When a friend introduced me to Korean dramas, I was immediately drawn into the emotional intensity of their romantic comedies and the comparatively unbridled intimacy of their depiction of male friendship. As cultural products second only to the now ubiquitous “K-pop” in globally disseminating South Korean culture, these single-season TV shows are at once universal and culturally particular. They epitomize the extreme melodramatic pitch and romantic intrigue of American soap operas, but are situated within an often-critical economic and political context absent from our domestic varieties and populated by male heterosexual types whose feeling and presentation isn’t hamstrung by our gender standards. A classic example is the “flower boy,” a young male whose personal style recalls the extreme aesthetic flair of Johnny Weir — think boat neck angora sweaters, elaborately fur trimmed waistcoats, and neon-colored fitted pants that make jeggings feel modest — but whose look invites none of the same speculation about his sexuality.
A case in point is actor Lee Jong-Suk, an iconic flower boy in heavy rotation on contemporary K-dramas, whose promotional video for fashion magazine Ceci Korea might be one of the queerest things I’ve ever seen. As the soft-lounge vocal styling and synth loops of “Come Gaze at Me” (or is it “Come Gays At Me,” as my friends like to say?) play in the background, Lee sleepily stretches around set pieces with Lolita-worthy languorousness before the hysterical and inexplicable editorial decision to film him first in grinding embrace with a taxidermied bear, then appearing to fellate the bear’s snout. What is hard to process across the Pacific is that this optic doesn’t read as gay to Korean viewers, and for a country that consumes nearly 25 percent of the global market for men’s cosmetics, it’s an aspirational look for straight Korean men. That difference also has the effect of enabling more physically intimate and emotional relationships between men in Korea that don’t necessitate the “no homo” policing so familiar in the United States. This is, in no small part, because homosexuality isn’t really recognized in South Korea, a country where a recent Pew Research Center survey found that only 39 percent of the population believes that gays and lesbians should be accepted by society, up from 18 percent in 2007. Koreans aren’t unaware of homosexuality, but in mainstream media it has tended to be presented as a comedic trope, foreign phenomenon, or fantasy, rather than as a reality of Korean life. In two particularly interesting and popular cultural phenomena — “slash fic” and “shipping” — fans of K-pop boybands, typically female, pair their favorite male celebrities together in imaginary relationships expressed in short stories, fan art, and other media that run the gamut from chaste romance to explicit sex. The point is not that fans believe these young men lust after one another, but rather, as some critics have argued, that slash fic and shipping offer a venue in which young women can engage romantic or sexual imaginaries that often go unfulfilled in heteronormative culture. In other words, the depiction of homosexuality isn’t representative of true life relationships, it’s just fantasy. Or at least, it used to be, and that change has made a big difference in the K-dramas’ world of male–male feels.
For viewers from abroad, the immensely popular 2007 hit Coffee Prince serves as a gateway drug to the world of K-dramas. The central plot orbits around the romance between Choi Han-Gyul, the directionless scion of a giant corporation, and Ko Eun-Chan, a tomboyish scamp who poses as a man in order to earn money for her family. When Han-Gyul first meets Eun-Chan, he assumes she is a delivery boy and hires her to pose as his gay lover as part of an awkward strategy to fend off the blind dates that his grandmother has arranged upon his return from New York. When he takes over the titular coffee shop and adds Eun-Chan, still in drag, to the roster of an attractive all-male staff, Han-Gyul begins to develop inexplicable romantic feelings for her. In order to transfer that longing into a culturally sanctioned form, Han-Gyul consecrates Eun-Chan as his “sworn brother,” lavishing “him” with sentimental gifts, life advice, food, and tense sleepovers. The normality of that fraternal passion is mirrored in the other males’ jocular relationships — naked cavorting and the humor of bodily effluence, yes, but also similar physical and emotional tenderness. Han-Gyul’s series-long struggle is resolved with the revelation of Eun-Chan’s true gender and the show ends with the two happily paired. The gay bait-and-switch works because both audience and auxiliary characters always already know that there’s nothing gay going on here, not really. Han-Gyul was only mistakenly playing gay and that makes everything okay.
A similar playacting is the central scandal of 2010’s Personal Taste, in which young architect Jeon Jin-Ho pretends to be gay in order to live with Park Kae-In, daughter of a legendary architect whose house he wishes to use as inspiration in a project bid for the prestigious Dam Art Center. Of course, the two fall in love. The big reveal of Jin-Ho’s heterosexuality occurs in a scene that is, ironically, also one of the genre’s campiest. “Game over!” Jin-Ho shouts, forcefully strutting across the room in an iridescent sharkskin suit jacket and comically billowing silk underpiece before planting a deep, passionate, high lip-gloss kiss on Kae-In’s shocked mouth. It’s a pretty gay scene, but not actually gay at all.
It turns out that Jin-Ho’s gay masquerade was a bit too convincing, giving project bid judge Choi Do-Bin the confidence to confess his romantic feelings for the lanky lad. Director Choi proposes that the two might come to love one another as a couple, two fugitive exotic birds flying above the normative radar of Seoul society. Jin-Ho confesses his heterosexuality, but promises to keep Director Choi’s secret. While Personal Taste took the then-groundbreaking step of introducing an actual gay character to the screen, that homosexual presence recasts the jocular intimacy between Jin-Ho and his architecture colleague Noh Sang-Jun in troubling ways. In performing gayness, Jin-Ho and Sang-Jun become more aware of the ways in which their bodies and feelings encounter one another, as when their friendly affection leads two female characters to assume they must be dating. In response to this comedic gag, they begin modifying their previously natural relationship. Since Personal Taste and the popular family drama Life is Beautiful debuted in 2010, K-dramas have been caught between representing the necessity of strong male relationships in navigating the life struggles of contemporary Korean society and the realistic portraits of homosexual life that threaten how those relationships signify.
When Answer Me 1997 first aired in 2012, it struck an immediate chord with viewers eager to immerse themselves in its heady mix of 1990s nostalgia for boy bands, first loves, and adolescent angst. What viewers weren’t expecting was a third episode revelation of dramaland’s most tortured love triangle: romantic male lead Yoon-Jae pines after H.O.T. fangirl Shi-Won, unaware that he is the object of affection for his best friend, Joon-Hee. When Yoon-Jae eventually learns of Joon-Hee’s feelings, it presents a serious crisis for the boys’ friendship. While Yoon-Jae’s empathy overcomes his uneasiness and he resolves to remain loyal to his friend — a bit of anachronistic optimism for a show set in 1997 and 2005 — Joon-Hee’s homosexuality is never openly discussed and their cohabitation is soon abandoned so Yoon-Jae can pursue Shi-Won. In Answer Me 1997, gay characters might stand a chance of a happy life but they can’t have erotically uncomplicated feelings about their male friends.
A year later, the absence of homosexuality from the world of School 2013 produced in its place one of the most emotional male relationships of the genre. The general plot concerns the reunion between Go Nam-Soon and Park Heung-Soo, two high school students who used to run together in a middle school gang before Heung-Soo’s ambitions to pursue a soccer career in Seoul drove Nam-Soon to break his leg, thereby ending his career. Haunted by guilt, Nam-Soon cocoons himself for two years inside an empty apartment that remains a conveniently parents-free zone throughout the show. “I was scared you would really leave me,” Nam-Soon tearfully confesses when he meets Heung-Soo again in high school, “I had only you back then. I had no one to turn to. I know I can’t repay you for what I’ve done. I, who ruined your legs and your future!” “Other than soccer, I had only you,” Heung-Soo fires back, his perfect cheekbones freshly bedewed as he exorcises his years-long pain over Nam-Soon’s abandonment. “You should have been there. Didn’t you miss me?!” The scene ends with both young men in tears, the camera sweeping up and away toward the Seoul street lamps as Nam-Soon’s voiceover relays what sounds like a Wildean truism: “All the shining flowers in this world, bloom while being whipped.”
This tidal wave of feels and the sodium rich vapors of a date to a local ramen shop soon restore the boys’ friendship, and just in time for them to resolve School 2013’s other male crisis. A trio of young toughs risks being torn apart when two members want to give up gang life, calling down the fury of their heavily mascaraed leader, Oh Jung-Ho, whose broken home and alcoholic father are only a few of the obstacles he faces in overcoming the poverty that makes life a daily struggle. Taken under the wing of Nam-Soon and Heung-Soo, Jung-Ho learns to trust others and, in one particularly touching scene, all five boys sleep together under Nam-Soon’s (still parentless) roof, tucking one another in and even, at one point, spooning.
These male relationships have a worlding importance in School 2013 as resources that guard vulnerable youth against the challenges faced by those who fall below economic and academic ideals. Moreover, these passionate friendships secure the boys against precarity when the institutions traditionally vested with that power — conjugal romance (which surprisingly never enters the picture), filial obligation, and the state apparatus — fail to do so.
There is a particular strangeness to watching these shows — always in translation, always across great cultural and geographic distance — as a gay, white male living in Los Angeles. On the one hand, Korean dramas give expression to relationships I’ve had with men that are difficult to articulate in an American culture where the hetero/homo binary so thoroughly polices same-sex interactions. On the other hand, the ability for those relationships to flourish as they do in K-dramas seems to depend on the relegation of homosexuality to the closet. In Nam-Soon and Heung-Soo’s relationship I can see, at least in part, two of my own friendships. And yet, in the stoicism of Director Choi and Joon-Hee, I can’t help but see the pain and suffering of a much younger self.
While living in New York in 2001, I forged a friendship in the folly and feeling typical of an NYU undergraduate experience. Uri and I bonded over a mutual love for jazz and classical music (his informed, mine neophytic), over the desire to explore a world that might recast us from the nerdy roles we’d played in high school, over the stupid and wonderful things that you do when first loosed from accountability to parents or community. We studied together, went on vacation together, shared apartments, shared beds, almost shared a girlfriend (though not concurrently), and shared his down comforter, naked save for boxers, while we watched movies through a haze of pungent smoke. When I came out in our senior year, I feared it might hurt the friendship that had deepened over three years, calling into question whatever my real feelings for him might have been. In other ways, I hoped it might heal some old, and until then, inexplicable wounds inflicted as I teetered over the threshold of the closet door. My first boyfriend was also Uri’s best friend from high school, and the sudden, furtive frequency with which I sequestered myself in Joey’s apartment the summer of our sophomore year had put a strain, unspoken but palpable, on our friendship. When Uri’s mother told me over lunch at the time that while her son was ecstatic his friends got along so well, he felt somewhat squeezed out as the two of us knitted together, my feelings of guilt and helplessness were excruciating. That strain deepened when I spent more and more time with friends I’d made studying abroad in Spain or in my literature classes, friends to whom I was out and with whom I lived a different life, during our junior year. The single sentence that would have explained everything was precisely the one I wasn’t yet ready to speak. To my great relief, coming out was not the crisis I’d imagined, at least not for Uri. The case was different for other friends, especially my gay male friends, who continued to believe, among other things, that I must have at least fantasized about having sex with Uri despite my protestations that such thoughts would have been as disturbing as incest.
When I met Alex at the University of Chicago years later, the close proximity of our apartments, shared political ideals, and mutual handwringing over our first long-distance relationships and whatever lay beyond grad school catalyzed an equally intense bond. We spent so much of our time at home between one another’s rooms, going out to eat, going to the movies, sharing inside jokes, and talking about matters both extremely intimate and extremely superficial that my then-boyfriend-now-partner was certain that he would lose me to my “straight grad school lover.” When the conclusion of our program brought us to two different cities, our intimate proximity diffused itself over text messages, phone calls that beggared monthly minute limits, and proliferating email threads that I often signed “XOXO” to my boyfriend’s continued, pointed bemusement. When Alex came to the painful terminus of a multi-year relationship, when I needed help navigating my own lovers’ quarrels, when we both agonized over personal statements, writing samples, family issues, and quotidian neuroses, our conversations afforded each of us the space in which to fall apart and in which to imagine getting better. We spoke often of how much we missed living only ten feet apart, and when we were both accepted into the same doctoral program, it broke my heart to foreclose the possibility of spending the next five years together by accepting an offer that put us 3,000 miles apart.
Anytime I describe these relationships to friends and even my partner, I often mark the wink, the smirk, the signals that say somewhere, somehow, I must have at least entertained the idea that our friendship might turn from the Platonic to the pornographic. I’ve grown accustomed to those suggestive gestures, but I’ve also grown frustrated with them. Did the fact of my homosexuality make impossible a passionate friendship with two men that doesn’t imply, at least in part, a desire for dude-sex? Within contemporary American media culture, the answer is almost certainly yes. While the new masculinity of the past decades has given us allegedly novel figures and affiliative forms like the “metrosexual” and the “bromance,” it has always done so by policing them in view of their queer optics.
For all the messiness and intimacy of male relationships that figures like Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow have brought to recent archives of popular American cinema, their movies usually do so via comedic denial, gross-out slapstick, or “man–child” narratives of maladaptation to the chrononormative rhythms of male life in the United States. This isn’t really the fault of Rogen and Apatow or their analogs, who are doing some great and important work, but rather the fault of an American culture that can’t see in male intimacy anything more than a joke, than a series of borders that should not be crossed; a culture that denies mature emotional depth to relationships that don’t flow through blood or semen. The rigidity of those boundaries is powerfully evidenced in Bromance, a short-lived 2009 MTV reality show in which a host of men competed to be the ultimate best friend to The Hills playboy Brody Jenner. While the show was ostensibly about plumbing the depths of male friendship, moments of intense bonding always had to be defanged of their queer potential. It is little surprise that the show’s only gay character withdrew himself from the competition in the first episode, or that a later challenge cajoling contestants to spill their emotional guts under the care of a life coach (whose trade name I can only hope actually is Dr. Hug-It-Out) resolved all of those strategically cathartic “I love you guys” confessions with an elimination round that placed the winners into bathtubs with bikini-clad women. Those emotional and physical boundaries don’t exist in K-dramas, or at least they didn’t until recently. Nam-Soon and Heung-Soo can cry over each other, can hold each other, can be wrecked by one another precisely because their heterosexuality, and thereby their normativity, is never in question. Yet, when real homosexual characters take the stage, that intimacy falls under greater scrutiny and begins to slip from view. Am I to learn from K-dramas that the cost of male intimacy is always the closet?
This equation, on both sides of the Pacific, fails us all. The stumbling block isn’t so much about the global culture getting over or getting used to the reality of homosexuality (though that would no doubt help). Rather, it’s a matter of expanding and valorizing relationships of care beyond the sexual and the filial. Rather than contain our emotional selves within the confines of a sexual relationship or a family relationship, K-dramas show me the possibility of distributing that freight over a broader range of attachments. That I can be vulnerable, that I can be proud, that I can be raw and unreserved before men to whom I have no codified social obligation or sexual interest — and vice versa — is an exceptional gift in this life. That possibility seems especially important to foster at a time when life feels more precarious than in previous decades, when economic stratification and the velocity of technological change are shaping a world that demands more adaptable resources for self-care, security, and flourishing.
Foucault closed his interview in Gai Pied by suggesting that the troubling tendency of any “program of proposals” for developing the “polymorphic, varied and individually modulated relationships” he sees nascent in a homosexual way of life is that its programmatic nature will prohibit innovation. “We must make the intelligible appear against a background of emptiness and deny its necessity,” he concludes. “We must think that what exists is far from filling all possible spaces.” This is the unfinished work that queer theorists continue to explore today, work that is impossible without homosexual presence but that also looks beyond it. Between Korea and the United States, between the K-drama and the buddy movie, perhaps there is enough distance for new and adaptive intimacies to shape a world in which we might love without restraint. Perhaps that is the world Nam-Soon dreams of as Heung-Soo wonders aloud why his friend always wants to sleep over, why he has no other place to go, and why there’s no place he’d rather be. “Loyalty, man,” Nam-Soon’s voiceover answers. “That’s what is called loyalty.”
Eric Newman is a doctoral student at UCLA’s English department, where he works on the intersection of race, sexuality, and literary form in 20th-century American culture.