[Dramaland Catnip] The stinging embarrassment of thinking someone likes you… when they don’t
Answer Me 1988
Ah, the unbearable embarrassment of wrongly assuming that someone who is being extra nice to you, or staring at you a little longer than convention requires, MUST be nursing a huge crush on you.
You, being a sane and reasonable individual governed by good manners, either begin stressing over how you will turn down this person, whose feelings you do not reciprocate. Or because you care deeply about the welfare of others, must develop a way to graciously accept the other person’s feelings, entirely for their sake and definitely not your own.
When you learn of your mistake, the usual reaction is the overwhelming desire to crawl into the nearest hole and live out your days in darkness. Or to clench your fist and walk through the shame with your head held high, all while chanting to yourself the many ways in which you are still awesome.
There are other times when your reaction is an embarrassment felt so deeply, and mingled with a sense of indignation and hurt, that your first instinct is to lash out at that person for not feeling the same. Whatever your preference is, this setup is guaranteed to create a great deal of drama in the best ways.
Boys Before Flowers
I believe this awkwardness is a universal experience, so whenever I see this setup unfolding in dramas, I tend to get hooked. There are many versions of this type of interaction, but my favorite iteration is when the misguided party says something along the lines of: “You must forget me. I will only bring you heartache,” and response they get is, “Uh, what?”
A popular outcome of this mistake is full-blown, reciprocal romance, so any embarrassment felt is later justified by the happily ever after, but that isn’t always the case. For my part, I really like seeing how characters deal with and navigate their embarrassment, since there’s probably no one in the world who would act on the assumption that someone likes them, if they weren’t near certain about it.
Thus, when they’re wrong, whatever feeling rises to the surface is unexpected, and therefore untouched by the kinds of things we tend to tell ourselves about ourselves, and dress our exteriors with. More importantly, it can pave the way for significant self-examination and character growth down the road; or at the very least, a lot of giggles.
Man to Man
The most recent example I can think of occurred in Man to Man, after undercover super spy, Seol-woo, unwittingly misleads his colleague, Do-ha, into thinking that he has feelings for her. At the point where this specific exchange takes place, Seol-woo’s mission doesn’t involve romancing Do-ha (yet), but she jumps to the wrong conclusion anyway.
Seeking to spare him heartache, she dramatically explains to Seol-woo that she can never reciprocate his feelings because she’s committed to her favorite actor. He’s amused by her assumption, and tells her the equivalent of, “Yup, sounds great.” Then, after he thinks he’s finished with his mission and thus can cut ties with her, he says some pretty harsh words about never liking her, only to learn immediately afterwards that his new mission is to woo her.
He knows he just shot himself in the foot, so he goes to great lengths to try and undo the damage by acting all cute and suave, which totally freaks her out. Part of the fun is watching the person who did the rejecting claw their way back into the hurt party’s good graces, whether it’s because they’ve seen the error of their ways, or in this case, have a new mission. Therefore, sometimes the crueler the rejection, the better the groveling, which we all know is the best part.
The hero in Jealousy Incarnate, Hwa-shin, understands this lesson probably better than anyone else. After brutally rejecting heroine Na-ri years earlier, they reunite, and though Na-ri has since moved on, Hwa-shin mistakenly thinks she can’t get over him.
This assumption is further fueled after Na-ri starts feeling up Hwa-shin’s pecs in the most inappropriate ways. He soon learns that he is in the early stages of breast cancer, and Na-ri’s fondling may have saved his life. It’s a humbling moment for Hwa-shin as he suddenly finds himself indebted to someone he’s written off for years, and though he tries to salvage his ego, it’s not that easy for him to do while wearing a bra.
I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to see Hwa-shin realize he likes Na-ri, and then quickly remember how much of an ass he was to her before. Good thing for him (and for us), Hwa-shin specializes in groveling, and his pathetic antics to convince Na-ri he’s being sincere about his feelings for her, were a real treat to witness.
Boys Before Flowers
Not everyone needs an almost kiss or borderline sexual assault to hastily conclude that someone likes them. Sometimes it only takes the thinnest of reasons, as evidenced by Jun-pyo in Boys Before Flowers. Jun-pyo’s erroneous belief that Jan-di likes him is practically a thing of legend. His self-delusions are so great that he decides that Jan-di telling him that she’s never kissed anyone before (which is a response to the rumor that she sleeps around), somehow translates in Jun-pyo’s brain to: “I want my first kiss to be with you.”
Jun-pyo quickly acts on his misunderstanding by imperiously agreeing to acknowledge her as his girlfriend outside of school. Jan-di thinks he’s been sniffing glue, and tries to teleport to a far and distant planet. She tells him as clearly as possible that she isn’t interested, however, Jun-pyo is still only 32% sure she means what she says. It takes learning about her crush on Ji-hoo for things to really sink in.
For him, his outrage is proportional to his great feelings for her, which he realizes after her total rejection of him. To me, this step pushes two totally unsuspecting characters somewhere right into the middle of a budding romance, and while Person A is pretty into it and thinks they were led there by Person B, Person B just keeps asking for directions on how to leave.
How they react to this sudden situation sets the trajectory for the rest of their romance. What I like about this, is that there’s a sense of advancing the romance quickly, even if it appears to go backwards, when say the characters end up hating each other because of this misunderstanding. Now the two are connected, and they can’t become strangers again because so much raw emotion has been exposed.
Flower Boy Ramyun Shop
If Boys Before Flowers had the haughty prince jump to conclusions prematurely, then it’s the Candy’s turn in Flower Boy Ramyun Shop. After finding out that her boyfriend is cheating on her, heroine Eun-bi impulsively asks hero Chi-soo to date her. She calls him “Oppa,” not realizing that while she’s twenty-five, he’s still in high school. Oh, and she’s his teacher. In other words, the perfect humiliation trifecta.
Witnessing her shame is all kinds of fun especially, because contrary to her assumption that Chi-soo is a Prince Charming-type, he’s actually a complete ass. He goes out of his way to humiliate Eun-bi for thinking he could ever like her, which all lays the groundwork for his eventual, and very satisfying, reversal.
While it seems like this setup is ripe for the arrogant hero to get cut down to size by the plucky heroine, it also can also make a young girl cautious with her heart. For Deok-sun in Answer Me 1988, her assumption that Sun-woo liked her began after her friends convinced her of it, and it becomes clear in her other romances that she would have never come to that conclusion on her own. Deok-sun falls in love with the idea and quickly gets swept up in her fantasies by projecting them all onto Sun-woo.
You From Another Star
After she learns that Sun-woo actually likes her older, more intelligent, tyrannical sister, Bo-ra, her reaction is to lash out angrily at Sun-woo, as her feelings of inadequacy floats to the surface. To Deok-sun, the question she asks Sun-woo is not, “Why not me?” but instead, “Why her?” This first, painful experience with love makes a lasting impression on Deok-sun and may be a big reason why her and Jung-hwan’s hesitant love never comes to fruition.
This setup works more comically with self-absorbed characters who have no reason to think someone wouldn’t fall desperately in love with them at first sight. Like Song-yi in You From Another Star, who pegs Min-joon as a pervert and can’t believe he has no idea who she is. But while many of these characters truly think they’re worthy of universal adoration, occasionally that’s only a facade and these feelings of embarrassment can be the one thing to break past the bravado.
Which leads me to perhaps my favorite usage of this premise: Cindy in The Producers. Cindy, a cold but lonely idol singer, falls for Seung-chan, a bumbling maknae PD who is as oblivious as he’s adorable. Initially, Cindy assumes that Seung-chan is trying to flirt with her, but really he only wants to make sure she returns the umbrella she borrowed.
Their relationship is further entwined after Seung-chan recruits Cindy to appear on the variety show he works for. She continues to misinterpret the attention he gives her as an indication that he has feelings and even brags about being able to use him, and his position as a PD, in her favor because of those feelings. Soon the tables turn on her, and she begins to feel strongly for him mainly as a result of his puppy-like kindness and her severe loneliness. Then, in a moment of vulnerability, she kisses him.
Seung-chan is floored, having had no idea she liked him. And therefore, sensing that her kiss is not being well-received, she hurries to add that he can give his answer later, and cries alone in the bathroom. What impresses me most about Cindy’s reaction to her humiliation she that even after it’s clear that she’s been rejected, she tells Seung-chan that she won’t hide from him, and while she won’t interfere in his crush on another character, neither will she lie about her feelings for him.
In Cindy’s case she grows significantly from the experience and learns how to be vulnerable and let people into her life, even if it means they could hurt her or make her look foolish. Or *gasp* be an anti. When all is said and done, this trope isn’t really about the embarrassment itself; it’s about gaining an understanding of what a character’s relationship to their feelings of shame are. Some can rise above it, others falter a little, and others still find love in those moments of discomfort, whether it’s with another character or for one’s self. And for me, that’s my favorite part.
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