Aside from the obvious trope-stuffed love stories designed to make hearts flutter, K-drama has a few significant strengths: Writers consistently romanticize the little everyday moments in life and emphasize the importance of maturity in healthy relationships. Seriously, some of these shows feel like curling up with a blanket and a snack for your soul – green flags everywhere.
So what is with this emphasis on the hidden charm of everyday life and responsibility in K-drama romance? Here are some of the most common tropes – romantic and otherwise – that keep us coming back for more.
Who needs another Hollywood-style steam scene when you could watch the main couple doing chores together? And if they don’t get done as efficiently because Soo-hyuk is chasing Yu-yeon with the vacuum cleaner in Mine, does anyone really mind? Making soup together, buying groceries together – all of these scenes get substantial screentime in K-dramas. An absolutely unnecessary and yet loveable scene in Doom at Your Service gets both main couples in one room making kimchi together, pink rubber gloves and all. Comfort content at its finest.
Doing house chores together isn’t just adorable; it sends multiple subconscious messages to the audience. It says, “I care enough to help you with this,” “I want to make our home comfortable for you,” and “I want to have fun even in the mundane moments with you.” Selflessness and reliability are growing scarcer and scarcer in the dating world today, so no wonder these scenes tug on our heartstrings.
Cinderella and the CEO
This trope has become the butt of some good-natured jokes in the K-drama fandom. Sometimes it feels like every other show on Viki or Dramanice is a reiteration of the classic rags-to-riches arc, with one trending twist: Rather than a prince, these modern stories feature a Korean chaebol, or CEO. While sometimes this is just an excuse to give the guy tailored suits and a sleek car, K-dramas love to present hard work and leadership as top-tier qualities for a love interest. The same goes for the dozens of dramas about doctors, lawyers, prosecutors, and yes, kings and princes.
These shows allow us to revisit our fantasies of finally going to a fancy ball or, you know, getting picked up in your boyfriend’s helicopter. Even better, while many Chinese dramas tend to emphasize the female lead’s awe at her new circumstances and the male lead’s dominating personality, K-dramas match their chaebols and princes with fiery women who can keep up with them step for step! Ha-won from Cinderella and the Four Knights and Tae-eul from The King: Eternal Monarch are perfect examples of leading ladies smart and spunky enough to give their men a run for their money.
Other writers have commented before on how often traditional Korean food steals the spotlight in dramas. K-dramas often dedicate a fair bit of time every episode to characters sharing meals, either in their kitchens or on the run. Even in fantasy shows like Tale of the Nine-Tailed, the married gods of the underworld share tteokbokki takeout in between deciding the fates of mortals. When characters are going through hard times, a friend almost always shows up with pork belly or gimbap. Food is obviously central to Korean comfort culture, in good times and in bad, and it’s resonating deeply with Western audiences.
K-drama doesn’t hesitate to show us these real-life moments of intimacy that bring the characters not only closer to each other but to the audience as well.
Many of us can relate to our best friends coming over with ice cream after a bad breakup, or throwing charcuterie parties after Covid to celebrate coming back together, or even just grabbing a bite with a study buddy after an all-nighter. K-drama doesn’t hesitate to show us these real-life moments of intimacy that bring the characters not only closer to each other but to the audience as well.
Hand Holding Over Making Out
It’s hard to go back to MA-rated Netflix shows when it takes at least half a season for the main couple in a K-drama to work their way up to a brief smooch, with lots of heartwarming fluff beforehand. The first time holding hands? Absolutely groundbreaking in shows like Start-Up.
Next step: A hug can be the climax of a whole episode, an indicator that the walls are finally down. This is another huge green flag for female viewers; simply being there emotionally for each other comes before that heartstopping first kiss, which, don’t worry, always arrives eventually. This falls right in line with K-drama’s trend of building romance on a foundation of friendship, even in those beloved enemies-to-lovers arcs. With the right chemistry, you don’t need nudity or an on-screen makeout sesh to get that #swoonworthy tag. And who wouldn’t want a bear hug from actor Ji Chang-wook? I mean, come on.
Tiny Acts of Service
I’ve written before about the main couple of Vincenzo and how the title character’s chivalry really set the bar high for male leads. But the more K-dramas I watch, the more these quiet acts of service seem to be a common theme. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic shootout (although those have their own flair) to prove the characters’ devotion to each other. Yes, I definitely rewound the part where Je-ha secretly prepares Anna’s ramen for her, because it’s one of the most adorable scenes ever to grace my screen. Pulling shady strings to get your girl out of jail is nice and all, but making sure she has iced coffee when she gets out? Vincenzo, raising the bar again.
Korean screenwriters are consistently able to draw out those core moments that women can come together to squeal over without resorting to over-the-top displays of affection. Something as small as brushing snow out of the female lead’s hair can have us hitting next episode.
The secret ingredient is romanticized stability, the reassurance that real love and a reliable partner make ordinary life wonderful.
What’s the Secret to K-Drama’s Success?
K-dramas have the master recipe when it comes to what women want to watch. Turns out, that might not be sex scenes, cycles of cheating, or, hallyu forbid, the glasses-off-and-suddenly-she’s-pretty cliché. Heated stares and passionate confessions are excellent flourishes on top of the love story, but what about the part that our generation really longs for? The forehead kisses, the bickering in the produce aisle, the late-night snacking and chatting, etc. Why are family dinners, the chaebol trope, and those running-start hugs such a draw to female viewers? The secret ingredient is romanticized stability, the reassurance that real love and a reliable partner make ordinary life wonderful.
Being swept along on crazy adventures with the characters has its own magic, but women today are looking for something solid to hold on to, something that doesn’t always have to be their own formidable selves. K-dramas offer a solidity that builds us up and makes us melt at the same time.
Women want to know that they don’t have to fit a single archetype, that what they want in life isn’t stupid or unrealistic, and that a man who wants to take care of them isn’t a regressive pipe dream. Our pop culture romanticizes chaos and dysfunction in relationships, so where are women to look? Well, right now we’re looking to men who hold the door and friends who bring you tteokbokki.
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