I never imagined myself becoming a K-drama viewer. I've always preferred Western shows that feature flawed and complex characters, and I couldn't see myself going from Breaking Bad to a cutesy K-drama. But after being assigned to write an article on Filipinas who married Korean men, I wanted to understand why so many women were hooked on K-dramas. And so I researched online about good K-dramas available on Netflix, dove into my first one, Strong Woman Do Bong Soon, and what a way to start it was.
That was a year ago. Since then, I've finished eight other K-dramas, and have found most of them funny, heartwarming, impressive production-wise, and despite the tear-jerking moments, refreshingly light. Plus, those cliffhanger endings are merciless—no wonder they leave viewers positively gagging for more.
I'm on my 10th K-drama now—it's Goblin; wish me luck!—and have more lined up because I enjoy them that much. But although 10 is a paltry number and I've got a long way to go in my K-drama journey, I've noticed some things common in the shows I've seen that have left me, a self-identifying feminist, feeling a bit of discomfort.
It becomes dangerous if we start to believe that the problematic things we see in them are romantic—the dominating, the constant fighting, the crossing of boundaries.
A popular trope in the K-dramas I've seen is that of the rich or powerful guy falling for the poor yet feisty girl—this "superior" man has had a heart of gold all along, and it's the "inferior" woman who brings that heart out of him. While the female leads are spunky and independent and it's satisfying to watch them overcome the odds that are stacked against them, this power imbalance is often present.
Imbalance also finds its way into the characters' interactions, with scenes showing the men bossing the women around and even physically controlling them. I've seen male characters shout at female characters, grab them by the wrist, or pin them against a wall—and the women, so spunky up until then, just take it. And even though I get just as kilig as everyone else when two people who've been vacillating between "will they or won't they" for half a season finally show some nerve, when a man gives an unwitting woman a surprise back hug or suddenly plants a kiss on her startled face—cue the music and slow motion—a tiny part of me cringes ever so slightly.
In many of these dramas, the male and female leads are often fighting at the start, precisely because they're so different, or because, prior to the woman melting his cold heart, the guy has been prancing around like a grade-A jerk. But in real life, relationships are rarely so rife with conflict at the start because we don't normally fall for people who give us hell—and we shouldn't. We seek out people who make us feel happy, not tormented—heaven forbid we should start craving conflict just because tormentors have been portrayed so attractively in TV shows. Furthermore, such scenes send the message that it's a woman's love that can turn a jerk around—and any woman who has suffered through an unhealthy relationship because she fell into the "I can change him" trap knows that's not true.
For all the edge-of-your-seat entertainment K-dramas have blessed us with, it becomes dangerous if we start to believe that the problematic things we see in them are romantic—the dominating, the constant fighting, the crossing of boundaries. If I were younger, I probably would've lapped it all up, but now that I'm older and have been pushed and pulled—literally and figuratively—by enough men to conclude that that's not how I want to be treated, I think differently.
When I see the male lead yelling at the woman he loves, physically pushing her away, or ordering her to get out of the car in the middle of a fight, I get a flashback of the times the same thing happened to me, and I can't help but feel uneasy.
I've had first kisses that were pleasant developments because I wanted them to happen and I participated in them happening, but when they happened at the expense of my boundaries being crossed, they left a bitter taste in the mouth. I've experienced being kissed even though I didn't want it, and I didn't walk away from those encounters thinking I had just had a brush with true love—I started avoiding those men. When it comes to domineering, controlling behavior in real-life relationships, it's even more distasteful. I've had men yell at me and call me names during fights, and to this day, I'm appalled that I always went back to them still, and that I didn't respect myself enough to just walk away. So when I see the male lead yelling at the woman he loves, physically pushing her away, or ordering her to get out of the car in the middle of a fight, I get a flashback of the times the same thing happened to me, and I can't help but feel uneasy.
Of course, this is me speaking as a Filipina viewer. A lot of the gender dynamics we see in K-dramas may boil down to the culture from whence they came—a culture I admit I'm not familiar with. South Korean culture is influenced by Confucianism, which sees women as subordinate to men and has been blamed for the misogyny and gender inequality that remains rampant in Korean society today. As Lee Mi-jeong, a research fellow at the Korea Women's Development Institute, tells Quartz, "Men have enormous power in the Confucian tradition. Beating wives was considered a way of discipline." In fact, Channel News Asia cites a 2018 report by the Seoul Metropolitan Government which reveals that 88.5 percent of women living in Seoul had been psychologically or physically abused by their boyfriends or husbands.
No wonder the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2018 ranks South Korea 115th out of 149 countries in gender equality. No wonder a Filipina viewer like me, who belongs to a country which ranks eighth on the same list, balks at those wrist-grabbing scenes.
I don't think I'll ever be immune to the thrill of romance. Maybe that's why I like K-dramas so much.
But if I'm being completely honest, there's a bigger reason K-dramas might be problematic—at least for me. See, I'm a thirtysomething single mom; I've pretty much given up on relationships and I'm looking forward to being single for the foreseeable future. If there's one thing I've learned in over three decades of existence, it's that not everyone will find a partner, and that's okay. Some will, but others will end up alone, others will get their hearts broken, and still, others will choose to focus on other things instead of finding a partner—and the sooner we all realize that the more we spare ourselves from getting our hopes up and getting hurt. But despite all their faults, when I watch K-dramas, I embarrassingly swing from this strong single woman to this hopeless romantic who wants to meet her dashing prince right this second. When I watch K-dramas, with their unabashed glorification of romantic love, I end up feeling lonely and wanting, even if I've been happily single up until then, even if I know being single is better than seeking lesser men or staying in bad relationships just to be with someone. And if I can be so swayed by a show, how much more the younger, more impressionable viewers out there?
Still, I know I'll keep watching K-dramas, albeit with a healthy suspension of disbelief, acknowledgment of tropes, and low expectation of gender equality. Because although my life is far from a K-drama life, I don't think I'll ever be immune to the thrill of romance. Maybe that's why I like K-dramas so much—at this point, they're my only source of romance. At least, in the space of one hour, I get to see other people fall in love.
But when the hour is up, I always bring myself back to earth. Because aside from the problematic bits, we really shouldn't put so much pressure on these shows to make us feel things. There's real life out there, and while it's never as exciting, and the men we meet there are never as attractive, and we might never meet anyone there for all we know, that life, at least, is happening. The shows are only an escape.