Last year was a watershed year for Korean dramas.
Or at least that’s what I and many other people thought. The Year the Pot Plant Died. The year that gave us a succession of dramas with strong female characters, romances between two equals, and women being given strong narrative arcs even in dramas where they weren’t the main character.
From the new fusion Sageuks Tale of Nokdu and Rookie Historian to the modern workplace drama WWW, the heist fun in My Fellow Citizens, and the revenge dramas Graceful Family and My Strange Hero, 2019 was so full of strong female characters and unproblematic romances that it seemed inevitable that 2020 would continue that trend.
While 2019 had very few Korean dramas that would make anyone’s Best Drama list, it was a significant step forward in the representation of female characters. And so it was easy to overlook that, in many ways, Korea hadn’t changed that radically from before.
The Secret Life of my Secretary may have had the extraordinary Veronica Park and the Vigilante Secretaries but it also had a weak female lead in an extremely problematic romance with her boss. Also problematic was the age difference and relationship between Candy and her boss in Clean With Passion for Now and the truly truly awful Melting Me Softly, which was the worst show of 2019. He is Psychometric had several female characters who seemed strong on paper but were perpetually victimised. You can’t claim to have ‘strong female characters’ if all you do is damsel, kidnap, rape and murder them.
Which is to say that things improved a great deal in 2019 but they were not perfect. Still, the optimism for 2020 was not unwarranted. Unfortunately that optimism has so far been in vain. Three months into 2020 and the year is shaping up to be, well, The Year of the Creep.
Problematic romances with large age gaps and disturbing power imbalances are rife this year. And while there are some strong, complex and well-written female characters in crime dramas such as Memorist and Nobody Knows, where romance is concerned Korea has regressed. Badly and disturbingly. I can barely think of one romance this year that was… well… romantic. If anything they’re almost universally problematic and even creepy.
We started the year with Touch, a deeply disturbing romance between an established makeup artist and his much much younger assistant. With leads played by the 41-year-old Joo Sang-wook and a 24-year-old Kim Bo-ra – barely out of her Sky Castle school uniform – Touch was boycotted by a large number of viewers for being, well, a little skeevy. In the end, the romance between the two was weirdly antiseptic as the writers struggled with the optics of a middle-aged man and a woman so young she only just graduated from playing highschool students.
The recent drama Find Me In Your Memory pairs the 36-year-old Kim Dong-wook with the 23-year-old Moon Ga-young in another on-screen relationship with a huge power imbalance. A man established in his career and a woman in a junior position to him.
Fresh from pursuing a much-younger Candy intern in Melting Me Softly, the 32-year-old Ji Chang-wook has announced that for 2020 he will be starring with the 20-year-old Kim Yoo-jung in Convenience Store Saet Byul, a drama based on a popular Webtoon about an exploitative and disturbing relationship between a convenience store manager and his part-time worker.
If all this wasn’t bad enough, the recently-finished Itaewon Class featured a romance between a woman and her boss who was ten years older than her. Park Seo-joon is 7 years older than Kim Da-mi in real life. In the drama the two not only have a decade between them, he is her boss and they met while she was still in highscool. More importantly, Da-mi’s character Jo Yi-seo was extremely juvenile and childish throughout the show. So much so that many people thought the writer was going to deviate from the Webtoon on which it’s based and not pursue a romance between them. They were wrong.
Even when the age imbalance isn’t overwhelming, such as in the currently-airing Welcome (with the amazing alternative name of Meow, The Secret Boy) the romance is still problematic in multiple ways. Welcome tells the story of a woman whose cat turns into the Idol L. Obviously a flawed premise since no woman would want her cat to turn into a man – and certainly not L – the show also has clear bestiality implications (those allergic to cats still sneeze when he’s around and he is very clearly a cat underneath his human facade)
The newly-human cat-man proceeds to follow her around, listening in on her private conversations, changing back and forth in her bed at night and essentially stalking her. Stalking is romantic again apparently. (Spoiler: stalking is never romantic).
Despite that litany of skeevy romance dramas, not all of them this year have been that bad. The Park Hae Jin (lovingly referred to as Park Who Jin for his long hiatus) comeback drama Forest will probably be this year’s worst drama. But it at least had two romances that were between relative equals in age and position, even if we could debate how romantic tuning forks, stethoscopes and screeching bike rides are (don’t ask).
The currently-airing low-key drama When the Weather is Fine (I’ll Find You On a Beautiful Day) has a lovely subtle romance between its two leads, despite an 8 year age gap between veteran Park Min-young (34) and the popular Seo Kang-joon (26). Which goes to show that the age gap itself isn’t necessarily a problem. It is, as always, how a drama chooses to use it and, in this case, the characters are the same age and have deeply independent lives.
I honestly don’t know why 2020 has so far been full of Ahjussi romances with on and off-screen pairings that are so exploitative. The entertainment industry has long had a history of forcing young girls into on-screen romances with much older man. Last time I looked Me Too made it to Korea and it certainly hasn’t gone away. But not only is this pattern continuing in 2020 off-screen, the on-screen romances have overwhelmingly had deep power imbalances with men dominating woman in both age, experience and position.
While I hope it gets better, for now 2020 has not fulfilled the hope of 2019. With a quarter of it gone, it is shaping up instead to be The Year of the Creep.