I have a confession to make: I love a good gender-bender Korean drama! In case you are not very familiar with this genre, a gender-bender drama involves (most of the time) a woman disguising herself as a man.
Whether it is set in a historical period or in modern times, the reason behind the decision of the female character to disguise herself as a man varies greatly: hide her identity, get access to an all-male part of society or simply because her identity was mistaken and the events set in motion make it difficult for her to go back. Here is a short list with some of the most enjoyable gender-bender Korean Dramas.
1. Coffee Prince
Coffee Prince is a classic gender-bender romantic drama. Go Eun-Chan plays very well the role of a woman who is the breadwinner of her family. She gives little importance to her appearance to the point that often she is mistaken for a boy. In a dire financial situation, Eun-Chan decides to take advantage of her androgynous appearance. She applies to become a bartender at a Coffee Shop that would only hire males. Here she meets Choi Han-Kyul, the new owner of the Shop who is pressured by his family to get married as soon as possible. He does not feel ready to get married and is determined to make his grandmother give up on the idea. Thus, he hires Eun-Chan to pretend to be his gay boyfriend.
The initial comedic and lighthearted situation transforms into a heartbreaking nightmare for Han Kyul who is realizing he is slowly falling in love with Eun-Chan. On the other hand, Eun-Chan comes to realize too late the gravity of the situation she put him through. She feels responsible and fears he might feel deeply betrayed, should he come to know she knowingly mislead him to believe he fell in love with a man.
2. Empress Ki
This drama is based on real historical events and is one of my absolute favorite Korean historical dramas. It depicts the story of a Goryeo woman who becomes the empress of the Yuan Empire. Ki Seung-Nyang is a descendant of a family belonging to the Goryeo military aristocracy, under the rule of Yuan Dynasty. She is captured as a child together with her family and is sent to Yuan as a tribute slave. After a failed escape attempt, her family dies while saving her. She goes back to Goryeo dressed as a boy and enters the service of a wealthy businessman with the intent to find the culprits behind her family demise.
As a proud daughter of a warrior, she grows up to be the most famous fighter in the country. She is very intelligent and cunning and is skilled in both sword and archery. But everyone takes her for a man (granted, a very graceful man). Through a series of events, she comes to befriend the king of Goryeo (vassal of Yuan) and the Yuan Crown Prince. The latter seeks refuge in Goryeo, fearing for his life. The Yuan imperial family is nothing more than a puppet in the hands of one of the aristocrats.
The Yuan heir to the throne survives several assassination attempts with Seung-Nyang’s help. Betrayed by everyone and alone in the whole world, he becomes emotionally and psychologically dependent on Seung-Nyang and develops a strong bond with her. Later into the series he is able to return to Yuan as the new puppet emperor, while Seung-Nyang is captured and sent as a slave to the imperial court. Through complicated and intelligent political games, she will try to take the power and become the defacto ruler of the whole Empire.
3. Sungkyunkwan Scandal
This series is one of the most entertaining historical romantic comedies. After the death of her father, Kim Yoon-Hee takes on the identity of her older brother (who is ill) in order to get employed at a book store. She is almost caught in the illegal activity of exam-substitute at the Sunkyunkwan University, thus she pretends to take the exam for herself. She gets admitted into the University under her brother’s name.This sets in motion a series of events that will warm your heart and make you giggle and root for her. Keeping her identity hidden in an all-male environment is not an easy task, especially when they share the same living quarters, tend to train, study or even bathe together.
One of the reasons this drama is so famous is because all four main actors (who were at the beginning of their career at the time) became a powerhouse in the Korean entertainment industry not long after this drama. They got leading roles in some of the most successful dramas to date: Healer, Descendants of the Sun, Chicago Typewriter, Rooftop Prince etc.
4. The Tale of Nokdu
The Tale of Nodku is a gender bender that puts a twist on the genre: Jeon Nok Du is a young swordsman who lives a simple life on an island with his father and his older brother. One day, their house is surrounded by numerous masked female assassins. After fending off the attack, Nok Du follows one of the assassins that took refuge in a widows village where only women are allowed in.
In order to find more information on the person who ordered the attack on his family, he disguises himself into a widow from a noble family and enters the village. Here he meets Dong Ju who is training in secret to become an assassin and kill the king in revenge for her family’s demise.
The Tale of Nokdu is a great gender bender comedy. The most entertaining scenes are the result of the incredible performance of the main actor as a noble lady.
I wholeheartedly recommend this drama.
5. Moonlight Drawn by Clouds
This drama is yet another historical romantic comedy. Hong Ra-On’s father (a high state official) was wrongfully accused and executed as a traitor. In order to hide from their enemies, her mother raises her as a boy under a fake identity. Ra-On leads a bright and carefree life; she earns a living by helping noble young men write love letters to their maidens. Caught in a feud, Ra-On receives the punishment of becoming a eunuch. She is sent to work in the palace, where she becomes the Crown Prince’s personal assistant.
The two have met before while the prince was travelling in disguise as a palace guard and he came to hold a grudge against Ra-On who treated him poorly. Humor ensues as the two interact. One day, during an important banquet, the main dancer went missing and Ra-On puts on her clothes and completes the celebratory dance in her place. The prince is mesmerized by her grace and sets on a quest to find the mysterious woman, not knowing she has been by his side all along. But dark events lurk in the shadow as Ra-On comes to learn about the fate of her late father and the true identity of her family.
6. Splash, Splash Love
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This drama has the same central theme as the Moonlight Drawn by Clouds: the relationship between a monarch and a girl posing as a eunuch. The reason behind it is the novel that both dramas draw inspiration from. However, despite having the same theme, the two are very different. Splash, Splash Love is a lot shorter (two episodes of 60 minutes each) and takes more of a comedic approach to the topic.
Jang Dan-Bi is a senior high school student who is dreading the thought of having to take the final exam. She wishes she could escape reality and run away from her responsibilities. While she is mimicking the children’s play of making a wish while jumping in a puddle of rain water, she is transported back in time in the 15th century. Here, her high school level of knowledge makes her feel like a genius. Mistaken for a eunuch, she enters the royal court where she befriends king Sejong the Great, with whom she develops a beautiful and quirky relationship. Splash is a very lighthearted and entertaining romantic comedy. I highly recommend it.
This is only a short list, but the gender-bender genre is quite generous; there are tens of series that explore this topic. Here are some honorable mentions: Secret Garden, Chicago Typewriter, Gu Family Book, Goddess of Fire, Scholar Who Walks at Night, Queen Seon-Duk, You Are Beautiful.
Important Note: you might notice that sometimes I rank differently a certain drama in different top lists. That is because when I rank a drama according to its genre I do not rank it based on its overall value but solely on specific characteristics; in this case: how convincingly the female character played her male role and how engaging was the dynamic of the relationships portrayed. For example, Coffee Prince is rank 1st on this list, while Empress Ki is ranked second. Nevertheless, I consider Empress Ki overall a far better drama than Coffee Prince. The reason behind the different ranking is related to the fact that Coffee Prince represents the gender bender genre better than the rest of the dramas on the list.