Originally written for Fandom Following.
Greetings from Korean Drama Hell!
So last month, I told you all about my first foray into foreign television and Korean Entertainment Products with Boys Over Flowers. Because of that post, one of my readers was nice enough to share with me her experience with the source material, Hana Yori Dango, as well as other Asian Dramas. She also got me thinking about something: there was a ton of problematic messages being conveyed in Boys Over Flowers, despite its popularity. And it’s not just Boys Over Flowers, these things show up in quite a few other K-dramas.
At first, I thought it was because I was watching High School-based dramas lead by Lee Min Ho, like Boys Over Flowers and The Heirs, because, you know, rich high schoolers can be wretched. Then I followed the older brother in The Heirs, Choi Jin Hyuk, to Emergency Couple, the medical drama about divorcees who reunite, but the issues still seemed to be in effect. Finally I tried a completely different show unconnected to the other two, but even the corporate miracle, Falling In Love With Soon Jung, could not escape the tropes that plagued the three shows before it. It’s almost like these things were indicative of Korean dramas as a whole.
Now I am obviously not Korean and therefore cannot talk about Koreans, Korean culture, or Korean social norms; nor am I saying that you should give up on Korean dramas, because I sure won’t. There’s a ton of American and English-speaking shows that are PROBLEMATIC (note the emphasis), but people still enjoy them, and Fandom Following will continue to cover them until they go out of style. All I’m saying is, before I – and some of you – go forward, maybe we should have a full conversation about the recurring tropes in this hell that is Korean Dramas.
Admittedly, not all of these things may be found to be problematic. A few of these things aren’t at all bad, but they’re just not indicative of real life. Again, I don’t know about Korean society, but I doubt everybody’s walking around in heels all day with their theme song playing at the most opportune moment.
I write this post with no intention of turning anyone off of Korean Dramas, so I’m rounding out this list with things that can be found in most Korean Dramas, with the assumption that the previously-mentioned four that I have watched are indicative of all, if not most, of what’s out there. And I am told that they are.
Still, I’m not trying to take you away from sunbae, we just need to admit that he’s a jerk.
So let’s begin:
1. The Male Lead is Always a Jerk
Right off the bat, we need to tackle the biggest issue.
I don’t know what it is about jerks, but K-dramas love to have nice girls fall for them. It never makes any type of sense: these guys are ridiculously mean from the moment you meet them. In the High School Dramas, they are bullies. In the Adult Dramas, they are just jerks. But it never fails.
In half of the shows that I’ve watched, the biggest jerk is the First Male Lead. Goo Jun Pyo (Lee Min Ho) in Boys Over Flowers is so used to ordering people around that he can’t even think to ask nicely, and Falling in Love With Soon Jung’s Kang Min Ho (Jung Kyung Ho) has to have a heart transplant just to be capable of being a nice person. Emergency Couple’s Oh Chang Min (Choi Jin Hyuk) is not the biggest jerk, but, for the first few episodes, he could not let go of that divorcee spite, then he couldn’t stand to let anyone get a chance with his ex-wife. The Heirs’ Choi Young Do (Kim Woo Bin) was the Second Male Lead, but he was bad enough that he might as well have been first. I don’t care how cute, or how much his cry-face made me cry, he was terrible to the Female Lead.
The Heir’s First Male Lead, Kim Tan (Lee Min Ho) didn’t have time to be a jerk; he was too busy hiding a big secret, and trying to get his older brother to love him.
Here’s the thing though: they all had reasons for being the way that they are, and it usually had something to do with their parents. Without fail, all of the Male Leads have familial issues, but the Second Male Lead only gets to resolve his family issues, whereas the First Male Lead resolves his family issues and gets the girl.
To be honest, none of these things actually made any of their behaviors okay. They were legitimately assholes, and should have been tossed to the side. Especially in Boys Over Flowers. Somehow though, they always get the girl. The only redeeming part is that the shows go out of their way to show your how jerky these guys are in the beginning so that they can spend a lot of time showing you how much they change when influenced by the love of a good woman.
It can be argued that, even with the change, Jerk First Male Leads still shouldn’t win, but we’re also not going to talk about the Second Male Lead’s inability to get the girl either; he’s just not meant to. And while it would have been nice in Boys Over Flowers, and even Emergency Couple (though it can be argued that he did), it’s pretty damn obvious why this doesn’t happen in The Heirs and Falling in Love Soon Jung.
2. It’s Not Love Unless He Bullies You
For some reason, just about every Korean Drama that I have ever watched had a scene where the Male Lead, First or Second, bullies the Female Lead into spending time with him. Why these guys just can’t open their mouths to politely ask their love interests on dates? I have no idea, but I can tell you that it does begin to border on Stockholm Syndrome at times.
I’m going to have to say that The Heirs was the worst perpetrator of this, although it showed up in some way in all of the K-dramas that I watched. The Heirs took pains to set up a situation that forced it’s female lead to basically live a lie. And while Choi Young Do did not get Cha Eun Sang (the Female Lead) to love him back, he regularly threatened to expose her to the whole school if she didn’t eat with him. You could say that Goo Jun Pyo is just as bad in Boys Over Flowers, but he tends to let other people do his bullying for him.
The bullying situation isn’t too bad once you get into the adult dramas, but they play up the misogyny to the point where the Female Lead is almost backed into a corner because she’s trying to be so proper. In Falling for Soon Jung, Yoon Hyun Min’s Lee Joon Hee is uncaring that it is entirely inappropriate for the company’s CEO to publicly pursue as secretary, even the Head Secretary, but he continues on despite how it could have jeopardized Kim Soon Jung’s (Kim So Yeon) job. In Emergency Couple, the Female Lead, Oh Jin Hee’s (Song Ji Hyo), name is slandered all over the hospital because a specialist wanted to make Jin Hee’s boss look bad.
It’s a lot, but somehow K-dramas perpetuate the idea that it’s okay to bully your love interest. And while they do drop this idea really early, a lot of it is triggering, so proceed with caution. Stay out of the High School Dramas if it’s too much for you.
3. Haircuts and Makeovers for Everybody
If you’ve made it this far, congrats! Here’s your first break in problematic issues!
I originally wanted this section to talk about how K-dramas seem to all have a version of the Cinderella story, or, at the very least, have an upper class boy pursuing a lower class girl, but I don’t think it’s that bad. Remember, I’ve only seen four shows, so I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. However, I will not ignore the fact that everyone seems to get a haircut or a makeover.
In the Adult Dramas, a haircut or makeover seems to show a change of character. When Kang Min Ho gets his heart transplant in Falling in Love with Soon Jung, he subconsciously changes his hairstyle to look like the man whose heart he had received. When Oh Jin Hee began to gain confidence in Emergency Couple, she tries to dress a little sexier and even teased Oh Chang Min in some lingerie toward the end.
In the High School Dramas, the makeovers showed life changes. In Boys Over Flowers, both Geum Jan Di and Ga Eul (she doesn’t get a family name) seem to benefit from Jan Di’s acquisition of a rich boyfriend and his rich friends. Most of the members of F4 also change their hairstyles when they move from Shinhwa High School to Shinhwa University, and Goo Jun Pyo also makes the effort to straighten his hair for Geum Jan Di when he first asks her out. In The Heirs, Cha Eun Sang’s makeover also doesn’t come until she finally accepts her life as Kim Tan’s girlfriend. Kim Tan, however, changes his hairstyle when he moves back to Korea, then again for his eighteenth birthday dinner. Kim Tan’s older brother, Kim Won, changes his hairstyle when he accepts his life as a loveless CEO.
It doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s pretty prevalent. In K-dramas, haircuts and makeovers signify change.
4. Everyone Has a Song on the Soundtrack
I mean sure, every main character has a theme, but are they featured on the soundtrack? That’s how you know you’re in a K-drama.
This is not true for every K-drama, as apparently Falling in Love with Soon Jung was too legit to have it’s actors on the soundtrack. However, Boys Over Flowers had two K-Pop singers in their main cast, and Emergency Couple was determined to put Choi Jin Hyuk’s voice to good use.
The Heirs, though? Everybody had a song. How could they not? Two of the leads and one of the minor characters could sing, plus three K-Pop groups showed up just to be seen. That soundtrack is ridiculously good. I’m deliberately breaking up the seriousness of this post to show you how good it is. Everybody had a song on that soundtrack, and no one can tell me different.
See, I told you not everything would be bad.
5. Female Leads Are Resilient
If Male Leads are jerks and bullies, then Female Leads are angelic and resilient. Let me be the first to tell you that Female Leads in Korean Dramas are quick to be knocked down, but get right back up with a smile. I have yet to see anyone stray from this trope.
I don’t know what it is about seeing poor and middle class girls go through stuff, but k-dramas love to do it. Jan Di nearly died about five times in Boys Over Flowers, and I can’t remember what it was that broke her, but I assure you it was five things too many. Jan Di’s life throughout the course of this show was legitimately a series of unfortunate events, but she took charge of what she could and she kept on going. The only person who beat Jan Di’s resilience was Oh Jin Hee in Emergency Couple. Jin Hee had already reached her lowest point when she divorced Oh Chang Min at the very beginning of the show. She saw herself at her worst, and she said never again. Oh Jin Hee made up her mind, and she saw it to the end. And for that, she is my hero.
Soon Jung’s situation in Falling in Love with Soon Jung was wild. I am quite sure that anyone else would have broken well before she did. Soon Jung went through fourteen straight episodes worth of dead parents, dead fiancee’, almost fired, dead boss, and almost bankrupt company, with a smile on her face and a never give up attitude. Also, her best friend was crazy and obsessed with her. I’m not surprised that Soon Jung gave up when she did, but I would have left that situation with the dead fiancee’.
The Heirs’ Eun Sang has her one selfish moment at the beginning of the show, and immediately gets her act together. Even when her life is uprooted, she is adamantly not here to make any waves, but she’s still very kind to those around her. I can honestly say that Eun Sang is probably the most relatable of my four female leads because she’s just enough of a selfish teenager to be believable.
Don’t get me wrong, these girls were not perfect. Jan Di was always getting into other people’s crap, Eun Sang was horrible to her mother at times, Soon Jung got indigestion when she got too nervous, and Jin Hee could not hold her liquor. Seriously, every time Jin Hee got stupid drunk, I could hear my grandmother saying how men don’t marry women who get so drunk that they had to be carried home. But there went Jin Hee, sloppily drunk with two great prospects. That’s why she’s my hero.
I think that Female Leads have to be resilient in k-dramas, because it really does get to be too much. The Happily Ever After is so heavily implied that I think the main couples have to go through a lot to make sure that they’re right for each other. They still have to be human though, because how else would relate to these pillars of kindness?
However, I do think that it’s unfair that most of the burden seems to be put on the Female Leads, although Kang Min Ho should have died with the amount of stress he went through in Falling in Love with Soon Jung.
6. The Female Lead Always Leaves to go Somewhere Else
I know I said that the Female Leads are resilient, but sometimes it really does get to be too much. Sometimes these resilient Female Leads are brought to their point, and they just need to go somewhere for a while to clear their heads. They never stay gone, but some shows are better at explaining their return than others.
In Boys Over Flowers, the drama that was being Goo Jun Pyo’s girlfriend eventually got to be too much for Jan Di. So she packed up her stuff and moved to elsewhere with her parents. However, the drama wasn’t ready to be done with Jan Di, so she was brought back, without any explanation as to where she would be staying, when the Jun Pyo got knocked over by a car.
In The Heirs, Eun Sang got tired of having her boyfriend’s father manipulate both her and Kim Tan’s life, so she packed up her things, and her mother, and got out of Dodge. Both Kim Tan and Choi Young Do come to visit her, but Eun Sang has to be reminded that she has to take her finals before she actually returns. It doesn’t hurt that her boyfriend was apparently drinking himself to death.
Oh Jin Hee was too resilient to go away or give up in Emergency Couple, but she and Oh Chang Min did get to take a work vacation to a nice hospital by the sea. It really helped their relationship.
In Falling in Love with Joon Sung, Joon Sung felt like dating the man who received the heart of her dead fiancee’ was way too much for her blood, so she outright quit. However she was already one her way back when Kang Min Ho suffered a blow to his head that basically restarted his heart problems.
The time away from everything ends up being necessary in the end. People believe that taking yourself out of a situation gives you a clearer head so that you can be sure of your decisions before going back into it. Theses ladies definitely all needed to be sure that the men they had decided to be with were worth the overly dramatic lives that seemed to come with them.
However, I think that most of these shows just wanted to say, if he loves you he’d come for you. Seriously, the only guy that doesn’t go get his girl is Kang Min Ho, because he knows exactly where Joon Sung and he wanted her to come back to him, which she did. That’s how the show pushes the idea that Jerk Male Lead is the Right One.
7. Rich Parent = Mean Parent
You see this woman right here? Her name is Lee Hye Young, and I call her the Korean Diahann Carroll. Do you know why I call her the Korean Diahann Carroll? Because her b*tch face is as flawless as Diahann Carroll’s. Lee Hye Young is also just as fashionable, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about.
In all four of my K-dramas, without fail, the richest parent was the parent most likely to do everything in their power to break the main couple up. Lee Hye Young’s Kang Hee Soo was the most pervasive. Not only did she make Jan Di’s parents lose their jobs, but she made it impossible for them to pay their rent. Then, when Jan Di was at least able to find a place for her and her younger brother, Kang Hee Soo made sure that place got bulldozed too. She did some more outlandish stuff, but it is necessary to note that every time Kang Hee Soo made a move against Jan Di, she essentially pushed Jan Di and Goo Jun Pyo (Kang Hee Soo’s son) closer together.
In The Heirs, Kim Tan’s father, Kim Nam Yun) knowingly pushes Eun Sang and Kim Tan together so that the people around Kim Tan would discourage them from being together. This doesn’t work either, but Kim Nam Yun was a lot less reckless in his damage to poor people. He was quick to test his sons though.
Yoon Sung Sook, Oh Chang Min’s mother in Emergency Couple (and his stepmother in The Heirs), wasn’t as rich as Kang Hee Soo or Kim Nam Yam, but she could not forgive Oh Jin Hee for ruining her baby’s life. Oh Jin Hee was considered too poor to be marrying into a doctor’s family, so Yoon Sung Sook wouldn’t take her as a daughter-in-law.
Everybody in Falling in Love with Soon Jung was an orphan, but that didn’t stop Kang Min Ho’s uncle from acting the fool. Admittedly, Kang Hyun Chul really just wanted to keep his company out of his nephew’s hands, but he fit that Rich Parent = Mean Parent trope very well. The moment he felt like Soon Jung was helping Kang Min Ho too much, Hyun Chul turned on her too.
This part really confuses me, because every K-drama I’ve ever watched has a romance between people of different classes, and they’re quick to have a parent try to stop it from happening. And it’s not that they don’t have their reasons for doing what they’re doing. I’m just not sure if they’re trying to say that all parents want what they think is best for their children, or money won’t buy you a good personality.
8. Poor Parent = Sacrificial Lamb
I’m convinced that Korean dramas just want to tell you that poor people are nice so you should treat them nicely. Poor parents in Korean Dramas will go well out of their way for their children’s sake.
Again, the parents in Falling in Love with Soon Jung were all dead, but that didn’t stop the show from having good advice be dispensed by the lower classed and, at some point, disadvantaged. Kang Min Ho’s disgraced father makes several appearances to remind his son why it’s important to be good to everyone, and both Soon Jung’s dead fiancee’ and almost father-in-law were almost unfailingly nice people.
In Emergency Couple and Boys Over Flowers, both Oh Jin Hee’s and Geum Jan Di’s respective parent’s can be annoying at times. However, Oh Jin Hee’s mother was always supportive of her decisions. Geum Jan Di’s parents tried their hardest to make the best of a bad situation. The Geum family basically lost everything thanks to Kang Hee Soo, but the loss just seemed to bring them closer together, even when one of them was missing for half of the show. Jan Di’s parents did whatever they needed to to give their child a chance.
In The Heirs, Eun Sang’s mother, Park Hui Nam was working with a disability while raising one daughter, and sending money to another. She constantly had to deal with discrimination because of her disability, and Eun Sang was not always a great help. The older daughter barely existed, but she was no better. The longest job that Park Hui Nam was able to keep, after the death of her husband, was as a maid for Kim Tan’s father, and she gave that up for Eun Sang’s comfort and peace of mind, knowing that she might not be able to get another. Eun Sang started off not treating her mother with enough respect, but she did learn to better appreciate Park Hui Nam over time.
I think that this is the best time to point out that apparently having dead or missing parents is also a trope for Korean dramas. In every drama but Boys Over Flowers, all of the leads had at least one dead parent, with the except of Choi Young Do in The Heirs because his missing mother was found in what had to be the last episode. Goo Jun Pyo’s father was missing for most of Boys Over Flowers, only to make an appearance in the last episode. Interestingly enough, in the three shows that have dead parents, the Lower Class Leads’ dead parent is already dead when the show starts, whereas the Upper Class Leads’ parent (or parental figure) dies in the midst of the show.
Again, I don’t know if this trope if the K-drama way of saying parents will do anything for their children, or money won’t buy you loyalty. Either way, the poor parents have much better relationships with their children than the rich parents do.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re doing well. It’s all smooth sailing and K-drama hype from here.
9. You Only Need One Good Friend
I love this picture because it shows Geum Jan Di with her new friend, Ha Jae Kyung (left), and her oldest friend, Ga Eul (right). What you’ll learn while watching Boys Over Flowers, is that any time Jan Di makes a new friend, they try to break up her relationship with Goo Jun Pyo. Without fail. Jae Kyung had to be the closest to true new friend that Jan Di had, but even she felt that Jun Pyo and Jan Di needed to be broken up. On the other hand, Ga Eul stayed faithful to the end.
Leads only ever seem to have one friend, or rather one good, best friend. Sometimes they get to have their family as well, but when it all comes down to it, most Leads only needs one person in their corner. Jan Di only had Ga Eul. The rest of the Geum family was methodically shipped off to elsewhere, but Ga Eul was Jan Di’s, and Jan Di’s alone. F4 were friendly and favorable toward Jan Di, but they were ultimately Goo Jun Pyo’s friends. Jun Pyo would fight them, regularly, but they tended to get over themselves within an episode.
In The Heirs, Eun Sang had Yoon Chan Young, and she barely relied on him. However, when Eun Sang needed him, Chan Young (and later, his girlfriend) was there. Kim Tan’s best friend was his rival – coincidentally, so was Goo Jun Pyo’s – everyone else was ultimately secondary.
In Emergency Couple, Oh Chang Min had his one friend, but Oh Jin Hee’s friends pretty much disappeared. However, Oh Jin Hee was very resilient, and did pretty well with just her family and her boss. Oh Chang Min’s one friend wasn’t his best friend, but he was always there for a drink.
In Falling in Love with Soon Jung, Soon Jung’s good friend was originally her dead fiancee’s partner, and her best friend, well . . . we’ll talk about him later. Kang Min Ho’s best friend was his personal secretary.
I think the need for good, best friends are deemed unnecessary in Adult Dramas, which is understandable because you’re not nearly as good with your best friend when you’re an adult as you had been you were in high school. People have lives and jobs separating them, so they are unable to be as close as they used to be. But the need for good friends, or, at the very least, good people is necessary to survive a K-drama with your mental state in tact. That much drama would drive a lonely person crazy.
10. There’s Levels to This Stuff
When I first started watching Boys Over Flowers, I wondered how it could be so dramatic episode after episode. I’ve come to realize that there is level to this stuff. They start you off with the outrageous stuff, then they build you up to the heartbreaking stuff as it goes on, then they hit you with the heart-stopping, tear-jerkers in the end. You don’t believe me? Watch The Heirs one good time. I bet you a penny that you’ll cry at least once.
I’m going to skip the other three dramas, because I’ve already recommended Boys Over Flowers, and The Heirs and Emergency Couple are hits for a reason. I will take my last few words to talk to you about Lee Joon Hee of Falling in Love with Joon Sung.
People will tell you about the good drama in Falling in Love with Joon Sung, but the reality is that you will go the first ten episodes without feeling the need to binge more than two a night. Even with all of the drama that builds over time, you really won’t care about the show until Lee Joon Hee starts to really lose his cool.
Lee Joon Hee is Joon Sung’s One Friend. He is not good, but he knew her best after her fiancee’. And when he saw his opening, he tried to take the fiancee’s spot. And when he was rebuffed, he tried to recoup his losses. But it was not until Kang Min Ho disrupted Lee Joon Hee’s carefully built plans that he got sloppy. And when Joon Hee got sloppy, he got dangerous. And when Joon Hee got dangerous, Falling in Love with Soon Jung got really good.
Lee Joon Hee was not a bully, and he was only a jerk to Kang Min Ho, but Joon Hee and his madness made the entire show worth watching. There were levels to his crazy, and, trust me, it was a lot.
This list originally had about fourteen or fifteen things on it, but some things got deleted while others were combined. If you stayed long enough to read this ending, thank you. This post is over 4700 words long, which mean it has topped my Anakin Skywalker post.
If you disagree with my list, or have anything to add, let me know in the comments. I’ll be sure to reply to each and every one of you. Otherwise, I’ll see you guys in [a few] weeks with something not K-drama related.
Eurydice “Tigg” Howell