Saranghae, Soldier: The Military Man in K-drama
The romance genre is the most popular genre in female-oriented media, easily outselling sci-fi and fantasy. The “military romance” is one of its largest subgenres, mainly because it plays heavily into the “alpha hero” fantasy—that of a hero who is attracted to an equally competent heroine.
In today’s world where war is an ever-present threat (and a reality for some), the fictional world responds by producing a desirable kind of hardened hero who seeks an equally strong woman, and together they move to create a more peaceful world.
Fully-fleshed out military stories are still quite uncommon in k-drama, but when they are portrayed, they often come in the shape of the gallant and brave soldier as the protagonist. 2016’s Descendants of the Sun brought back the heroic soldier in a big way, transforming the baby-faced Song Joong-ki into the memorable Captain Yoo. Then came the stoic and handsome Captain Ri in 2019’s Crash Landing on You, who despite playing for the North Korean side, became the immediate object of everyone’s rescue fantasies.
But realistic military life, with all its challenges and abuses, were kept away from k-drama until Netflix bravely produced D.P. (Deserter Pursuit) in 2021. D.P. was the six-part series that put the military experience front and center and rejected any romance subplots. Instead, it focused squarely on the abuse and brutalities that soldiers often suffer while fulfilling their mandatory military duty.
The legal drama Military Prosecutor Doberman is the latest to join the short list of military-centered shows. In it, Ahn Bo-hyun plays the titular prosecutor who hunts down those responsible for inflicting abuses on soldiers. His partnership (and low-key romance) with fellow prosecutor Cha Woo-in (Jo Bo-ah) ultimately exposes the deep-rooted network of military corruption and abuse. Interestingly, the drama placed Ahn’s character in the space between that of military critique and military romance, and even combined comedy, revenge fantasy, and action in one show.
But in a world plagued by news of real and impending war, why is the military romance more popular than ever?
First, let's not ignore the obvious: audiences are usually attracted to military men because they are very, very FIT. Actors of legitimate oppa status are usually cast as military leads, but the physicality of the role demands that they be more than just a pretty face. To play soldiers, these actors must be fit enough to make us believe they can out-run anyone, take drunkards out in a bar fight, survive torture, assemble a gun, and look really, really hot while doing all of it. But his physicality never becomes an issue in a romance show because you know they'll never hurt the heroine. As drama heroes who must remain "loveable" by their audiences, you are assured that they will also never direct their violence to their women (or to their children), but only toward the enemy and whoever threatens their loved ones.
K-drama does not also shy away from displaying their soldier’s rock-hard abs and hardened biceps for the gaze of its mostly female audience: watch as Ahn Bo-hyun swaggers half-naked from a shower or Song Joong-ki doing pullups while shirtless. The gods of k-drama know this eternal truth: A soldier’s healthy physique fuels the fantasy of the man who can do almost anything for you.
This is not just merely superficial fawning: after all, ranked soldiers usually are quite smart and have the cunning that they can use to protect you. And if the character is from some elite group (like DOTS' Captain Yoo), you can bet that they're competitive and intelligent, which means won't become slackers or lazy bums any time soon. Since military work also trains them to keep secrets, you know your worst secrets are safe with this man, and he won't judge you for them.
It is quite the heady female fantasy: falling for the officer who is also a gentleman. And if he's a k-drama lead, then this officer and gentleman is also a cook who keeps a neat house, takes care of you when you're drunk, fights creeps off singlehandedly, and even presents himself well to your parents. But that's only half of the appeal.
A Military Man for the Modern Woman
Having a soldier as a love interest is part of a larger fantasy—it's a modern yin and yang made up of masculine vulnerability and feminine agency. In a military romance, the hero recognizes his own vulnerability and takes steps toward healing his own wounds while also being vulnerable enough to accept the love and support offered by the heroine. In a way, it reinforces very familiar gender roles, but at the same time, also plays to the feminist belief that truly strong men accept help from their intimate partners. It also holds supreme the adage that love is necessary for a man to find his way back into humanity.
Predictably, military romances often include scenes where the injured hero is both healed (and tamed) by the heroine. Allowing a woman in to see his weakness underneath the battle-hardened exterior is pretty much the standard romance fare, and makes for incredible chemistry. And since the soldier in fiction is represented as a man who is both dangerous and sentimental, the chemistry that flares between him and a headstrong woman rarely stays chaste for so long.
Soldiers often make memorable protagonists because they are considered as exemplars of masculine traits. Duncanson writes that military dramas showcase a version of masculinity that is “tough-but-tender—intelligent, sophisticated, humane and compassionate, discriminating in the use of force, but convincing as warriors when required.” He writes that soldiers, with their specialized skill sets, are particularly good exemplars of the "Protector Alpha hero" that appeals to the modern woman who has her own income and position of power. Ironically, despite occasional rescue scenes, the heroine in a military romance is far from being a helpless damsel in distress. In the larger scheme of things, she is allows herself to fall for a soldier because she has finally met an equal who is as competent and as tough as she is.
Having a soldier as a love interest is also a welcome change from falling for the usual rich chaebol executive. Most military characters in k-drama often come from average households and are written as ordinary soldiers with no largesse of wealth at their disposal (except for Captain Ri of CLOY, who had certain privileges from a military lineage, but is still no millionaire). The interesting combination of a soldier with an adequate income who meets a woman who makes more than he does goes against the usual rich-boy-and-poor-girl dynamic, and adds to the appeal of the military romance for many working women.
War of the Worlds
Romance researchers have long argued that military dramas are a useful tool for criticizing war and its effects without getting stuck in complicated discussions and politics. Kamble, a researcher who specializes in military romance, even goes as far as to argue that popular romance fiction with military heroes inherently criticizes war because it shows how the love between a soldier and his partner is equal to, and even more important than, his duty to his country.
In Crash Landing on You, we question why the 37th parallel must get in the way of love. In Descendants of the Sun, the romance between an army captain who takes lives and a doctor who saves them presses the question of how far one can accept differences in a loved one. While military romances reinforce difficult but ultimately unproblematic notions of military life, other military dramas such as D.P. and Military Prosecutor Doberman opt to directly critique military life itself, even going as far as questioning its own shady practices and the corruption of its people. A military romance or drama is in a way, a good use of an artistic medium to criticize the horrors of war without being too heavy-handed or off-putting.
Kitchen, another romance researcher, theorizes that the focus on military men having relationships is the audience's way of shutting out larger and more complicated discussions of conflict and global politics. Once the central romantic or investigative plot of the drama is resolved, all the other darker aspects, including the looming threat of war, simply fades away into the background.
Military dramas may depict the world in an unflattering light, yet the military romance drama is more popular than ever. Why? Because it gives us competent heroes and strong heroines that remind us that in the end, only love and life are worth fighting for. And really, what could be more romantic than that?
Duncanson, C. (2013). Forces for good?: Military masculinities and peacebuilding in Afghanistan and Iraq. Springer.
Kamble, J. (2012). Patriotism, passion, and PTSD: The critique of war in popular romance fiction. New approaches to popular romance fiction: Critical essays, 153-63.
Kitchen, V. (2018). Veterans and military masculinity in popular romance fiction. Critical Military Studies, 4(1), 34-51.
Wendell, S., & Tan, C. (2009). Beyond heaving bosoms: the smart bitches' guide to romance novels (p. 304). New York: Simon & Schuster.
Wool, Z.H. (2015). After war: The weight of life at Walter Reed. Kindle File. Durham: Duke Univ Pr.
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