cun Xi away, making him feel like her career was more important than him and lacked consideration towards him. Similarly, when Xin Yi was hurt from being abandoned by Cun Xi, she transformed into a woman with more power in the workforce as a way to fix her previous docile attitude which she thought brought along her misfortune. As a result she becomes wealthier, gets rid of the image of the office woman who goes on errands, but also becomes more stubborn, guarded and cold in the process. Her transformation prevented her from solving a misunderstanding between herself and Cun Xi and became an obstacle to emotional problem-solving and plot development. However, we notice that male characters such as Huo Da or Cun Xi who are high up on a financial and social status hierarchy, who are leaders and participate in their company’s growth, don’t get affected by their work life. As such, chinese society’s idea that a woman’s career will get in the way of her social life could be directly reflected on Anna and Xin Yi.
The representation of gender roles in Taiwanese dramas seem to be both unequally constricted and flexible. Male characters are shaped by unrealistic ideals to please the targeted audience’s satisfaction, which most of the time translate into a rich hypermasculine man who becomes gentle and an embodiment of a protective and devoted man through femininity. As such, they are presented with only one path to follow in order for the story to successfully unravel. On the other hand, women seem to possess both positive traits of masculinity and femininity which make them emotionally desirable, thus gathering sympathy from the audience from the beginning and serving as a role model as well as an escape from gender role inequality in real life. However, it is important to note that discrepancies between gender roles still persist and are reflected into certain aspects of Taiwanese dramas.
Marc L. Moskowitz. Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow: Chinese Pop Music and Its Cultural Connotations. University of Hawai’i Press. 2010.
Hsi-Yao Su. What does it mean to be a girl with qizhi?: Refinement, gender and language ideologies in contemporary Taiwan. Journal of Sociolinguistics. 2008.
Hung-Chun Wang. Language and ideology: gender stereotypes of female and male artists in Taiwanese tabloids. Sage. 2009.
Virginia Navarro. Graduate Women’s Beliefs about Gender Roles in China. Asian Women Vol.28. 2012.
Lin He Long. Why Why Love. TV drama. 2007.
Chen Ming Zhang. Fated to Love You. TV drama. 2008.
[i] Marc L. Moskowitz. Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow: Chinese Pop Music and Its Cultural Connotations. pp. 65
[ii] Why Why Love. Episode 13. Huo Da.
[iii] Why Why Love. Episode 11. Jia Di.
[iv] Hsi-Yao Su. What does it mean to be a girl with qizhi?: Refinement, gender and language ideologies in contemporary Taiwan. pp. 346.
[v] Why Why Love. Episode 13. Jia Di.
[vi] Why Why Love. Episode 14. Jia Di.
[vii] Why Why Love. Episode 13. Huo Da.
[viii] Hung-Chun Wang. Language and ideology: gender stereotypes of female and male artists in Taiwanese tabloids”. pp. 751
[ix] Fated to Love you. Cun Xi.
[x] Virginia Navarro. Graduate Women’s Beliefs about Gender Roles in China. pp. 66