Dangerous Men: The Normalisation of Domestic Abuse in Korean Dramas
“You’re cute. Every now and then. There’re also times when you’re beautiful. From time to time. But…Why do I like you?” – Baek Seung-Jo in Playful Kiss
One of the most common tropes in Korean dramas features an innocent and pure-hearted woman (with shortcomings) who pursues an incredibly attractive yet cold man, typically rich. The man is incredibly cruel towards the woman. He treats her like dirt on the rare occasions he acknowledges her at all. Of course, over time his heart is melted by her unwavering pure-heartedness and kindness. He becomes nicer, falls in love with her, and they live happily ever after at the drama’s conclusion. There are different reasons the girl sticks around, from pure infatuation (Playful Kiss) to personal advance (Pasta) but ultimately the relationship always results in true love.
Several factors work together to make this trope so persistent in Korean dramas. Not the least of which is its convenience. A Korean drama must keep the main couple apart or at least in an on/off relationship throughout the series in order to prolong the plot. If the couple got together happily in episode three with no obstacles what would be left to say? Having an ice-cold and cruel male lead prolongs the “warming,” and leads to better emotional payoff when they are finally united at the end.
However, this convenient trope has dangerous implications. The lesson it transmits to young girls is this: no matter how bad a man treats you, if you are patient and kind enough he will change and love you with complete devotion. In the real world this is completely untrue. One of the most common ways domestic abusers convince their partners to stay is through promises that they will “change.” Many victims of domestic abuse internalize their partner’s horrible behavior, believing (much like drama leads) that they have the power to stop the abuse through being kind, gentle, and understanding. Unlike on TV shows, abusers do not stop abusing. Domestic abuse always escalates. There is nothing the victim can do to “change” the abuser. This means Korean dramas that use this trope transmit a dangerous to their audiences, audiences that are often mostly comprised of young women and girls who are especially at risk to domestic abuse.
What is perhaps the most disturbing part about Korean Dramas in this sub-genre is their propensity to normalise clearly abusive behavior. While characters may call these men “spoiled,” “arrogant,” or “mean,” no one ever points out that they are abusive, coercive, and dangerous. A good example is Goo Joon-Pyo, male lead of “Boys Over Flowers” which is probably the most popular Korean drama that uses this trope. In the opening episode Joon-Pyo and Co.’s bullying drives a student to attempt suicide. When female lead Jan-Di stands up to him she becomes his next target. She suffers in a variety of ways from puerile ruses like filling her beloved swimming pool with trash and gleefully watching her clean it on a security camera to kidnapping and assaulting her. He also gets other students to aid in his abusive behavior. Early on three students attempt to sexually assault Jan-Di after Joon-Pyo tells them to scare her. Later her bicycle is destroyed and she is badly beaten when peers gang up against her after one of their many breakups attempting to gain is favor and avoid becoming his next victim. Joon-Pyo’s behavior is played off as the result of a bad upbringing. His cruelties melt away thanks to Jan-Di’s pure heart. The idea that this kind of abusive behavior can ever lead to a healthy relationship is incredibly dangerous. A relationship shouldn’t begin with a kidnapping. Joon-Pyo’s actions are sadistic and he shows many warning signs of abuse.
Media is a way we learn about our world and culture. When being consistently shown images of abuse and coercion leading to true love, what conclusions do we expect young people to make? Joon-Pyo is not alone. Many Korean dramas normalise stalking, such as “Secret Garden.” In this year’s “Cheongdamdong Alice” Cha Seung-Jo (Park Si-Hoo) even threatens to kill his girlfriend Se-Kyung (Moon Geun-Young). This threat is played off as mostly Se-Kyung’s fault. Others like “Playful Kiss” encourage girls to pursue cold and emotionally abusive men. The lead (Kim Hyun-Joong) often embarrasses Ha-Ni (Jung So-Min) in public and destroys her self-esteem. Choi Hyun-Wook (Lee Sun-Gyun) of “Pasta” is guilty of the same behavior. This has been so normalised to Korean drama audiences that many fans of “I Miss You” wished that Lee Soo-Yeon (Yoon Eun-Hye) stayed with Harry Borrison (Yoo Seung-Ho) despite the character being guilty of severe emotional abuse that escalates into physical abuse. Many fans looked past this, even though the drama itself characterised his behavior as wrong.
Male leads embarrass female protagonists, humiliate them, tell them they are stupid, belittle them and inform them that they aren’t beautiful or aren’t beautiful enough for someone like them. Is this the kind of man we want girls growing up idealising? The relationships on television are, whether we like it or not, internalised by young boys and girls as examples of what relationships are supposed to look like. The message many Korean dramas convey is highly toxic and dangerous.
By no means is this purely a problem in Korean media. The “Twilight” series is another example of “true love” coming along with abusive and controlling behavior. Many dramas that normalise abusive behavior (Playful Kiss, Boys Over Flowers, To The Beautiful You) are adapted from Japanese mangas. However its prevalence and popularity in Korean dramas is incredibly concerning. As can be seen in the case of “I Miss You,” dramas have the power to shape perceptions of abuse. Fans must be aware of this trope and denounce the negative and dangerous effects it can have.
Do the relationships portrayed in K-Dramas set a bad example to viewers? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
This is part of a series of articles about gender in Korean entertainment and society.