Selflessness: You're Doing It Wrong

Ah, noble idiocy: that moment in a kdrama when the music says, "What a sweet sign of true love!" but your brain says, "This is all a terrible idea."  For a while, I felt guilty watching these kinds of scenes. Maybe I'm too cynical! Maybe I'm just not noble enough to get it! After all, this is what the writers INSISTED true love should look like!

Then I realized that kdrama writers ALSO think that bowl cuts are all you need to pass as a man, sooooooo yeah.  After thinking about it some more, I noticed that many of these "selfless" moves were actually kind of selfish.

Don't believe me?  Let's look at some examples, shall we?

WARNING: Some spoilers below!

"Selfless" Move #1: "Something terrible is going to happen to a lot of people if I do this thing for you, but I don't even care--because love."

When a DEMON thinks your sacrifice is a good idea, it's probably time to rethink things.

Illustrative example: Arang and the Magistrate
This is the drama that pushed me over the edge to write this post.  Arang decides to give her body to a demon lady in exchange for letting her love meet up with his momma again.  Sounds sweet, right?  She would die not just for him, but for his mother! So noble!

Why it's actually selfish: Okay, so let's just overlook that fact that making deals with demon ladies is pretty much always going to be a terrible idea.  ALWAYS.  What is her incentive not to lie?  Even if this lady actually held up her end of the bargain, however, Arang has just given her immortal body to a demon who has been killing people for hundreds of years. 

Prioritizing your love over a bunch of other people just because it's your love is a roundabout way of prioritizing yourself.  Okay, so I've read those philosophical dilemmas about the train conductor with his kid on the tracks (Just get off the tracks, ya dumb kid!), so I get the idea that love might take over any other priority.  Still, trading your love's mom for an undefined number of people for the rest of time is selfish.  End of story. 

After watching Arang, I asked my husband if he would prefer that I let a demon lady kill a bunch of people to save his mom (who is very nice, by the way).  Fortunately, he looked at me like I was crazy, so I guess that resolves the dilemma.  Crisis averted!

"Selfless" Move #2: "My powerful mom/dad or your powerful mom/dad has threatened to fire a bunch of people if we're together, so I'm going to pretend to hate you."

Illustrative example: Boys over Flowers and a bunch of other chaebol heir dramas
I guess this is the opposite end of the spectrum from the previous example.  In order to prevent something terrible from happening to a bunch of people, you give up on love.  Surely, surely that's noble, right?

Why it's actually selfish: First of all, don't negotiate with terrorists.  Isn't that a life lesson right up there with the golden rule or something?  But that's not the main problem here.  You've taken the easiest possible way out without even thinking about how the other person will feel.  Guess what?  "It's easier if they just hate me" isn't actually a real thing.  Abandonment hurts, especially if you were supposedly in love five minutes earlier.  While you're patting yourself on the back and soothing your wounded heart with thoughts of how awesome you are, that other person is left with nothing.  Wouldn't it be better to wound your pride a bit and just talk it out?

"Selfless" Move #3: "Something bad happened in my life, so I will pretend to hate you in order to save you from my burden."

Illustrative example: Scent of a Woman, Dream High
You find out that you have cancer.  Or that you're an illegitimate child.  Or that you have an illegitimate child.  In order to protect your love from the shame or pain of this new development, you decide--of course--to break up with them with no explanation.  Better to suffer alone than to drag your love into the fray.

Why it's actually selfish: This move is kind of understandable if you're just starting your crush.  I think it's okay to say, "You know what?  I have my own stuff going on right now, so I'm gonna focus on that instead of this non-relationship that may or may not happen."  What drives me crazy is when drama characters pull this move once they are in a committed, established relationship.  Take the mother in Dream High for example.  In the long run, her pretend affair and subsequent abandonment probably hurt her family more than her death did.  She also robbed them of the chance to properly say goodbye.  Again, you have the comfort of knowing the truth while your loved one suffers the emotional scars of abandonment.

Dream High is an easy example to pick on because we never actually meet the mom in the series, but this type of thing happens pretty frequently in central kdrama couples as well.  This "romantic" gesture might just bother me more than the previous examples because it misses the entire core of what commitment means.  Love isn't just about sharing warm, fuzzy moments.  It's about opening your life and trusting someone else when the crap of life hits the fan--as life crap invariably does.  No matter what, something difficult is going to happen to one of you at some point in any relationship.  Giving up and running the other way every time something craptastic happens because you want to "protect" your love shows that you trust your own strength more than theirs--a self-centered move.

"Selfless" Move #4: "I don't deserve you right now, so I'm going to ignore you until I can be worthy of you."

Illustrative example: The Master's Sun 
I kind of hope that drama writers don't actually believe that this move is selfless.  Most of the time, it's an episode 18 extension kind of move.  Suddenly, the character feels a need to run away from love for a few years to save the company business or discover their "true self" or learn self-discipline in the army or something.  In other words, it's an excuse for a time jump.  The reasoning goes that only a truly selfless person would be willing to pause love to become worthy of that love.

Why it's actually selfish: How come the "selfless" person is always the one who gets to go gallivanting around the world while the other person has to sit at home like a chump?  Also, have you ever heard of a phone?  Email?  If you're really doing this for the other person, don't lead him or her to assume that you broke up somewhere along the way.  Protect the Boss, I'm looking at you!  I real life, people get busy with work all the time, but they don't say "I'm gonna ignore you for a few years--I promise I will come back, okay?" That's nonsense.

While I think the last-minute disappearance is an overused plot device, I don't mind this move when the show is honest about it.  In Coffee Prince, for example, we all knew that Eun Chan was running abroad purely for HERSELF, and that was totally okay.  It was also clear that she had kept an appropriate level of contact with her long-distance boyfriend.  


So what options do kdrama characters have?  If they can't protect their love or protect other people without being selfish, isn't that a little unfair?

Actually, there are dramas that find ways around these problems.  I really liked the way that Queen of Reversals flew in the face of noble idiocy, for example.  When the controlling father threatened to fire an entire team of people, Yong Shik was just like "Go ahead and fire them.  I do what I want!"  That sounds kind of terrible at first, but Yong Shik wasn't just gonna let those people suffer for his love!  After he took a stand against his dad, he went ahead and formed his own company to employ all of those people.  To make matters even better, he made sure that the object of his affection was present for his stand-off with his dad.  That way, she would know exactly what was happening.  Sure, towards the end of Queen of Reversals, they stopped communicating, but at least it was a step in the right direction!   That's what I would love to see in more dramas: just a little more communication so that we don't get brain damage from banging our heads against our computers in frustration.  Or maybe I'm not noble enough and should just trust the gooey ballads that say "No, really--this is true loooooove!"


  1. If you're watching Mirae's Choice, I have two things to say. First, my condolences; and second, how do you see Kim Shin's pushing Mi Rae away in response to whatever dark secret Evil HAg Ahjumma told him? Koala says it's NOT noble idiocy, Dramabeans says it IS, and while I can understand Koala's reasoning, I'm leaning heavily toward his action belonging on this page. How say you?

    1. it belongs on this page, he has a bad case of the noble idiocy, a real bad case of it.

    2. I AM watching Mirae's Choice. It was so promising at first, but now it's starting to drive me a little crazy. I think it sucked me in by being less terrible than Heirs.

      As far as Kim Shin goes, it's hard to say for sure without knowing the secret. I guess if they both somehow end up becoming serial killers as a result of their marriage, then sure, it's an appropriate response. At this point, I would say the way he handled the whole thing (the ignoring followed by the overly harsh breakup) pushes it into noble idiocy territory for me.

    3. I agree with you both, thanks! Also, Vvi, fwiw Heirs is getting less sucky, especially the second couple who are pure crack to this romance junkie and providing great counterpoint to the silent staring marathons.

    4. Yes, Heirs has been improving over the last few episodes. Chan Young and Bo Na have been a pleasant surprise for me through this whole thing. I think your assessment of "less sucky" is pretty accurate. It's still not GOOD (and I wanted to strangle Kim Tan for breaking that door), but it's improving!

  2. LOVE this post! I can' tell you how many times I have actually said to the the TV, "yeah that's a good idea" (inject sarcastic tone). I keep watching though...go figure. :)

  3. I'm pretty sure my life will never be a kdrama because I communicate too much. Oh, and my husband is not Korean.

    1. On the other hand, your husband pretty much has the Kdrama silent staring down, so that's a step in the right direction.

  4. I thought that in Master's Sun she went out of her way to make it clear to the guy that she was leaving for herself to find out how to deal with herself and her ghost seeing and that she didn't want to go back to him unless she could find a way to live with herself normally. That is one of the few dramas I didn't get a noble idiocy vibe from. Maybe it's just me? Who knows.

    1. You're right that she kept saying "I'm doing this for myself," so I think the writers were trying to steer it at least a little bit away from noble idiocy. For me, it still felt like noble idiocy because she ALSO made it pretty clear that she wanted to avoid him until she could be "good enough" for him (not see ghosts, earn tons of money, buy an apartment building, etc.).

  5. THANK YOU! thank you for writing about the 'selflessness' of Kdramas. I was thinking how I could vent about that too. I was beginning to thinking that I would be cursed (and only I would be cursed) because I did not find the idea of 'giving up your love to save your love' a grand idea.
    'A Love to Die For' and 'Autumn in My Heart' at the end all I could think was ' They wasted all that time when they could have been together and now they are dead!
    Then there was Stairway to Heaven' that had me speechless...IF ANY OF MY SISTERS (the ones I would die for without a second thought) EVEN TRIED TO KILL ME OVER A MAN i sure as HELL would not be saying...'I think she is better for you' or some crap like that. Stairway to Heaven was the only drama so far that was I watched praying that the lead would hurry and DIE because she was just too ridiculous. She just kept running from the guy who she said she loved and in the end she made 2 persons more hurt that better.
    Who leaves their love ones because they are dying? No one, instead we hold them closer, we trying to stay with them more, we never let them out our sight. We don't say ' I am leaving so they will hurt less' because instead of having good memories, they are sad when you leave and are devastated when they hear that you died.
    And Seriously....I am breaking up with you because I was told...'If you stay with him he will
    a) Lose his position in the company( is this the only company? Is he not a capable CEO ?)
    b) I am not good enough for him because he is a MILLIONNAIRE but I am good enough for his cousin or friend who is a millionnaire
    c) Some other woman likes him and she is rich
    d) His mother spoke to me ( and I got scared)
    e) His father's friend's cousin's sister's friend's mother's aunt's niece or someone like that told me to stay away from him else...

    I am soooo tired of these stupid selfless acts that are driven by stupid reasons. I wish to see some sensible 'humans' on Kdramas. The ones that say we will not be manipulated or pushed around.

  6. I would like to see, just once, JUST ONCE, a sensible, assertive heroine who thinks things through before acting rashly and refuses to let apologetically devious people walk all over her, just do it once, for variety if nothing else...


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