The Flower in Prison, Episode 4

TL;DR: There are some attempts at pointing out and ridiculing sexism that kind of don’t work all that well on account of sexism, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

proud

This was the last proper episode for the young version of Ok-nyeo, and I have to say I’m charmed by the child actress who plays her. She did a pretty good job with a broad range of scenes—and did those scenes make me happy. I was so pleased that Ok-nyeo got to show off her language and fighting skills at the same time, but what made me go awwww was just how proud everyone else was of her. None of this “but what is a young girl like you doing, involving yourself in something dangerous!” or anything like that—no, everyone was so just so damned proud of her (and offered to make her an official damo with real pay and everything?!) and praised her, from her father figure to the head prison official. And her teacher was proud of her, too. ;_;

rings

I’m a little iffy on Tae-soo being able to identify Ok-nyeo’s mother’s associates from a pair of engraved rings, but you know what, I’ll let that slide. Mostly because with the conspicuous absence of the identical hair decoration I had no idea how else Ok-nyeo was going to get her first lead. Too bad that investigation went sideways in about thirty seconds. I am totally on pickpocket guy’s side—no way would I continue investigating if everyone turned out to be dead. (I wonder if Ok-nyeo reported that last court lady’s death. We went straight into time skip/transition, so I have no idea.)

Tae-won is slowly getting roped into the action proper, though I’m still not sure what his deal is. If we wanted him to run afoul with Nan-jung, surely there were more efficient methods than having him join a trading group/gang and snatching one of her shipments. (He seems to be playing an increasingly dangerous game with every heist/trick he pulls.) Then again, I have to remind myself that this is a fifty-episode show and they could be hanging up all manner of Chekov’s Guns for firing later on.

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for this episode was a little dimmed due to two things: people’s responses to Nan-jung and the police damo tests. Particularly the weird, sexist undercurrents floating about in both of them.

bridge boss

Ji-ham’s confrontation with Nan-jung on the bridge was really…weird. I’m sure a cultural and historical disconnect is partially to blame, but the rest of it just leaves me scratching my head in bewilderment. Why do you, Ji-ham and the broader base of townspeople, care that a concubine “acts” like the first wife? Are you part of Nan-jung and Won-hyung’s family/household/estate? (Speaking of, where is the first wife? I’d love to learn more about her. If anyone has the right to complain about relative places in the household, it’s her.) Does it seriously tie your knickers in that many knots to have a “lower” woman be given the status and regard of a “higher” woman by the man who loves her? What is her crime, precisely, aside from wanting to set up a trading/smuggling empire and for all appearances being in a loving relationship?

Like, I get it, Won-hyung is evil and needs to go down, but why the hell are you all intent on punishing Nan-jung (or in Nan-jung’s brother’s case, deriding Nan-jung’s desire to acquire wealth separate from her husband) for being an ambitious woman who wants to better her and her family’s status? I was even a little disappointed in grown up Shin-hye for her argument with her mother. It’s one thing to be pessimistic about your marriage prospects as the daughter of a concubine and quite another to basically tell your mother off for wanting the best for you and not “knowing her place.”

#TeamNanJung, seriously. If this show wants to sell me on the idea of her being evil, it is going to actually need her to do evil things, not just have her be ambitious.

victory

The damo tests also disappointed me. Not Ok-nyeo’s performance (Jin Se-yeon and her stunt double? are great in the action scenes)—no, basically everything else about the tests irritated me. It felt like they were trying to communicate how sexist the police bureau was but then failed to check their own sexism in the setup, so the whole thing is a conflicting mess.

There’s a moment blatantly designed to elicit eye-rolling from the audience: when a younger police officer is uncertain about how to select damo and the other flat out says it’s most important for the damo be pretty and pour tea well. It’s a moment designed so Ok-nyeo can astound these guys with her skills—but she’s the protagonist. She’s been secretly trained by one of the best spies/assassins in the country. Of course she’s going to wow everyone. Instead, this serves as a foundation for more bleh things.

Like the fighting test. I was so pissed at the fat joke—why the hell don’t you want a woman who looks like she can put you through the wall on your police force again? Oh, right, she isn’t aesthetically pleasing and you’re too terrified of her beating the shit out of you to actually let her demonstrate what kind of skills she has. (Plus, people in-universe laughed at the order for her to lose more weight.) But the more subtly infuriating thing were the fighters before and after that and how that painted an unflattering overall picture.

competition

I’m assuming that all of the people who came for police and damo tryouts knew what sort of things they would be tested on. They all seem to be prepared for the tea-pouring test we got a glimpse of. Yet ladies one and two showed up in everyday women’s hanbok and clearly didn’t know how to handle a sword as they were each disarmed with a single strike. Ladies three and four were dressed in more appropriate clothes for fighting, but lady three was disqualified before she could swing her sword for being intimidating and weighing too much and lady four only lasted three strikes before she got disarmed.

And then there’s Ok-nyeo, who is so amazing that the police take her over to fight the top guy in the police tryouts—and she beats him after a tough but fair fight. Which sets up this frustrating implied skill hierarchy: 1) Ok-nyeo, 2) all the guys, and then 3) all the women. (Because when we passed the men’s tryouts, none of them were getting swords knocked out of their hands with single strikes and they actually were allowed to have multiple skills like archery, horseback riding, and various fighting styles.) Why didn’t we get to see any women on screen at the moderate-to-advanced skill level besides our protagonist? Having Ok-nyeo be so good that the police refuse to allow her in as a damo because she’ll bruise their male egos would have been annoying enough on its own, but it’s makes-me-want-to-tear-my-hair-out infuriating when it’s coupled with the implication that few, if any, of the damo they did hire are capable of handling a sword–which they apparently need to know how to do considering it is part of the official test.

start

It’s not exactly progressive to have your female protagonist be the most skilled of all candidates when, based on what’s on the screen, all the men are better than all of the other women. No, not even if all the women ecstatically cheer when Ok-nyeo wins.

By the Numbers

  • Beatings: 2 (+1 with several prisoners +2 wooden sword fights)
  • Sad childhood flashbacks: 1
  • Dead moms: 1
  • Other dead bodies: 1
  • Bechdel Test: 4 episodes passed

6 thoughts on “The Flower in Prison, Episode 4

  1. Mariah says:

    I’m with you about the concubine and about the heavier woman, but I disagree about the try-outs generally. If this were set in the current day, I’d agree, but it isn’t. The show has played up the fact that our female lead is not only talented, but is growing up in a place that exists outside of the norm, and for me, that makes the difference.

    Under normal circumstances, a young poor girl would have very little power or self-determination. But she exists in a world where, but for a few male staff members, she’s top dog. Everyone else is on lock-down. She controls what the prisoners’ lives look like. So the people she spends most of her time with are not in a situation to argue with her about what she wants to do. A teacher who might not give her the time of day in real life is much more amenable to teaching the person who ensures his safety, his keep, everything.

    Though the show doesn’t tell us, it’s likely that very few other women or girls in Joseon would have had the same kinds of opportunity or power. SO why would those other women know how to fight? There’s no shame in not knowing how to do something for which you’ve never been trained.

    I rolled my eyes about the fat lady jokes too, but that’s pretty standard for kdramas.

    I hope they go all Miss Korea on Nan Jung. If they gave her a treatment like Lee Mi-Sook’s character, I’d be on board with that.

    My hope is that this is standard K-feminism: missing the bullseye, but still hitting the board. We’ll see.

    • Audrey says:

      Hi, Mariah! Welcome to the site!

      I’m not disagreeing with you about why Ok-nyeo is so awesome–the story set up her outsider status and unusual skill acquisition excellently, plus she’s the hero, so I expect her to do amazing things. I also think you’re right that few women in the time period would have had as many opportunities to acquire these particular skills as men would have, which is why the number of women in the damo tryouts are far fewer than the number of men.

      My problem is with the actual setup for the swords skill test and the assumptions that went with it. It wasn’t set up for true beginners. If it had been, I would have expected the police officer to demonstrate a couple sword forms for the women and then evaluated them on their ability to learn it quickly or hold the stances properly–even general fitness/reflex/strength/endurance tests would have indicated general levels of athleticism that would be a good way to weed out people.

      The police obviously don’t expect the women to have advanced skill levels–otherwise, they would be sparring against one another like the men–but they clearly expected the women to have *some* measure of familiarity with a sword. The test setup assumes that the instructor is testing their *proficiency* in this particular skill, not whether or not these women are capable of being *taught* the skill. That’s why the sequence bothers me, because ladies one and two were out in a single strike (indicating they likely haven’t worked with swords before or much at all, which means they knew that sword skills were a prerequisite to gaining a damo position and didn’t train or that they were ignorant of an important part of the job description, which doesn’t paint them in a flattering light). If ladies one and two had the skill level that lady four had–two blocks/strikes before getting disarmed, indicating they had undergone some degree of training–and lady four had lasted longer, but not as long as Ok-nyeo, I don’t think it would have bothered me. (And, you know, if they hadn’t turned lady three into a walking fat joke.) Maybe I’m inferring incorrectly, but that’s what I got out of the test setup, and that’s why I was annoyed.

      I have heard excellent things about Miss Korea (and President Ma), and from what little I know, I would be delighted if that’s how Nan-jung turned out. We’ll have to see!

      I’ve found that they hit the bullseye just as frequently as other media I consume–and sometimes I’m very wrong about my interpretation, especially when it comes to cultural stuff. 🙂

  2. Mariah says:

    I think we have two reasonable interpretations .. the show is not particularly focused on showing us why they made the choices they did for the day players.

    I think I understand what you’re saying, which is an excellent point. I’m a little more forgiving, but also assume all sorts of things the show doesn’t actually tell us. So it really could go either way.

    From my point of view, I don’t think it was unreasonable. Job placement is not usually teaching; the point is to find the best person for the job, and then help that person learn once they’ve been placed. I see that initial perfunctory style of match as a way to get the obvious Nos dropped, so they can focus on the people with potential. Like, I think they were looking for someone like Woman 4… they weren’t expecting her to win the match, but they wanted to know who was the best of the bunch. We don’t really know what happened to her afterward. It’s entirely possible they trained her.

    But you really could read it either way, IMO.

    I’ve been lurking on your tumblr for a while. I really enjoy it. You have a lot of insight. 🙂

    • Audrey says:

      Ah, okay, I get your POV. I just wish that the obvious Nos had been dropped earlier, like at the point where they registered for the tests. (“Do you know how to fight with a sword?” “No.” “Then you’ve failed. Come back next time.”) The men’s tests assumed all the men could fight coming in; the women’s test assumed that a lot of them couldn’t. If I’ve got time, I’ll have to go back to the announcement of who passed and see if I can spot #4 and what her reaction was.

      Aw, well thank you for de-lurking! (And thank you for the kind words.) How’d you find me? 😮

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *