Hello, beloved readers! Karie the Maknae and Drama Geek here. We saw the announcement of Your House Helper, a webtoon to kdrama adaptation, and had some thoughts about adaptations and tropes and good writing. Join us as the Maknae drives Drama Geek nuts by discussing tropes in general while Drama Geek tries to get her to focus on the possibility of the candy girl trope undermining the great story in Your House Helper.
First, the tidbit from our friends at Dramabeans, which spawned our conversation: “Ha Suk-jin will star as Kim Ji-woon, the wealthy son of an assemblyman father and a doctor mother. He began a career at a major conglomerate but chose to protect his pride and ended up getting cut off from his family, and somehow ends up working as a housekeeper. He’s got a gruff personality but finds satisfaction in creating order out of chaos. Bona has been offered the role of Im Da-young, a character taken from the second season of the webtoon. She’s an ambitious intern at an ad agency trying to make up for her lack of specs and land a permanent job, whose friendly and placating demeanor gets mistaken for flirting by her colleagues.”
Karie the Maknae: Our conversation started when I asked if this was a reverse candy girl–the Cinderella trope, essentially. But first, I want to back up and start off by asking what dramas come to mind when you think of spunky female leads, surly chaebol heirs, second leads, and snarky friends? For me, it will always be Cinderella and Four Knights. Goblin fits in there, sort of, but it’s really a different species entirely. W, Something About One Percent, Strong Woman Do Bong Soon, The Master’s Sun, Secret Garden, I’m Not a Robot, and so many others. Much like American romcoms, these dramas have a formula and boy do they stick to it!
Drama Geek: Let me preface all of my opinions in this post with the fact that I love Kdramas enough to devote many, many hours a week watching and blogging about them. Okay, now that we have that out of the way, let’s get to the reality of the matter. I went to My Drama List and reviewed the dramas I’ve watched. No, I haven’t watched all of them, but my list is pretty extensive. It will probably not surprise you that most of the male heroes fell into 3 categories. Chaebol, Extremely Successful (Like a top chef or a geeeenius doctor), or they had magical powers. In sagueks the male lead was usually a prince/king/or magical. I won’t provide a list like the maknae, because it would take up the entire page.
Karie the Maknae: So are tropes evil? It really depends how they are handled. If they aren’t given fresh new life, they become trite and boring. Let’s compare Wild Romance to My Love Who Came From the Stars. The lead females are indeed spunky — one a top actress, one a bodyguard. It’s the men who set these drama apart — one is a troubled baseball player, the other is a rich . . . alien. Both men are wealthy, both men are capable, both men are downright grumpy. It’s the alien aspect that turns the trope on its head. Same thing in W: Two Worlds. Kang Cheol is rich, capable, and grumpy, BUT HE’S A CARTOON. That trope was turned on its head and slammed into the ground . . . and ended up in an alternate dimension.
Tropes can be a shorthand way of bringing a viewer into a character’s head more quickly, and they can be used effectively. But when a character is the trope alone, without any unique characteristics to set them apart, then the yawnfest begins.
Drama Geek: I’m not really here to argue if tropes are evil or if they are necessary. Writing is built on them, and it’s the writer’s job to use them in a way that is fresh and new. Our discussion started when I saw the description of the webtoon to drama adaptation called Your House Helper. The webtoon centers around a male housekeeper and the various households he works in. He’s uppity and tends to talk down to his bosses. The households he works in are usually career women who are trying to balance their work life and a perfect household. This is something I can completely relate to, and I was excited. If I had enough money, I’d hire a handsome man to clean my house. Wouldn’t you?
Then I read the drama description. A chaebol decides to cut himself off from the family fortune and become a housekeeper. Okay . . . well, I guess it’s not that big of a deal that he’s a secret chaebol, I can deal. They chose to center around one households from the webtoon. She’s an intern trying to work her way up in a company because she lacks the right specs. How does an intern afford a housekeeper? If she lacks the right specs does that mean she’s not good at school and probably poor? The original premise I was excited about–a successful career woman trying to balance her chaotic life hires a housekeeper who is uppity and bossy, but somehow they fall in love–is totally diluted down to a rich guy meets struggling working girl and they fall in love.
Karie the Maknae: So is the change necessary? Is this kind of trope representative of South Korean ideals? Well, yes and no. Let’s face it — romantic and romcom dramas are fantasies. They’re escapist. And it’s hard to feel like you’re escaping if the lead characters are bogged down with the realities of life all the time. That makes characters who are unbelievably wealthy a fertile playground for writers’ imaginations, since the realities of life are mere dust bunnies to them. I think that applies globally–just look at Jane Austen’s most famous works: Pride & Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Her characters can definitely fit in the list we mentioned before, and that’s a different side of the world AND a different time period!
But I don’t think it’s representative of anyone’s ideals. The incredibly popular Answer Me series didn’t center around a bunch of rich people–instead, our heroes were poor or middle class, struggling to get by, and definitely more grounded than the rich chaebols and spunky females of the romantic kdramas. Answer Me, Prison Playbook, Age of Youth — I feel that all of these slice-of-life dramas are much more representative of South Korean culture. It’s also a lot harder to find the same tropes repeated in slice-of-life dramas, in my limited experience. Feel free to correct me!
Drama Geek: Again, let’s go back to my original observation. A very popular webtoon–Your House Helper–is being turned into a drama. The general South Korean population liked the idea of a male housekeeper going around and helping career women in life and in love. Then the powers that be in dramaland took that concept and smooshed it to fit the mold of what they think the viewers want. Do the people of Korea want to escape into the fantasy that some rich guy is going to bump into them and then grumpily whisk them off their feet? Probably.
I also think they are willing to fall in love with a poor boy who is broken and sad. One who helps his local halmoni illegally treat and take care of all the people in their neighborhood who can’t afford it. Yes, I’m talking about Just Between Lovers. If you haven’t seen it, you should!
Just like in American TV, I feel like there is a disconnect between what the people with the money think we the viewers want, and what they give us. My frustration is that Kdrama writers/production companies don’t seem willing to go outside that formula very often. I think the viewers would really appreciate seeing more realistic portrayals of their life. I’ve seen interviews with men on the streets of Seoul who say they feel they can never live up to the men on TV, and feel very pressured by it.
Karie the Maknae: I’ve heard that myself, and you can hear it from American men too. Conversely, we have the insane beauty ideals for women as well–you can see it reflected in our favorite idol groups, and not just for the girl groups. It’s frustrating. All I would say is that ultimately, romances and romcoms are fantasies and should be treated as such.
Anyway, back to the post.
I can hear you all asking, “Wait! What about ____?” (P.S. Get out of my head! I have enough voices in there.)
Every genre will have its outliers, the pieces that don’t quite fit the formula. Sometimes it’s because they’re genre-crossers, but sometimes it’s because the writers have figured out the formula and decided that rather than turn it on its head, they want to throw it out the window. These dramas tend to be successful too, I believe, because they are so different. Examples include: Weightlifting Fairy, Fight My Way, School 2013, Because This is My First Life, Descendants of the Sun, High School King of Savvy, Just Between Lovers, Oh My Ghostess, While You Were Sleeping.
Drama Geek: Now, I’m not trying to be mean, but I do want to point out something in the maknae’s list. First three are a lovely divergent to the rule. Because This is My First Life: he’s successful and has his own company . . . while she has struggled as a assistant writer. Descendants of the Sun: successful soldier who runs an elite division with the military. Oh My Ghostess: he’s a very successful chef and she works in the restaurant without being able to advance her cooking skills until she’s possessed by a ghost. While You Were Sleeping: he’s a prosecutor who eventually gains magical powers. Did I love all of these dramas? Well, I may have only made it three episodes in on Descendants, but the rest of them, absolutely.
Trope characters can work and can be used to make fantastic stories. When Kdramas venture outside the normal rich man, poor girl set up, they usually create absolute viewing magic. My hope is Kdramas will continue to push those boundaries and delight me.
Karie the Maknae: My inexperience is showing again. I forgot Big Boss was an elite soldier — though to the writer’s credit, he was paired with a very spunky, successful doctor. But Drama Geek’s point stands–those men were not average, and it doesn’t matter what kind of woman they were paired with, because that’s not the point. When the writers DO venture outside the trope, we do get a story that is beyond compare.
So, drama fans, what do you think? Are tropes being used too often? Will the alterations to Your House Helper undermine the solid story that was in the webtoon? Sound off in the comments below!
As ever, we remain your beloved–
Drama Geek and Karie the Maknae
Dramas with a Side of Kimchi