Korean dramas are famous for asking viewers to believe that women — often the tiniest, daintiest actresses you could find — are going to be mistaken for men. But when they do it right, they do it so well.
The best example I can think of is the gateway drama, “Coffee Prince,” starring Gong Yoo and Yoon Eun-Hye.
The series is highly watchable, even though the initial reaction to it is that the storyline is similar to all the other rich man/poor woman dramas floating around. But “Coffee Prince” deals with serious issues that are filled with an undercurrent of sexual identity, gender roles and poverty in an open, honest manner. Gong Yoo portrays Han Kyul, the heir to his family’s fortune. He mistakenly assumes that Eun Chan (Yoon Eun-Hye) is a young man. Why? Maybe because she has short hair and wears no makeup. I dunno. But in order to get his meddling grandmother off his back, he asks Eun Chan to pretend to be his gay lover.
It sounds silly, right? And you may wonder why Eun Chan allows people to assume she’s a man, rather than a woman. Maybe it’s because as the primary provider for her family, she has learned that it’s easier to get jobs as a man. She delivers milk in the morning, teaches taekwondo in her dojang during the day and delivers food orders at night. Allowing employers to assume she’s a man also means she doesn’t deal with as much sexual harassment or the assumptions that she’s too fragile to handle hard work.
Even when she applies for a job at Han Kyul’s new business, she’d have been unable to be employed there as a woman, because the cafe’s concept is a coffee shop staffed solely by…you guessed it…handsome “princes.”
2nd Place: “Sungkyunkwan Scandal”
In order to earn money to take care of her widowed mother and her bed-ridden brother, Kim Yoon-Hee (played by Park Min-Young of “Healer“) takes over her brother’s identity. Diligent and smart, she earns good money taking college-entrance exams for the rich and privileged — but it’s a job she can only do if people assume she’s a man. After all, how much could a girl know? Through a series of misunderstandings and coincidences, Yoon-Hee (as her brother) gets accepted to attend college, but again, she has to do it as a boy, because it was illegal for girls to attend university in the Joseon era. She ends up rooming with the most handsome collection of men anyone could wish for. The question of sexual attraction arises in this K-Drama, too, when the men all fall for who they think is a male roommate. Questioning his attraction to his classmate, Sun-Joon (played by Park Yoo-Chun) asks Yong-Ha (a delightful Song Joong-Ki) if he has ever been attracted to another man. Yong-Ha unapologetically says he was: “Hating people is a sin. How could liking them be one?”
Honorable Mention: “To the Beautiful You”
While it’s not up to par with the above mentioned dramas, it’s still worth a watch. Set in an all-boys high school, Jae-Hee (Sulli) pretends to be male so that she can be close to her crush, Tae-Joon (Choi Min-Ho), who is the big man on campus. How long do you think she can keep her true identity a secret? Blink once if you think, “Not too long!”
What are your favorite K-Drama gender bender roles? Drop your comment below!
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