[Dramaland Catnip] Crossdressing and gender-bending romances
by Guest Beanie
[We had a couple of overlapping submissions, so we’re combining them to give you today’s themed post, which I’m sure will be a favorite for many. Enjoy! –javabeans]
When I read the call for Dramaland Catnip stories, I had no idea how it was gonna work out. I’ve certainly never analyzed the dramas I’ve watched to find out what specifically drew me. Then I read the entries and I must say, this site and other fellow Beanies seem to know me better than I knew myself. I found myself repeatedly saying “Me too!” for every newly discovered catnip I never knew I had. And so I had to list down the dramas I’ve watched to see if it too could lead to some self-discovery.
As a K-drama watcher of more than a decade, I find I don’t particularly have a favorite genre. Give me a combination of a well-written story that is well-executed and I’ll be in drama heaven. But I’ve found a particular plot that just thinking about the dramas I’ve watched makes we wanna squeeeeeeee: Gender bender dramas. They’re the ones I can happily watch, well done or not, that makes me swoon every time. Plot holes? I don’t remember them having any.
I think it all boils down to the idea of loving someone against all odds, with gender being the ultimate symbol. We’ve seen the all-too-common differences of social class and warring families that are external factors that the leads need to overcome. But what about an internal battle? The need to overcome one’s self, one’s identity? The choosing to love despite it all. There is nothing else that says, “I will love you for who you are no matter the circumstances” better than this genre because the thing to overcome is the person himself/herself, nothing else.
And none have done it as well as the mother of all gender-benders: Coffee Prince. This drama remains to date my favorite: romantic, full of heart, sensitive in its execution. It was revolutionary especially at that time for not being afraid to go where no drama had gone before: actually making the lead male, Han-gyul question his sexuality and then still choose Eun-chan thinking she was a guy. Ah, the angst! But a very delicious kind. And that made it even more angsty when he finally found out the truth and the betrayal was worse; as he tells Eun-chan, when he recognized that he liked her even as a man, he was ready to put aside what the world would think of him.
In addition, it’s always great to see the change in awareness taking place in the characters, where the friendly guy-to-guy touch starts to feel different. Jeremy in You’re Beautiful is a great example of this: Wondering why his bandmates seem attracted to Mi-nam, he starts seeing her in a new light and ultimately falls for her too while still thinking she’s a guy. Coffee Prince had the angsty version, while You’re Beautiful took a lighter approach with heartwarming hilarity, such as all of Jeremy’s laugh-out-loud reactions and his sweet gestures toward Mi-nam.
On the other side, there’s awareness of the swoonworthy kind, like in Sungkyunkwan Scandal, where the awareness was more unconscious in the way that Sun-joon and Jae-shin (his hiccups!) gravitated toward Yoon-hee. And often it seems it’s the second lead who finds out earlier on that our heroine is a girl and ultimately ends up helping to protect her secret. Jae-shin did it better than anyone else—the lengths he went to help her! Like insisting to sleep in between her and Sun-joon, and staying particularly close to Sun-joon so he never went too close to our girl.
It’s also common for our heroes to find out early on that our heroine is really a girl. Like Tae-kyung in You’re Beautiful and more recently the crown prince in Moonlight Drawn By Clouds, it ups the swoonworthy factor because in this case, it spurs the hero to do anything to protect the woman he loves. Particularly with Moonlight Drawn By Clouds, with so much more at stake if Ra-on were found out (death, probably), Yeong goes into full-on hero mode to help her. ♥
Moonlight Drawn By Clouds
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(a longtime reader, but unregistered so no clicky username)
Ah, gender-bender dramas. What’s not to love when the heroine has to, for whatever various reasons, pretend to act a guy? I have a particular fondness for this “genre” of Korean and Asian dramas, as it lends itself to such hilarious and poignant situations.
The first gender bender drama I saw was Coffee Prince, and I was left floored. Han-gyul’s famous line to Eun-chan, “I like you. Whether you’re a man or an alien, I don’t care anymore,” absolutely made me swoon. It was such a pure, unconditional romance and I loved that he was able to overlook gender and love Eun-chan for who she was.
In both the Japanese and Taiwanese versions of Hana Kimi, I found myself laughing over and over again as the heroine kept finding herself in sticky situations and had to pretend to be overly masculine to disguise herself as she navigated the confusing world of an all-boys high school.
But besides the comedy, I also love that the heroines will always find friends that will fiercely protect their identity from being found out. The most beautiful friendships and romance always result from the unconditional trust the male characters have in the female lead. In You’re Beautiful, I lost count of the number of times Tae-kyung and Shin-woo covered for Mi-nyeo/Mi-nam and made excuses in order to help her hide her gender. In all these dramas, the female lead’s friends are willing to help her hide, without questioning her integrity or revealing her secret to the masses (though sometimes it does take some convincing), and I love that they’re able to see beyond the heroine’s lie and understand her true reasons.
And that leads us to the dramatic reveal. It’s always interesting to see how different characters handle the truth behind the heroine’s true gender. Her lie is a barrier that must be overcome at some point, and most revelations come with plenty of shock and anger over the heroine’s “betrayal.” I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for the transition from the initial angst and denial to acceptance and back to love for the heroine. Because let’s be honest here—if my best friend/lover suddenly told me that he/she had been hiding his or her gender from me the entire time, I’d feel a little miffed for a while that they didn’t trust me with the truth.
A big revelation like that takes time to process and come back from, but it makes the reunion and ending that much sweeter and meaningful. And they do always come around. Because after all, the heroine is still the same person, regardless if she dresses up as a boy or not. She’s still their friend, their lover, and the person they spent so much time together with.
What I love most about gender-bender dramas is their portrayal of humanity and the emphasis on truly loving a person for who they are, not merely their outside appearance. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside to watch the budding friendship, bromance, and romance between all the characters. Besides, who can resist a classic rom-com, as these gender bender dramas often tend to be?
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I’m relatively new to dramaland compared to many others here. Because of the time constraints from my kid and job, I’m picky over what I watch. Ain’t got time to commit to a 50-hour makjang, or one with subpar acting that makes me cringe.
However, my Achilles’ heel, and the one thing that I can rarely ignore, is the crossdressing trope. It doesn’t matter how obvious it may be that the guy is really a girl, or how oblivious the guy may be, I swallow the premise down all the time. I blame it for being in the gateway K-drama that sent me down the rabbit hole forever.
You’re Beautiful was my first K-drama, and my introduction to it was so randomly accidental, I sometimes marvel at how it happened at all. I was at my friend’s house and for some reason You’re Beautiful was on TV. I had never watched any Korean dramas before, but suddenly I was captivated by Hwang Tae-kyung and his interactions with the crossdressing Go Mi-nam.
I couldn’t get enough of how he was prickly on the outside but conflicted because he cared for her so much but didn’t want to show it, and how she was oblivious to it all, her main worry being keeping her gender a secret. My husband couldn’t understand why I was so stuck on the episode: “The male lead has guyliner for crying out loud!” and “The girl totally doesn’t look like a guy—her Adam’s apple is missing!” But I was totally hooked, and 16 episodes later, I was craving more.
Cue internet search for similar dramas, which led me to To the Beautiful You and its Taiwanese counterpart Hanazakarino Kimitachihe. I knew that this trope had to be my catnip because I actually watched it all despite the wooden acting from Wu Chun. I still can’t believe I finished it!
Fortunately since then, I’ve become smarter (and also found Dramabeans and their ratings system) and have watched much better dramas with this trope. Moonlight Drawn by Clouds, which featured a heroine pretending to be a eunuch in the palace and capturing the heart of the prince, was epically addictive with its higher than normal stakes, since if she were found out, it would be tantamount to treason and death.
Watching Prince Yeong progress from butting heads with Ra-on in the beginning, and then growing fond of her, discovering her secret and confessing to her, coupled with the secret dates behind umbrellas, stolen skinship (who knew helping Prince get dressed could be so adorable?), and then him risking his life to protect her… my squees and swoons were near unstoppable.
Coffee Prince was a recent watch (I don’t know why I took so long, I’m sorry Gong Yoo oppa!) and I can say that this was the only drama where the mannerisms of the female lead were extremely convincing as a guy. Han-gyul was completely fooled by Eun-chan, and I wasn’t surprised.
To the Beautiful You
Now, I logically know there are ways of telling if you are girl versus boy, and none involve hair length or depend on chest size. An absent Adam’s apple or the angle of your arms (yes, I’m serious!) can actually give it away. But my usually annoying medical radar doesn’t even ping in the slightness for this trope, because I secretly (or not so secretly) love the idea of a guy (usually popular and good-looking) falling for a girl based solely on her personality, regardless of her outer appearance.
I’ve been a feisty tomboy my whole life and I’ve always envied those girly girls who were always so perfectly poised and coifed, soft-spoken and sweet, so ladylike. When I was growing up, there were only the demure Disney princesses who got their Prince Charmings—and they did it while twirling in ball gowns or serenading birds or getting their fingers pricked while sewing. I wanted so badly to be a damsel, but it gave me more distress than I felt it was worth. So it’s perhaps more than just a hopeful fantasy for me to believe that a guy can see past the superficial and love a girl purely for who she is inside.
What adds the extra oomph, which distinguishes this trope from the usual guy-falls-for-ugly-duckling-girl scenario, is that he doesn’t only fall for her inner beauty. He falls despite the fact that it’s a taboo love, since he thinks she is a guy like him. And thus, regardless of logic, for this trope, I’m always a goner, hook, line and sinker.
I guess I just can’t resist the hope that maybe not only the Cinderellas, Snow Whites and Auroras get to be with Prince Charming. Sometimes the Eun-chans and Ra-ons get their happily ever afters too.
Moonlight Drawn By Clouds
- [Dramaland Catnip] Opponents turned allies
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- [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