[Dramaland Catnip] Reverse harems
by Guest Beanie
Answer Me 1988
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.
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.
- [Dramaland Catnip] Noona romances
- [Dramaland Catnip] Secret identities and alter egos
- [Dramaland Catnip] Disastrous first meetings
- [Dramaland Catnip] Cohabitation shenanigans
- [Dramaland Catnip] Enemies turned lovers
- [Dramaland Catnip] Crossdressing and gender-bending romances
- [Dramaland Catnip] Opponents turned allies
- [Dramaland Catnip] Marriage before dating
- [Dramaland Catnip] Swooning for dramatic height differences
- [Dramaland Catnip] Ragtag bands of misfits
- [Dramaland Catnip] Finding satisfaction in sad love stories
- [Dramaland Catnip] The magic of bad drama magic
- [Dramaland Catnip] The stinging embarrassment of thinking someone likes you… when they don’t
- [Dramaland Catnip] When the hero falls first
- [Dramaland Catnip] The angst and thrills of dramaland’s reunited lovers
- What’s your dramaland catnip? Tell us your stories!
Tags: Theme of the Month