by Raizel Liebler
Are things changing for portrayals of gay characters in Korean dramas? Possibly — at least according to several recent instances of positive and well-rounded portrayals of non-heterosexual (or perceived to be by others) characters.
On the other hand, this post was inspired by my annoyance and frustration with Ho-gu’s Love (2015). Like Hays Code movies, Ho-gu’s Love steps right up to the precipice of showing a well-acted, well-written fully realized gay character — and then in a similar move to a Hays Code last scene comeuppance, HE ISN’T GAY. OR BI. OR QUEER.
Diversity in the types of characters shown isn’t a checklist — and having three-dimensional gay characters in television shows doesn’t even frequently happen in U.S. based shows. Any movement towards acceptance of non-hetero characters in Korean dramas is a big step forward. South Korea is still a very conservative country, where single motherhood is frowned upon and where marriages usually require “buy-in” from both sides.
A majority of Korean dramas are between 10 and 40 episodes, based around a romantic conflict — usually involving a love triangle/quadrangle between four heterosexual people — two women and two men. Shows usually end after the main conflict has been resolved, such as the main character has chosen which of her suitors she prefers, the grandma/mother-in-law has gotten over her objection to the wedding, or the couple discovers that, tada!, they really aren’t related.
So below are several examples of gay (or possibly gay) characters in Korean dramas. I recommend Answer Me 1997 for anyone who likes teenage-to-adult dramas & highly recommend Marriage Not Dating for those that like comedies. And Persevere, Gu Hae-ra is a good show for those missing Glee (or at least what I’ve gleaned from barely watching Glee).
For readers not familiar with some of the tropes in Korean dramas, this inclusiveness can’t be directly compared to Western dramas, hence some of these examples wouldn’t even qualify as inclusive portrayals in U.S. dramas. Nevertheless, these are indeed a step forward; even the overall failure of Ho-gu’s Love to carry through still moves the needle.
Perhaps a good baseline for portrayals of “gay” characters in Korean dramas is Coffee Prince (2007), where in a situation similar to Victor/Victoria, the female lead character pretends to be a man for employment purposes. The male lead starts to have romantic feelings for “him” and struggles with questions about his sexuality. Eventually, he confesses his feelings to “him” — and they start a “gay” relationship, complete with a kiss — and a public statement about their relationship. After finding out that his relationship partner is a woman, the male lead is not relieved to have his heterosexuality reconfirmed — instead he feels betrayed and lied to.
As translated by javabeans at Dramafever, the male lead is not comforted by the female lead not being a man: “When I said I liked you even as a man, I didn’t care what the world would think of me, disregarding my friends [and] family. I went through a lot of pain getting to the point where I decided those things didn’t matter.”
Of course, this is a Korean drama so eventually this couple works through their relationship drama. But from the perspective of the male lead, he was fully ready to love someone for who they are. (Shortcut: Episodes 10, 11, & 12)
Answer Me 1997 (2012) (nostalgia-based drama)
In a nostalgia-based drama based around the question of who is the husband of the main character, the show includes a gay character (who therefore is out of the running as the husband). As one of the main characters, he confesses his crush on his best friend, who responds in by thinking that it was a joke. After high school, they become roommates for over five years. And he has a discussion with the girl that his best friend has a crush on, and they have an honest discussion about their feelings for the same man.
Considering that the show has a fifteen-year time jump as a framing device, the show demonstrates that yes, gay and straight characters can be close friends over a lifetime. Additionally, even though the audience doesn’t see a gay romantic relationship play out, the show does not back down from this character’s love confession, with his sexual identity fully owned by the show. And his last scene in the finale, shows this character waiting for his special someone to pick him up, smiling as he enters the car.
(Shortcut: Episode 7 & 10 & 13 & 16)
Marriage Not Dating (2014) (romantic comedy)
A very selfish male restaurant owner thinks his uptight male best friend is in a relationship with a male waiter. This misunderstanding occurs because the waiter honestly tells the restaurant owner that he lives at the best friend’s house and that they snuggle at night.
At first, the restaurant owner doesn’t want to have any physical contact with his best friend, but over time, after hearing about how much in love he is, slowly changes his mind. Oh, and the restaurateur accidentally, drunkenly kissed the waiter.
The misunderstanding is resolved after the restaurateur is concerned about his best friend’s love life — and shouts out that his best friend likes the waiter. Since this isn’t true, everything is resolved, but putting his friend’s feelings first over his homophobia is a turning point for this character.
(Shortcut: Episodes 10 & 11)
Persevere, Gu Hae-ra (2015) (romantic musical melodrama)
One of the members of a struggling musical group struggles to find acceptance from his father — who wants him to choose a different career. He has already gotten over his germaphobia, but convincing his small shop owner father whose one dream is for his son to go to university is much more difficult. In response to his father’s urging, he responds “But what about me? What about what I want?” However, when his son is criticized by Dad’s friends, Dad strikes back, admonishing them — and proclaiming that at least his son sings him songs.
Meanwhile, one of the girls in his group states she has a crush on him. He responds that he sees her as only a friend. However, later this same girl overhears his own love confession. While helping out his drunk male manager, he explains that “Whenever I see you, my heart aches.” The manager doesn’t remember. He tries to confess his feelings a few more times, yet he can’t bring himself to do so.
Later, while discussing his crush on their manager with his friend in the group, he talks about the difficulty of this crush — and his concern for how his family would react. Evil Boy overhears and records the conversation to set him up, in a way to both embarrass him and his father.
But when Evil Boy plays the gay confession for Dad, Dad doesn’t back away from his love and acceptance of his son: “He is my son. Regardless of who he is and how he lives his life, I love him because he’s my son.” When his son arrives, he tells his son that he has no reason to apologize.
The show, only twelve episodes long, ends without him in a romantic relationship, but the group finds career success — and he is loved and fully supported by his dad.
(Shortcut: Episodes 4 & 7 & 8 & 10 & 11)
Ho-gu’s Love (2015) (romantic melodrama with comedic elements)
There are few shows — Kdrama or in English — that have disappointed me on so many different fronts, so if you want a more positive review, I suggest Dramabeans. Perhaps this show just tried too hard to tackle difficult issues, but if a show attempts to cover hard-hitting issues, I expect it to own it. Instead, as if it is a high-drama version of a American romantic comedy where couples are kept apart due to ridiculous misunderstandings (It was his sister! Or aunt! Or girl he mentored!), Ho-gu’s Love implies that testing the waters for relationships of any scope outside of the person one really had a first crush on will lead to sorrow, including accidentally mistakenly viewing oneself as gay — or leading to a traumatic assault that has long reaching consequences. Yes, I am bitter about this show, but moving on to the topic of this post …
One of the four main characters has always been uptight. But one day in high school, he is taken on a whirlwind adventure with a stranger from his school — starting with getting a stain on his school uniform, multiple attempts to get the shirt cleaned, and eventually sitting in the park. As the schoolmate kisses him goodbye, his heart pounds for the first time ever. Fast forward to his mid-twenties and he is a well-regarded attorney that has never had a relationship with anyone — but when the guy who he thinks he had that “date” with six years ago reappears in his life, his life is flipped upside down.
The audience knows that instead of Twin 1, who is male, Mr. Uptight Lawyer actually had the fun day with Twin 2, who is female, and has been pining for him ever since. Every time Lawyer sees Twin 1, his heart pounds — and he is concerned that he might be gay. He finally reaches out to Twin 2 (who he doesn’t remember at all), asking if it is possible for sexuality to change. She responds that there are more than two simple and distinct answers for sexual orientation. Considering he thinks that Twin 1 is bisexual and now has a crush on a woman, this makes sense to him.
Over the course of several episodes of the show that take place over three months or so, after spending more time with Twin 1, Lawyer continues to have feelings for Twin 1, including only having his heart beat strongly for him. He finally attempts to kiss Twin 1 while he sleeps, but is interrupted.
Also, his present trial reflects his life; the Lawyer reminds a witness that homosexuality goes against the natural order and is even illegal in Korea. The witness responds that he’s never felt for a woman the way he felt for a man. The witness also said that he needed to love the person that first made his heart race (paralleling the way Twin 1 makes Lawyer’s heart race), even though that guy didn’t love him back. Because he freezes during the trial, Lawyer’s co-workers start talking about him and shun him.
After much soul searching, he comes out to both of his parents — first his mother, exclaiming that there was no point in her keeping him sheltered because he is gay anyway. Coming out is a big deal, but only more so within Korean culture — and Lawyer’s parents are heart-broken over his disclosure. His father even attempts to beat him up — in his own home.
At this point, I was so pleased with this aspect of the show — a character who is closed off even from himself grows enough to realize who he really is — and comes out even though his crush is not interested in him and his parents are hurt. And this is where the show should have left things — and if so, this would have been the most well-developed gay character I’ve seen in Korean dramas.
But … after coming out, Lawyer spends more time with Twin 2. He eventually realizes that the magical day he thought he had with her brother over seven years ago in high school was with her. So they end up together — and his “gayness” was just a misunderstanding. This show brushes aside his displayed romantic feelings regarding Twin 1 as adults as if they didn’t happen. Lawyer’s coming out (and return to heterosexuality) is just an opportunity for him to feel empathy with a rape victim. The show’s message is that he isn’t even bisexual; he just only has ever liked one person. In his entire life. Who he ends up with — tying together all of the main characters with their first crush.
All of the good that was done through demonstrating a well-rounded non-hetero character has now been thrown out — to keep the integrity of one of the doofiest meet-cute crushes that has ever occurred in the history of romantic comedies, let alone a show that has also attempted to address the issues of rape, domestic violence, abortion, celebrity privacy, abusive bosses, adoption, and single motherhood. Don’t let the cute baby fool you; DO NOT WATCH.