K-pop and K-dramas: Ma Hyeon-yi

Screenshot of Lee Joo-Young as Ma Hyeon-yi in ‘Itaewon Class’. Copyright goes to Showbox, JTBC, and Netflix.

Hi! It’s Annie!

I am interrupting our regularly scheduled programming because I have to rave about ‘Itaewon Class’ which I just finished. While there will be a post coming soon reviewing the entire drama, as my sister and I did have some problems with it, I needed an entire post to talk about this specific character. After watching ‘Itaewon Class’ there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that Hyeon-yi was my favorite character and that I had never before seen transgender representation that was this good. Though there are some issues with that latter part, I knew that I wanted to talk about her specifically and what she could mean for media in general. She’s amazing. I want to clarify that I am a cisgender woman, so there will still be things I don’t entirely understand. So, here we go! And, like always, there will be SPOILERS ahead!

The Casting:

What stuck out to me right off the bat, was that Hyeon-yi is played by a cisgender woman. This isn’t great, as I am definitely of the camp that you should hire a transgender actress to play a transgender woman. But I will give them the credit that at least they hired someone who identified with the same gender as the character, unlike in Hollywood. When depicting transgender women, American media generally will cast cisgender men to depict a transgender woman. This just continues to promote the flawed and completely incorrect mentality that transgender women are somehow still men. While media all around the world really needs to start casting transgender actors and actresses to tell their own stories; this still shows that this Korean show has a significant leg up on American shows. Not only that, but when Lee Joo-Young was asked about how she played the character, she unblinkingly responded that she thought more about the personality of the character than anything else and just played that.

The Plot:

We first find out that Hyeon-yi is transgender when three of the other characters spot her at a club, having the time of her life and dressed in clothes that are comfortable to her. The other three characters are confused and one of them even asks her why she is here rather than at a transgender bar. Feeling hurt, Hyeon-yi leaves them behind and is incredibly nervous around them the next day at work. One of the characters attempts to get her fired, using her lack of cooking skills as a cover for just wanting her to leave because of her own discomfort. The main character, Saeroyi, eventually tells the other employees that he will not fire Hyeon-yi and that if they are uncomfortable they should be the ones to leave. In a later episode Hyeon-yi leaves for a week which is later revealed to be for her BFS surgery (an optional surgery meant to make the body more feminine). Then we get to episode 12, my favorite in the series, where one of Hyeon-yi’s old friends outs her to the public in the hopes that she will withdraw from or lose a cooking competition. I sobbed through this entire episode. Hyeon-yi’s friends comfort her telling her that she doesn’t have to do it and also telling her that she is the strongest person that they know. In a chilling moment she declares “I am a transgender and I am going to win” live on television. In other words, this drama does not shy away from tackling discrimination against transgender women and men. Nor do they shy away from talking about surgeries, which I feel a lot of dramas tend to do. Though they could have focused on her more often, she ended up with more plot development than anyone but the three main characters in the show.

The Other Characters:

Saeroyi is very clear that he’s never cared about Hyeon-yi being transgender and is supportive of her from the beginning. But it’s the transformation of a couple other characters that really stand out to me. Jo Yi-seo, one of the main characters, is the character that tells her she should be at a transgender bar and then tries to get her fired. She is also the first character other than Saeroyi to refer to Hyeon-yi as a woman, becomes her best friend, and is the character that tells Hyeon-yi that she is the strongest person she knows in episode 12. Choi Seung-gwon is at first very un-understanding and later develops feeling for Hyeon-yi. It was really nice to see them give Hyeon-yi at least the beginnings of a relationship as many forms of media like to horribly portray trans men and women as if they are absolutely undesirable. They didn’t even do that once here. But more importantly, these characters learning to accept Hyeon-yi is not for the benefit of those characters. In the end, they are for the benefit of Hyeon-yi feeling accepted in the plot. There is no savior complex here as, at the end of the day, Hyeon-yi is the character that is shown to be most capable of defending herself. All it shows the audience is that she doesn’t have to do it alone if she doesn’t want to.


Hyeon-yi is written to be an actual character, not just representation. She’s a badass who will absolutely call out or make fun of anyone. She has a heart of gold and she is often the first to jump up and comfort someone who is struggling. She is the kind of person who can walk out on a stage and own it after having sobbed uncontrollably just moments before. Hyeon-yi is also flawed and sometimes doesn’t know when to stop and ask for help. She is a multi-dimensional character and just as complex as everyone else. You don’t see that every day and we desperately need more of it in media.

Hyeon-yi is a breath of fresh air in a media ball game that is attempting to change while still wrongly “playing it safe”, mostly for monetary reasons. I guarantee you that it is worth watching ‘Itaewon Class’ just for her as a character. If you haven’t watched it yet, seriously go and do that. The plot might be a little ridiculous at times, but you will fall in love with the characters. And you WILL fall in love with Hyeon-yi. She is one of the best written characters I have seen in a long time and I hope that we will get more representation like her in all forms of media in the future.

See you across the pond!

Sincerely, Annie

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