In Mona Lisa Smile, a movie set in the 1950s USA, a newly graduated Art historian (Julia Roberts as Watson) enters an elite all-girls ultra-conservative college to start her teaching career. Wanting to make a difference yet intimidated by her smart- knowledgeable students and the strict staff, Watson centers the course around questions like what is art? Is it good or bad? What criteria can be used to decide these questions? Thus begins, a journey of self-discovery, feminism, and academic and life freedom.
Why reminiscence this movie?
In one scene, Watson invites her roommate and colleague Nancy Abbey to join her for an adventure. Nancy is their poise and elocution teacher, an insecure and lonely woman who spends most of her spare time watching I Love Lucy and Strike It Rich on television. Nancy rejects Watson’s attempts to engage her in “doing something bold” with an irrefutable reply: but it is Strike it Rich time!
My reaction to Nancy’s comment was absolute astonishment and resistance. How could she say that? In those days, I looked into the future with the heart of a heroine ready to conquer the unfair world shackling us to stereotypes while sucking dry the hopes and aspirations of women who desired to exercise their right to choose and be different.
Change is an inevitable component in the equation or growing old, time and experience leave their marks and reshape our way of thinking. Our points of view might be strengthened or collapse under the weight of new seeds ready to bloom. Today I felt like Nancy and that shook me to the core.
Through the lenses of brutal honesty, I realized these two-plus years of a pandemic did not create but fed on the scraps of an everyday way of being that despite achievements and life-lessons remains hooked to longings as raw and urgent today as they were when I was young. The most prominent? The need to be part of a story where love prevails, good wins and I belong to a group of outstanding people with a vision for greatness and unbreakable bonds of loyalty and brother/sisterhood.
Not in the “real” world my dear, not in this world…
Walking the hero journey seems to be an ongoing state of being in me, and when comparing my current – “real”- life to what the heroine in me stands for or wishes, my day-to-day does not do me any justice. My home has not seen a TV in more than 25. COVID though, awakened an obsession with C & K-dramas hard to comprehend. It was utterly surprising to find myself binge-watching episode after episode until the light of day brought me out of the stupor to my duties, begrudgingly pulling me out of the recliner (which has become a second bed!)
As a bookworm, I am no stranger to losing myself in the plot. Since childhood, stories have pulled me in and stirred my emotions. I cried, laughed, got angry or sad, characters were dear friends, and I mourned their loss when the back cover closed at the end. I have read for 24 or 48 hours in a row too many times to count.
The Reader is a familiar and comfortable identity, one never questioned before because my love for books was justified by the use of language, descriptions, knowledge, artistic views, wisdom, etc. Books were more than entertainment for me, they were confidents. On the other hand, TV shows and movies were mere entertainment. I was never a frequent visitor to movie theaters or family rooms. Now, I devour series with the same urgency and pleasure? I devour books.
Alarmed by the time “wasted” in doing so, I decided to take a look into my “addiction.”
What is it all about?
These stories appease the desire for cultural exposure, psychological complexity, spiritual satisfaction, aesthetic gratification, and visual enjoyment. Characters are strong and resourceful, the plot development is not based on special effects but storyline and subplots, there are unpredictable twists and a perfect combination of tradition and modernity. They do present well-known tropes and mostly treat the hero journey’s archetypes in the usual way. Somehow though, their characters are unforgettable, and I end up wishing them to be part of my life.
Standards of Connection
Small talk and white gloves behavior is not my cup of tea. After pointing out the awful weather and busyness of life a couple of times, I am done. My spirit wants to surpass the currents of commonalities and differences towards wonders and miracles. I feel energized when all parts involved share what matters and touch a sense of belonging. The desire to expand, learn and enjoy with the other and accomplish simple or great deeds is fierce in me. I want interactions to be meaningful. I understand the awkwardness of first encounters, yet I flow easily out of it into the surprising dimensions of humanness.
Archetypes and Me
Aware of my flawed nature, I searched for my qualities_ and help. I move along the wheel of archetypes and suited up to face the shadows and circumstances behaving as unmerciful heralds, issuing challenges to motivate_ No, more like throwing me into action. Hence, I was “initiated” into the perils of the unexpected journey of the lonely hero before learning about Joseph Campbell and his famous “monomyth” or hero’s journey (*)
At the time, every day felt like a test of character, strength, and skill, and an ultimate battle to break my resolve. The departure from “the ordinary world” was more an escape than a call for adventure, and my mentor was the love for music. The “special world’s tasks” felt insurmountable and took a long time to reach a climax. I believe I gained some wisdom, but -my word! – would I have loved a “magic token or elixir.”
The return into the ordinary world has met dear resistance. Despite my metamorphosis, I have yet to reframe what triumph means and what “freedom to live” looks like when leveling the material world and the sparks of spiritual enlightenment. Despite the above, nothing makes my blood sing louder than a hero’s journey! Live has yet to look like the stories that set me on fire. Perhaps, the elixir I was bestowed is a zest for life or the ability to navigate change while dreaming big. (I still want a magic wand, please).
One of those days filled with anxiety during the Pandemic’s lockup, I inadvertently clicked on a Korean series on Netflix – “King, Eternal Monarch” with Lee Min-Ho – from then, it has been down the rabbit hole, high speed, non-stop.
K-Drama and C-Drama options fill the “for you” and “watch it again” labels in my streaming apps (which have increased dramatically).The recommendation logarithm must think I speak Korean or Chinese (I don’t, but at this rate, I might!) as I have not watched anything else in at least a year and a half.
Unaccustomed to this magnetic force, I questioned my addiction and decided to handle the overwhelming emotions and thoughts with self-compassion.
Why are these dramas so powerful?
Why are they affecting me the way they do?
These dramas create deep emotional connections with viewers, the characters’ trials and tribulations are relatable. The plot does not rely on violence, special effects, or explicit sex. Actors need to communicate the subtleties of relationships building and emotions with animated delivery, facial expressions, lines, and gestures. There is a blend of romance, intelligent comedy, and evocative junctures. Add perfect timing and memorable quotes, and we have a winner!
K-Dramas are wholesome and filled with precious moments, small details, and insights that squeeze my heart. Nearly every episode leaves viewers squirming, the tension is built up so expertly that when the main couple finally hold hands halfway through the series, we scream in delight (and invisible fireworks exploit inside the living room.
If it is a thriller, K-dramas present creative and brilliant twists where characters’ past and present are filled with complex and interesting connections. Did I mention the acting? Wow!
K-Dramas have an easy-to-marathon format of 16-20 episodes that allow the characters to be established, the story to build up beautifully, and the plot to thicken to a smooth conclusion that ties loose ends. Believe it or not, some people can finish one K-Drama in a day. I am one of them!
C- Dramas, on the other hand, can be extremely long and tend to have a heartbreaking end. Yet, I cannot resist a great heroic story where goodness prevails! The concept of heroism and honor is strong, especially in the Chinese period dramas. These serve as the moral compass of the protagonist to complete a lifelong mission or to achieve a sense of accomplishment and greatness. There is no shortage of strong, empowered women characters in both contemporary and period C-Dramas.
The sparingly and tastefully use of kissing scenes, bubbling chemistry between the leads, and strong brotherhood bonds are delightful and inspiring. We all can learn a thing or two about family values, friendships, and maintaining romantic relationships through watching.
Mastering the big picture
C- Dramas and K-Dramas share impressive production values: amazing and attractive casts, beautiful opening credits, enhanced scenarios, exquisite original soundtrack, and cool customs and clothes. No stone is left unturned when it comes to quality. The cinematography is outstanding, shots and locations are well thought out, the setting can speak a thousand words when the actor remains silent or complement their lines. The production usually chooses locations that seem to get woven into the storyline and the characters’ lives, the light and colors complement the scenes and enhance the moods. Scripts, from shallow to profound, are well-written and offer many enticing life lessons.
Accessible Video streaming sites have made foreign television and film readily available; fans and volunteers add subtitles in several languages and comment on multiple platforms. There is a drama to suit every taste. from light romantic comedies to historical, fantasy, science fiction, action, romance, and many other drama ingredients.
Both, C-Dramas and K-Drama episodes are aired many times a week, usually from 3 to seven days a week. It is torture when it is just once, who could stand not seeing her handsome and sweet gentlemen boyfriend in a week!
I get it!
Although the above might sound like rational justifications to a guilty pleasure, I believe many share these observations. Beyond their treatment of deep themes that grab me tightly, watching these foreign dramas have a cultural appeal, not only do I learn about different societal norms by looking at the day-to-day life of the characters, but they help me reflect on the things I take for granted in today’s society.
Compared to Western films and TV, these dramas are fresh and clean. Foul language is rare, violence is minimal, and love scenes rely on the slow burn development of feelings, rather than sex. Values, traditions, and challenges are exposed in a manner that gives the audience a space to reflect on where they stand.
We can agree, disagree, retreat or fight, choose to believe or not, inquire or just dream seeing beautiful ideals walk into our living room and everyday life.
Nobody should hide their true Self
“Unfortunately, society encourages us all to look and act a certain way, and anything that even vaguely goes against those societal norms is often challenged or ridiculed. This can make it hard to stay true to you – but if you’re not, your happiness will suffer.”
I long for profound connections, strong values, and meaningful legends to be part of my life. Being reminded of and owning my superpowers, learning how to develop them further, and doing so in conjunction with others, is a desire I have yet to satiate. Adventure, magic, and big dreams are something society does not endorse beyond entertainment, not if it promotes uniqueness and awareness, as we might become “rebels.”
My exposure to this kind of storytelling endorses the belief that although we are made for community and intimacy, we ache to be unique and bring what only we can bring into the world. When I watch these dramas, I feel permitted to be Me and savor my romanticism and utopian ideals. I am encouraged to celebrate my individuality, my blood rushes, my heart sings, my self-love, and confidence soar and ultimately, I am happy.
Storytelling makes me grow
Everyone has a unique way of embracing individuality and becoming the best version of himself. I grow through storytelling. It ignites my soul and brings about inner powers I fear or deny. Stories influence, teach, and inspire me, they forge connections between dreams and ideas, pushing toward the impossibly beautiful vision of a life filled with awe.
If it can be imagined, written, and told, it can be done!
When I feel lost in the outside world, storytelling helps me clarify what is meaningful in my book. I move then with purpose and determination, embracing the “Spark of Divinity” I am meant to be without doubt.
I find pleasure in other people’s achievements without being tortured by negative thoughts, comparisons, smallness, or jealousy, there is an eagerness to bring greatness about, and invite others to do the same. I root wholeheartedly for my characters, and such compelling emotion grows slowly and steadily within me.
The most fascinating people are the ones who dare to do their own thing.
We have the right to indulge in interests that others may consider strange or unusual. Yes, I need to balance the time I spend daydreaming and living vicariously through “dramas” with actively acting upon achieving my dreams. Awareness of the effect dramas have on me – and why- helps me integrate the lessons learned into my daily life.
- Using an episode as a “booster pill” is motivating. It can also work as a reward for good work.
- Accepting my bursts of binge-watching without judgment assists me in balancing my streaming time.
- Connecting with others who enjoy these dramas brings closeness and serves as a reminder that there is more to life.
- Thinking about the qualities and attributes I aspire to can turn them into milestones to achieve or surpass my character’s great deeds.
- Asking how it would be to confront the same challenges and where to acquire the knowledge and skills I enjoy watching, becomes a map to the journey.
Where the mind goes, energy flows
If dressing up imaginarily or factually makes you smile, makes you empowered and filled with love for life, then go for it!
When we dream of possibilities, we are unconsciously exploring how to relate to them. Alternating periods of relaxed and pressure-free spaces with focused concentration and goal-oriented ones have proven very effective for me. Strategic use of imagination can shed light on the efforts that might boost our resolve and bring about the desired results.
Imagination also plays a powerful and liberating role in releasing and diffusing emotional pain. Imaginary exposure is a safe way to write a new script and attach different meanings to painful memories or habits causing emotional wounds. The practice of imagining and experiencing (even vicariously) what I wish to have, be and do, helps me decide what opportunities, events, and relationships fit or not in my life design.
Everything happens for a reason
“Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality.” -Nikos Kazantzakis
Watching TV might be a passive way to engage the imagination, unlike books which are an open canvas for you to paint. Many stories portrayed in Asian dramas have not been translated to a language I can read comfortably. Thus, I watch the series as long as the visuals and screenwriting are worthy of my time.
It is surprising how things I rejected before have become warm and helpful mentors. Shifting perspectives with humor and flexibility is more empowering than succumbing to criticism and self-loathing.
An ordinary thing as streaming has given me compelling insights.
Sitting on the couch and surrendering to a different creative vision has not stopped me from binge-reading. From now forward, when I watch a series as when I read, I shall banish guilt and shame and allow vulnerability, acceptance, and awareness to mingle with pleasure and inspiration.
It might take me a bit to dispel the awkwardness of getting lost in vicariously living or assuming the identity of K-Drama and C-Drama lover. Nevertheless, the circle closing, the waters are finding their level and I am a better person for it.
(*) In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell, a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College, unpacks his theory that all mythological narratives share the same basic structure.