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.

playful kiss 1

Baek Seung-Jo humiliates Oh Ha-Ni by returning her “corrected” love letter in front of her peers in “Playful Kiss.”

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.

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Yoo Seung-Ho as Kang Hyung-Jun in MBC’s “I Miss You.”

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.

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  • http://twitter.com/thereadingchica Meghann

    Amen. I was literally nodding my head through this entire article. It’s sad what media feeds the youth as acceptable.

  • http://twitter.com/NewKDramaAddict Belinda 벨린다

    So true, so true! I’ve flinched at many of characters and never could really get behind a relationship because of the verbal and mental abuse. Been there, done that so it’s not acceptable to me.

    • Rahma Sinaga

      but the one who get abosed is seu in guk (te male lead)=___=

  • Terri

    I agree… and it’s usually for this reason that I find myself rooting for the second male lead (he’s usually awesome, but get’s ignored by the girl for a douchebag – an example of nice guys finishing last :/)
    I wasn’t able to watch either the Japanese or Korean version of Boys over Flowers – I didn’t like the male leads characters (and I didn’t like the female Korean lead) and the attempted rape scenes were really off-putting for me.

  • http://orion21.blogspot.com/ Orion

    You have to think about the society and also people who fund these dramas. It’s in the best interest of old rich men to have submissive women who will be cooking, birthing and cleaning machines without complaining about being mistreated. The idea of an independent and successful woman is still something new in Korea. Those frightened about losing their own comfort from women “waking up” know the ways to stop that from happening.

    As you say, entertainment and art are, even if very dangerously so, where we often pick up on social cues and examples of life from. Unfortunately, this is being abused. From kdramas to anorexia promoting beauty standards to demonizing strong, independent women, this is just another tool used in the wrong way, by those whose ideal living conditions (being in charge and above everyone else) are threatened. Keep people scared, blind and hating themselves and you can keep feeding them all the crap you want and have them say thank you to boot.

    This is why a lot of us western fans develop the second lead syndrome and I imagine many Korean ones do too. But second leads are part of that propaganda as well. They are kind, gentlemen and good people, but always too cowardly or then they eventually turn psychotic. The message is “Good guys are too weak to have you and should be friendzoned. If he’s not ripping your wrist by romantically pulling you aside to tell you you’re worthless, he’s not passionate enough”.

    That is why ‘That Fool’ is one of my favorite Korean dramas. It completely reverses this by having a good honest and adorable man as the lead who gets the girl, with the daddy’s boy rich and abusive boyfriend being the coward he usually really is. If more shows were like this and we reversed this abuse-loving entertainment culture (which is unfortunately global, as you say), maybe there wouldn’t be so many lovely men single and bastards getting women as playthings.

    • http://athlieskores.blogspot.gr/ Erisa Desu

      I always prefer the second lead couple cause they are usually providing the comic relief in a drama. :P As for the abusive way that love goes in korean dramas I can only say that i am Pisces I like it that way.

      What I don’t understand is why the do that? In every drama I saw the leader is cruel and unkind and unhuman. I think you have already comented in one of your articles didn’t you?

      • http://orion21.blogspot.com/ Orion

        You might like it that way, but that means you consent to that and therefore are not violated when the person who does it knows that. Most women in kdrama clearly are not in the mood for rough play, neither are the guys rooted enough into these womens’ lives to have that right on their bodies and own will.

        As for why they do it, it sells. Young women and older, married ones love pretty young men. They seem less intimidating than the macho stereotype. But at the same time, their behavior is “passionate”. It’s the age old mistake of assuming aggressiveness = lust.

        It also serves the patriarchy and is mostly endorsed by it, or it started that way. Remember, channels are run by rich men. Most of the top positions in the industry are rich men. So this probably had those roots. Men who treat you bad and think ‘feminism’ is one of Rain’s songs are just misunderstood puppies you need to stick by and mother back into health.

        That said, I don’t think it’s some grand conspiracy to raise submissive women in society. I think a few do have those ideas, yes, but at this point, it’s about business. They did it when the hallyu started, it worked, it makes money so they do not want to take a business risk and do anything else. It’s a habit by now, probably. But it will get old. Eventually, it will. Because many countries offer soap operas and pretty men. It’s a matter of offering quality that keeps people, because those who love fleeting shallow pleasures often love switching between them.

        • http://athlieskores.blogspot.gr/ Erisa Desu

          αφού το θέτεις έτσι…posing it like this I agree with you my star.

    • Seti Tesefay

      I love how they portray independent women who don’t want to get married as bitches (sarcasm intended).

  • http://twitter.com/erineopso Erin Smith 스미스 에린

    This article is so important! I found I Miss You incredibly disturbing, and the fact that Soo-Yeon fell for Harry/Hyung Jun at all was very Stockholm Syndrome-ish.
    This is why I loved Reply 1997. Shi Won, Jung EunJi’s character, was a strong female role model who ended up in a great job and a healthy relationship with a good man who was her friend first, not her abuser. I hope there will be more dramas like it that set a good example – abusive relationships are definitely not integral to an engaging story!

  • sananya08

    Love this article. Heads up to poor k-idol obsessing girls!

  • http://www.facebook.com/martina.feher Martina Feher

    I really agree w/ this article!!! This is why I stopped watching Full House near the end-I just couldn’t stand the way that Rain (well, his character) was treating poor Song Hye-Kyo and I COULDN’T BELIEVE that she even fell in love w/ him (and completely ignored his friend, who treated her like a princess) after all the abuse and hardship he put her through. I mean, I know Korean women are tough, but they’re not THAT tough to realistically put up with all that behaviour. Plus, they shouldn’t even HAVE to be that tough-that’s not what a love relationship is about. It’s about mutual love, respect and admiration for one another. Just see Simon and Martina’s (from eatyourkimchi) video on marriage on Youtube. Jeesh!~

  • nobody nobody

    I found the forced ‘cuddle’ scene in Secret Garden to be disturbing. It’s unfortunate because I liked that drama over all. I would have hated it if I were a woman. I watch it for the street cat and Yoon Seul.

    Do you guys suppose that Korean women live in homes with abusive fathers and brothers and consequently they know nothing different?

  • Oomiak

    I wonder, do we ever see Korean women making these kinds of objections to violence in entertainment? THAT needs to happen.

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  • En En

    I think that’s how Asian culture is kinda like – not just Korean culture. Most asian kids grow up in an environment whereby their parents won’t even tell them directly/verbally that they are loved. Looking at a bigger picture of Korean dramas, noticed how the parents would just say extremely harsh things to their kids, despite keeping their concern totally concealed aka. Shiwon’s parents in Reply 1997.

    Of course some mothers/mother-in-laws are downright evil like Hyun Bin’s mom in Secret Garden etc. It’s a vicious cycle. The kids grow up thinking that’s the standard of ‘showing your love for somebody you like’. It’s totally screwed lol

  • http://athlieskores.blogspot.gr/ Erisa Desu

    Now that I have slept on the matter I decided why Korea is portraying love like this. I think the answer is more simple that we think. They try to portray love like that innocent feeling that we have during our children years. I mean when you are in kindergarten a love is more simple or innocent you always go and harass the one you love. You tease him/her, you hide his/hers scissors and in generally you are rude to him. Remember that boy that always pulled your pony tail? Yeap that annoying guy who were always wanted to avoid but you always end up sitting next him with your own will.

    So I think that’s the case here they give you that infant version of love because they don’t want to show their love which actually includes a lot of kiss, hugs and…sexual intercourse. I mean isn’t the male lead always a little bit childish who can’t convey his true feelings to words? Anyway that’s my opinion or that’s the explain I have on that matter. I just thing that korean dramas by doing so they sometimes convey the wrong message.

  • Orgil Khatanbaatar

    K-dramas’ve been broadcasted in Mongolia for over 10 years, it really created evident violence towards women in Mongolia. Male embarrassing, humiliating or cursing female is so prevalent here now.

  • Eric0912

    While I don’t usually watch Korean dramas (the “gender series” provides a good explanation of why I don’t), I remember the movie “My Sassy Girl”. The roles where changed and the girl was the clearly disturbed character, and for that reason it was supposed to be “cute”. It wasn’t. Apart from the fact that it’s not exactly fun to be bullied by a girl either, it was far too easy to picture the story in the opposite way. Extremely uncomfortable, and difficult to grasp how it can be considered “mainstream culture”.

  • Warren Lauzon

    This article is 8 months old, but with the current crop of dramas – such as Heirs – I see almost exactly the same tropes described in the article being repeated over and over. I don’t think it will change as long as audiences are buying into it.

  • meegha

    i agree with this..i’m from India and we also have these type of dramas

  • Seti Tesefay

    As much as I love and Watch Korean dramas (including the shows you listed) it always irks me the abusive nature of the male leads (the grabbing the wrist and dragging the girl pisses me off so much). That is probably one of the main reasons why i want the second (kind) lead to end up with the main actress lead. I can personally differentiate between reality and Korean dramas. I was raised to know that any man i love should respect me and support me and vice versa. However, I can’t deny the implications these types of dramas have on young teens and adults on the realities of relationships. There are very few dramas that deal with real/ healthy or even bad relationships.

  • Curioser and Curiosor

    Speaking of “Boys Over Flowers”, you might find this interesting: http://spqetr.net/archives/1125