My brother-in-law recently had his first encounter with a K-drama. And it was a certain rom com about a woman weightlifter. I want to share his reaction with you.
But first, a question that haunts many K-drama fans—and every K-drama producer looking for a big ratings hit:
What are good K-dramas for men?
Now and again I read suggestions for dramas that are “appropriate” to watch with a boyfriend or husband. Drama Beans recommends shows with action, like City Hunter, Healer or Two Weeks. Steven at Seoul Sync offers his favorites: IRIS, A Gentleman’s Dignity and Nine Time Travels. Dramafever, true to their mission—get everyone hooked and conquer the world!—provides a long list of possibilities for every kind of guy. (Also true to their mission, they omit some good dramas that aren’t in their library.)
These recommendations are pretty good. These are dramas that could get anyone, male or female, hooked. (Confession: IRIS was so suspenseful that I actually had to stop watching. I was going to have a heart attack otherwise! Yes, I used to be one of those kids who got scared and hid behind the sofa when Lucy made trouble on I Love Lucy.)
But I suspect these lists aren’t very helpful. If a man’s going to like K-dramas, he’ll like them. And if he won’t like them, he won’t. No matter how much action is in them.
Maybe these lists are even harmful, because they perpetuate the myth that men can’t enjoy stories that don’t feature superheroes or fight scenes. They encourage us to think that men don’t care about families or relationships. This is unfair and insulting to most of the adult men I know.
Action and suspense don’t belong to one gender, after all. I count City Hunter and Nine Time Travels among my favorite shows. I judge the quality of a historical drama on the basis of how many sword fights take place. Am I not supposed to enjoy action sequences because I’m a woman?
And adult men are perfectly capable of enjoying shows without action. Since coming to Korea, I’ve met a twenty-something guy from New Zealand whose favorite drama is It’s Okay, That’s Love. I’ve met a young American guy who raved about Answer Me 1988.
Let’s not forget that over the years white male writers have been responsible for some super crazy K-drama-style stories.
Sophocles wrote a play about an orphan with a birth secret accidentally marrying his mother. How K-drama can you get?
Shakespeare wrote revenge melos, romantic comedies and a play about identical twins switched at birth.
And that manliest of American men, Ernest Hemingway, wrote novels about men who fall in love and work through their emotional issues. His male characters may fight in wars, drink a lot and occasionally go to watch bull fights, but mostly they just spend a lot of time thinking about their girlfriends.
Newsflash: Sophocles, Shakespeare and Hemingway had male audience members! Historically speaking, having a Y chromosome didn’t disqualify you from enjoying stories about relationships.
Here in Korea, it’s a running joke in many families that older men are hooked on dramas. A friend of mine says at first her retired father started watching the weekend dramas because her mom was watching them. But now he cares about them more than his wife. Those slow 50-episode weekend melodramas wouldn’t have such high ratings if there weren’t a lot of old guys tuning in.
Younger guys in Korea will say that dramas are for middle-aged women, but even they tune in sometimes. I know a teenager in Seoul who watches Defendant because he has a crush on Girls’ Generation pop idol Kwon Yuri. (There’s a reason producers love to cast pop idols.) Dramas may be primarily a woman’s thing, but men can and do watch them.
Among international viewers, too, gender doesn’t predict who will like dramas. (If I had the rights to it, here’s where I would insert this great photo of young Cuban men watching K-dramas.) Your enjoyment of K-dramas depends more on your level of cynicism than your gender.
A woman who loves Quentin Tarentino movies probably won’t fall for a K-drama, even if it’s the suspenseful, action-packed Two Weeks. Too much optimism about human nature, too much Search for Meaning in a Cruel Universe! But a guy who loves The Shawshank Redemption just might end up having a soft spot for Goblin.
Which brings me back to my brother-in-law, Zach.
My little sister is a thirty-something-year-old doctor in Denver, Colorado. She and her husband Zach don’t have much time for TV, but yesterday I got this note from her:
On Saturday I turned on Viki.com for the first time in a VERY long time, and randomly started watching something called “Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo.” I watched 2 episodes and then at dinner time talked Zach into watching it with me. We just finished episode 6 last night—Zach has been sucked in completely. While I hopped in the shower last night he went back and started watching the episodes he had missed. I heard him exclaim while I was getting out of the shower, “This is fucking amazing!”
Zach may be the first person to ever describe Kim Bok Joo with those particular adjectives, but the show has a lot going for it. Strong, three-dimensional characters who are genuinely likable. A fresh depiction of everyday friendships. Young women fighting to redefine femininity on their own terms. All wrapped in a totally unpretentious package that treats the viewer like an old friend.
Is there a “girlier” drama than Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo? Probably not. But men, like women, are multi-dimensional. Let’s give them some credit. If women can enjoy superhero stories, men can enjoy stories about everyday life.
K-dramas will probably be considered “women’s stuff” for the foreseeable future. Whatever country you’re in, it’s hard for men and women to just enjoy stories without chafing against gender stereotypes.
But we should be careful how we talk about dramas and their male fans. It shouldn’t surprise us when men enjoy K-dramas.
Some people like a well-made K-drama.
And men are people too.
It’s that simple.
I wonder what my brother-in-law would think of Shopping King Louis? ♥
What do you think about men watching K-dramas? Are certain kinds of drama more appropriate than others?