Confronting Societal Pressures: My ID is Gangnam Beauty Review

Korean dramas — “k-dramas” for short — have been something I’ve heard about for quite a long time. I knew people who watched it. Furthermore, I used to be super into K-pop, so I ended up hearing a lot about whatever currently-airing k-drama was popular at the time.

That doesn’t mean I watched many myself. I don’t often watch much live-action-based stuff, whether it’s dramas or movies. I guess I’m just more used to seeing things drawn out like in manga.

As of this moment, I’ve only finished two Korean dramas (and am currently in the middle of watching my third one). For the dramas I completed, I finished both of them with a lingering feeling.

The first is Pinocchio, a 2014 k-drama I watched some time after it had finished airing. Maybe it’s just because it’s my first k-drama, but I remember thinking, Wow, this k-drama is so good! No other k-drama will be able to top this! It’s been at most seven years, but it’s still my favorite. That said, it has been a long time since I’ve seen it, so I’m lowkey hoping that it isn’t being carried hard by nostalgia.

The second is My ID is Gangnam Beauty, which I binged at the end of 2018, the year that k-drama aired. Due to the Pinocchio nostalgia that I still have, I didn’t have it as my new favorite, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Instead, I was hit with something embarrassing — for the duration of my binge-watching and the next few days after I finished watching, I was going through a craze over Cha Eunwoo, the idol actor who played as the male lead.

Video of Cha Eunwoo singing an OST from My ID is Gangnam Beauty ( + some scenes from the drama).

Fortunately, that period was short-lived… Or so I thought.

Around the end of last year, True Beauty started airing. My sibling was curious about it because it’s an adaptation of an ongoing webtoon they have been reading. At first, I had no interest in watching it. I wasn’t feeling like watching a cliché, likely over-the-top romance, especially when it’s a drama with real people acting.

Then I found out Cha Eunwoo is playing the male lead in this drama. Before I knew it, I was asking my sibling if I could watch it with them.

Yeah, not one of my finer moments.

"I'm sure everyone lives with a little bit of Do Kyung Seok in their hearts" (My ID is Gangnam Beauty, Episode 12)
Replace “Do Kyung Seok” with “Cha Eunwoo,” and you pretty much have me in a nutshell.

When watching True Beauty, I immediately noticed how similar Cha Eunwoo’s character is to the character he played in My ID is Gangnam Beauty. Both characters are the stoic, cold pretty boy archetype. However, while I remembered liking the male lead in Gangnam Beauty, I didn’t (and still don’t) like the male lead in True Beauty.

I suggested to my sibling that we also watch Gangnam Beauty for comparison. (They hadn’t seen it yet, anyways.) For me, this was also a way for me to judge the show with a fresh mind.

All right, this intro is getting too long. So how well does the k-drama hold up?

Synopsis: Crushed Under Beauty Standards

In My ID is Gangnam Beauty, a webtoon-adapted k-drama, the main character Kang Mirae is a girl who grew up as an outcast undervalued by her peers. The reason? She was considered ugly. This reached the point where she decides to have plastic surgery on her entire face.

Now entering university, Mirae suddenly finds herself under a constant spotlight now that everyone notices her for her beauty. However, her years of being an outcast and a target have already long impacted her self-esteem and confidence. She is anxious and uncomfortable whenever any positive attention is placed on her, wondering if she deserves it at all. Even worse, she learns that there are people who look down on those who had cosmetic surgery. People like her are deemed as “plastic monsters” and “Gangnam beauties” (girls who look like they’ve gotten a lot of work done on their faces).

On top of all these worries, she also finds herself having to deal with Do Kyungseok, a student in the same year and department. Handsome but stoic and overly blunt, he is the only person in the school who has seen her pre-surgery face. Mirae comes to realize that despite his aloof demeanor and natural visuals, Kyungseok is her greatest source of support.

Carefully Exploring Subject Matters

In the drama’s world, everything and everyone is weighed down by societal pressures. Besides Mirae, many other girls are forced to follow these standards to maintain high status and avoid unwarranted criticism. For example, one girl in the drama is pressured by her upperclassmen to diet and lose weight solely because she isn’t skinny enough to their liking. Another character was once forced to be a pretty trophy wife for her husband despite having her own goals and ambitions.

Misogyny is also very prevalent in the story. Many men in the drama actively push the ideal beauty standard onto the girls. At the same time, these men are never asked to change and conform to any beauty standard. The k-drama does well in showing how many of these characters (usually the female characters) are victims of these harsh expectations, yet they also have habits that both stem from and enforce these standards. Mirae, for instance, judges other girls’ faces and ranks them. This is an effect of living in a beauty-obsessed world, and she herself realizes how wrong it is.

These subject matters are still relevant today and can be very sensitive issues for people. I think Gangnam Beauty does a good job addressing these issues while taking caution to avoid promoting any problematic stigma. Even though they needed a child actor to play the role of pre-surgery Mirae, the drama never shows her face to prevent setting an example of “this is what an ‘ugly’ person looks like.” And even though Mirae gets plastic surgery, the drama doesn’t play it up as an end-all and be-all solution. Her insecurities don’t go away, and she still finds herself trapped in a cycle of self-loathing. Not only that, but she also loses her bond with her father, who belatedly learns about her plastic surgery and reacts badly to it.

Kang Mirae apologizes to her father for getting plastic surgery, to which he ignores and denounces her as a stranger (My ID is Gangnam Beauty, Episode 2)
Ouch.

Finding Acceptance and Support

My ID is Gangnam Beauty is ultimately a story of finding self-value and accepting who you are as yourself. Despite so many people seemingly being against her, Mirae still finds support through a small group of people: her mother, her childhood friend, the fair and well-meaning TA, the role model figure who inspires her on her career path, and Do Kyungseok, who eventually becomes her friend and later lover. Throughout the drama, we see Mirae gradually stand up for herself and learn that she is loved and deserves to be loved.

Acceptance is a common theme in the drama, and that is also seen through the mending of familial relationships throughout the show. Mirae’s father denounces her daughter as a stranger once he finds out she has gotten plastic surgery, but comes around to feel ashamed and conflicted once he realizes that Mirae hasn’t changed from the inside and still loves him despite everything.

On the other hand, Kyungseok has a strained relationship with both of his parents, especially towards his mother, who he believes had selfishly abandoned them. He, too, goes through an arc where he learns the truth behind his mother and tries to find acceptance and a way to mend their lost relationship.

These subplots are executed very well and are some of the biggest strengths the drama has. I recommend watching it solely for this aspect, as well as the character growth for many characters.

It’s Not a K-Drama If There’s No Romance

While Gangnam Beauty is pretty heavy on the drama and the themes it wants to convey, it’s still a romance drama. The main romance is between the slow burn, friends-to-lovers development between Kang Mirae and Do Kyungseok.

On paper, their relationship seems pretty good. Kyungseok knows what Mirae used to look like but never found anything wrong with her original appearance. He’s one of the few people who could call out on her internalized habit of rating faces but never fails to apologize whenever he realizes he has crossed a line. Most importantly, he likes her for who she is and always treats her respectfully and honestly.

A couple with good communication and respect? That sounds great!

The thing is… is it just me, or do they come off as super awkward when they’re together? It was fine when they were overall strangers, but when they officially became friends (and even when they do start dating), the awkwardness is still there.

I mean, it could just be the characters themselves. Mirae is insecure and easily nervous. Meanwhile, Kyungseok generally comes off as emotionally distant in his demeanor. I suppose that’s what happens when two awkward characters get together, but either way, I personally find the romantic chemistry between the two characters somewhat lacking.

Final Thoughts

I’m pretty relieved that this k-drama still holds up well and isn’t just my memory playing tricks on me. I recommend watching it since it does a great job exploring social issues regarding beauty standards and misogynistic expectations.

One thing I did notice when rewatching is that some music is removed and replaced with something else. This only happens when some non-OST, Korean pop song is used (ex. PSY’s “New Face”). This isn’t the drama’s fault (my first watch didn’t have this happening), but rather the streaming site’s attempt at avoiding copyright. Thankfully, there aren’t many of these instances in the drama, so it’s not all that annoying. (If it does bother you, YouTube probably has cuts with the originally-used music.)

I can’t comment on how good the acting is since I don’t have a good eye for that stuff, but I do really like Jo Woori’s performance as Hyun Sooah, one of the main characters in Gangnam Beauty. I somehow managed to write an entire review without mentioning her character at all, but do pay attention to her if you’re going to watch. Sooah is a major player in the overall story and really captures the overall themes in the drama.

(If you thought I was going to highlight Cha Eunwoo again, I would, but I’ve already talked more than enough about him.)

When I eventually finish watching True Beauty, I may write up a comparison post. We’ll see in the future.

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