Balance in the K-drama Relationship

No, today's post isn't going to be me getting onto my soapbox again about how much I love strong female leads. Well, okay, it sort of is, but it's not only about that. 

When I first started watching K-dramas, I was so swept up in the magic of these extended romances that I didn't pay much attention to the power imbalance that is so pervasive in the K-drama world. People were being romantic, and as long as the women weren't total puppies, I was okay. Now that I have much more expansive experience with dramas, I have more room to recognize the best of the best K-drama relationships for what they are.

So what makes a power relationship? It's not just the romance. I have seen plenty of dramas filled with grand romantic gestures where I, as a viewer, was left wondering why these two even wanted to get together in the first place (Heirs, anyone?). While I love a swoony chaebol romance as much as the next person, I have to admit that some of the most powerful K-drama relationships focus less on the gigantic romantic hurdles between the couple and more on their non-romantic time together. Without a foundation for the relationship, what happens once the in-laws get out of the way or they recover from amnesia? Could they enjoy watching TV or grocery shopping together without all of the K-drama drama

To me, the best K-drama relationships involve an equal amount of give and take. This is why puppylike female leads drive me insane. Real relationships don't just involve one person hanging on until the other person gives in at the end of the series. Instead, we need enough time to believe that both characters are wholeheartedly invested in the relationship. For the record, this was my biggest beef with You're Beautiful. I wasn't ever fully convinced that he cared about her nearly as much as she cared for him.

Sometimes, I'm conflicted over K-drama chaebols who relentlessly pursue the women they desire. On the one hand, the feminist in me rages when I see an entitled man dragging a helpless woman around until she finally succumbs to him. On the other hand, when you set up a dynamic where the man is wealthy, charismatic, and powerful, while the woman is poor, unattractive (according to the show), and socially awkward, having the man develop feelings first is a way to offer some power to the female character. The ball is finally in her court, and it's ultimately her decision if she wants to proceed. It balances the relationship.

When a show's writers recognize that both characters can contribute equally to a relationship, it allows for a natural friendship between the characters that serves as a basis for their love. Some of my absolute favorite scenes in romantic dramas involve the two leads spending time together and becoming friends before a romance blossoms. If you aren't even friends with someone, why on earth should we believe that you're willing to give up your family company or your first love or one of your kidneys for that person?

Where does one find such balanced friendships? Here are a few of the more equal relationships in K-drama land:

1. History of a Salaryman

This is a prime example of how a focus away from romantic hurdles can actually build a stronger K-drama relationship. The main couple never kissed. THEY NEVER KISSED. And yet, when I think about the best relationships in dramaland, the relationship between Yoo Bang and Baek Yeo Chi was refreshingly balanced. What made this couple so fantastic is that, while they grew as people, they never stopped being themselves. We didn't get a Prime Minister and I scenario where the two leads started out with personalities that gradually deflated into tame, generic pleasantries by the end of the show. Instead, we got two very flawed characters who accepted and enjoyed each other for who they were. This couple didn't need to cry over each other with solitary tears because it didn't match their personalities. Instead, Baek Yeo Chi was swearing her face off until the very end of the show, and Yoo Bang was boisterous as ever. That's the kind of relationship you believe will last until they're old and grey. I'm only partway through My Love from Another Star, but it seems like it may be a similar dynamic with a female lead who doesn't lose her sass to love.

2. Sungkyunkwan Scandal

There's something about a gender bender that invites a balanced relationship. When you take physical appearance out of the equation, the male lead has no choice but to respect the female lead as a person if he's going to fall in love. Sungkyunkwan Scandal allows its female lead to act as the core of her male group, demonstrating her value in the relationship before the relationship even begins. Even the romantic parts blossom from their shared interests, like the love notes hidden in library books.

3. Coffee Prince

Coffee Prince was my very first K-drama, and when I initially watched it, I was constantly uneasy that the relationship would turn into a puppy-master disaster. After all, Han Kyul is clearly the one in control as the wealthy, handsome playboy who also happens to be Eun Chan's boss, and Eun Chan is pretty open about her feelings from the beginning of the series. I have to admit that Eun Chan's enthusiasm sometimes bordered on being puppylike for me (I know that Coco disagrees), but what ultimately saves this relationship is the deep friendship that precedes and underlies the entire romance. Han Kyul and Eun Chan are completely comfortable around each other, both as friends and later as lovers.

4. King 2 Hearts

The chemistry between the leads wasn't the best I have ever seen, but what I appreciated in this drama was the recognition of strengths and weaknesses on both sides. Kim Hang Ah can fend for herself and then some, which means that she has plenty to contribute to a relationship with a king. Because they first meet as colleagues in training, there are quite a few moments throughout the drama where these two enjoy their time together.

5. Protect the Boss

Both of these characters are quirky and odd. What makes them work so well is that they bring out the best in each other. Alone, they're both a bit lost. Together, they're much better than the sum of their parts. This is one example where the male character fell first, but it didn't turn into a feminist nightmare. Instead, the female lead gave him (and viewers) a lesson on sexual harassment and focused on building a lasting connection before even considering the possibility of love.

So far, You Are All Surrounded is giving me hope that it might be a drama with a strong central friendship. Sure, Dae Gu is still in the mean phase of the relationship, but both characters have strengths and weaknesses that complement each other well, and working together is generally a good premise for building deep friendships. Fingers crossed that it uses the potential well!

Maybe you've noticed that this list is short. You know what that means? It means that I want suggestions for balanced K-drama relationships. Anyone have favorites? (And if you say Boys over Flowers or Heirs, I will disregard your opinion forever. Don't take it personally, okay?)


  1. I would say 'That Fool'. Although it looks like the usual with a gender reversal, Ji Soo was not an arrogant chaebol, but a woman trapped in a gilded cage, trying to be what society and her boyfriend's status expected her to.

    And Dong Baek was not some needy and bubbly man, but a kind one, who respected her and wanted her to be her own person and not sell herself short for a guy. And Ji Soo appreciated that. She helped him gain confidence and become more assertive in chasing his own happiness and having control over his life and he did the same for her.

    I liked this with this couple. They started off tainted by circumstances, but eventually became friends and reminded each other of how being true to themselves and their feelings is the best way to be happy.

    Also, if 'Prime Minister and I' had not gone insane by the end, it would have been great too, since the couple discussed things and both respected each other enough to get through things together and take actual interest in each other's life beyond the scope of romance. Until the noble idiocy and zombie wives and all... *sigh*

  2. I guess I would have to go with "Let's eat" because the main focus was friendship and because he was a very nice male character that made the leading lady start trusting people more and actually caring for others. I am also currently watching A Witch's Romance and I think the main couple are in a quite equal relationship, even though there is the age gap thing. The leading lady starts off by being sort of evil,but the kindness of the male character brings out her soft side that she had chosen to hide.

  3. I think Miss Korea fits these criteria quite nicely - there's no doubt for me that both are playing the game on their own terms, and I found the dynamic quite similar to that of Salaryman (which I would have included had you not). The OTP in Doctor Champ also spend a lot of time building a friendship first, to the extent that KSY's titular character is inclined to keep it that way at first.

    I'm not entirely sure if these fit exactly the type you're talking about but for me, two noona romances where the friendship comes first AND where each partner contributes to the other's growth are IHYV and Witch's Romance. The latter has impressed me in that regard, the OTP has built a different sort of chemistry to that of the Taiwanese original. It has struck me by its focus on exactly the point you make, building a credible warm friendship first, while still showing them attracted to each other physically.

  4. It sounds like That Fool is my kind of drama. I'll add it to my list. I think part of the reason I was so angry with Prime Minister and I was that it started with so much potential. They were both well-rounded, interesting people who respected each other, and then they just turned into sad stock characters by the end.

  5. I didn't love the romance in Let's Eat, but I did enjoy the friendship between the two. He's one of the very, very few drama males who doesn't start out as an arrogant jerk. It was refreshing.

    Slightly evil female leads are right up my alley! Noona romances tend to be more balanced in general because they shift the power dynamic a bit.

  6. What I appreciated most about the relationship in Miss Korea was how open the characters were with each other. They were always asking "What do YOU want to do?" and respecting the input of the other person with minimal attempts at noble idiocy.

    Okay, so it looks like that's two recommendations for Witch's Romance. I never saw IHYV, but Coco did, and she said the same thing you did.

  7. I would like to suggest Queen Inhyun's Man and Pasta. I really, really loved the couple dynamic in Pasta even though the romantic development was extremely slow.

    Although the female lead was a bit of the bubbly type and became the tame as the show progressed, she had some sort of hidden strength over the arrogant and egotistical male lead which she used continually to help him change for the better. Additionally, Pasta has one of the most cutest and heart-fluttering gestures I have ever seen in a k-drama.

    And Need I explain Queen ihyun's man? I know that a strong friendship was not developed before the the two lead got together in a relationship but about the female lead being courageous enough to pursue the guy she likes in an original and may I say refreshing way. However, what I really loved about the drama was how the male lead took the cake for being one of the most sensitive, compassionate, realistic and levelheaded guy in k-drama land.

    On a completely separate note, I would love to suggest a k-drama that I am about to finish called Two Weeks. It's a thrilling and action-packed drama. WARNING: You might get very addicted despite the fact there is very little romance and....wait for it.....a smart, sophisticated and determined female lead that verges away from the typical female lead. Down below is why I stay way from using the word strong
    Despite the title, you will really love the content of the article.

    Best Wishes

  8. Yep. It is the biggest drama disappointment I have had. One of the biggest from my entertainment in general. It could have been a little series with a big heart and fought so many taboos. The age gap, status gap, forming a new family. They just chickened out and conformed and it was terrible to see.

  9. I really love Flower Boy Ramen Shop. She never loses her spunk and fiestiness, and that is why he adores her. I am not sure how faithful he will be, or how deep the love is, but they both kind of come as they are.

  10. You're right. I loved that article! Perhaps it would be more accurate to say competent, strong-willed female leads. Sadly, it seems to me that in the K-drama world, being strong and female is still something of an anomaly, just like being compassionate and male. Hopefully that will change with time so that it's not even a big deal when both characters are smart, capable, and complex.

    I'm almost done with Two Weeks! I just have a handful of episodes left.

  11. Fabulous post, and completely true. This is one of the reasons why I always end up hating Kim Eun Sook's dramas, like Heirs—the couple never makes actual sense together. It's always one person pursuing the other one in the meanest ways possible until they give in and date them.

    If you ever wander over into Taiwanese drama, you should give In Time with You a try. It's wonderful all around, and I don't know that I've ever seen a drama relationship that's so balanced. The leads start out as great friends and really understand and appreciate each other.

  12. In my opinion this drama is master piece! I got hooked from episode one and had difficulty sleeping at night because the plot twists were very intricate and connected to the core of the story line yet jerky...I just couldn't stop watching!! I also loved how Jang Tae San was 'inexperienced' at being a fugitive at first and as the show progressed he started to have nerves of steel and gradually knew what to do and how to do itand Did I mention that I adore Park Jae-kyung and almost everyone else in his drama?

    I am glad you loved the article. I found it last year and it totally changed my views and perspectives on the shows, k-dramas and movies that I watch. I know pay much more attention to the female in a male-dominated film than ever before. I am sorry for the crappy English!

  13. Your English is great! I wouldn't have noticed it at all! :)

  14. I don't generally have a hard time with noona romances, but the fact that she was his teacher kept nagging me during that show. It's probably because I teach 18-year-olds that it seemed extra gross to me. Haha

  15. In Time with You sounds like My Best Friend's Wedding, only actually romantic. Best friends falling in love is always a promising premise.

    My only Taiwanese drama thus far was one episode of Substitute Princess, which I couldn't handle. I swear I'll come back to them someday.

  16. Wait, a couple who enjoys being together? Nonsense! I thought K-dramas only allowed couples who cried behind each other's backs.

    You should just skip to the last five minutes of History of a Salaryman. That way, you can see the cute ending without any of the nonsense that comes before it.

  17. Yeah, I could to tally see that! :). It really bothered me at first too, but it was one of those that got under my skin and I found myself wanting to relive moments. I just find the humor so funny, I can't help myself I love a good broken Korean man! These broken men like in YourevBeatiful (which I think you didn't like as well), and Protectvthe Boss. I love a good broken man comedy. They just crack me up!

  18. That's not a bad plan. I dropped History of a Salaryman ages ago, but I've always wanted to know how it ended. I'll definitely have to do that now, lol.

  19. I do not really like the weak heroines in Kdramas too. Once I started to watch Jdramas, I cannot watch any Kdramas anymore. Jdramas are more real, more feminist, less draggy, and definitely more creative. I have seen about 5-6 Jdramas so far, and in all of them the heroine was a powerful character. Kdrama logic even managed to show the female lead of BOF as a somehow weak character, while its original Japanese version has a loveable, yet powerful female lead.

    You just need a couple of episodes to get used to Jdrama atmosphere, because they do not look as "beautiful" as the Kdramas.

    Some of the Jdramas that has a strong female lead are: Swtich girl, Zenkai girl, Kimi wa Petto and Hana Yori Dango.

  20. I recommend Ninth Inning, Two Outs. It concerns a woman who chooses between a younger man, and a long time platonic friend. I thought it was very well written, and I really enjoyed both relationships.

  21. I believe Two Weeks may become my all time ultimate favorite!


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