I stumbled across Korean dramas when I was about 12 years old — a natural extension of my middle school K-pop phase — and my adolescent attention was instantly captured by the turbulent drama, the twisting plots and the snippets of what I thought was Korean life.
Not to mention the ooey-gooey romance, because, let’s admit it, I was (and still am) a sucker for a good love story. What I perhaps didn’t realize back then, and what I believe many adolescent girls falling into the same trap now may not realize, is that the depiction of relationships in K-dramas is often fundamentally and irreparably wrong.
Let me spell out the typical romantic K-drama plot for you: A rich man who is cold and aloof, never showing any weakness, including emotions, comes into contact with a poor but hardworking and persistent young lady who always wears her heart on her sleeve.
Even though said rich, aloof man is incredibly rude to poor but hardworking young lady at first, he eventually begins to fall for her charm because she’s “not like other girls.” Even then, he’s still mean to her because he has such trouble displaying emotions. Eventually, he makes a romantic gesture, and all is forgiven because they’re in love, obviously. They live happily ever after. The end.
It’s easy to understand why romantic K-dramas have such a long back-and-forth between the love interests — it’s all for the sake of plot. Romance media must always have some tension between the couple before they get together, and in K-dramas, they need enough tension to last about 15 to 25 hour-long episodes. K-dramas need extreme highs, and even more extreme lows, in order to keep their audience engaged, from physical and emotional abuse to lovey-dovey couple.
One of the most popular K-dramas of all time, “Boys Over Flowers,” follows this formula to a tee. Wealthy and cruel Gu Jun-pyo rules over his high school, is idolized by female students and viciously bullies anyone who dares to displease him. In the very first episode, he batters a student so badly that the student almost commits suicide. Let that sink in for a second. This is our love interest.
Luckily, Geum Jan-di, perky and poor, is there to save the day. She begins attending Gu’s school, and soon enough, the two come into conflict. Gu turns his wrath on her, including ordering three students to “scare her,” which they interpret as an order to sexually assault her. Even though Gu seems to somewhat regret this instance, he still continues with his abusive behavior, destroying her bike and indirectly causing a mob of students to beat her up.
Despite these flaming red flags, and Geum’s initial resistance to Gu’s advances, once he falls for her he’s able to charm her with grand romantic gestures that flaunt his wealth. The message for all the young girls watching the show? As long as your romantic interest is rich, you should withstand any amount of abuse.
Even when Geum and Gu finally get together, their relationship is rocky to say the least. And yet, the fans eat it all up — because they’re in love. On Viki, a K-drama streaming site, a reviewer writes: “I don’t understand why there are people who don’t love the character of Gu Jun-pyo, I mean that okay, it’s true that at first he treated her badly but that lasted a couple of chapters because he ended up loving her too much.”
This review, which you can read here in its entirety, has received 105 likes and only nine dislikes. The community has spoken. Abuse is a-okay, as long as fans get their happy ending.
“Boys Over Flowers,” though the most grievous offender, is far from the only K-drama to perpetuate these toxic relationship patterns. In “Playful Kiss,” Oh Ha-ni chases after the distant and unattainable Baek Seung-jo, who repeatedly rejects her and humiliates her in public.
Even when this couple eventually gets together, it’s still so clear that they are unevenly matched — Oh, silly and immature, constantly has to fight for even the slightest scrap of attention from serious and superior Baek. Do we really want to teach young girls that if they continue to pour affections onto abusive men, their relationship will eventually become perfect and beautiful?
Even the more mature and well thought-out romantic K-dramas perpetuate misogynistic tropes, though somewhat more subtly. “Something in the Rain” starts out so pretty, with a cute friends-to-lovers storyline and plenty of natural and charismatic interaction between the two main characters. The woman, Yoon Jin-ah, has a successful career, and the man, Seo Joon-hee, is younger than her, seeming to overturn at least some of the misogynistic tropes usually found in K-dramas.
However, their relationship starts to take a turn for the worse when in episode three, Seo accuses Yoon of leading her ex-boyfriend on and allowing him to stalk her. “He wouldn’t have come if you hadn’t made yourself clear,” he says, in what is one of the most frustratingly toxic lines in all of K-drama history. Ah yes, let’s blame the victim, shall we?
Later in the episode he doubles down: “Why were you a pushover to him and let him treat you that way?” Even when Yoon’s ex-boyfriend physically assaults her in the next episode, Seo makes it clear that it was completely her fault — and we’re meant to find this extremely toxic behavior charming somehow.
Every single K-drama I’ve watched features some sort of unfriendly touch between the two main characters: a grabbing of the wrist, a yanking of the woman into a restrictive hug, an unwanted kiss, all shown repeatedly in slow motion from different angles as a romantic song plays in the background.
The man makes it clear that the woman is his property, to do with as he pleases. Jealousy and possessiveness is romanticized. It’s “romantic” when a man becomes aggressive to protect “his” woman because the only way men can express their emotions in K-dramas is through explosions of jealous rage.
We can’t exempt K-dramas from criticism just because they are from a different country and of a different culture. While it’s important to be understanding of cultural differences in general, the standard of toxic masculinity set in these dramas should not be brushed aside as a matter of culture. They are teaching young girls all over the world that abuse is romantic — a lesson that may have dire consequences for many in the future.