“People might seem like they’re living a worry free life, but they’re all just trying their best to keep living.”
It’s something many people forget as life goes by. We become so wrapped up in our own issues that the world outside them seems vast and unapproachable. We search for people who show empathy towards us, but often forget that we must have empathy for others.
My ID is Gangnam Beauty is a drama that, at its core, strives to remind us of this empathy. This quote, spoken by the lead characters mother, is poignant in the moment. However, it’s at the very core of nearly every characters story. The female lead, Kang Mirae, must learn to stop judging others based on their outward appearance. And it’s through this process she goes through that the other characters are shown to be hiding hidden depths of their own.
From the title alone, it would be hard to guess that this drama is all about acceptance or oneself and others. Premiering in 2018 and based on the webtoon of the same name by Gi Maeng Gi, it centres around the life of Kang Mirae (Im Soohyang), a first-year student at college studying chemistry. What her classmates don’t know is that Mirae now looks very different compared to the Mirae of years past. After being teased and bullied mercilessly all throughout school, Mirae, with the help of her mother, has undergone plastic surgery to completely alter her face. But there is one person whom she recognises at her new college from her school days who might reveal her. Unbeknownst to her, Do Kyungseok (Cha Eunwoo) has his own struggles to overcome.
The premise is the perfect set up for a light, romcom drama. However, Gangnam Beauty raises many questions along the way with its central cast of characters, and these questions thankfully don’t shy away from difficult topics. The drama constantly addresses the double standards society holds to both men and women. It covers how attractiveness should not define a person’s worth. It examines how men can see women as objects and can expect to not be held accountable for their own actions because of societal norms. It also shines a light on how harshly we can judge ourselves. In the first few episodes of the drama, Mirae’s habit of ranking a person’s appearance is shown visually, with her marking various features on a new acquaintances face and giving them a score out of a hundred. Because of this, she makes some decisions that not only impact her own view of self-worth but how others see her too.
The two most notable examples of this are her relationships with Hyun Sua and Do Kyungseok. Sua, in particular, is a very well developed character, played with great care and subtlety by Jo Woori. Many of her later character reveals add sympathy to her character, but never to the extent that her earlier actions are excused. Though Mirae warms to her immediately, as do most of the other chemistry students in their year and above, it is made apparent that this is mostly due to her appearance. Her actions are shown to be manipulative very early on, to the point where her personality feels saccharine. But never at any point does this become cartoonish.
In fact, it can be said that Sua changes and grows more as a character than Mirae does. Whilst the drama is a journey of self-acceptance for Mirae, without the juxtaposed downfall of Sua, there isn’t a great deal of change in Mirae’s character. Much of her development occurs before we meet her. We only see her adjustment to her new face and how it gradually helps her to understand that there are people who will look beyond a face to the personality.
Do Kyungseok plays a large part in this. He immediately accepts Mirae’s choice to undergo surgery and sees through Sua’s perfect image to the intentions beneath. He is perceived as equally good looking and placed on a pedestal by the other students, much like Mirae and Sua. However, he sets little store in appearances. His own character arc, a plot in which he gradually rebuilds a relationship with his estranged mother, is cut woefully short. That is both a downside and a positive to this drama; it does not waste time with unnecessary conflict. There are no sudden breakups and only a few moments of misunderstanding that could have been resolved. This works to its detriment at times. Once the reality of Kyungseok’s mother’s situation is revealed, there’s very little left to do with the plot. It would have been lovely to see this extended, but at the same time, it’s admirable that the writers sought to not overcomplicate the matter.
For this reason, Kyungseok suffers from the same as Mirae – a slight lack in character development. Yet the relationship between the two of them is executed slowly and with great care. In some ways, their development is the way in which they find a way to be together. There is understanding and support from both sides, a lovely thing to see in the kdrama world. Whilst also commenting on beauty standards in a society such as Korea’s, where the importance of appearance is heightened, there are also moments in which tropes are rejected. An early scene shows the classic kdrama wrist grab being shot down by the second male lead. If more dramas could take a pinch of this self-awareness, there would be far fewer tropes to fall into.
Overall, My ID is Gangnam Beauty feels like one of those dramas that will slip under the radar. It made a star of Astro’s Cha Eunwoo and gained rightful praise for the topics it tackled. It’s handling of these sensitive issues is what sets it apart from many other dramas, though it too does fall into its own traps by perpetuating some of the double standards it seeks to point out. But at its heart, it is an earnest and sweet drama, well acted and an easy watch.
If you’ve seen the drama before, let us know your thoughts on how it handles the concepts of beauty and self-worth, and whether you think more dramas need to take topics like this head on!