Could “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” perhaps be the best K-Drama of 2022? It’s a little early to say since we still have a few months left, but I’m willing to bet we won’t be as impacted by another K-Drama before the year’s end. “Extraordinary Attorney Woo”, fondly referred to as EAW by fans worldwide, has made its mark on our hearts and our minds. It piqued curiosity and hunger surrounding mental health and mental illness like never before. And from what I see, South Korea is perhaps most affected in the most positive way I could imagine.
EAW is the first K-Drama to showcase a female character with Autism. As a second-generation Korean American licensed mental health clinician, I am thrilled with the success of EAW, especially with how well-received it has been in South Korea. I’m taking this win personally since it’s my life’s mission to normalize mental health and break the stigma surrounding it.
EAW centers on Woo Young Woo, an Autistic savant. She’s a genius lawyer with high-functioning Autism (HFA) who graduated at the top of her class at Seoul National University. (Back in 2013, the K-Drama “Good Doctor” showcased a male character with high-functioning Autism, and it was well-received if I recall. There’s also currently an American remake of the “Good Doctor”.)
Woo Young Woo (portrayed exquisitely by Park Eun Bin) wins us over with her endearing character. We all fall in love with her and followed suit with the rest of the Hanbada team because of her relationship with each of her colleagues and love interest Lee Junho. Normally K-Dramas that do well globally aren’t as well-received in South Korea and vice versa. EAW broke those conventions.
At first glance, the Korean title – “Strange or Weird Attorney Woo Young Woo” – is not appealing, to say the least. In fact, it’s a turn-off and brought up some controversy among folks with Autism who felt the title was a poor choice of words, to say the least. Also, as popular as EAW is, it did receive some backlash from the Autism community for stereotyping and for only showing a one-sided view of what Autism looks like. Overall, however, it’s undeniable that EAW has made an extraordinary impact. Here are my top six takeaways:
Extraordinary Takeaway #1: Claim Your Name
Attorney Woo made sure that folks knew her name. This is the first step in claiming who you are. Your name is a crucial aspect of your identity. It gives you a sense of agency. It’s a deep personal connection since it’s the first thing that identifies you following birth.
Think of how jarring it is when someone says your name wrong, which happens to be quite common in our Asian culture, but that doesn’t mean it should be the case. Your name should be said and spelled correctly because it’s your first point of identification with those around you. Woo Young Woo’s introduction is attributed to her Autistic characteristics, but it’s a great example of making sure “everybody knows your name.” (A line from the famed Cheers sitcom from the 90s).
Extraordinary Takeaway #2: Authentic Self-Disclosure
I got hooked from the get-go when Attorney Woo discloses her Autism to the court in the very first episode. She’s about to present her first case as she faces ableism from her boss and colleagues and knows she has a lot to prove, like any first-time lawyer. In the classic style of high-functioning Autism, Young Woo doesn’t beat around the bush.
From the perspective of a clinician, this is an excellent example of owning the room by laying out your terms and boundaries. What you can and want to handle. I’m not necessarily saying we go around declaring our diagnoses. What I’m pointing out is that not showing face is disingenuous and, unfortunately, is our inclination in Asian culture.
Examples of authentic self-disclosure include sharing to an audience your anxiety about public speaking right before a presentation or talking about past failures that you’ve learned from to make changes in your life. Sure, there’s a concern about how folks will take any self-disclosure. However, at the end of the day, this promotes healthy well-being because you’re expressing what’s truthful to you.
Extraordinary Takeaway #3: Whale Symbolism
What a brilliant display of visualization we gain from Attorney Woo’s whale moments when she’s inspired or needs to soothe herself. Young Woo’s whale imagery is an example of positive symbolism since we know how much she loves whales (and dolphins) and has learned everything she can about them.
Young Woo envisions the whale as it swims gracefully in the courtroom or wherever she is, and she imagines the results she wants to achieve. We also see Young Woo picturing the whale when she’s anxious or nervous. For instance, on the subway, she closes her eyes and envisions the whale when she feels overwhelmed by the crowds of people.
Visualization or imagery is a wonderful mindfulness technique and an example for us to practice. Mindfulness helps us stay grounded and focused on the present moment, what we can control.
Extraordinary Takeaway #4: Caregiving Carefully
One of the most popular scenes from EAW was when we saw the beloved character Lee Jun Ho (aka Young Woo’s boyfriend) hug her tightly from behind when they witnessed a traumatic car accident. This became a fan favorite because it was very poignant and touching. A dynamic example of crisis care management at its best. Jun Ho expertly knew what to do.
Based on my assessment, he researched or learned ways to help someone with Autism cope in the face of trauma so he could be the best boyfriend ever. (Kidding, not kidding.) This is what I mean by caregiving carefully and why a licensed family therapist like myself loves seeing this. A support system is crucial for all of us, but in the case of Young Woo (and persons like her) it is critical that caregivers understand their role and what they can offer.
Caregiving carefully and thoughtfully is also key in preventing caregiver stress which can be a frequent occurrence. When caregivers know what they can do to help patients or their loved ones, everyone feels better-taken care of.
Extraordinary Takeaway #5: Influential Leadership
It’s thanks to Attorney Woo’s colleagues that Hanbada Law Firm is an encouraging place to work, with a particular shoutout to her boss. As an executive leadership coach, I enjoyed analyzing Jung Myung Seok’s fair and thoughtful decision-making and its impact on his employees. He modeled behavior showing integrity and generosity, which made his employees naturally follow suit. That is the mark of an influential leader, folks.
In episode 14, he offers free counsel to Buddhist monks to protect their monastery. Shortly after, Young Woo tells him how much she respects him for that. In the next scene, we see the Hanbada lawyers engage in the same behavior by providing free counsel and assistance (when it wasn’t asked) to the noodle shop owner who lost his business. How did this positive influence come out? Jung Myung Seok provides career opportunities for Young Woo and her colleagues to grow, as well as space to allow for creativity and passion. At the end of the day, Jung Myung Seok is focused on doing his best work for the sake of his employees and the firm.
Extraordinary Takeaway #6: Disabling Ableism
Much has been said about ableism in EAW and I cannot deny that we see it both overtly and covertly. Covertly meaning, what we viewers can see happening behind the scenes and behind the characters’ backs. There’s ableism (discrimination against persons with disability) written all over this because the titular character has Autism.
However, the key takeaway here is to get closer to understanding what it looks like to disable ableism for the sake of humankind. Attorney Woo is our heroine, the protagonist and we empathize with her struggle facing ableism in various situations – from her prickly colleague Kwon Min Woo to one of the law partners or even clients. I am pointing out that when you see something distasteful or wrong on screen or watch terrible behavior happen in front of you – you feel the emotions.
We already know ableism exists, but this show is a reminder of how we don’t like seeing it and it doesn’t make us feel good. Therefore, perhaps the next time we see it happening around us, we could do a better job of pointing it out or confronting it ourselves.
EAW has had a profound effect globally, particularly in Korea. I believe this is a first when it comes to a K-Drama centered on someone with a disability. I find this quite telling. At the end of the day, we all need to see a bit of hope and it’s there right in front of us in “Extraordinary Attorney Woo”. That is why I believe it is such a hit. Hopefulness is the overall message of this K-Drama. This world needs all the hope we can get. And, whether you know it or not, it’s exactly what we need to benefit our mental health and wellness.
“Extraordinary Attorney Woo” is available to watch on Netflix.
Bio: Jeanie Y. Chang, LMFT, CCTP is a licensed clinician, global speaker, executive leadership coach, and bestselling author on Amazon. She is a social media influencer known as Noona’s Noonchi® where she deep dives into K-Dramas from a mental health perspective. Jeanie is also the founder of Your Change Provider, PLLC®, an interdisciplinary practice focused on solutions, and her trademarked mental health curriculum, Cultural Confidence® which she delivers to corporations, community organizations, and universities around the world. For her own self-care, Jeanie enjoys watching K-Dramas with her husband of 24.5 years and planning family vacations where she can spend time with their four kids ages 15 – 22.