Updates: The Role Reversals of Men and Women in Kdramas

***The following contains plot points to some Korean Dramas on Netflix. Spoiler Warning is in effect***

For months I have had in my drafts a post with updated reviews on the kdramas that Kate and I have been watching on Netflix, but for whatever reason I never completed it. I did plan on finishing it, but last night I had a realization about the story telling of some of the shows we liked the most, so I’m going to write about that instead. It’s a common trope in romances that one person is more experienced than the other when it comes to love and sex. Typically, it is the Man who is the one who has a long history of romances while the woman is new to the whole affair. Think the “bad boy” trope. Not only does this usually shift the power to the man in the relationship but also reinforces the idea of women being pure and chaste. This has shown up a couple of times in some of the Korean dramas we have watched, but we’ve noticed the roles are mostly reversed. The romantic male is inexperienced in love and sex and the romantic female lead is the one with the past. In almost all of these shows the man is a virgin while the sexual status of the woman is left ambiguous or her past plays a part in the story. I found it interesting because it is not something seen often in popular media, let alone in more than one show in 2020 to feature such a character. Let’s take a look at four different shows that Kate and I have watched in the last four months and explore it, shall we.

Itaewon Class: Our Hero Park Saeroyi (played by Park Seo Joon) is a high school dropout ex-convict who spends the next ten years of his life after getting out of prison to take revenge on the family that killed his father and ruined his life. He starts his own restaurant in the neighborhood of Itaewon in Seoul. Getting revenge obviously doesn’t really leave a lot of room for romance, and also he is still in enamored with his school girl crush, Oh Soo Ah (played Kwon Nara), who also just happens to work for his enemy. His plan for revenge doesn’t really get going until he meets Jo Yi Seo (Kim Dami) who is very business savvy, despite the fact she is very young and is 10 years the junior of Saeroyi. Saeroyi is a good guy with a moral compass that sometimes gets in the way. In a scene half way through the show, the cast is playing what is essentially spin the bottle but instead of kissing whoever the bottle lands on you get the ask a question. This is when he admits he has never even been kissed, let alone anything else. At this confession is both Soo Ah and Yi Seo who have different reactions. Soo Ah’s love life is left opened. We are not told much about her dating life, but it is hinted that even though she has feelings for Saeroyi she hasn’t exactly been waiting for him either. Yi Seo is the an anti-social free spirit who does what she wants and with whom she wants. It’s clear that she has experience when it comes to the opposite sex. In any case both of the female leads have more experience than Saeroyi and they know it and often use it against each other as they compete for his affections.

Crash Landing on You. Ri Jung Hyuk (Hyun Bin) is a captain in the North Korean Army and is very earnest about his duty. He has been engaged for the last 10 years to a woman who he barely knows. They engagement was arranged by their parents and marriage had been put on hold after the death of his older brother, allowing for time to mourn. Before he was a Captain, he was studying to be a classical pianist in Switzerland for many years. I guess you could make the argument that while he was in Switzerland and away from family and obligations he could have played the field a bit, but I don’t think so, as we are led to believe that Jung Hyuk is a moral upstanding gentlemen that wouldn’t do anything to dishonor his family or his fiance. Juxtapose him with Yoon Se Ri (Son Ye Jin) who is not only an heiress to a great fortune but a successful business woman in her own right. Her love life is all over of the tabloids, and she uses it to her advantage when it comes to business and her family. She never stays in any relationship for very long and quickly moves on to the next one. In the first episode her brothers (who are awful btw) joke about how they can’t keep up with her latest romances and ask if her current guy is the actor or the baseball player. At one point Se Ri asks Jung Hyuk who was his first love, and he reluctantly admits it was her, which explains to her all of the awkward moments that happened between them earlier, but is also sweet because even though she has dated other men she could also say he is her first love, too.

It’s Okay Not to be Okay When Moon Gang Tae (Kim Soo Hyun) was a kid, his mother was murdered leaving him to take care of his older brother, Moon Sang Tae (Oh Jung Se), who is autistic. Sang Tae also witnessed the murder of their mother, and the trauma of it forces the brothers to move every spring to outrun the memories. With the constant moving and taking care of his brother, Gang Tae doesn’t have much time for himself, let alone a love life. This is something that is mentioned in the first two episodes. Ko Moon Young (Seo Yi Ji) is a famous children’s book author that has her own anti-social disorder. She is likable and so unlikable at the same time. While we are not given specifics about her love life, her uninhibited life style definitely implies she has had lovers in the past. Gang Tae, to say the least, is repressed when it comes to his emotions. He does this partly because he needs to control them around his brother but he also has experienced his own traumas and keeping his emotions in check is a coping mechanism. Moon Young asks Gang Tae flat out in one episode if he is a virgin and offers to take his v-card. He doesn’t answer, but it’s pretty clear from his reaction that he is. Something that she will tease him about for rest of the series.

Hospital Playlist I debated whether or not to include this one because it fits but doesn’t. Ahn Jeong Won (Yoo Yeon Seok) is a pediatric surgeon who is very religious. In fact he has dreamed of becoming a priest ever since he was a little boy and has finally taken steps to quit medicine and join the priesthood. That is until he meets Jang Gyeoul (Shin Hyun Bin). As you can imagine for someone who longs to devote is life to God, dating is not a high priority. It’s commented over and over again about him that he doesn’t date and that he has never been interested in any woman. Even his closest friends echo this sentiment. Before the show started the director released short character descriptions, and in it does say that Jeong Won was once in love some time in his 20s, but this is never mentioned or alluded to in the show, so this is a story line that got dropped, or it will play a part in the upcoming seasons. So we once again have a male character with little experience, but where this differs is with Gyeoul. She is also inexperienced, and maybe just as much if not more so then he is. Gyeoul is a General Surgery resident who is very hardworking and good at her job, but she does have trouble relating to people, including her patients.Throughout the season, she enlists the help of Jeong Won’s friend Lee Ik Jun (Jo Jung Suk) to help her in her quest to get Jeong Won fall in love with her. Something that Ik Jun is more than happy to help her in. In a scene midway through the season, she and a fellow resident and friend chat about relationships, and Gyeoul admits she’s never been kissed before. In the end of the season, they do end up expressing their feelings to each other, and it’s everything you want that scene to be. Here we have a couple that is are starting on an even playing field and lucky for us a new season starts sometime next year, so we will get to see how they move forward together.

It turns out that these four shows are among our favorite shows we have seen this year. Does this new twist on an old trope play into our enjoyment? Maybe. I mean it doesn’t’ hurt. As Kate pointed out, when a guy is less knowledgeable they are less likely to mansplain, and this definitely true for all these male characters. They all come off as caring and thoughtful, if not a little aloof. The other trait that all of these men have in common, besides their virginity, is that they are all are repressed in one way or another, and it’s not until they meet the female lead that they start to open up and to reexamine why they are the way they are. So while the roles may be reversed when it comes to love, there is still a little bit of expectation that the woman’s role is to help fix him. To me the imbalance between the characters never feels as though the relationship is unbalanced. What each character lacked they made up in other ways. I think the most interesting part of all of this is that at no point was the masculinity of the man questioned by any of the other characters. It was sort of a “this who they are” or “this is understandable when you considered what they have been through”. Can you imagine how characters would react if a straight male romantic lead admitted that they were a 30 year old virgin in American media? They would have been mocked mercilessly. As for me the viewer, I found all these characters sexy and again actively rooted for them to get with the girl in the end.

So what does this tell us about Korea and their culture? All four of these shows got high ratings on Korean television, and many of the actors are some of the most popular and highest paid actors working in Korea today. What is so attractive about the guy being “pure”? I’m all for this trend and wouldn’t mind seeing more of it. It also makes me like Korea more that they seem comfortable portraying men and women this way and doing so without falling into stereotypes and other harmful tropes. The more that I think of it, maybe this is why Kate and I have really enjoyed watching kdramas, beside the fact that we have become a little obsessed with the country and culture as a whole. It has given us a chance to look in and see a different perspective on storytelling. How we look at love and relationships here in the US or in the West is not always the healthiest. Not to say that Korea is perfect because we have seen some shows that have featured very unhealthy relationships and also some troubling social norms. For the most part, all the shows we have seen have been kind of a breath of fresh air and a much needed reprieve from our current reality. We both highly recommend all four of the shows I highlighted here. They are all available on Netflix and very bingeable.

3 thoughts on “Updates: The Role Reversals of Men and Women in Kdramas

  1. I found your analysis and insights very fascinating and illuminating. I think we’re all so used to American or Western romantic tropes that we take them for granted. It’s good to be reminded that just because we’re used to certain portrayals and perspectives it doesn’t mean that that’s the way it ought to be. I wish we had more instances in our own popular programs of romantic conventions being questioned and defied. Maybe it would lead to the kinds of cultural conversations that we need to have in our popular culture.

    I can recall one recent episode of the western noir Yellowstone where one of the supporting male characters named Jimmy is revealed to be a virgin. He becomes smitten by a woman named Mia who worked at the rodeo and became distracted when it was his turn to ride the bull. He gets severely injured due to his lapse in focus. Mia visits him in in the hospital and takes his virginity in the hospital bed after he admits the fact that he’s a virgin to her. Of course, Jimmy’s virginity is played as a source of embarrassment for him and he only reveals the truth privately after much persuasion by Mia. It’s interesting though that Mia didn’t judge Jimmy or laugh at him once the truth was revealed. Still, it’s obviously something that the male character would prefer to lie about rather than be honest of proud of himself for.

    I think it’s definitely worth taking notice of how relationships are portrayed in popular media. Maybe if more people did, there could be a healthier outlook in our society about relationships and more of a sense of equanimity.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yellowstone. That’s the show with Kevin Costner. I’ve thought about watching that. I do like a good western and noir thriller.

    Something I was thinking about is the lack of judgement for both the man and the woman. Whether or not a character is a virgin or not is sort of shrugged off for the most part. I don’t want to say that it doesn’t bother anyone but it doesn’t seem like it’s that important. A few times that the male character gets upset that the female has had other partners is because they are jealous and usually that is played off for laughs. Like look at how funny this guys looks when he gets jealous.

    I think it’s great and wish we see more of it in our stories. Anything to help take down toxic masculinity that we got going on. It would be good for men to see that they can be manly without having to feel they need to dominate women and for women to feel confident to explore their sexuality without fear of bring judged.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, Yellowstone is the Kevin Costner series on the Paramount Network. I highly recommend it. There’s some great storytelling in it and it’s the type of show that explores all the different perspectives of all the different characters. Obviously, Kevin Costner’s character views himself as a patriarch and a successful rancher, but his children all see the dark side of him. Plus there’s the conflict with the Native American characters and their interactions with the Dutton family offers their a perspective into the ugliness of American exceptionalism. It’s a brilliant show.

    I agree with you. We need more programs that take down the attitudes that lead to toxic masculinity. I think a lot of it goes beyond just popular culture. It’s a poisoned well in our history and sadly we all have taken a drink from it at one point or another. The solution starts with just recognizing it when it happens.

    Liked by 1 person

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