When I first started watching Korean drama, I spent a lot of time being preoccupied by things I don’t even notice nowadays. I would zone out for entire scenes because I was so transfixed by someone’s expert use of chopsticks, or so stunned by just how much makeup the male lead was wearing. But after two years of being the world’s most obsessed fan of Kdrama, this sort of stuff is second nature to me.
A comment on my recent review of Queen of Reversals made me realize that I’ve also become blind to something else: sexual violence. The commenter, Vivi, asked about the first kiss shared by that show’s leads. “That moment was really problematic for me,” she said. And I didn’t even remember what she was talking about, because you can only see something like this so many times before developing defense mechanisms to tune it out.
The kiss in question occurred at the very end of episode 20, with its aftermath playing out at the beginning of episode 21. In this scene, the male lead is shown as sad, upset, and a little desperate. He has just met his birth mother for the first time and discovered that she had borne and raised other children after abandoning him. It’s a snowy midwinter night and he sits on a bench surrounded by bright Christmas decorations. It’s the kind of sublimely romantic setting Kdramas are so fond of—colored lights sparkle, a scattering of snowflakes falls, and a moody rendition of “The First Noel” plays in the background.
(Spoilers and triggers ahead.)
The female lead, who also happens to be his subordinate at work, arrives and is immediately concerned to see him sitting there in the cold. She asks him what’s wrong, but he demands that she leave him alone. Meeting her gaze for one defeated second, he stands and steps forward. She’s silent, but her expression says it all: she cares about his welfare, but she’s uncertain and apprehensive, and maybe even dreading what she thinks might be coming next.
“You were warned,” he proclaims. “But you wouldn’t go.”
With this, she finally turns away. It does no good—he grabs her wrist, spins her to face him, and fixes his mouth other hers. The background music swells; it’s all swooning strings and twinkling piano. His his hands are on either side of her face and he holds her steady as she struggles to free herself. Finally she shoves him away with enough force to send him reeling. Outraged, she raises a hand to strike him. But he just grabs her arm and pulls her to him again, moving his hands up to grasp the back of her head as he forces her to accept his kiss.
The camera spins slowly around the couple, examining their faces from every angle. The female lead has frozen, her arms hanging limply at her sides, neither fighting the kiss nor consenting to it. The scene stops and zooms in to focus on the male lead’s closed eyes and his hand on her face, fingers turning white with the force of his grip. The image turns honey-colored and out-of-focus, and the credits roll.
In a post about a similar scenario in Coffee Prince, Idle Revelry’s Ladida points out that scene’s saving grace: it has the good sense to treat Han Gyul’s vicious kiss in episode 11 as something other than a highlight of the lead couple’s relationship. It’s filmed as what it is: a cruel act that he eventually apologizes for.
But Queen of Reversals is giving us a wolf in sheep’s clothing. On the outside, it’s fluffy and cute and we’re expected to respond with weak knees and adoring coos. But imagine the scene filmed in a different way—without the music and the spinning camera and the dreamy setting. Even if nothing else about it changed, it would have unmistakably been a kiss of aggression, one taking place against the will of the female lead. But its direction behaves as if forced physical intimacy in no way differs from mutual ardor.
Here’s the ugly truth: Compared to other dramas, this scene is pretty tame. For all their attention to girl-friendly love stories, Korean dramas are riddled with acts of physical intimidation disguised as romance. See, for example, the door lean in the risible A Gentleman’s Dignity. In that show, the open-shirted male lead pins his crush against a door after she has unknowingly walked in on him in the bathroom. She is left starring with chagrin at his nipple as he immobilizes her. Like this kiss in Queen of Reversals, the door lean is treated as a romantic moment by both the drama and the characters themselves.
And, as it turns out, by some of us.
|A Gentleman’s Dignity: Not hot.|
Most bloggers who have written about this kiss acknowledge how problematic it is, to borrow Vivi’s word choice. But that’s not true of everyone. “He just can’t help himself,” one person posted, describing the kiss as “an act of desperate need.” Which is true—this character is at what’s probably the lowest moment of his life. He’s been deserted by his mother, manipulated by his father and brother, and kept at arm’s length by the woman he loves. This kiss is about all those things. It’s also about his need for control and his feeling of impotency. What it’s not about his love for the female lead, no matter what the director’s take on the situation is.
A recent pair of unreciprocated kisses bothered me even in spite of my desensitization to the issue of sexual violence. Monstar, a music drama geared at teens, isn’t any more enlightened than its older counterparts. In one instance, its bad-boy rock star lead spends no less than a full minute trying to talk the female lead into closing her mouth so he can kiss her. (In his world forced kisses are acceptable, but open-mouthed ones are “porny.”) She just stands there, dazed but clearly not eager to comply. When he finally does kiss her several episodes later, she wears a wide-eyed expression of horror and scrabbles for purchase against his arms, looking for ways to break away. In the background, the music raises as she finally gives in and closes her eyes a full twenty seconds into the kiss.
But why are these involuntary kisses so common in Kdrama? A patriarchal society is certainly fertile ground for violence-disguised-as-love. Dramas constantly remind us in subtle ways that men are the ones who control the world: wrist grabbing and possessiveness and noble idiocy abound. Male leads call their girlfriends stupid, and tell them they shouldn’t cry/laugh/smile around other men. If the world assumes men are the leaders of every relationship and always know best, why shouldn’t they singlehandedly make the decisions when it comes to physical intimacy?
|Answer Me 1997: Shi Won works hard to avoid cooties|
And then there’s the issue of female desire, which is essentially nonexistent on Korean television outside of a few candid cable shows. Take the otherwise wonderful Answer Me, 1997. While none of that show’s kisses quite fit into the “forced” category, they’re all awfully close. Shi Won spends every kiss trying to be as far away from her partner as possible, literally bending over backward to do so. Even after marriage, she refuses to admit to enjoying sex. She works hard to clarify that intercourse is something she does on her significant other’s behalf, not her own. When modesty is prized and sex is utterly forbidden fruit, it’s a transgressive act for a woman to claim her sexuality. If these male leads didn’t make kisses happen by any means necessary, would they ever happen at all?
Now that I’m watching dramas from other Asian countries, I’m seeing different perspectives on this issue. Taiwanese dramas, for example, approach physical relationships from a vantage point that’s much more familiar to Western viewers. These shows take place in a universe where sex exists and is seen as a natural part of romantic relationships. Everywhere you turn, there are hot kisses.
But all that sex has a shadow cousin: sexual violence. Of the six dramas I’ve seen from Taiwan, there have been two cases of childhood sexual abuse (one hinted at and the other shown in brutal detail), a man who set up an elaborate scheme involving gangsters in order to trick a woman into sleeping with him, and a high schooler who repeatedly uses his superior strength to force physical contact on a very unwilling girl. Worst of all, though, was episode 13 of Mars.
|Mars: I know your mother was literally insane, but didn’t she treat you to respect girls?|
From the very beginning, this drama made it obvious to viewers that its female lead had been molested. The male lead doesn’t know this, but he starts to wonder if something is wrong when she shies away from heated contact with him: Every time he tries to move their make-out sessions to another level she panics to the point of flat-out hysteria. Instead of taking the hint and talking with her about the situation or encouraging her to get real professional help, he takes matters into his own hands.
The episode’s first “bed” scene starts off with the female lead just as into things as her boyfriend is. He may be too involved in the moment to see when things start to change for her, but we can’t miss it—her face is shown over his shoulder, distended in a terrified scream, and the scene is intercut with frames from her earlier sexual abuse. She brings everything to a halt and pushes him away with all her strength. “I’m sorry,” she pants. “I don’t mean to be like this.... Please don’t hate me.” Sobbing and covering her face with one hand, she leaves.
The next night, he calls her over to his place. As soon as she enters, he does something he’s never done before—closes and locks the front door behind her. I was going to describe the following scene in detail, but I can’t even bring myself to do it. Suffice it to say that he very avidly and aggressively attempts to rape her, even though he purportedly loves and her and knows how scared she is. She begs, she pleads, but he won’t stop.
Throughout this scene, the drama wants us to experience her fear. And we do. The atmosphere becomes palpably ominous from the moment he locks the door. The background music is tense and threatening, and her face claustrophobically fills the screen. We watch from above, only seeing him from the rear and in profile as he puts his lips on her skin. (I wouldn’t even call it a kiss—she’s mostly too busy screaming for that.)
But when she finally, completely breaks down and throws him off so she can run for the door, everything changes. The show’s “romance” theme song kicks in and he says, “I know everything now. I’m sorry. So sorry.” He comforts her, wrapping his arms around her and huddling next to the locked door with her. “I’ll never do it again.”
I do not understand this scene. Did he really not get the hint the last time she flipped out when he tried to touch her? Or is this supposed to be some sort of sexual healing? By forcing her to confront her fears but ultimately giving way, are we to believe the male lead is a hero? He doesn’t actually go through with the rape even though he clearly could have. Does this mean Mars wants us to see him as having earned her trust?
To me, it’s clear that this is an act of torture. The male lead didn’t inadvertently go against her wishes—he set out, cold and premeditated, to do something he knew was cruel beyond measure. All the apologies in the world don’t make up for this, and it ruined the entire drama for me.
So I guess that’s why Queen of Reversals was barely a blip on my radar. In its measured, Kdrama way it was an act of sexual violence. What the female lead wanted was immaterial, because a man who was interested in her—her boss—wanted to kiss her. But once you’ve seen Mars construe attempted rape as a romantic gesture, where do you go from there?
I’m not sure I know the answer, especially not when it comes to Taiwanese dramas. They’re an ocean I’m just starting to swim in, so I can’t tell if Mars is part of a greater trend or a one-time blip of misery.
|I Need Romance: When a girl wants a boy|
I have a lot of hope for Korean shows, though. On the one hand, female characters are slowly but surely taking control of their own sexuality. The best moment of the original I Need Romance involved a woman who became obsessed with the lovely forearms of a handsome man. There was no doubt that she found his body arousing, and no doubt what she wanted to do with him. And Queen In-hyun’s Man may have adored calling its female lead “stupid,” but she still got to initiate a lot of wonderful kisses and ultimately earn the respect of her male lead. On the other hand, male characters are evolving away from the caveman mentality that was all the rage a few years ago. Yoon Si Yoon’s entire oeuvre is indicative of a kinder, gentler Kdrama lead. If we’re lucky, his turn as the sensitive and respectful Enrique Geum in Flower Boy Next Door will be an evolutionary step toward the kind of male lead who will understand that loving someone is different from silencing them.