Go Ara says in Miss Hamurabi, “there are no bad or evil people, just bad or evil situations.” But what about this situation?
A crown prince orders the death of his own infant daughter because the royal family can’t have a son who’s shared a womb with a girl. Especially since that son will someday be the king. Maybe my modern sensibility is impairing my objectivity here but I can’t help but feel that such a decision is evil and the one making it is evil. No matter what compelling reasons they tell themselves they have.
Much later in the drama when the young princess, who escaped death and doesn’t know her own identity, comes back to the palace as a maid and happens to meet her father, she is impressed with how kind and well spoken the man is. And the entire time I’m thinking that this is a man who – when ordered by the king to have his child murdered for the crime of being a girl – gave in. Didn’t protest. Didn’t trot out any of these wise philosophical sayings. Or make a compelling argument. This man is all words and no action. He’s not impressive. He’s just a coward.
You can probably tell that I’ve become very emotionally invested in The King’s Affection. This Park Eun-bin and Rowoon drama hooked me before any of the protagonists grew up into their adulthood.
I think a big reason for my absorption is the way the story subverts my expectations of gender bender historical romances. So, in this essay, I want to talk about three subversions that struck me hard.
The first was that we got to meet and know the young prince YI-HWI. The one whose place his twin sister has to take up later. He’s such a clever, sweet, and kind boy that when the inevitable moment of his death comes, I’m left… kinda devastated. It’s a credit to the show that they managed to flesh him out so much in just one episode. I felt like I knew what kind of King he might have been if he had a chance to grow up.
Which was surprising, because it would have been so easy to show the audience that his sister taking his place was a good thing. That she was a better choice.
It’s what a lot of stories that champion the competence of women have done. Instead of treating women as humans who’re as fallible and as brillant as men, we’ve had way too many stories where a smart woman overthrows an incompetent man and happily ever after is had by all.
The King’s Affection chooses nuance and therefore tells a much more complicated and much more interesting story.
The second unexpected thing was the CROWN PRINCESS. The mother of the twins. She was aware that it was the machinations of her own father that resulted in the death of one of her children, so she squarely placed the blame where it should reside and focused on protecting everyone she could.
She’s clever, she clearly inspires loyalty, and she can think of the good of people around her without sacrificing anyone. If she had the power her husband did, and was ordered by the king to murder her child, she wouldnt have quietly given in. She would have fought and she did fight. As much as she could.
Reading the synopsis of the drama before it aired made me think that the prince dies of natural causes and a power hungry queen replaces him with his sister to save her own position. Which is the kind of plot I’ve definitely seen in historicals before. But instead it’s amazing how the drama shows the helplessness of someone stuck in the middle of a belief system that justifies infanticide, when all she wants is to protect the babies she brought into the world.
The final unexpected turn was the positioning of the gender bent heroine.
The drama has been subverting my expectations of what a historical gender bender romance can be like from the word go.
Usually the girl is disadvantaged and either trying to get an education or escape a situation by pretending to be a man. And then she meets someone powerful who falls for her without knowing that she’s a girl. Shenanigans ensue.
Instead you have a princess pretending to be her brother and growing up in a toxic environment where she constantly has to prove herself more ruthless and clever than her male cousins and uncles to keep her position in the hierarchy and herself above suspicion.
I think I expected Park Eun-bin’s king to show outward displays of kindness pretty early cause again that’s what gender bender romances do.
The girl shows the men around her how to be more sensitive and generous.
Instead this woman hunts stags and snakes, and bullies her eunuch. And Park Eunbin sells it. I can see her being a very hard-to-please prince.
Which of course makes me very eager to see her interact with Rowoon’s sensitive scholar in next week’s episodes.
Should be fun.
IN CONCLUSION, I am really enjoying the drama. This is how I like my fusion sageuks. High stakes, quietly subverting my expectations and face masks in the Joseon era. Seems legit.