[Spoiler Alert: Boys Over Flowers, Meteor Garden, Princess Pearl/Huan Zhu Ge Ge, Strong Girl Bong-Soon, It Started with a Kiss]
Mengzhu: This winter, I made the terrible mistake of watching “romantic” East Asian TV dramas.
Helen: Is it the ones they’ve added to Netflix? I noticed they’ve added lots of Asian dramas lately, useful to have English subtitles too. I just finished Strong Girl Bong-Soon, what did you watch?
M: Yes, the Netflix rabbit hole! I started watching Boys Over Flowers on Netflix because the description mentioned “class warfare, high school style.” I was wanting to switch off from work and not have to think about gender violence and abuse, but this show really didn’t help. It’s apparently a really popular K-drama and it was based on a Japanese manga. Then I realised, 25 episodes later, this is also the same story as the Taiwanese TV series Meteor Garden! I remember watching this addictively as a teenager, or maybe even pre-teen around 11 or 12. It was a really popular show among teenage girls in my family friends circle of diaspora Chinese kids. The bullying, intimate partner violence and sexual abuse and harassment in this is really intense, but it’s like portrayed as love? It’s so messed up. Have you two seen it?
Emma: I’ve seen Boys Over Flowers and I heard about it because it was making its rounds online! It seemed like a really extra version of every other Korean drama I’d seen up until that point and that’s saying something considering most Korean dramas are intense. The way that abusive behaviours were portrayed in this show was really bad, but at the same time, the way that harassment and persistence is shown as “love” is such a common trope in East Asian dramas. I used to watch K-dramas as a kid growing up so I was desensitised to seeing these tropes, but I hadn’t really watched K-dramas that centred on the lives of high school students and youth in general. So it was really jarring when I got into K-dramas again to watch people who would be considered my peers displaying really harmful behaviours and for the shows to not “problematise” or challenge those behaviours.
H: Same here! I have heaps of memories on watching Meteor Garden with my mum, it was such a hit back in the 2000s. Growing up in diaspora in a predominantly white area, I felt isolated from my own culture. Dramas were a window for me to reconnect and learn about Hong Kong, even though it was a second hand source of information it helped me retain a sense of belonging. Being an only child too, I didn’t have any family friends my age to watch dramas with me but I was brought up in a household where dramas were played on a daily basis. Every night I ate dinner with my parents, I would zone out to the latest episode of TVB dramas from Hong Kong, taped on VCR and mailed over from Hong Kong.
M: Wow I remember VCR, and VCDs. My aunt used to send us all the episodes of Huan Zhu Ge Ge (Princess Pearl) on VCDs haha. I recently rewatched for the first time as an adult, with a totally different lens and understanding of the world. While the women protagonists are better than a lot of other TV shows, there’s actually also a lot of apologism for the Emperor’s violence against his daughters and concubines. In the second season, he kept to sexually harassing and assaulting the Uighur princess Han Xiang until she escaped, ordered the execution of his daughters who helped her escape and put them through so much horror, but is still redeemed at the end for being a good Emperor and father! Urgh.
H: Going back to what you said about the prevalence of intimate partner violence, sexual abuse and harassment though, when I was around fourteen, fifteen, I was never aware of these tropes in East Asian dramas. I especially loved watching Hong Kong crime and detective based dramas as a child, at the time I was too young to pick up how women were depicted merely as sex objects and subjected to sexual violence. It's scary how media is able to ingrain patriarchal values to children at a young age.
M: Yeah totally, it’s pretty scary thinking that shows like Boys Over Flowers and Meteor Garden had such a wide reach with teenage girls in Asia. The romance was torturous, full of calamity and tragedy. I didn’t know what healthy relationships were when I first watched Meteor Garden, but thinking back, the conflation of love with abusive and controlling behaviours is an incredibly dangerous message to be sending to young women and girls. And these shows are made for young women and girls - a fantasy of powerful, handsome and rich men falling in love with ordinary working class girls, then ‘saving’ them from poverty with their wealth. It’s so unoriginal, we heard it all before in western fairy tales like Cinderella. It wasn’t about class warfare at all, but submission to the violent capitalist patriarchy.
E: Yeah! When I was younger, a really popular drama that took off in Korea and across Asia I think, was Full House, where this rich celebrity marries a woman, who works for him as a maid, to make another woman jealous and it’s so gross because a running joke in the whole series is that the one working as a maid has “short legs” and he is constantly putting her down, calling her stupid and incredibly and unsurprisingly, they end up falling in love? Looking back, it was pretty disturbing that a lot of people found him and his character attractive even though he played an outwardly abusive jerk.
H: I noticed similar tropes in Strong Girl Bong-Soon, which was fun to watch at first, but the storyline became increasingly problematic as it progressed. What made me angry in particular was how Bong-Soon became infatuated with Mr. An, the rich CEO, as a result of him “helping” her find her true purpose and self. The dynamics of an “intelligent” upper class man aiding “unintelligent” lower class women is all too familiar in East Asian dramas, take the 2005 Taiwanese drama, It Started with a Kiss. What disturbed me the most wasn’t that but the second narrative which followed a series of kidnappings of young women in Bong-Soon’s town. They were supposedly planned by a kidnapper who was inspired by a famous play where seven women were captured and killed through a ritual. Scenes following these kidnappings were incredibly graphic, with the women shown to be tortured, starved and hit on camera. Those scenes were completely unnecessary and obvious existed as a form of gratification.
M: I know what you mean. I’ve seen some other dramas like that, with murders of trans-women and sex workers as the mystery/crime to be solved. I find them really difficult to watch. But it’s almost like the violence against women has to be really extreme for it to be considered violence, and for the perpetrators to be considered as villains. The violence against women by their partners, or the guy who likes them, is depicted as ‘romantic’ and normal.
E: Because abuse can only be physical right? East Asian dramas completely skip over emotional abuse, verbal abuse and intimidation as being valid and dangerous forms of abuse.
M: Using Boys Over Flowers again, the way the main rich guy, Gu Jun Pyo treated Geum Jan Di, the working class girl protagonist, is nothing less than abusive. He treats women like crap. We see him smearing a cake a girl made for him in her face as a way of rejecting her, like it was “cool”. I don’t know where this idea that you should bully the girl you like comes from, but he would go out of his way to make her life hell. Some other abusive, controlling or inappropriate behaviours he displayed included constantly putting her down, calling her names, casually threatening her if she doesn’t show up to a date. You never hear him asking her for consent for anything. Have you noticed how in so many East Asian romantic dramas, the first kiss is always a “surprise” kiss (i.e. not consensual)? One person always has their eyes open. There are so many scenes where he’s sitting in his car stalking her, and some of it is like it’s justified in case she’s in danger and he needs to be there protect her. On top of all this, he’s physically violent and at one point strangling her and she tells him “I can’t breathe”. It’s completely unacceptable behaviour in any relationship. He even kidnapped her and detained her in his house as his maid. That’s not even all of them.
E: And it’s considered acceptable to put down the love interest constantly! I swear it’s a trope that I’ve seen in every Korean drama and film. Like, I laugh at those memes of Boys Over Flowers where he’s calling her ugly because #same, but it’s actually such an abuse of power and a strong demonstration of the entitlement he must feel over Jan Di to insult her like that to her face and still expect her to fawn over him? The same tropes are present in Full House and that came out in 2004 so it’s really depressing to see those behaviours are still glorified as romantic in these dramas.
M: What was really horrible to watch was despite that all these kinds of violent, abusive and controlling behaviours, Geum Jan-Di still falls in love with Gu Jun Pyo and chooses him over the other guy who was just as paternalistic and annoying but who was far more respectful and caring.
H: That’s what gets me the most too, how men who are respectful and genuinely care about the protagonist are often sidelined or deemed as unattractive. Meanwhile, men who are often physically or emotionally abusive are considered the ideal love interest. Going back to It Started with a Kiss, Yuan Xiang Qin is portrayed as a naive high school girl who “falls” for Jiang Zhi Shu, the most popular and intelligent boy in the school. The series shows how she continues to be dedicated to him despite Jiang Zhi Shu constantly putting her down, humiliating her in public and controlling her actions.
M: The only drama I’ve seen that actually show domestic violence and sexual assault for what it is (instead of as love) is a Korean drama called Hello, My Twenties. It also shows the emotional and psychological trauma of experiencing violence. Dating violence and intimate partner violence are common across the world and can happen in straight and queer relationships. Maybe it’s time to romanticise actual respect and equality within in relationships, not to say, stories shouldn’t have relationship conflicts because that would unrealistic, but they can at least depict healthier and less toxic ways of dealing with conflicts.
E: I found that It’s Okay That’s Love is one of the few dramas that addresses abuse and trauma really well! The two main characters Jae Yeol and Hae Soo are complex and have problems with their mental health that stem from their childhoods. That isn’t to say they were an example of a healthy relationship, there were definitely elements of their relationship that were unhealthy, but the show didn’t glorify their relationship in a perfect and cute package, with all the abuse wrapped up in a neat bow. It showed that they were flawed people who were working on overcoming their traumas and supporting each other through it. But again, I want to stress that this show and Hello, My Twenties are literally the only two shows I’ve seen where they address violent and abusive behaviours. And even then, there are aspects in both the shows that still reinforce and glorify patriarchal values.
M: Can romance genre writers stop making assholes and abusive men the desirable romantic protagonist of every story? It’s dangerous and feeds young people toxic ideas of what love means.