Can we take a moment to talk about “When A Man Loves?”
There are two things I would like to get across to K Drama makers and viewers: 1. Paternalism is not support, controlling is not caring. 2. Falling in love is not a math equation and you can’t blame someone for who they love.
When I watched the first four episodes of “When A Man Loves” I was interested in the story I thought it was trying to tell. Heroine Seo Mi-Do seemed to be a young girl stuck in a hellish moral quagmire between traditional expectations and a rapidly changing nation. It is difficult double standard many Korean women struggle with. On the one side is suitor older Han Tae-Sung, representing a traditional life of early marriage, material comfort, homemaking, and child rearing. On the other side is Lee Jae-Hee, a young professional who encourages Mi-Do to follow her dream career and live a challenging but exciting life, forsaking the traditional roles of women. After watching the opening episodes, I was excited to see how the drama would navigate between duty, expectation, desire and dreams, as well as between tradition and modernity. However as the show progressed, the story gained a much more terrifying message.
Mi-Do’s relationship with Han Tae-Sung has easily one of the most disturbing I have ever seen in media, K Drama and otherwise. When they first meet, Han Tae-Sung is a gangster living a life of crime forced on him by poor circumstances. He comes to terrorize and beat up Mi-Do’s father over a predatory loan. During her first encounter with Tae-Sung, Mi-Do thinks she is going to have to sell her virginity to him in order to save her family. At the time Tae-Sung is 30 and Mi-Do is 18. Sounds like the basis for a healthy relationship, right?
Of course, Tae-Sung sends Mi-Do home and pays for her education as part of penance for his criminal ways. He turns his life around and after seven years is running a successful corporation. He finds Mi-Do and confesses his love for her. At this point I thought maybe Mi-Do and Tae-Sung could have a healthy relationship, despite the severe differences in class, age, power, and their expectations about what a relationship should look like. Unfortunately, as the show progressed it became more and more evident that the relationship was fundamentally toxic yet still glorified. Worse, a quick glance at the comments section of any episode reveals a fanbase seething with hatred for Mi-Do for not falling in love with Tae-Sung no questions asked. Her inability to love him had led fans to call her “selfish, a “gold-digger,” and “evil.”
To explain just what is so wrong with this drama’s main couple, here is a short list of facts we know about Mi-Do and Tae-Sung’s relationship.
1. Mi-Do is afraid of Tae-Sung.
After seeing him brutally beat up another man at work. Mi-Do is reminded of his violent past. She admits to Tae-Sung she is afraid of him. The implication is that she believes he may become violent with her. She has a point given his history of violence. Baek Seung-Joo gives her a warning about his uncontrollable violent tendencies. There is often an air that domestic violence may break out at any time. Two times (once on the stairs and again on the balcony) the audience gets the sense he gets very close to physically attacking Mi-Do. I cannot stress enough how unhealthy that is.
2. Mi-Do doesn’t like spending time with Tae-Sung and they do not share the same interests.
During their date at the amusement park it becomes clear that Mi-Do is far more adventurous than Tae-Sung. He is annoyed by her enjoyment of cute and silly things. Although Mi-Do compromises, we sense her disappointment. Tae-Sung does not believe in Mi-Do’s dreams. He does not support her career goals and is relieved when they are crushed, forcing her to stay with him because she lacks other options.
3. Tae-Sung and Mi-Do are at very different places in their lives.
Nearing his 40s, Tae-Sung desperately wants to settle down and have children. He regularly pressures Mi-Do to set a date for their wedding. He also wants to have a child before he is 40, long before Mi-Do will be ready. Mi-Do regularly says things like “no one gets married before 30 anymore” and has a lot she wants to do before settling down.
4. Tae-Sung regularly violates Mi-Do’s personal boundaries.
Tae-Sung has a particularly nasty habit of showing up unannounced wherever Mi-Do is. He regularly goes to her home and waits for her to arrive. In a flashback, we see that he lurked around her college campus for the expressed purpose of hoping to run into her. She asks him to leave her alone, stop following her, and never show himself to her again. He agrees, but the audience knows that he will only continue his advances. In fact, after another run-in at her job he soon proposes to her despite the fact they have never even gone on a date. Later, he goes to her employer and asks questions, inadvertently causing her to lose the position. He shows stalking behavior and does not respect her personal space.
5. Mi-Do initially doesn’t actually like Tae-Sung and is only trying to like him because she feels indebted to him.
Nothing says “healthy dynamic” like feeling you have to date someone as payment. Their relationship is somewhat ironic, as Mi-Do’s sense of gratefulness starts when Tae-Sung cancels her father’s debt and doesn’t force her to sleep with him. Yet Mi-Do ends up selling her sexuality to Tae-Sung again. She only starts dating him because she feels in his debt because he paid for her college and helped out her family. Although later in the series Mi-Do says she has started to actually like Tae-Sung, it is vocalized several times that Mi-Do only started going out with out of a sense of indebtedness and is trying (and mostly failing) to fall in love with him. Even when breaking up with him she maintains that she will pay him back for her college, putting debt at the center of their connection.
Originally I thought the characters and audience would see how toxic the relationship between Mi-Do and Tae-Sung was. The relationship would terminate and new relationships would form between Mi-Do and Jae-Hee as well as Tae-Sung and Seung-Joo. Although not completely healthy, the lesson would have been that having a “Daddy Long Legs” isn’t the great deal other dramas make it out be and that the ideal partner is supportive, not paternal. Yet, this was not the case. Her relationship with Tae-Sung continues while the situation between Jae-Hee and Mi-Do becomes increasingly worrisome.
In early episodes Jae-Hee seemed like Mi-Do’s way out. They had fun together and he showed nothing but support for her dreams, sending her books about art and helping her get to an important interview. Even though she rejected him he continued to treat her with respect, though still pushing the issue to a degree. In what appears to be an effort to get the fanbase to swing back to Tae-Sung, Jae-Hee sexually assaults Mi-Do. At first he apologizes, then recants saying it was his “true heart.”
No matter how the show resolves I don’t see anything positive coming out of it. Even if Tae-Sung falls from grace and Mi-Do leaves him the public’s mind seems made up. If video comments count for anything, the audience predominately sides against Mi-Do. Instead of seeing her as a young lady trapped in a desperate and untenable situation with an abusive lover, they see her as a cheating snake who should just love Tae-Sung despite his faults. Curiously, she is also called a gold digger, despite the fact she does not initiate the relationship or hide her reservations about him. “When a Man Loves” promotes unhealthy relationship dynamics and cannot see the difference between coercion, abuse, and love.
How do you feel about the relationship between Tae-Sung and Mi-Do? Let us know in the comments.