Queen Seon Duk: The Worst Soldier

I've been watching K-drama a lot lately, and I think it's about time I talk about it somewhere besides Twitter. Lucky you! 

As with with my Bollywood binges, I'm transfixed by what I'm seeing because the stories feel gorgeously fresh and unexpected to me. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is that Korean storytelling just doesn't use all the tropes I've been trained to expect. There are tropes, absolutely—just a different set. This means I can be taken by surprise more often and more deeply than in Western media. 

Right now my show is Queen Seon Duk, which you can stream on Drama Fever. It takes place in roughly the year 700 and is absolutely and amusingly anachronistic—just as a starter, the show has featured crystal water goblets, French hook earrings, and endless tall chairs and tables, which I am about 99% sure were not things that existed in Shilla at that time. And that's not even starting in on the subtitle translation, which is fodder for a whole different post.

Forgive me, but I'm going to spoil roughly how the first third of the show goes to give you an example of what I mean about this whole "different tropes" thing. 

See, early on in the series, a young woman disguises herself as a man and becomes a soldier. I've seen this story a hundred times before, and I know how it goes: the young woman struggles at first, but she's all heart. She works harder than all of the men. She gradually earns their grudging respect, and in the end, she becomes the very best soldier of them all.

You've seen that story too, right?

Except that's not what happens in Queen Seon Duk. Our young woman absolutely tries harder than anyone else, yes! She is all heart. But despite all of that, she is a shitty soldier. She's slower than the rest. She's weaker. When the time comes for a real battle, her commander looks at her with pity and contempt and says, "Just stay behind me so you don't get killed."

I kept expecting a crowning moment of glory and physical prowess, where all of her hard work would pay off. And yes, she's smart and cunning. Yes, she performs heroic actions. But all of them are through cleverness, and not battle strength. She is just a really bad soldier, and she never really gets better.

Here I was all primed for a story that it turns out I wasn't going to get. The wrong trope. And it had never even occurred to me that it could go a different way—that all of that heart and trying might not be enough to actually become good at something, much less the best. I kept fighting with myself: "Well of course the GIRL has to be a bad soldier, because SEXISM" vs. "But... actually that's not entirely unrealistic, and it's not like she isn't proving her leadership value at every turn, so why do I need her to be also very physically fast and strong?"

I'm a strong believer that creative people need to feed their brains a very careful diet of interesting ideas and experiences. Part of that means going off the beaten path of your peer group. I could be watching Stranger Things and Luke Cage right now, sure. But then I'd be thinking mostly the same thoughts as all of my friends and colleagues who are watching those shows.

The kind of dissonance I get from K-drama is exactly what I need right now. It's good for me as a writer, because my brain is opening up to a much broader and more interesting array of possible narratives than I could see before. And it's good for me as a human being who needs down time, because I can more easily shut off the part of my brain that analyzes and rewrites the show as we go along so I can enjoy the experience as actual entertainment in a deeper and more genuine fashion.

It's pretty great on basically every possible level. And you're going to be hearing much, much more about K-drama from me over the next few weeks. Brace yourselves!


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