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“Love to Hate You,” a new K-drama streaming on Netflix, opens by showing the main character in various stages of likeability: One moment, she beats up a mugger with some impressive martial arts moves, and the next, we see her cheating on her boyfriend. “Men do it all the time,” she quips by way of excuse, leaving the audience unsure whether to laugh or raise an eyebrow. The rest of the show similarly falls short. Though it attempts to open a meaningful conversation about misogyny, its execution plants it firmly in simple feel-good rom-com territory.
The show follows the love story between Mi-ran (Kim Ok-bin), a young lawyer with a hidden talent for martial arts, and Kang-ho (Teo Yoo), an A-list actor with a false reputation for kindness. The grounds of their enmity — the highly anticipated enemies to lovers plot — are initially flimsy and implausible, beginning with offhand comments and instigated actions from the arrogant actor followed by immature retaliations by Mi-ran. However, Kang-ho’s behavior proves to be genuinely problematic as he makes degrading comments about women in the workforce, and the show’s treatment of Kang-ho’s conduct is even worse. “Women are busy flirting and [just] slack off on work,” Kang-ho spits derisively while enjoying drinks in a ritzy high-rise. He repeatedly assumes that women only enter spaces in order to woo a rich man, and only gains respect for Mi-Ran once she shows that she’s not like other girls (think Y/N Wattpad fanfiction). “I’ve never met a woman like that,” Kang-Ho muses thoughtfully after Mi-ran becomes his martial arts teacher, as if she finally met some threshold of interest to become worthy of his attention. It is never condemned that Kang-ho’s attraction is conditional upon Mi-ran proving herself special and different, through her unconventional hobbies and can-do demeanor. In this way, instead of uplifting women or challenging this patriarchal perspective, the show falls back on traditional tropes.
To make matters worse, in attempting to subvert the typical fairy tale love story that befalls so many K-Dramas, “Love to Hate You” ends up providing a cop-out answer to this problem of casual and flippant sexism. Through ridiculous, improbable excuses, the show attempts to absolve Kang-ho of complete responsibility for his arrogant remarks, meaning his character is largely deprived of any meaningful growth. “Love to Hate You” attempts to humanize Kang-ho through his tragic backstory, but in the process, ends up partially blaming other women for Kang-ho’s misogyny, allowing him to progress through the rest of the series unchanged. “I fell for you because you weren't like other women,” Kang-ho echoes in episode nine, going on to explain how the women in his life have contributed to his biased outlook. In fact, in episode eight, titled “The Way You Change Me,” Kang-ho’s learning is limited to a single moment in which Mi-ran must take initiative and open the conversation about the damsel-in-distress stereotype, while he simply stands there dumbfounded. So much for change.
Despite this, the show is not overall unenjoyable. Though the premise and development of their fake-dating is shaky, their spontaneous romantic moments (and even Kang-ho’s dramatic public gestures) are admittedly sweet in their vulnerability. For example, after a long day at work, all the lawyers at Mi-ran’s new firm sprint gleefully out to the cars for a night on the town, like Harvard students fleeing the Science Center on a Friday afternoon. Another day at work, Mi-ran walks in on her coworkers vigorously practicing a K-pop dance in full business suits. It’s these mundane moments, unfettered by the show’s convoluted themes, that somewhat redeem “Love to Hate You.”
Furthermore, though the series gets off to a rocky start, its law-related subplots expose real disparities in Korea’s gender pay gap and workplace culture. After learning she is a diversity hire as the only female applicant, Mi-ran retreats to the restroom, spirits crushed and mourning her naivety at thinking she had fairly “bested all those men.” Moments of female solidarity, especially between Mi-ran and her older client fighting for a divorce against her cheating husband (Kim Sung-Ryung), act as welcome moments of respite from the rest of the show's questionable treatment of misogyny. Though the show moves on quickly from these subplots, it is an accurate and poignant portrayal of some of the challenges that Korean women in the workforce face.
Inevitably, the headstrong Mi-ran, who swears off all men in the first episode after a string of disheartening experiences, comes to regret her words. The show does allow Kang-ho to become educated as he is partially “cured” of his casual misogyny by his love for Mi-ran — however, this is a very shallow exploration of the real, pervasive sexism present in Mi-ran’s life. In this way, “Love to Hate You” misses the opportunity to provide nuance to the typical exceptionalist narrative. While it’s alright that a K-drama ends up being little more than a slightly convoluted enemies-to-lovers-meets-fake-dating rom-com, it had — and wasted — the potential to become so much more.
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