How K-Dramas Romanticize Toxic Relationships and Still Adopt the Female Gaze
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Recent years have seen a drastic increase in the popularity of K-Dramas, with a total of 273 Korean movies and series available on Netflix as of August 2023. One of the most popular K-Drama subgenres is romance; some popular examples include What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim? (2018), Business Proposal (2022), and Boys Over Flowers (2009). These three shows all have different storylines and characters, but have a major plot point in common: their male leads are all rich and powerful, while their female leads are ordinary.
This dynamic is widespread throughout the genre, with K-Dramas typically following a plot in which the male lead wins over the female lead by using his influence to perform grand romantic gestures. While such actions can seem innocent at first glance, they are often accompanied by toxic behaviors from the male lead. Whether it be the male lead grabbing and dragging the female lead’s wrist in a fit of jealousy or victim blaming the female lead after she experiences a dangerous situation, these actions are never properly addressed in the show as harmful. Instead, they are backed with gentle piano ballads and shifting camera angles that capture the conflicted female lead’s face an intimate five inches away from the male lead’s. Furthermore, these incidents tend to work in favor of the relationship’s development: the female lead often interprets these moments as a sign that the male lead truly cares for her well-being. Such editing and plot devices ultimately glamorize the toxic relationship depicted, which is amplified by the fact that these actions are never placed in any other context. The male lead’s aggressive and explosive masculinity is glorified through these strength-boasting scenes. Moreover, his immature inability to control such emotional responses is seen as pitiful and cute when he is unable to articulate his feelings.
The male lead’s powerful position makes him inherently extraordinary, and therefore his behavior is held to different standards than a regular person’s; after all, why should extraordinary people face ordinary consequences? Neither the audience and characters in the show hold the male lead to the same expectations—whether economic, moral, or emotional—they do to everyone else. What may be considered toxic for an average person to do is made acceptable when performed by the male lead, because his identity gives him a “pass.” The patriarchy also helps endorse his actions, because in the shows, the male lead does not disrupt the social order. Despite the power disparity in the relationship, nothing revolutionary occurs.
Given that K-Dramas have a growing global audience with varying stances on the role of women, how do they still find viewership in countries that might possess a slightly different view of women than their own? Take the United States of America, for example, where women are regularly seen through the male gaze and sexualized on television, lacking character beyond their sex appeal. K-Dramas often adopt the female gaze instead, and the female lead’s personality becomes the main focus of her character, as opposed to her body. K-Dramas also typically lack scenes with sexual intimacy, further reinforcing the idea that the female lead is not on screen to serve as a sexual figure. This can be refreshing to audiences that are routinely exposed to shows in which women serve an ultimately sexual purpose; still, women are marginalized in K-Dramas through other methods. Another potential factor of the popularity of K-Dramas can be attributed to society’s ideal woman. In the United States, social media promotes that the ideal woman is one who is fit, works hard, effortlessly beautiful but simultaneously works for her beauty, strong but not too strong, good with children, etc. Modern-day women are faced with constant, impossible-to-meet standards in order to conform to the patriarchy’s ideals. As evidenced by the meteoric rise of Barbie (2023), many women feel as though their efforts to meet all of these expectations go unrecognized as society continues to criticize them. This is where K-Dramas come into play, as their female leads are typically ordinary people; it is empowering to see a regular woman depicted as desirable to the elites.
If K-Dramas portray toxic behaviors in such an appealing and universal way, does that mean that all viewers are bound to romanticize them as well? The answer is complicated. While many people may begin to accept and glorify these toxic behaviors due to a lack of prior reference knowledge, this does not mean that every viewer will. As mentioned previously, K-Dramas use various tactics to reframe toxic behaviors, but with enough background knowledge on what these behaviors are and what they can look like, one can recognize them and choose to ignore their glorification. That being said, this background knowledge is not always accessible to every viewer, making some more susceptible than others. Like all forms of television, K-Dramas have their own pros and cons, and it is up to the audience whether they will continue to consume content that romanticizes toxic behaviors. Each viewer has the power to choose what they want to watch in order to frame their worldview, so use it