Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Korean Dramas, Domineering Men, and the Worries of a Chick-Flick-Loving Feminist

The title of my post has already given me away: I'm a feminist who loves, loves, loves chick flicks. I even enjoy cheesy, made-for-TV romantic comedies where the actors can barely act and the plot is predictable. Mind you, I hate The Notebook. Go figure.

So, why does my love of chick flicks feel like a contradiction for me as a feminist? After all, I am a heterosexual female feminist who fully intends to marry and have children some day, so it's not like I'm outside the intended audience. And yes, I'm an academic - but plenty of academics like pop culture. No, the problem I have with chick flicks isn't rooted in any kind of elitism - I'm just uneasy with how chick flicks portray romantic relationships and conflict resolution tactics. It's not just that they're unrealistic, since you could make that argument about any form of storytelling. After all, fiction and film work with three-dimensional material on a two-dimensional surface, in the same way a painter does. So of course you're always "sifting truth," as the French essayist Montaigne has put it. But many romantic comedies cross a line that concerns me.

I'm talking, of course, about domineering, pushy men. This issue has troubled me for awhile, but recently I watched a Korean drama that brought this question back to mind. I love this drama, Secret Garden. It's the story of two people who are from very different backgrounds but who are connected to each other in ways they (and viewers) don't fully understand until the end of the series. Along the way, there's a beautiful soundtrack, great acting, lovely cinematography, and both hilarious and heartbreaking scenes. I like this show so much that after finishing all 20 episodes, I've begun re-watching the series - it's just that wonderful. Plus, the male lead, Hyun Bin, is beautiful beyond compare.

So I really, really like this series. But I'm still very uncomfortable with a few scenes between the two co-protagonists. Kim Joo Won, the male co-protagonist, is  often so determined to see Gil Ra Im, the female co-protagonist, that he doesn't listen to a word she says. Despite the many times she tells him to go away, he always comes back. Sometimes he even uses force in order to get close to her romantically. In one scene, he becomes angry about something she has said and kisses her, despite the fact that she's hitting him and screaming the entire time. In another scene, he holds her arms so that she can't hit him while he kisses her. But the scene that disturbed me the most is one I'm embedding below. Rather than offer a description, I'll let you watch for yourself (it goes until about 7:30).

If you weren't able to watch, here's the gist: Ra Im and Joo Won go on a walk together, during which a voice over of Ra Im admits to having feelings for Joo Won but expresses worry that Joo Won will soon disappear from her life. Immediately following that scene, Ra Im is alone on a bed, looking pensieve and a little sad - I think it's safe to assume she's thinking about her mixed feelings where Joo Won is concerned. Joo Won then proceeds to make several excuses in order to come to her room and talk to her, but he finally shows up with a pillow and tells her he wants to sleep in the same room. [Context - this was Joo Won's room, but he gave it to Ra Im so that she wouldn't have to sleep on the floor in a crowded room full of men]. Ra Im refuses and tricks him into leaving so that she can lock the door and keep him out. After empty threats about knocking down the door and a failed attempt at picking the lock, Joo Won tricks Ra Im into opening the door. He then insults her intelligence, drags her to the bed, and wraps himself around her so that she can't leave. She continues to kick, hit, threaten, beg, and cajole for him to let her go, but he only holds tighter. Ra Im then stops fighting and moves closer to Joo Won. Romantic music starts playing, and Joo Won responds by distracting himself from the thought of kissing her by reciting a rhyme.

The scene is framed as romantic, no questions asked. Joo Won faces no consequences for his actions, and Ra Im doesn't even call him out on it the next day. Of course, I'm not the only fan who was bothered by that scene, but if you look over the comments on youtube, you'll find that most of the comments come from people who found the scene romantic and/or funny. I also realize that the scene was produced in a country I have never visited, in a language of which I only know a handful of words and that I'm probably ill-equipped to critique this scene. But sometimes actions speak louder than words. While I may not fully understand tone or the full implications of what the characters are saying in their own language, or even the subtle ways that Joo Won and Ra Im communicate - on a second watch I've noticed many nonverbal cues that I missed the first time around - there's no denying the fact that on more than one occasion Ra Im uses force to try to prevent Joo Won from crossing a physical boundary and that he uses force in return, to cross that boundary. Sure, he isn't hitting her. But he still restrains her on multiple occasions.

The one time I dated a man who didn't listen when I told him 'no,' it was a hellish experience. Luckily for me, I ended the relationship before he'd done more than kiss me at times when I said 'no.' But it was still a terrifying experience. I've heard male friends make the joke that the only difference between a stalker and a romantic guy is whether the girl likes him, and given how often domineering behavior is portrayed as romantic, I absolutely see where they're coming from. But I think a more accurate statement is that the difference between a stalker and a romantic guy is immense in real life and nearly nonexistent in popular entertainment. In real life, a man who tricks a woman into opening her bedroom door and then holds her next to him in bed, despite her continued resistence, is not going to resist the urge to kiss her when it strikes him, and he's certainly not going to turn into a sweet and romantic companion like Joo Won does (like so many male leads in romantic comedies) .

So how could Joo Won's domineering behavior seem romantic? And yet, judging by most American romantic comedies, domineering men who refuse to take 'no' for an answer are the cat's meow. In Gone With the Wind, Clark Gable carries Scarlett kicking and screaming to their bedroom, but she wakes up the next day with a smile. In Guys and Dolls, Guy kisses Sister Sarah and doesn't stop even when she hits him in resistance. He later tricks her into getting drunk, and his reward is ultimately winning the girl. And recent American romantic comedies are no exception: in The Wedding Date, the male lead shoves the female protagonist against a car as part of his demonstration of how he makes women swoon, and even in You've Got Mail Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) pretty much stalks Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan). And those are just a few examples. Everywhere you look, romantic comedies are full of manipulative men who refuse to back off when faced with honest rejection.

The issue is complicated by the fact that many romantic comedies include as much progressive behavior as they do sexual-assault-turned-romantic. In Secret Garden, for instance, Ra Im is a stuntwoman who doesn't take any crap from Joo Won and doesn't hesitate to kick Joo Won in the shin when he annoys her. In fact, if Joo Won ever hit or kicked her the way she does him, the drama would be disturbing for everyone. In an American example, 10 Things I Hate About You, we see a similar blend of progressive and disturbing behavior. On the one hand, Kat is a feminist who stands up for her views. When she gets drunk and comes on to him, Patrick does the right thing and tells her 'no,' and when he tries to kiss her in the middle of an argument, Kat pushes him away - I can think of many romantic comedies where that's not the case. But for most of the movie Patrick is lying and using Kat, and when a random drunk woman at a party comes onto him, he doesn't do the right thing and escort the woman to safety - instead, he shoves her toward a random man, and the drunk woman becomes comedic relief as she becomes more and more involved with this stranger.

And yet, I love that movie.

And try as I might to reconcile my beliefs as a feminist with my enjoyment of these films, I can't find an answer that satisfies me. I think of Margaret Atwood's short story, "Rape Fantasies" - a story about a woman whose female co-workers all share their rape fantasies, which each involve dashing men ravishing them. She responds by creating her own rape fantasies - fantasies where the men are not unusually attractive and where the magic comes from her ability to connect with them as a human to the point that they don't rape her. After all, the narrator asks by the end of the story, a man wouldn't do that to someone he saw as a person, now would he? So maybe the reason domineering behavior seems attractive in movies is because the characters are assumed to be more than human. The funny smells and textures, the bad breath and awkward intimacy of sharing one another's air - perhaps we want a fantasy where those details disappear.

But if that were all, why not fantasize about perfect situations that are entirely, 100% consensual? I asked Rachel for her opinion on the scene from Secret Garden since she's been living in Korea for several months now, and in addition to providing some cultural context, she suggested that maybe men and women alike just want a challenge. So maybe that's part of what's at play here. There's also the age old answer that women want men who are strong and confident and that domineering behavior is often mistaken for those traits. And I suppose there's something flattering in the thought that someone would be so interested in you that he would be persistent, no matter what.

I see truth in all those theories, but I have another that I've been contemplating for awhile. My theory is this: if you live in a culture where men are seen as inherently more sexual than women, then women who have sexual desires for an attractive man can find themselves in a tricky bind. If by giving in to her desires a woman is going to seem bad or dirty, then she faces two unhappy options: either get what you want but be labelled as a slut, or keep your reputation but go without what you want. But if men face no stigma for sexual activity, or significantly less stigma, rape fantasies suddenly make a lot of sense: if she says 'no' to an attractive man who magically guesses she means yes, and he refuses to take 'no' for an answer - well, she gets what she wants, but she gets to keep her vision of herself as a good girl. She hands over her accountability. Unfortunately, it only plays out that way in popular entertainment. In real life, even a woman who is attracted to a man feels violated when she says 'no,' and he refuses to listen. It doesn't matter how keen he is at picking up on what her body wants - sometimes we don't want to do something just because our bodies think it's a good idea, and consent ultimately comes from the words and actions a person uses to communicate.


  1. Awesome post.I agree!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I started watching Secret Garden recently and I'm having some issues with it. I love Korean dramas and I am used to them having domineering male leads, and I don't usually have a problem with it. But I am finding the male lead in Secret Garden not so much domineering as just plain nasty and insulting to everyone, especially the female lead. He insults her so often about being poor, he calls her ugly, and he keeps saying that he'll tire of her eventually.In most of the dramas I've watched (and watch over and over again) the men are definitely domineering (and sometimes they go too far with it) but they're not usually insulting or nasty.

    I really wanted to love this drama, and so many people seem to be having such fun with it and find it very romantic. When I heard about it I thought for sure this would be a great romance and one I would want to own and rewatch again and again, but I am having trouble even getting all the way through it once. Am I missing something about why the male lead is so mean and about why it is romantic?

  4. Great post! I ended up here because I too enjoy non-feminist media and sometimes I beat myself up over it. But it helps to remember that the relationships portrayed in media are often dysfunctional, just like relationships in real life. Joo Won is a narcissist with no boundaries, and Ra Im is physically abusive - by no means do I aspire to be like those characters. However Secret Garden had amazing acting, good character development and a witty plot. I think that sometimes we're drawn to bad relationships because they remind us of aspects of ourselves. Anyways, just my two cents :)

  5. I'm about 4 years behind with this one. I started watching Secret Garden because I became a fan of the female lead (she was Empress Ki, right?). Also, the premise of body swap is one I'd only read in fan fiction, so I wanted to see it executed as the canon story.

    I started having a problem really early on, watching the male lead manhandle the female lead, invade her personal space, and totally ignore her requests for him to back off. I get it, it was supposed to show how powerful his attraction is, but each time he yanked her around, I kept thinking, "why does she become so meek around him? She's a stunt woman with experience in hand to hand combat... All she had to do is a quick twist of a wrist and she's free. No violence necessary." But she suddenly became weak and unable to fight him off, every single time? Please... that really bugged me because the subtext would imply that she really liked being held against her will, and I didn't find any of it amusing or endearing.

    One of the most egregious scenes for me was in the early episode where Joo Won drags Ra Im into a store dressing room, corners her, and blocks her exit, then proceeds to belittle her appearance and demands she wears what he's picked. That set off so many alarms in my head, I felt physically ill... I saw nothing but physical assault in that scenario. One wonders if his claustrophobia hadn't forced him to leave, how far would he have taken that action? All I kept thinking was that scene in the first or second episode, when he's meeting her for the second time ever. He just yanked her sweater off her shoulders to "check on her wound". He has no qualms about basically undressing a stranger to satisfy his curiosity. She had clearly stated she didn't want him to know, right before he did it!

    WTF?! If some random dude a girl only met once before tried that on anyone in real life, he'd be dragged away by the cops on sexual assault charges. Who the heck found that romantic at all?? It's all very disturbing to me.

    I don't get it. Why do we keep clamoring for equality and mutual respect, but lots of us squee and coo about how romantic a male character is acting when he's disrespecting the female lead in such manners as described above?

    No means NO!