Disclaimer: I recognize what I write about here is not something that’s specific to kdramas or Korean media and that they can be found in the productions of most cultures, including the ones I’m a part of. In this post I focus on the ones in the kdramas I’ve watched, but there are lots of dramas out there with male leads who are not at all overly aggressive, (Dal Ja’s Spring, My Girlfriedn is a Gumiho, OB/GYN Doctors, What’s Up Fox?, Dream High, My Girl, to name a few). I’m not trying to shame Korea/Korean media while ignoring the fact that the same thing happens in other media I consume. Also, the very few kdramas I’ve seen are not representative of Korean culture as a whole, obviously!
In episode 5 of Me Too, Flower our heroine punches our hero and tells him that kissing her against her will is sexual harassment! I love this girl. Lovelovelovelovelove. With a few words she undoes all the “one sided kisses” (aka forced kisses/forced sexual advances) that are a part of rape culture and end up ruining the first kiss of most of my drama OTPs.
The one from Secret Garden was the absolute worst—way past cringe inducing and into something-is-horribly-wrong-here territory. As in “Am I watching a whimsical romantic comedy or a horror?” I mean, I could imagine Ha Ji Won (the actress) being uncomfortable while filming that scene. Gil Ra Im was actively, emphatically fighting Joo Won off the entire time (which makes me raise an eyebrow at the argument that states she accepted the hug Joo Won gave her on the bed) and it made me feel more than uncomfortable—I was disgusted and angry and honestly, just confused. I did not understand it. It seemed so much more extreme than the usual antagonisms that existed between those two as a romantic couple. They both used violence in their interactions with one another, both verbal and physical, but this felt more threatening than anything else that happened between them. SG is a show I need to watch over again and write about. I enjoyed it immensely, (and the Big Bang parody), but it was hella fucked up.
And my experience watching that show now affects how I watch other kdramas. For example, one of my recent favorites is Queen of Reversals, which has a very cute, very satisfying romance with an older alpha woman and a younger puppy-dog man. BUT, it also has a scene in which our hero forces a kiss onto our heroine. And afterwards our hero refers back to it as “the kiss we shared” and uses it as evidence that he and our heroine are dating! Before watching Secret Garden I suspect I would have just ignored that, but after Secret Garden, it just drives me up the wall. I can’t stand it. I hate it. I want it to stop. And what I hate the most is that the narrative tries to paint it as a bonding moment, as loving and caring and something that’ll make viewers swoon. But it’s not. It’s disgusting. And the same thing. Keeps popping up. In all the dramas I watch. WHY?
My other favorite drama right now is The Princess’s Man, which is this lush, epic, beautifully told love story with this awesome female lead who defies her father because he is corrupt and exercises her agency to her fullest extent within the constraints of her position in society. One of her best characteristics is her loyalty—to herself and her ideals, and to the people she loves. BUT, and I’ll write more about this in the final part of my critique of the show, there is this thing that is a part of the narrative and a part of their romance and that is presented in a positive light, where Seung Yoo, our hero, is extremely violent towards her and threatens her with death, and Se Ryung, our heroine, not only accepts it, but welcomes it and encourages it and ignores the threat being placed on her and turns it around so that the focus is on his pain as opposed to his threat to kill her. MANPAIN. Uuuuuggggggghhhhhhh. He threatens to dismember every member of her family and she hugs him and asks him how much he’s hurting. Uh, not as much as your mother’s gonna be hurting if he does what he just said he wants to do! I hate it because it makes me feel that I can only love these things in parts, in little bursts, with quick smacks of my lips against the cheek instead of with full-on, minutes-long hugs that involve rocking from foot to foot, and these things that I enjoy are perpetuating things that I hate, things that hurt me and others; these things that I consume as entertainment are reflecting and influencing the “real world” in ugly ways, and I’m part of that ugliness.
AND. If there is one kdrama that I love wholeheartedly, with no reservations, it is Coffee Prince. (If I remove the entirety of the secondary leads in What’s Up Fox, it would be that one, but alas…) And then I read about piggybacking, and they point out how Han Geul ends up piggy-backing Go Eun Chan in the end, and how that reflects and reinforces the patriarchal society the story arises from and I see how Coffee Prince and Secret Garden are linked and I’m crushed again.