Move Over Game Of Thrones; Netflix K-Drama Arthdal Chronicles Avoids Sexual Assault As Plot Device

Posted: September 25, 2019

Game of Thrones gave us some great female characters. Arthdal Chronicles, a Korean TV series streaming on Netflix, also has women characters we can champion, and so far it is treating them better than GoT treated its women!

Game of Thrones captured imaginations internationally with its intricate plotting, diverse range of characters and well, dragons.

Despite disappointing fans, and prompting over a million of them to sign a petition to reshoot the final season of the show, it is still a show that is spoken of with some reverence. No surprise then that it swept up 12 awards, including outstanding drama series, at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards that aired on the 22nd of September this year.

Since the show has gone off air however, it has left a vacuum, prompting many others to create shows in the historical-fantasy genre. One such show, currently streaming on Netflix, is Arthdal Chronicles, billed as the first k-drama of its kind.

Comparisons to Game of Thrones

Starring  Song Joong-ki, Jang Dong-gun, Kim Ji-won and  Kim Ok-bin, the show is set in the fictional land of Arth.

Apart from the leading quartet, the show features a sprawling cast of characters, all vying for power. It has palace intrigue, spies, swordfights, characters with supernatural powers, and all the other staples of the genre. It doesn’t have any dragons, but that hasn’t stopped the unfavourable comparisons to GoT, with some going as far as accusing the show of plagiarism.

As someone who has watched and greatly enjoyed the first season, I can confidently say that Arthdal has a soul of its own. At the same time however, the influences cannot be denied. From the title sequence, that shows the various places the story is set in through a circular object engraved with symbols (in GoT it is an astrolabe; in Arthdal it is through the centre of a coin), to the costuming, to some plot features (for example, GoT has the Wall, and Arthdal has the Great Black Cliff), there are some commonalities.

Arthdal Chronicles treats its women much better

Beyond these superficial likenesses however, the shows differ greatly with respect to many features, especially in how the shows treat their female characters.

GoT gave us many female characters that went beyond stereotypes and that evolved over the seasons. Cersei, Daenerys, Sansa, Arya, Brienne etc. will continue to stay with us. However, even as GoT was lauded for its strong female characters, it was also criticized for how it chose to treat them, especially towards the end.

In its desire to explore how women move through a world steeped in patriarchy and that valued “masculinity,” the show often used women’s bodies as props. From nudity that wasn’t necessary to the use of rape as a plot device (even when the books that the show was based on did not feature said rape!) the treatment of women was problematic.

The response of the showrunners and other supporters has always been that the abuse/rape/nudity were necessary to aid realism. To which this insightful article argues, “the burden of realism is disproportionately placed on the rape of women. And not old women, or unconventionally attractive women, both of whom are also the targets of rapists. The only conclusion is that the show is depicting what it imagines audiences want to see — sex, violence, and sexual violence inflicted upon attractive women.”

This is not just the case with GoT, but with many other period dramas. That is why Arthdal Chronicles stood out for me.

Unpacks equality between genders beautifully

The show is supposedly set in the Bronze Age, and despite many other historical inaccuracies, the show does seem to have got one thing right –early men and women in hunter-gatherer societies were equals.

In the world of Arth, agriculture is still a relatively new phenomenon, and so it is still a society that is egalitarian. A woman in Arth is just as likely as a man to hold political office/ leadership positions, work outside the home, be educated, and learn to fight with weapons. It is possible that in future seasons, the show may explore how gender inequality became a part of human life, but for now Arth is a society that doesn’t seem to have strictly defined gender roles.

This also extends to how the characters look –some of the women wear ‘masculine’ clothing, while one male character looks very ‘feminine’ and sometimes disguises himself as a woman.

The show also understands and portrays consent beautifully.

Rape / sexual assault NOT a plot device

In one scene, a woman who is the last female of her species (yes, species!) is approached by the last remaining males. They ask her to accompany them, but she refuses as she does not want to leave her adoptive family. The men just leave knowing that this very well means the end of their species. They are portrayed as ‘wild beasts’ but even so, they respect her choice, and do not attempt to use force or even verbal arguments to convince her to change her mind.

Not once does the show use rape or sexual assault as a plot device. Yes, some female characters go through immense trauma. There is genocide, forced captivity, violence and slavery that they have to endure – but that is something common to both genders. They do not suffer for being female. There is barely any nudity, and the women are not treated as sexual objects.

What this gives us is a cast full of smart, brave and powerful female characters. Even better, they are not stereotypically ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Instead they inhabit the gray areas, making questionable choices. One actually roots for the ‘vamp’ sometimes! There are some wonderfully ‘unlikeable’ women, as there are women that one wants to cheer for.

Arthdal has neither the production quality of GoT, nor its popularity. And it can in places feel like it is dragging. However, it has a lot of positives too. Whether or not you enjoy Arthdal will depend on why you liked GoT. If what attracted you to GoT is the CGI dragons, the grand battle scenes and gratuitous violence and nudity, then give Arthdal a miss.

If what you loved about GoT was the plot, the characters and the world-building, then Arthdal Chronicles is a hidden gem that must be watched, especially for how it builds up its female characters.

Image source: a still from Arthdal Chronicles

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Vijayalakshmi Harish is a book blogger and writer. To paraphrase her librarian, she is a

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