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[Dramaland Catnip] Reverse harems


Answer Me 1988

 
By @sleepypie1212

K-drama catnip. What a phrase. It made me sit back and think—what keeps me coming back to K-dramas even when my other hobbies get dropped through sheer lack of time? What’s the thing that makes my ears prick up and my prayers to the drama gods wing upwards when I hear a show description? So many things came to mind my head was whirling—childhood sweethearts and reincarnation, time travel and cohabitation, vigilante heroes striking impossibly cool poses, stunning commoners winning the hearts of haughty kings and chaebols alike.

But then I thought of the one trope to rule them all. The one that kicked off the whole K-drama craze for so many in the first place… and the one that holds an extra sweet, soft spot in my heart. It’s the K-drama take on the reverse harem—one girl and her band of merry boys.

Good God, I said to myself. That’s atrocious! What about feminism, and the Bechdel principle, and the need for a balanced portrayal of the genders onscreen?


Flower Boy Ramyun Shop

All very well and good, my subconscious responded. Those are all very important, and you care about them deeply. But what about this particular trope suckers you in every time? Maybe we should think about that before we jump to conclusions, hmm?

So I did. I went through my list of dramas, and each one that involved this particular trope made me smile just thinking about it. Slowly, I started to realize there were a lot of reasons why it made me smile, some more complex than others.

I admit, on the shallowest end of the thought process, I love seeing a variety of beautiful men dote on a lovely female character. For pure pretty alone, it’s satisfying. And as fantasy wish fulfillment, it also has a certain something—who, at sixteen, didn’t daydream about waking up one morning to find that all the hottest guys in school adored her?


Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo

But it went deeper than that, I found. There are story elements involved with this trope that are almost constantly present, and that touch my heart in unexpected ways. Often the main female character starts off the story lonely, somehow “other” from her peers. Eun-chan in Coffee Prince struggles in a society that defines being feminine and beautiful by one standard, while she’s decidedly tomboyish in style. In Moon Lovers, Hae Soo is a lost soul, flung through time into a land and body not her own. In Flower Boy Ramyun Shop, Eun-bi is reeling from a bad breakup, the death of her father, and what is essentially an identity crisis. In their stories, they find healing, friendship and love in a band of brothers that coalesces into something that’s actually more than that—it’s family.

There’s unending delight in watching that evolution. Sometimes the dynamic of the group is fully formed, and she has to find her place in what seems like a structure that doesn’t need her… but will ultimately make her its heart, as in You’re Beautiful. Sometimes the friend-group forms with her presence as the impetus, as in Sungkyunkwan Scandal, drawing rivals into an unwilling alliance and ultimately real camaraderie. Sometimes, she’s the member of a group of friends she’s known her whole life, a la Answer Me 1988, and their simultaneous entry into adulthood turns friendships into much more complex relationships.

Regardless, it’s that focus on the process of growing up and discovering yourself and others that is explored so well in these stories, with their broader range of characters and relationships to examine than the usual love triangle.


You’re Beautiful

I adore the way romances exist in these tropes, because it’s not just a will-they-or-won’t-they story between two characters pushing and pulling their way to an understanding. Often these romances test the strengths of bonds as friendships turn to love and rivalry for affection poses a perilous question: How to balance the demands of a valued friendship against the demands of the heart?

Often the answer to that question is the most painful. Who can forget the heartbreaking long-term dual sacrifice of Jung-hwan and Taek for each other in Answer Me 1988? Or just how much the band in Shut Up: Flower Boy Band, Eye Candy. struggled to accept that Ji-hyuk had fallen for their bygone friend’s muse, forcing them come to terms with the fact that their friend was really, truly never coming back? Or how about when protecting Ra-on gave Prince Yeong and Yoon-sung a brief, bittersweet unity of cause, even though their long-ago childhood friendship had been ended by political strife?

In the end, to me the reverse harem is a complex foundation for a story that, if handled right, gives us a chance to explore some of the most enduring and endearing plots of the human experience—loneliness and friendship, love and sacrifice, and the painful process of growing up. And it does it while looking extremely good. Now that’s what I call catnip.


Coffee Prince

 
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I often find ordinary harems nauseating, because the main character is always a cardboard cutout and I never comprehend why he gets attention from an entourage of sexy women. But reverse harems are the best. Hana Kimi solidified that to me.

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Hana Kimi, Hana Yori Dango, Meteor Garden....all variations on the same theme! Love this trope too!

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Atashinchi no Danshi, Yamato Nadeshiko Shichi Henge and classics like Gokusen too!

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Reverse Harems are definitely a catnip that can not be missed. Looking back at the kdrama history, one frequent theme is always having one girl in a group of boys. Personally, I love the interactions between these characters and wonder when a day like that will come for me. Whether it is in Scarlet Heart, You're Beautiful, Answer Me 1988, Sungkyunkwan Scandal, or Coffee Prince, it will for sure give an entertaining story to us all.

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Sungkyunkwan Scandal was a triple dose of catnip. Reverse Harem, Gender Bending and bromance. Oh and Yoo Ah-in <3

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I consider that the “reverse harem” is one of the most feminist of tropes since the power in most cases is shifted to the female protagonist for she the queen gets to choose among her own court of concubines.

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❤️!

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I think this is also my catnip. I love most of the shows mentioned (minor gripes on Moon Lovers) and I realize the setup is what drew me to them.
The Liar and his Lover is also part of this. SoRim and her boys are awesome.

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Plus I adore Reply 1988. Dukseon and her friends are equally awesome.

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Dukseon and Gang remain forever my favourites. There was no limit to how much these friends lived each other despite romantic complications

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the reverse Harem in Moon Lovers was the only reason I kept watching lol

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Same here. But I could only take it so far (few episodes) I ended up reading recaps instead so I can still see the pretty that is Lee JunKi. 😁

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TLAHL❤

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I've just started watching Answer Me 1988 and I have to say I love this and the other shows you mention @sleepypie1212 especially for the friendships.

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Well said! I laughed aloud at your self judgement and then self explanation. I enjoy this trope alot. For the pretty but also the dun dun dun....friendzone.

I enjoy seeing the "other" members of the harem learn how to treat a girl as a close buddy, and learn from her about all things women. So protective of their noona or yodongseng, yet turn around and pay her out the next minute like she's just one of the boys. Makes me think of my older brother. #lovechubro

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Lol, "dun dun dun friendzone."

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The reverse harem only works for me if in some point of the drama, hopefully not at the very last minute very end, the men in her life are able to instil some change in our heroine and in themselves and are able to grow as characters to something more than they were before. Many a times, in reverse harems of K-dramas, I find that its just a plot device to pull out the "our heroine is a damsel in distress and needs saving" card to move the romance along and with that I just *eye roll*... I find that "Boys Over Flowers" was exactly that and it was so, so hard to watch at times T.T In "Scarlet Heart: Ryeo", there were also times that our heroine was in distress and needed saving, but it was never made a point that she was a damsel but quite the opposite and was quite head strong and had her own thoughts and feelings that were not dictated by the men around her, in fact, the actions and feelings of the men were based on HER XD Finally, my favourite reverse-harem would have to go to "Reply 1988"--- none of the guys ever found Deok Sun to be the girl that they ever needed to save or to impress, they just saw her as another friend that they had and could go to hang out with and never shunned her out to have any "guy conversations that girls shouldn't be a part of and shouldn't hear"; even with Taek, who's liked and loved her his whole life, and Jung Hwan who also realized his feelings for Deok Sun, they never really treated her any different than they would have if they didn't have feelings for her and I appreciate that a lot

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This is so nicely written. What I appreciate about this trope is mostly the friendship. Because the family that originates in such stories takes the girl for who she is and respect that. She is not just 'that girl'. She is an equal friend.

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Thanks!! I'm humbled that you agree with my insights =)

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What a lovely way to look at this trope/catnip!

I love reverse harems too, definitely for the shallower reasons you mentioned, but also because, with reverse harems, there are too many guys for all of them to be potential love interests, which means other dynamics have to come into play.

With male centered harems, the point of them is, it seems, to give each female character (or rather stereotype or fetish; the quiet librarian type, the loud spunky one, the silent kick-ass type) a whirl with the lackluster male character (who is lackluster on purpose as a sort of a place holder) almost one at a time, and their interest is only with him. They might not even meet each other, but if they do, it's as rivals or some other male character centric thing.

There are reverse harems that are like this, and they are enjoyable in their own way, but remain very shallow, where as the reverse harems you listed played with the idea of friendships and self made families and loneliness just like you said, and it causes truly lovely character moments. Those become classics.

Like you indicated, the real wish fulfillment isn't having a bunch of guys chase after you, but the idea that you can be very alone and then fall into a group of people, who just happen to be a group of good looking guys, and find your place.

What a good job getting down into the good feels of this catnip, thank you!

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"with reverse harems, there are too many guys for all of them to be potential love interests"

oh man, I used to think this but I once accidentally starting reading a reverse harem-y series where the girl DID end up with all the guys. I kept reading wondering how she was going to choose between all these great guys and then at some point I realized that that was never going to happen because all the characters were introduced to the idea of a poly-amorous relationships and I know some people are cool with that sort of thing but I have learned that I am not one of them.

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What's the book called?

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oh, it was the ghost bird series by c. l. stone. i started it because the first book was free in the google play book store (should be free on amazon, too, if you use kindle:)

full disclosure: i don't think the books are actually that good—its actually everything i hate in books/movies/tv: the female MC is one of those really weak, boring girls that everyone is somehow in love with, and the male MCs are every cliche you can think of (literally every single cliche because there's SO. MANY. GUYS.)

but that being said... there's something really addicting about it? like, i read the first 4-5 books in a couple of days, so... yeah.

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Goodness, at this point, I'm agreeing to all catnips.
Sorry not sorry.

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*slow claps*
👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼

So well written, @sleepypie1212! Didn't even realize this was my catnip, too.

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I've never been a fan of "regular" harem romances - oftentimes, I find it just an excuse for the main male character (often dull as a ROCK in terms of characterization) to basically have a multitude of beautiful, one-dimensional female characters in close quarters, with not a lot of development to boot. I'm basically bored and perhaps even offended at the premise.

Reverse harems (at least, the ones I watch) explore characterizations more, perhaps because they are oftentimes less centered on the LOOKS of the harem, and more centered on the interactions between the harem and the main female character. It's not always a hit with me, but I do enjoy watching a group of boys do their best to make their girl happy. <3

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Scarlet Heart...maybe not my favorite as far as story...but that reverse Harem...YUMMY. Give me a Jisoo and a Kang Haneul, no matter how power hungry, any day and I'll be a happy lady.

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Beautifully written...! Thank you @sleepypie1212

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What makes me enjoy the reverse harem catnip is when I actually understand why the female lead is loved by all these men. It's all well and good if they do so because the writer says so, but I love it when I can actually connect with the reasons why they would love her. Some of the shows that come to mind are recent ones like Scarlet Heart and The Liar and His Lover.
In Scarlet Heart, Hae Soo was a lot of things to all the princes. One loved her because she was brave enough to put herself in danger to defend him, one loved her because she stood up to him and treated him like a friend, one loved her because she was the only one to see past his bad reputation and notice the lonely, lost child inside, one loved her because of her innocence, one loved her because she was a lighthouse in his time of darkness. They all loved her differently but I could actually understand and love her myself because I understood why they loved her.
In The Liar and His Lover, it's hard not to love So-rim. She's kind, she's warm, she's like the literal sun because she shines so brightly. You can't help but be drawn into her aura. She's also very straightforward and when all the people around her know how to do is lie, her truthfulness is refreshing and beautiful. On top of that, she's cute as a button.

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I love your insights on "Scarlet Heart" and Hae Su's reverse harem of the men in her life in Goryeo =) Very well written!!

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Thank you. Hae Soo was my favourite thing about Scarlet Heart and even when every thing was going wrong in that show, Hae Soo was the only thing and character who was constant and consistent. I feel hurt when I read comments about her being this way or that because I feel like maybe people don't see what I see about her.

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This is my favorite kdrama trope to be sure. Boys over flowers was my first kdrama and it got me into this craze!

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After all these posts about catnip the only thing I'm realizing is that I am weak to a lot of tropes....

But for real though, the reverse harem is definitely up there for me. I think this is also what draws me to the cross-dressing catnip because inevitably our heroine ends up mixing in with her squad of boys and I love watching the bromance turn into romance.

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I see a lot of reverse harem in kdrama but struggle to recall an actual harem kdrama. Does anyone have one? Thanks for satisfying my arbitrary curiosity!

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Good point. Couldn't think of one, too. There could one where you have the girl and her friend, the mother also doting on the guy. Somehow, that is not quite it. Could it be telling that there could not be close friendship of one guy with many girls in a gang-y, comfortable way?

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Only "Ex Girlfriend Club" comes to my mind. (a lot of girls in love with one guy aka protagonist.) It was pretty decent i think...

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My friends and I call these "marems," as in, man harems. XD

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I wish we had more dramas on this particular trope. 😍

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Reverse harem works only if there's a max of 2 male leads fighting for the girl's attention. Anymore than that & it becomes sad harem, I spent majority of the time watching You're Beautiful feeling sorry for the 2nd & 3rd leads.

But something like reply 1988 & cover prince were really nice because it concentrated on different kinds of relation between the people other than the "feelings".

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*coffee prince
there's no editing option :-/

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I always preferred the reverse harem to the ordinary harem, haha. I guess for me it's easier to identify with a female character who grew up around guys. That, and seeing the Reply 1988 group photo reminds me why this too could be catnip for me. That friendship from youth to adulthood was solid, and I love how the guys always made fun of Deok Sun, but you knew they loved her and that was just the dynamic of their friendship. Ssangmundong just wouldn't be the same without this one odd girl. Deok Sun and her band of boys have such a special place in my heart.

Fun read, more to add to my to watch list!

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I have a soft spot for this because I love the friendships as much as I love the romance that's bound to happen.

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Ahhh, I love this one. It was my catnip even before trying kdramas since I started with anime first and reverse harem was one of my favorite anime tropes (Fruits basket or Ouran High School are still among my favorites).
Never analysed the elements that make it so attractive but I can only agree that the girl being "adopted" and suddenly part of a big family and the friendships that grow between them is a big part of its charm...apart from the game of guessing about which guy will finally win her heart and if there could be a surprise there... :)

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One that I loved so much was in Oh My Venus..

Watching her live in that house with those men and only one fell in love with her and the rest became great friends and helped her achieve her goal was simply wonderful.

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I think "boys before flowers", "oh my venus" and "three dads, one mom" fall into this category. I personally did not like BBF, but even when it is old and silly, i cried with the three dads and one mom.... and i really laughed with oh my venus.

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That's an extremely great write up!
Reverse harems have such a charm. And coming out of the story - with their friendship intact and stronger, there is a thrill in that journey!

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Reverse harems are my fav genre. I was fortunate enough to have lived that life and got married to my friend. The gang loves it that they now have an official place to crash at our house anytime. The upside and the downside is definitely that you are always surrounded by guys and its actually lots of fun and frustrating when they treat you as one of the guys. Oh the times i had to remind them that i am a girl !! hehehehe....
I am eagerly waiting for the next answer me or the reply me series !! Any updates on that....anyone !! :)

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I'm so glad you wrote about this one! This is probably my favorite trope. I'm a sucker for friendship stories, so reverse harem is so perfect. =)

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I actually really hate reverse harems and regular harems especially when it's one girl and 4 boys. I think manga ruined it for me, 3-4 people fighting four one person? there's something about it that just makes me mad.

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