Have Dramas and Movies Been Glamorizing Iljins?

Have more dramas and movies been glamorizing iljins?

As we all know, the highly-rated drama School 2013 had finally come to an end recently.  I've been feeling depressed over the lack of bromance in my life now that it’s over  (Go Nam Soon!  Park Heung Soo!)  and have since resorted to stalking various platforms to find evidences that they are dating try to get over this terrible drama hangover. Recently, I chanced upon an article on Nate discussing the controversy surrounding School 2013 which made me mull and ponder over the issue for a while.

I know right, what controversy? Although it wasn't such a big issue (since many people hadn't really heard of it), School 2013 was once criticized during its first few episodes as being yet another drama that glamorizes iljins and their lifestyles.  I can already hear some of you going "WTF is an iljin?" Firstly, an iljin is a Korean slang that basically means "top rankers" which is what many Korean school gang members call themselves. 


Iljin gangs are common in many schools in Korea and can be far more dangerous than one may think - not just giving punches and blows to classmates and the occasional money extortion; they can even lead to sexual harassment and even suicides. Prosecutors in Korea even say the number of rapes committed by high school kids nearly tripled from 2001 to 2003, the last year for which statistics are available. (source here)

The topic of iljins or school bullying is no longer a stranger to K-Drama land. In fact, it gets so common to an extent that it is even considered a cliché to most school drama plots. But does anyone ever wonder how big of an impact it makes to society, especially students? Sure, iljins can spice up a storyline, but with the rise in Korean dramas and movies glamorizing the 'cool iljin' as the protagonist, doesn't it bring a negative effect to students who end up looking up to them? 


In the first episode of Boys Over Flowers, the F4 gave a red card to a student, which basically signals the rest of the school population to harass and bully him. Said student could not stand the taunting and tried to take his own life - only to be saved by Jan Di, of course…but that is irrelevant. Jan Di forgets about this incident and goes on to fall in love with Mr. Curly Mop Head and the rest of his posse. The thing is, the production team downplayed the severity of the incident and goes on to glorify the F4 and how ‘cool’ they are, making everyone fall in love with the drama. It’s basically screaming: "It’s okay to bully someone as long as you're handsome and/or rich."


It's not like the general public are unaware and ignorant about this issue - during a special episode of School 2013, where they invited students and teachers to be audience members,  227 out of 300 audience members polled had agreed that school violence and iljins are a cruel reality in Korean schools. Terms to describe iljin activities were also widely understood by the general public, with audience members themselves sharing their own experiences. Henceforth, this just brings us back to one question: if we are aware of the negativity surrounding iljins, then why do dramas and movies constantly try to airbrush the lifestyles of iljins in their productions and try to portray them as acceptable, and a symbol of greatness and power?

Personally, I’m fine with iljin characters as long as the drama acknowledges that whatever the iljins do are wrong. A great example would be School 2013 – it is said that the drama had managed to avoid a lot of flak and gained praise by making its characters admit to their wrongdoings, and showing the consequences to their actions (this is yet another great reason why you should watch this drama if you haven’t). Oh Jung Ho learns to apologize; and Heung Soo too had shown how his dark past could still affect him and cause suspicion even to this day. This drama puts us in their shoes – it made us understand why they do what they do, even if we cannot excuse them. 

If anything, I also think dramas need to consider that not all iljins come from dire situations or dysfunctional families. Nowadays, iljins act out because they know their parents are rich enough to have their backs. Iljins can beat up a student so hard to the point of paralysis but with one word from their parents, they get away scot free. A lot of things also need to be taken into consideration if dramas are choosing to portray an iljin character, and it is the responsibility of the production team to ensure that they do it right. 

So what do you think, MDL? Should glamorizing iljins be stopped, or is it harmless? Also, what other dramas glamorizing iljins have you watched, and how do you feel about those dramas?

Comments (55)

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    ManaSura May 4, 2013

    I like this article a lot, glad I thought of scrolling through older Editorial article.
    Asian Dramas tend to reflect its societies, sometimes in a bit of an exaggerated manner to make things more dramatic. I actually like how realistic the Asian dramas can be if compared to American ones.
    I agree with your point that dramas should not draw bully characters in a way that makes them look cool or worse justify their wrong doings just because they have their own troubles.
    I haven't watched neither of the two dramas you mentioned here but I've watched the 1st episode of Boys over Flowers and I totally found that suicidal scene shocking. Don't know whether or not that was in the manga, but I'm glad it wasn't in the Japanese version. The story should be of a troubled spoiled teenager and how he matures through loving a poor and righteous girl. The Korean version didn't stress that point at all

  • Reply
    orangefizzfun May 4, 2013

    many a times media- dramas, movies even commercials mirror reality. but everybody forgets the terrifying part- the abject normalcy that we attach with it. the part that they're actually iljins or bullying is overlooked and considered 'normal' or even cool. its actually so insidious that we don't even see it. everybody knows that media indeed influences our mind sets and mentality. i completely agree with this article. IMO the glamorizing should stop. good job on this article. really inspiring! :)

  • Reply
    celene Feb 22, 2013

    I think it is an added spice to a drama but no one should go to the extent of actually following it if it means that people would bully others....

  • Reply
    kailin Feb 14, 2013

    wow great article!this is a serious topic, i never thought about it this way.:( maybe because the girl character is always strong and stands up to the bullies. but it's true they show way to many girls falling in loves with the 'bad guy' and as he develops throughout the story we tend to forget that he was a real horrible person. i like drama such as school 2013 and nobuta wo produce, because they show a little different side of what's happening in school. i'm just glad i went to school happily without any bad people. ^_^

  • Reply
    tomatipasta Feb 13, 2013

    i've never seen it as glamorizing tho

  • Reply
    ltsukino Feb 12, 2013

    I have never actually used this as food for though. The thing is, Iljins or bullies or whatever they're called in the respective country are a reality and something that has been a constant presence in movies and series worldwide. So I need not to watch KD to watch this. I remember when I was a bit younger and 50 cent and other rappers where really popular in my school there was also a polemic concerning this and specially after the 8mile movie with Eminem. Over the time it just stopped being a topic because there was no proof that those people that loved this musicians wanted to start robbing like its said on the lyrics or if it was more the other way around.
    I think it goes the same for KD. I think everyone that watches this knows it's bad and reproves of it. Even if you end up falling with the character it's not like you approve of it. I speak for myself.

    • Reply
      ltsukino Feb 12, 2013

      Oh, and MDL please let us write more in our comments. xD

  • Reply
    EmilyOddBird Feb 12, 2013

    I think it's impossible to avoid Iljins in school dramas no matter what country they're made in. Like you said, what makes it okay is when the character learns and tries to grow and move past their previous wrongdoings. If they never acknowledge what they've done wrong and there's no excuse for it, I don't like it. It's a very tricky subject, especially since we all love a bad boy. :P

  • Reply
    Marse Feb 12, 2013

    Haven't watched School 2013 yet, but it's on my PTW list. :3

    Anyway, I don't think iljins should be glamorized. Such kind of characters is important to be portrayed realistically, in order to make the other people from outside the country aware of its true situation. Sugar-coating's not good when dealing with such serious topics.

    Anyway, I commend you for being able to write about this topic. :) Thumbs up! :D

  • Reply
    ilovemassu Feb 12, 2013

    iljin or not, in korean & all over the world, what School 2013 trying to convey is the reality of reality. those who ban without understanding what the drama is trying to say are those who do not want to face reality. period

  • Reply
    TheJ Feb 11, 2013

    This is one reason I avoid high school dramas. They'll always have these characters and, more often than not, they'll never get reprimanded for it. Korea is so quick to ban anything with the smallest hint of violence in it, so it's always amazed me that bullying like this is so rampant in popular dramas.

    That was the one thing I enjoyed about 'School 2013'. Over time, you saw them grow and change while still having to deal with the consequences of being bullies. In 'Boys Over Flowers', they drive one boy to suicide, and in 'Dream High' and 'To The Beautiful You', you have characters attempting to seriously hurt/kill another character. In one, the harshest bully is the one every single person loves, and in the other two, the main character forgives them almost instantly and it's never talked about again. Those are horrible morals to teach children.

    • Reply
      BrightestStar Feb 13, 2013

      Seriously!! I haven't seen dream high but I saw the latter and I was like.. What thats it??!! Its attempt murder!!

      Well What appreciate School 2013 is that not only they show how bullies can affect others, but also the consequences of their OWN actions, that might follow them for the rest of their lives, Be it hurting someone they care about, destroying their potential careers.. I do hate the whole parents control over the school but I guess that is also an important issue that the show needed to address. But yea I think it did a better job than other shows of showing what being a bully really means.

      glamorizing bullies was always there since the 80s/90s movies and tv shows about the "cool bully" falling for the nice girl and it turns out... he has a good heart and "perfectly good reasons to act the way he did" :P I hope with will change with more shows like School 2013 ;)

  • Reply
    Aphrodity Feb 11, 2013

    Although I didn't see School 2013 but I agree, they shouldn't be glamorized. However, I still think it's not that serious in Korean dramas.

  • Reply
    Enigma_J_S Feb 11, 2013

    i love this drama. I admire how you spoke about something so serious. I also loved School 2013 and would recommend it to others. Its not your typical comedy romance, but something that goes deeper. It has great messages. Missing that show!

  • Reply
    HAVA-RAVA Feb 11, 2013

    I loved School 2013 because of Oh Jung Ho's character development. He grew to be my favorite character of the drama.

    I think that iljins/bullying has always been an issue in not only Asian, but also other country dramas. In Finnish series it's also an issue. Though I think that TV series and dramas, of course, tends to dramatize them... I've been bullied at school during 2003-2008 and I know it's not funny. In my case it was verbal bullying and I didn't know how to fight back at all. If it was physical I would've been able to hit and/or kick them back...

    I'm getting sideways and off-topic here so I'll just stop...

  • Reply
    Oresama Feb 11, 2013

    I always thought they're more severe in Japanese dramas.

    • Reply
      Marse Feb 12, 2013

      Someone told me that the actual case in Japan's more severe than what could be seen in the dramas. .___.

      Just sharin' :3

  • Reply
    Nana87 Feb 11, 2013

    Great article, very interesting and educating :D
    Now I have a whole different view to these kinds of characters in dramas.

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