Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Hands Off: Consent and the Asian Drama Male



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 PrinceIdle 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.

Clips of Kdrama kisses are all over YouTube, and the one in episode 20 of Queen of Reversals is no exception. One upload has been viewed 223,147 times. It has received 163 positive votes and 9 negative ones, and 42 people have commented about it. Most of these comments marvel at how young the forty-something female lead looks, or bemoan Park Shi Hoo’s long absence from dramaland. One commenter muses, “aahhh to bad my love life isnt close to this.” But nobody mentions how worried the female lead looks, or wonders why the male lead might think it’s okay for him to hold her still and do whatever he wants to her.

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.

55 comments:

  1. ...And I was just saying i've become so desensitised to the wrist-grab. The wrist-grab is childs-play comparatively. If I may add to this list of misery that attempted rape scene from Que Sera Sera in which Jung Yumi turns around a split second later like it never happened and kisses him, in the rain no less, as if to say, how romantic. That ruined the whole drama for me.

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    1. I actually included that scene in this post originally but decided that I would have to rewatch the whole show to do it justice. I have really complicated feelings about it—Que Sera Sera is about these characters being tormented by their terrible decisions, and the romance angle of the rape/kiss scene was downplayed. (The rape was about as terrifying as anything I've ever seen on television. Both actors did amazing work.) It was just another awful thing both leads do on their way to real redemption in the final episode.

      It was at least smarter than QOR and GD. (Unfortunately, I think I'm making excuses for it because I loved the rest of the drama so much.)

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    2. I KNOW! That's exactly the drama which came to my mind while reading this. I sat there after that scene in total shock.

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    3. I meant from Que Sera Sera. Sorry!

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    4. @amanda, it's true the rape scene wasn't played for romance, but her reaction after was completely...ugh. it doesn't help that this marks the downward trajectory for her character in the drama. now that i think about it, you were right not to include that here. but that drama still problematically portrays female desire. i have such a complicated relationship with that drama coz i think it's both brilliant and horrible!

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  2. I found that incident in A Gentleman's Dignity pretty creepy actually, not in any way romantic. I remember feeling very uncomfortable watching it.

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    1. If I remember correctly, that scene was what made me decide to drop Gentleman's Dignity altogether. I've seen exactly two Kim Eun Sook shows, and I hated how she handled the romances in each of them. Which is why I fear for my lovely Park Shin Hye and Heirs...

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    2. Heirs did have a lot of agression

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    3. Heirs did have a lot of agression

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    4. Heirs did have a lot of agression

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  3. It's funny how quick I am to starting thinking, "bbut.. bbut.. there are good reasons for some of these scenes!" And then I facepalm because I'm just yet another desensitized viewer. The AGD "hot" bathroom scene literally creeped me out though. I'm still slaving through it but I absolutely cannot handle the two leads' relationship (and in fact, skip almost all of their scenes).

    On the subject of Mars, however: as brutal as that scene is portrayed (and yes it bothered me), I have a different theory of why it came about. I definitely think the guy suspected she had been abused before, but she would never talk about it, or come anywhere close to discussing it. So, rather than call in a professional (bc, you know that would be the smarter/kinder thing to do) he tests it out himself. I don't believe he intended to rape her fully (wow- I give him so maaaany props for that), but just to clarify to her and himself that he finally understands what's wrong with her. It worked. Voila. The air is cleared. The viewers are dismayed. /end theory-time. I hope I'm right, even though I still hate how he went this route.

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    1. I think you're right—the male lead in Mars never really meant to rape her. He just wanted to force her to open up and pushing her to the edge of sanity was how he decided to do it. (Of course a better tactic would have been a lot of booze and some respectful cuddling.)

      It's hard to imagine a scene like this ever playing out in an American drama, though. What makes our approach to these things so different?

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  4. To be fair, the sexual politics in “A Gentleman’s Dignity” were just weird in general. I’m not excusing the scene at all, but I think the larger context exacerbated the problem. The rest of the drama was surprisingly contact free in lot of ways, which was strange especially for a show dealing with forty year olds. Then the lawyer married his stalker, and there was the lamented (not by me) and much discussed in other places lack of kissing, generally ascribed to the architect’s RL wife.

    The issue of women being unable to own their own sexuality is a big issue in a lot of the shows. This seems to start with a lack of knowledge. I think that’s my major issue with say the famous dead fish kissing style of say, Park Shin-hye. Her wide eyed look and wooden stance doesn’t seem so much to suggest nervousness at going down a path she’s never travelled before, as much as a path she’s never heard of or seen before. Her posture seems to suggest that she is fearing something she’s heard of from supermarket tabloids (do they have Weekly World News in Korea?) involving little grey men and probes.

    There’s a particularly egregious example in a family drama, (I think it’s Assorted Gems, but I’m not going to rewatch to check) in which the newly married couple end up playing Blind Man’s Bluff or Charades or something because she hadn’t realized that this marriage thing was going to involve touching. The character, it should be noted, was otherwise cosmopolitan. Why had she not had to suffer through a squirm inducing conversation with her mother like the rest of us?

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    1. Uncomfortable gender relations seem to be the speciality of Kim Eun Sook, who wrote both A Gentleman's Dignity and Secret Garden. This sort of creepy male lead forcing himself on a woman in the guise of wooing her made me hate both shows, and is one of the reasons why I've stayed away from City Hall, which she also wrote.

      It's so weird when RL spouses are involved in skinship levels like that. One of Kirk Cameron's later-day movies substituted his actual wife for the bride in the big wedding because he wasn't willing to kiss another woman. Well, buddy, you picked the wrong field if that's how you feel about things :b

      In some ways I thought the Monstar open-mouth scene was really interesting on the topic of desire in Kdramas. I always look at things from my perspective: "Look at that cold-blooded Park Shin Hye. Can't she even bring herself to touch him?" But as Monstar reminded me, there's another perspective: "Why are these people behaving so lewdly on television?" The things that seem natural and normal to me, as someone who grew up with American TV, are not necessarily the things that seem natural and normal to Park Shin Hye.

      Assorted Gems is on my to-watch list. I can think of a similar case, though—in Sweet Eighteen the older male lead just sort of shrugged and decided to marry a younger girl who was chasing him. After the wedding, they never even kissed. It was as if neither even considered that physical intimacy might be part of marriage. Maybe that's one thing for an 18-year-old, but he was supposed to be at least in his mid 20s.

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    2. Ugh, I'd forgotten about the weird Secret Garden forcing her to stay on the bed thing. I think that was roundabout the time I decided to only focus on the fun Oska scenes and ignore the OTP.

      I can't in good conscience recommend Assorted Gems, so you don't need to move it up the TBW list.



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    3. Sorry there should have been a :) at the end of the second part. Otherwise I sound dictatorial.

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    4. Assorted Gems wasn't that bad. For about the first 36 episodes or so, I really enjoyed it, but I really don't like Alzheimer's stories, so I started to lose interest towards the end. I have heard a lot of discussion about the ending, which, whilst not perfect, did make a kind of sense to me. And on the upside, how wonderful to see a Westerner speaking such fluent Korean. He's an inspiration to those of us who are currently trying our best to learn the language (I'm doing ok, and when I was in Korea, the locals were absolutely delighted to hear me speaking Korean). All in all, I don't regret watching Assorted Gems. But I wouldn't watch it again.

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    5. @Amanda

      I wholeheartedly agree with you about 'Secret Garden' and 'A Gentleman's Dignity' having weird, rape-y overtones (or just being straight out rape-y: that bed scene in 'Secret Garden' still makes me shudder), but 'City Hall' was amazing. Not only is it well plotted, but it's one of the few dramas where the leads have sex on screen AND the female lead is definitely into it! It stars Kim Sun Ah and Cha Seung Won, and hot DAMN the chemistry between those two is off the chain. I would never have imagined that the writer behind SG and AGD was the same as the writer of 'City Hall'; 'City Hall' is one of my favorite dramas, and SG/AGD are some of my least favorite. Give 'City Hall' a try! (Also, give it about four episodes to really get going...the first few episodes are kind of all over the place.)

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  5. I'm so glad that you wrote this post! Even though Queen of Reversals really bothered me, I'm just as guilty of being desensitized in most dramas. For example, I was intensely creeped out for the first half of A Gentleman's Dignity, and then I promptly forgot how predator-like the male lead had been as soon as I finished the show.

    I'm glad you mentioned Queen In Hyun's Man as an example of female desire. I'm trying to think of others, but it's hard! Even though Yoon Eun Hye's characters are often naive, they tend to portray that desire well.

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    1. I agree about Yoon Eun Hye being the go-to actress for roles that require real physical connection. Even Goong had the whole back hug thing, to say nothing about her actually being the one to initiate the kissing in Coffee Prince. And unlike a lot of Kdrama girls, her characters even get to say No when they want to. I don't think she and the second lead had a single kiss in I Miss You in spite of his many, many attempts. (Which, interestingly, were actually incredibly hot.)

      I wonder how much the actors themselves have to say about these things? It can't just be luck that Yoon Si Yoon is the prickly female lead whisperer.

      A number of cable shows have depicted girls as enjoying skinship, although it's pretty rare on the networks. There's both I Need Romances, 12 Men in a Year, Can We Get Married, Queen In-hyun's Man...

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    2. I am a huge fan of Yoon Si Yoon, but the scene in episode 6 of Me Too Flower had me cringing. Granted, she turns around and kisses him back, and they had chemistry, but he was obviously forcing himself on her for the first part...again, it was one of those emotionally charged moments, but there are much better ways of getting your feelings across, especially if you actually like and respect the other person!

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    3. See how desensitized I am to forced kisses? I totally forgot the hot Me Too, Flower kiss started off being forced. She eventually came enjoyed herself, but the first part of the kiss was typical Kdrama lead territory. Drat. Is no actor pure?

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  6. I remember being dismayed by the comments on this video. They were all positive. I don't know if I can say I'm being desensitised because I can't know what I don't notice but I still notice many wrist grabs and many forced kisses. And I watched 32 Korean drama (not counting Japanese and Taiwanese) That's why I love when the girls kisses the guy so much. I'm positive the future will be better because of what I saw in recent drama. Maybe it's just coincidence and I don't think the wrist grabs are in any danger of vanishing but many kisses were not forced. They would try to kiss the girls and they would either evade it or close the kiss. It's a nice change.

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    1. I agree that Kdrama kisses are changing for the better--just like everywhere else in the world, accepted norms evolve over time. At one point, married characters on American television weren't even allowed to sleep in the same bed. Someday Korean dramas will probably be as racy as TV here. (Not that I'm all that sure that's a good thing. I could actually be happy with some more chaste programming.)

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  7. Hmm, I do suspect the prevalence of force as a driver of "romance" is because things might not really happen otherwise. Talking, so to speak, isn't the favored way of getting closer to a mutually desired physical connection. Perhaps because I'm a complete asian, I actually empathise with what happens on screen. If a guy came up close to me, even if I really liked him and would like to touch him, I'd still be freaked and panic and freeze and not really be comfortable about it. I think the asexual universe of kdramas is actually the exception in Asia, Thai dramas are known for the presence of rape, violence in basically every other drama. Jdramas too, go very very dark places. Que Sera Sera though, shocked me to the core. The kiss after, it certainly wasn't romantic as much as it was a result of anger, pain, self-hate, shame, just a hot mess.
    Anyway, thanks for this article Amanda.

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    1. I've heard that Thai dramas are prone to sexual violence, which is one of the reasons why I've stayed away from them. Not a lot beats Que Sera Sera on that front, though. That whole scene was incredibly upsetting, as was the one immediately after it.

      And I definitely understand what it's like to be shy and scared when it comes to physical contact. Sometimes its unavoidable in life, and sometimes its appropriate in dramas. But there's a whole other world of women's sexuality out that that's rarely addressed, (And this is true of a lot of US shows, too.)

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  8. First time commenter here! I recently started reading your blog and just HAD to comment when I saw the title of this post! :) It's something I have given a lot of thought to recently. What's bugging me is I can't find an old article I read a few years ago discussing female desire in k-dramas and how the back-hug was set up the woman wouldn't have to show any kind of reciprocity. It wouldn't be 'chaste' otherwise. The consequence of this being that the male leads must behave more aggressively because the female leads are supposed to be completely stand-off-ish. I think there is a line where this is tolerable and where it falls perfectly within the territory you're describing of forced/unwanted contact.

    I liked Answer Me: 1997, but that exact scene you included the screen grab from bothered me to no end. Even more-so then a scene like that, one of the biggest wtf? moments I've had was the 'bed scene' in Secret Garden. That episode effectively killed any remaining goodwill I had toward that show (and I was very fond of Oska).

    This is probably one of the reasons I love Mi-ho from MGIAG so much. She's so refreshingly frank.

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    1. I've always loved the back hug convention for exactly the opposite reason: it allows girls to have the power for a change. They're usually initiated by women, and while the hug is happening the guy is forced to let himself be controlled. (In some ways back hugs almost the girl equivalent of a wrist grab, although they're usually not done in anger.) In truth, back hugs involve a lot more bodily contact, so they're not so chaste after all.

      I do think Kdrama girls tend toward the stand-offish, though, at least partially because they're expected to be the subordinate party in relationships, bot the instigators.

      I can't even remember the bed scene in Secret Garden, but I was troubled by the whole central relationship in that show. Cornering someone in the dressing room and forcing them to be near you is *not* a romantic gesture. It's abuse.

      MGIAG, like so many of the Hong sisters' dramas, really put a fresh spin on a Kdrama trope. The female lead was fully matter-of-fact about sex ("Look! They're mating!" is my favorite gif on all of Tumblr), and also took control of the skinship. She was the one who said they couldn't touch because of her orb issue...which to me sounds like nothing more than a girl taking responsibility for birth control =X

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    2. That's really interesting! Most of the dramas I've seen, the backhugs have been initiated by the men. But you've cast it in a different context. Now that I think about it, I'm sure I must have seen some dramas in which the female lead was the initiator (probably multiple Yoon Eun-hye dramas).

      Writing about the scene from Secret Garden here just makes me feel ill. Long story short: we're agreed on it being abuse. Hence my extreme trepidation about Heirs. Right now I'm picturing a cross between Gu Jun-pyo and Joo-won and am NOT liking the results.

      MGIAG was just pure gold. :)

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    3. Back hugs are definitely a two-way street, but they're one of the few acts of skinship that girls ever take the lead on. There was a super cute subplot in Goong about Yoon Eun Hye's character getting all worked up every time she saw the male lead's back because she just wanted to squeeze him ;) I wish I could think of more examples, but I'm drawing a blank. I even feel like I saw one just recently...

      Here's hoping Master's Sun is more MGIAG and less Big. ;)

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  9. I remember first watching "Boys Over Flowers" and the first kiss scene (on a swing set, iirc) between Joon-pyo and Jan-di. He leaned in and she full on dropped her chin -- maybe even turned away. She made her mouth really inaccessible is my point. And I thought, "ah, she does NOT want to be kissed" because that was such an obvious brush off.

    That was my first k-drama and I was going by Western standards. I've seen so many scenes in Western tv and movies where the guy starts to move in, the girl turns away and he stops, realizing he's been rejected. (If I'm being approached for a kiss and want to do a gentle brush-off, turning away is the move I use in RL, too, now I think on it.) So I was obviously wrong, wrong, wrong.

    Because Joon-pyo continued to move in, had to actually dip his head really, really awkwardly to get below her and give her a kiss. And they kissed (well -- he kissed her; she stayed statue still) and there was a music swell and I was like, "How the hell does a guy know when to continue and when to stop if that's actually a go signal and not the stop I'd read it as?"

    I think that's the problem. As you point out the woman is supposed to be like this... blank wall or something? And it's completely and totally on the guy to push for any kind of kissing or what have you because the woman will be giving him nothing. (I almost wonder if there's a certain kind of nothing? Like subtle clues Western eyes don't easily pick up? I don't know.) So it's like, if anything's going to happen it's all on the guy. Which means you get grab and kiss scenes where the woman protests, but weakly so it's all good.

    "Nine" was a drama where the female character was openly hot for the guy and made -- for k-drama levels -- pretty audacious moves. Including initiating the first kiss (while drunk, so...) and snuggling up to him when he was sleeping and such. So I also agree, it's not set in stone and may well be changing. But... yeah. Definitely something I've thought about. :) Excellent post!

    --Betsy Hp (from Creating Volumes on wordpress -- for some reason it's not registering me.)

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    1. I see what you mean. I think the perfect example is in Coffee Prince. She never says that she wants to stay the night or even that she wants to get intimate with him. But because he warns her of what may happen if she stays and she very obviously choose to stay it's like a roundabout way of telling him that she wants it. It's the most straightforward I've seen a women in a k-drama go personally.

      On the other hand, you will often see women getting disappointed that their boyfriend didn't kissed them/didn't enter their home etc etc. But they never asked them and they never do anything. It's frustrating!

      Just in the last hour, I saw a girl taking the guy's hand and I was super surprised. It's a rare event.

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  10. Great post! My biggest pet peeve with Korean dramas is the way lots of female characters are portraied. Stupid, naive, sexless without own needs, obeying on demand, but if she's pretty enough, it is all fine. Ugh. Hate it.

    A couple of weeks ago another blog started recaps on What's Up, Fox? Everybody gushed about the romance and how wonderful a series it is. So I checked out the first two eps and what do we get? A drunken rape. She is dead-drunk, he is sober, she initiates intimacy in her state and he simply can't resist!? That is what PSH allegedly did, this is rape. But there are tons of female fans of this series and the 'wonderful love story' out there. *no words*

    For some reason it seems to be a major kink for viewers to watch a 30+ woman behave like an uneducated, unknowing teenager (A Gentleman's Dignity). It appears to be an erotic thing for the male viewers, I outright hate it.
    Often we get a scene (coincidentally also in What's Up, Fox?) where a grown-up woman has to visit the ob/gyn with no empathy and panics. Some argued it's reality, but I'm glad I live in a different kind of reality with better, perceptive and more sensitive doctors.

    Scenes like this manifest a behavioral pattern in young female viewers, that should long be obsolete esp. in a modern country like SK.

    Like you, I'm waiting for this to change. There are different shows out there, still in the minority, but we all can hope.

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  11. Great post! I only mentioned that the female lead doesn't do her part in returning kisses in my review of Answer Me 1997, and didn't even think about how it might be the character really not wanting it. Guess I am desensitized along with everyone else :(

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  12. What an awesome post! Now that i'm thinking it over, like many people have commented of the fact that they have become desensitized to these forced sexual behaviors, I can't help but find myself doing the same. Weirdly though, as I look at what my favorite dramas are, I've noticed a pattern.. Most of the lead women have a backbone. I never thought about it till now since you've mentioned it, but i agree Can We Get Married is a great example of a woman who has a voice in her relationship and has the power to set boundaries, and the guy totally agrees with it. And it's not that she has him completely whipped haha, but when it's time for him to pull the reins he does it, making sure her opinion is also included. Don't even get me started with Queen In Hyun's Man..I love that drama <33

    It's a wonder that we can't find many females like this in drama land. I find it funny that most are very strong willed when it comes time to hating the guy, but when it comes time to love, they lose all their mighty aura and upfront behavior. They become feeble and silent, allowing the men to do whatever they want with them. Like you said, this doesn't happen that often in American tv, and I wonder if it's South Korea trying to play the innocent card. As if females don't know what romance is all about. And because of this, imagine how many episodes we'll be watching before the female finally takes the lead. So to avoid this, they make the guy EXTRA macho so he can move the story along. It's quite sad to think about really.

    But there is hope, since things seems to be slowly changing. I thought Lawyer Jang in I Hear Your Voice was a pretty decent heroine. I loved how blunt she was, I loved that she set the limits on what Soo Ha could do with her at different points in time. Maybe because it's a noona-dongsaeng relationship it might be a little skewed. But she's my favorite female character of this year so far. I do hope the wrist grabbing and all the man handling can be put to a stop. Really, thanks for this post! I plan to be much more aware of the gender roles in dramas instead of turning a blind eye to it.

    ~Analogueblues

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  13. Not to be too OT, but I think you should give City Hall a chance. I have not watched AGD, but watched the heck out of SeGa for my own sentimental reasons. And if anything at all, I feel City Hall was still way better written than Secret Garden due to a much better character development of the OTP and upping the stakes of their relationship that goes beyond the body swapping premise and evil mom in law of SeGa. It's a political drama first so there were
    a lot of power play involved and without divulging too much, you might say that some situations in the drama may be an exaggeration but not entirely removed from the reality of modern day politics. Yes Cha Seung Won's character is an ass in so many ways that a Kim Eun Sook drama can only do justice, however I feel it is equally matched with Kim Sun Ah's fantastic portrayal of Shin Mi Rae, in a way that Kim Sun ah characters do best - sass and mouth but all heart. I also recommend reading Samsooki’s recap of CH on Dramabeans since his analysis is pretty spot on and probably why I appreciated it more after reading his take on the drama.

    Also to go back slightly on topic and speaking of strong female leads,
    I’ve always thought Kim Sun ah’s characters in most of her dramas (that I have seen so far anyway) do not shy away from taking charge of her life and her own sexuality in her own terms. She does tend to pick similar roles, but I appreciate the fact that her characters are of a self-assured, modern woman who is sometimes not all together, but knows exactly what she wants and goes for it. I just think these types of roles are tailor made for her.

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    1. I completely agree about City Hall. Two mature 30 something people, both having been around the block more than once, meet and enter into an adult, loving, respectful and equal relationship. Each of them learns truths about themselves and each grows personally and professionally through knowing and loving the other. Cha Seung Won's Jo Gook starts out as a ruthless, heartless political operative who is willing to do anything to achieve his goals and Kim Sun Ah's Shin Mi Rae is an intelligent but chronic underachiever who has been dumped on both romantically and in the workplace once too often. Jo Gook opens his heart and Shin Mi Rae uncovers the drive and ambition that always was a part of her. They both take qualities from the other and become complete human beings in the process.

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    2. I agree with both of you! 'City Hall' is one of my favorite dramas.

      Another thing I really like about it is that you don't have the "Female Lead Fade-Out" that you often see in Korean dramas. You know what I'm talking about: we fall in love with the spunky, capable heroine in the beginning episodes, and then about three-quarters of the way through the drama, you realize that she's only wheeled out onto the screen if and when she further's the male lead's development ('Aarang and the Magistrate' is a good[bad] example of this). This does NOT happen in 'City Hall': the female lead is the center of the drama from beginning to end, even as she changes (for the better) because of her involvement with the male lead.

      It's a great, highly underrated drama, and I recommend it highly. ^_^

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  14. I certainly agree that the forced behavior of the males in K-Dramas does bother me. It definitely shows a cultural difference for me but I have to say, it doesn't stop us addicts from loving these dramas though, does it?

    On the topic of the strong female leads, I agree Yoon Eun Hye and Kim Sun Ah are my favorites. I've also come to like Ha Ji Min as I liked her in SeGa but loved her in King 2 Hearts.

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  15. To western standards, the forced intimacy may seem way out of line but Kdrama's aren't written based on western standards. Korean culture dictates that girls should be reserved, pure, and innocent until they get married. Then after marriage they are to be subservient, quiet, and understanding.

    Korea is a patriarchal society where men are the "father figure" or "King" of every relationship. They initiate physical contact and the girl in question must obey. I am in no way saying that I feel this is appropriate behavior for this day and age but you have to understand the underlying cultural significance of said behaviors. Korean girls, till this day, are still taught these patriarchal and archaic ideas and those that live a life following these beliefs are seen as a "Better Marriage Match" for a Korean male than women who are worldly or "experienced" in physical intimacy.

    For example: Viewers can easily find a loving relationship where the female protagonist is a docile, inexperienced woman with no real desire for physical intimacy but the probability is extremely low that you will find many dramas where the female protagonist is aggressive and well experience in relationship and sex without her being portrayed as a "loose woman" or the villain.

    With that in mind, we as western viewers need to take into consideration the cultural differences between where we are from and Korea. As another reader mentioned earlier; if a guy goes in for a kiss and the girl immediately turns her head away in defiance most guys get the hint and back off, HOWEVER because men in Korea are taught and raised up to be the "King of the Castle" they have developed an instinct to be the "take charge" type person in the relationship.

    I have many Korean friends, both born and raised in the Korea and born and raised in the US, and this instinct of dominance in the male psyche is more prevalent in those who were raised in Korea and around not only their parents but grandparents and extended family as well. Most of the older Korean wives I know are very subservient to their husbands while in their presence and only act like themselves around other wives. It's very unfortunate that these practices still continue to live on in countries like Korea but I can also understand why they still do.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I definitely appreciate that there are legion differences between the world as I view it as a liberal, feminist American, and the world as it is seen by many people in Korea. (And even in my own country.)

      One of the reasons why I love Korean drama is because I get to peek into this other world without leaving home. I always try to be candid about my situation: I've never even met anyone who has been to Korea, let alone anyone who grew up there. My understanding of Korea is from the outside in, just like the blog subtitle says.

      Yes, these shows are rooted in a value system different from my own. And yes, they are primarily intended for viewers who subscribe to these values. But I also think that critical discussion of the understanding of consent is appropriate on both creative and cultural levels.

      This post was motivated by my dismayed realization that I had become desensitized to behavior so far from what I would consider acceptable. Other people might have a different understanding of right and wrong in these relationships, but that doesn't mean I have to agree with them or blindly accept their vantage point.

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  16. I always wonder if i'm desensitised or if i'm just accepting. Or is that the same thing? It's kinda like, you can't watch a k-drama without there being a wrist grab or a forced kiss, but you want to keep watching k-dramas, therefore you have to accept the stupid and wrong things the writers think are okay to portray.

    That scene from Mars, i never really understood it. I always assumed that it was his way of getting her to admit to her past and tell him what happened, but geez, did he go about it the wrong way! And apparently we're supposed to just think "ok, well, he didn't plan on raping her, he just wanted to scare her, so therefore its ok"...?

    That scene in Reply 1997 though, didn't she passionately kiss him back? Or am I just remembering that totally wrong? I haven't watched it again since it aired, maybe it's time for a rewatch.

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  17. Just to open up this discussion on something else I never really understood: There are so many scenes in K-Dramas (like for example recently in Who Are You) where the male lead says: "How can you have no fear to enter a place where a single guy lives?".
    When reading your entry, I thought the physical intimidation you describe so well might explain these because maybe these male leads are actually saying: "If you enter a place where you are alone with a guy, you can easily become the victim of his sexual desire." Just a thought.

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    1. I never considered this, but I'm sure it's part of the motivation behind these comments. (Eeek.) I suspect that the girl's reputation is also a big concern—even if there's no funny business, being alone together like that could get the rumor mill cranking. It reminds me of that scene in Boys over Flowers where Jan Di says she won't be able to get married, just because she ended up sleeping in the same place as Jun Pyo.

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  18. Well, I'm off to my jjimjibang in Duluth to celebrate my birthday. Taking my sister for the first time. I'll let you know if I see any real life wrist grabs or forced kisses while I am there (I think not). Also making a trip to H-Mart to stock up on my Korean liquor and baby coconuts and then to Nae Dae Mun market to see what's new and interesting! Happy Birthday to me!!!!

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  19. This was another great post and great discussion. I just want to add that the Korean and American assumptions about masculine sexuality are not entirely different from one another. Masculine sexuality is often portrayed as primal, aggressive, and overwhelming (see: the Twilight series). When it comes to sex, men are assumed to have much less control than women. This is the basis for many problematic beliefs: men should have a lot of sex all the time; sexual assault happens because women tempt men too much; men who want to teach, coach, or mentor young children are probably sexual predators. (This last assumption has led to an incredible dearth of male elementary school teachers in America, which I think is a shame.) The forced kiss, the forced intimacy, the forced sex that occurs on screen are results of these assumptions.

    Don't get me wrong: I've become a huge Korean drama fan and I got there by way of Bollywood. There are so many wonderful things about these productions. But this is the part I find hardest to deal with. The forced kisses always detract from the drama, because I doubt whether these two people can actually make it. I hate to be a downer, but I don't think Answer Me 1997's couple is actually an OTP. How can you be a true pairing if one of you can't stand touching the other? I didn't love the show as much as others did for that very reason. I don't think they're going to make it. But, that's just my Western feminist two cents. Thanks again for great conversation, everyone.
    -Jen

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  20. Queen of Reversals wasn't even half as good as its predecessor, Queen of Housewives (starring the same female lead)
    I like well-written romances, and these kinds of scenes turn me off, too. I think these issues are treated really well in My Husband's Got a Family and Shut Up Family. There are some really, really wonderful, touching (pun intended) romantic scenes, very sensitively written.

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  21. Maybe we could start a list of kdrama female leads who do take charge of their sexuality? I'm thinking:

    -Shin Min Ah in My Girlfriend is a Gumiho
    -Yoon Eun Hye in Coffee Prince
    -Tae Gong Shil in Master's Sun (at least so far)
    -Kim Sun Ah in My Lovely Sam Soon (if I'm remembering right)
    -Suzy in Gu Family Book

    Others?

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    1. Oh and the woman in Fantasy Couple . . . well, she shouts at the guy to get him to kiss her, but it's clear she knows what she wants.

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    2. - Kim Sun Ah in 'City Hall'
      - Yoon Jin Seo and Koh Joon Hee in '12 Signs of Love'/'12 Men in a Year'
      - Park Bo Young & Kim Seul Gi in 'Oh My Ghostess' <-- in fact, I think the FEMALE leads sometimes cross the line in this one and walk a thin line between pursuit and sexual assault (it is played off as "funny", but it makes me feel uncomfortable all the same)
      - Jeon Ji Hyun in 'You From Another Star'
      - Kim Seul Gi in 'Flower Boy Next Door'
      - Soo Ae in '9 End 2 Outs'/'Bottom of the Ninth with 2 Outs'
      - Both actresses in 'Shut Up Flower Boy Band' (the romances aren't as central to this drama as they are to others, but in both relationships, the women are pretty up-front about their desire, and they're teenagers!)
      - All the actresses in 'Ojakkyo Brothers' (There are four love-lines going on, since this is a 50+ episode family drama.)
      - Jang Mi In Ae in 'Soulmate'
      - All of the actresses (I think?) in 'The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry'

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  22. It was fun to reminisce how I was hooked 10 years ago, though I couldn’t tell every episode in details but yes I’d say I was a Meteor Garden tagalog fan. It feels great that the said Taiwan series with the famous F4 and Shan Cai is finally back on Philippine TV. This is one series the teens these days would surely love to watch. I am also checking on other Asian series so I came to your blog. Thanks for sharing some, I wish to watch them all soon. =) Cheers!
    http://meowchie.snydle.com/meteor-garden.html

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  23. Just wanted to interject, in case this hasn't been brought up, but MARS is based on a Japanese Manga, which means that scene has very little to do with Taiwanese male-aggression in their dramas and more to do with accurate depiction of source material. That scene was accurate to the Manga. Japanese Shoujo Manga is generally pretty Rape-y for the most part, and actually, I feel as though the Taiwanese Drama version toned down some of the more aggressive acts in that Manga. I do not believe that any dramas that are based on Manga count as an expression of any trend in male-dominance in Korean/Taiwanese culture. Like boys over flowers, for example, and incredibly rape-y Japanese Manga. It's adaptation into the Korean Drama toned down a lot of the Manga.

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  24. BOYS OVER FLOWERS (taiwanese version) had a pretty aggressive kiss scene.
    The male lead chases the female lead through the school halls until he finally corners her by the stairs. He kisses her harshly. She began he to stop and twists her head and cries, attempting to stop him. The camera shifts to her shirt as it begins to tear from him tugging on it.
    Granted the original manga had the same scene progress farther, but all other versions stop at the attempted kiss.

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  25. BOYS OVER FLOWERS (taiwanese version) had a pretty aggressive kiss scene.
    The male lead chases the female lead through the school halls until he finally corners her by the stairs. He kisses her harshly. She began he to stop and twists her head and cries, attempting to stop him. The camera shifts to her shirt as it begins to tear from him tugging on it.
    Granted the original manga had the same scene progress farther, but all other versions stop at the attempted kiss.

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    ReplyDelete