I finished my first Korean drama last month.
It was like watching Channel V in 2013, but with a better plot and production value.
I loved it.
But the type of content doesn’t go down as easy as it would have in 2013.
Now I have a lot of complicated, confusing questions. All of which have a simple answer.
But first, the questions:
Why do popular dramas alternate between a homophobic or queer-baity undertone? Why is the male lead falling in love with a woman-disguised-as-a-man trope so popular? Why is it made to appear so scandalous? Why isn’t there a story of a man falling in love with another man or a trans man? Why is the female lead introduced as outgoing and bold, only to turn into a blubbering, stuttering, hot mess when the male lead says something obtusely romantic? Why do they have nothing in common except the fact that they are attracted to each other? Will they ever talk about anything other than themselves? Why are almost all of the kisses initiated by the man without any indication of consent from the woman, followed by wide, surprised eyes and gradual acceptance as her shoulders slump into his? Why is she, a full-grown-adult-woman, so clueless when the male lead makes loaded comments about ‘not being able to control/restrain himself any longer’ and walks away? When it finally dawns on her, why does she blush and is embarrassed? Why is she not afraid? Why does she not walk away? Why is her wrist grabbed in varying degrees of aggression when she tries to walk away from him?
Seriously, WHAT IS WITH ALL THE WRIST GRABBING?
As for the answer: (i’ll give you a hint because I’m nice- one word, starts with the letter ‘P’)
You guessed it!
(it’s fine if you couldn’t guess, you’re still a victim)
And because ever since I have been vocal about my opinions on -to put it as briefly as possible- ‘world politics’, I have also been constantly asked by all kinds of men ‘But what do you know?’ (no points for guessing why), I will now proceed to show you, reader, that I do -in fact- know.
In the 2017 KBS drama Fight For My Way, the female lead (Choi Ae-ra) is borderline aggressive and unapologetic about it. She has been this way for all her life, including her 20 year friendship with the male lead (Ko Dong-man). Her character does a strange U-turn when the two start dating. For their first date she wears a dress, causing her former-friend-now-boyfriend, Ko Dong-Man to throw a tantrum about how he’ll have to spin-kick men who stare at her legs (he is a MMA fighter). He screams at her to go and change into jeans. Her response is meek, a few deflated sentences along the lines of ‘how dare you tell me what to do…you used to carry my schoolbag around… don’t order me around etc.’, her signature high-pitched ‘what did you just say, i’ll beat you up’ attitude is sorely lacking when it is needed the most. This is shown as an isolated incident, neither of two -especially her- have any consequent thoughts or feelings about it. A romantic soundtrack is attached for most of the scene, increasing in volume as she goes back inside and changes into jeans.
Another 2017 drama, JTBC’s Strong Woman Do Bong Soon is applauded for it’s literal translation of a ‘strong female lead’. Do Bong Soon possesses supernatural strength that runs in the women of her family. The male lead (Ahn Min-Hyuk) is shown as slightly ‘effeminate’ in his dressing and demeanour, but when it comes to Do Bong Soon he is a Man. This includes forcibly holding her hand when she’s clearly uncomfortable and some questionable kissing, while he is really going at it, she stands straight and closes her eyes at best. The series also has a homophobic undertone, a senior employee at work is stereotyped as a flamboyant, overdramatic gay man by the writers of the show. He is shown as obsessed with Ahn Min-Hyuk and jealous of Do Bong-Soon. There is also an absurd underlying plotline that Ahn Min-Hyuk is rumoured to be gay because he hasn’t dated anyone in the last 6 years, it is also suggested that his occasional effeminate behaviour adds fuel to these rumours.
In no way do the problems end here, they are as varied and as many in number as there are Korean dramas. But for the sake of my sanity and yours, I will stop here in the hope that you, reader, get it. You get that Korean dramas have sanitised romance, the male lead’s behavior seems okay because you know they are going to end up together by Episode 16.
Real life offers no such guarantee.
Never forget a Korean drama is just that, a dramatised version of reality, and if a man constantly grabs you by the wrist as you try to walk away- it is not romantic, it is a red flag.
JTBC’s Itaewon Class, releasing in the first month of 2020, was quickly positioned as a ‘progressive’ drama because it included the minor characters of Kim Toni, a black man and Ma Hyeon-Yi, a trans woman. The storylines of both characters revolve around them being black (Kim Toni is not allowed to enter a club because of his race) and trans (to reduce her popularity on a cooking reality TV show Ma Hyeon-Yi is outed to the public before the final round), they do not play a major role in the main storyline, and instead serve as plot points to move the drama forward. The applause Itaewon Class has received for doing the absolute bare minimum is testimony to the long way Korean dramas have to go before their diversity claim is more than just tokenism.