The television K-drama series “Tree With Deep Roots” pushes the boundaries of traditional gender roles in an East Asian society; male characters prove intellectualism to be imperative, while women play pivotal leadership roles. However, both genders demonstrate a complex variety of attributes.
The transition from the harsh King Taejong to the intellectual King Sejong proves to be a positive step toward a more masculine and favorable leader. King Sejong is the perfect example of a leader who maintains power via intellect and humility. His desire to give power to the common people by creating a new alphabet shows that he does not wish to simply keep all the power to himself, but would rather distribute power among the masses, proving his loyalty to his people. In the opening episodes, Taejong tells Sejong that he should develop a way to keep power to himself, showing that he is selfish. Additionally, Taejong demonstrates the violent behaviors of a traditionally masculine figure, but exemplifies why pointless violence and brutality do not denote a strong, masculine leader. While King Taejong views Sejong’s desire to distribute power as a weakness, Sejong’s masculinity is evident in that he does not fear sharing power; a weak king fears that power will be taken from him, while a strong king can distribute power while still remaining in control. In episode 19, King Sejong meets Jeong Gi Joon, the leader of “Hidden Root” discussing why he wants to give power to the people. While both men are intellectual leaders, Jeong Gi Joon shows weakness in acknowledging his fear that the common people might want to take over, challenging the notion that all intellectuals are masculine. Therefore, masculinity is not easily defined, but rather a concept constructed based on multiple societal ideals.
Though male figures make up the majority of characters, there are notable female characters who push the boundaries of traditional gender roles, specifically So-Yi. While So-Yi demonstrates the traditional ideals of a Japanese woman insomuch as her demeanor is quiet, demure and ladylike, she is far from conventional regarding her significance and commitment toward furthering the development of the Korean alphabet. At the end of the first episode, So-Yi blames herself for contributing to the death of Sejong’s father-in-law after reading a letter that is switched out for a letter of condemnation. Realizing her mistake in judgment, So-Yi vows to remain mute. The punishment she gives herself adheres to the traditional description of femininity in that it is nonviolent and causes her to seem submissive. However, she shows great self-control and power in her ability to stick to her word, a quality typically demonstrative of a strong male leader. As a close advisor to King Sejong, So-Yi goes on to utilize her unique memory, ability to read and write, and overall incredible intelligence to carry out secretive missions and to assist King Sejong in his pursuit to create the Korean alphabet. So-Yi shows that whether male or female, loyalty goes a long way and provides power.
Male and female characters in “Tree With Deep Roots” behave in ways that both adhere to as well as conflict with the traditional expectations of gender in their society, showing that gender is not easily defined.
Tree With Deep Roots. Writ. Lee Jung Myung. Dir. Jang Tao Yoo and Shin Kyung Soo. SBS, 2011. DramaFever.
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