There are few things that dramas do better than aesthetically pleasing, harmlessly fluffy, sweetly digestible romance. At first glance, She Would Never Know (known as Sunbae, Don’t Put on that Lipstick in Korean), seems to fit that bill to a tee. Set in the sparkling world of corporate cosmetics, the show centers on a straightforwardly angsty romance between sunbae Yoon Song-ah (Won Jin-ah) and hoobae Chae Hyun-seung (SF9’s Rowoon). This main couple is surrounded by a collection of goofy coworkers and endearing family members, creating an occasionally melodramatic but generally comfortably light-hearted atmosphere.
Take a closer look at She Would Never Know, though, and you’ll find that despite its bubblegum outer shell, the show is actually dominated by an array of blatantly problematic relationships. That isn’t entirely a criticism. Particularly when it comes to its side plots, She Would Never Know handles its more intense narrative arcs with surprising delicacy and maturity. When the show is at its best, She Would Never Know finds a great sweet spot between light comedy, entertaining melodrama, and thought-provoking relationship examination.
Unfortunately, She Would Never Know doesn’t reach this balance with its primary romance. While so many of the dynamics between different characters in the show are presented with healthy self-awareness, She Would Never Know completely fails to recognize or critique the dysfunction that constantly exists between Song-ah and Hyun-seung. Because this central couple dominates so much of the drama, the unaddressed toxicity of their relationship poisons and kills the overall impact of She Would Never Know.
She Would Never Know spends almost all of its run hammering home the idea that Hyun-seung is the ultimate dreamboat. He certainly comes with the physical trappings of an exemplary drama hero. He’s conspicuously wealthy, rather tall, and wears a lot of luxurious knitwear. Hyun-seung also begins the show as the romantic pursuer, which in a drama that has the clear end goal of a happy main couple, automatically makes him a sort of audience surrogate. He is a handsome, rich man working proactively to create the picture-perfect romance we all want to see. What’s not to love?
Unfortunately, there are these things called boundaries, and Hyun-seung has a bad habit of violating them. His pursuit of Song-ah, his superior at work, may come from a place of genuine affection, but it is executed with blatant disrespect for her intelligence and independence as a person. She Would Never Know tries to excuse his interfering ways by having him and Song-ah connect during a time of personal crisis for her, when she is in a position of vulnerability and needs emotional support. If anything though, this context makes his interfering and patronizing behavior more reprehensible.
What makes Hyun-seung’s questionable actions so much worse is that She Would Never Know frequently frames them as romantic. The show glorifies his obsessiveness, his over-protectiveness, and his arrogance.
Note: The rest of this review contains spoilers for this drama.
The events of the premiere episode memorably demonstrate Hyun-seung’s toxicity and the drama’s complicity in it. Hyung-seung spends most of the first episode grappling with his one-sided crush on Song-ah. He tries to make a move several times, but is firmly rebuffed by Song-ah who wants to keep their relationship professional. He later learns that besides her lack of interest, Song-ah is also very tangibly unavailable, as she is engaged in a secret office romance with Lee Jae-shin (Lee Hyun-wook). Conveniently, Jae-shin turns out to be a cheating liar, but that is no excuse for Hyun-seung’s creepy behavior. He spies on Song-ah and Jae-shin during private interactions, and makes unsolicited and inappropriate personal comments to Song-ah.
In short, Hyun-seung won’t take no for an answer. He also believes that just because he has romantic feelings for Song-ah, that gives him the right to interfere in her life. These are clear red flags, but the drama doesn’t condemn Hyun-seung’s behavior, instead casting a sympathetic gaze upon him. According to She Would Never Know, he is just a sweet boy in love.
Hyun-seung’s poor choices culminate in the opening episode’s final scene. Hyun-seung confronts Song-ah about her relationship with Jae-shin, throwing thinly veiled threats at her about exposing their romance to the whole office. Then, apparently overtaken by his emotions, Hyun-seung reaches down and, without either asking or receiving Song-ah’s permission, physically removes lipstick from Song-ah’s lips with his thumb. This action is a violation of physical boundaries and overall consent. It also raises issues of workplace harassment, given that it happens in their office. And yet, She Would Never Know presents this moment as a romantic one which supposedly demonstrates Hyun-seung’s devotion to Song-ah. She Would Never Know goes so far as to repeatedly flashback to this scene as an example of their love, proving just how oblivious the drama is to the harmful ideas it is perpetrating.
During the middle chunk of episodes, She Would Never Know does feature less dysfunction in Hyun-seung and Song-ah’s dynamic, largely because at this point the relationship has become fully reciprocal. In the drama’s final arc though, the couple swing back into concerning territory. The narrative effectively pits Song-ah’s career against their relationship, and then has the gall to paint Song-ah as the villain for wanting to further her professional ambitions rather than sacrifice everything for love.
The conclusion of Song-ah and Hyun-seung’s story sees her begging for a second chance with him and apologizing for not putting their relationship first. He takes her back, and she’s apparently super grateful for that. Unpacking the egregious gender inequality, harmful romantic ideas, and disturbing psychological connotations of this relationship resolution would take all day, but suffice it to say, it’s bad. She Would Never Know has a lot to answer for as a show that is glorifying this behavior.
It is worth noting that throughout the whole drama, the chemistry between Won Jin-ah and Rowoon, and the likability of their individual performances, is stellar. The wonderful romantic comedy potential of these two performers makes the ultimate toxicity of their characters’ relationship even more unfortunate. It could have been so much better.
Another indication of the lost potential of She Would Never Know is its strong subplots. Side stories are often the bane of drama viewers’ existence, dragging on and sucking up time that would be better spent developing central plots. In the case of this show though, the subplots are the best part, the place where She Would Never Know actually pulls apart and intelligently addresses the poor relationship dynamics its story rides on.
One standout side story is that of Song-ah and her mother Oh Wol-soon (Lee Ji-hyun). From the start, it is clear that there are serious tensions between mother and daughter. Wol-soon is a fascinating character, a girlish woman who sidesteps all responsibilities and specializes in a soft yet devastating form of emotional manipulation. This places serious burdens upon her daughter, who consequently resents and harshly treats Wol-soon.
What works so nicely about their arc is that no one is painted as a complete hero or a total villain. The reasons for both Song-ah and Wol-soon’s behavior, however unfortunate, are perfectly understandable. Both are wounded people whose individual traumas interact with each other to make a perfect storm of family dysfunction. When Song-ah and Wol-soon eventually come together by speaking honestly and embracing accountability for the hurt that has been caused, their reconciliation feels earned and is realistically imperfect. Song-ah and Wol-soon’s journey is a well-rounded and satisfying examination of parent-child issues.
Even more impressively, She Would Never Know contains a sensitive and impactful queer storyline. Hyun-seung’s sister Chae Yeon-seung (Ha Yoon-kyung) starts the show in a seemingly perfect domestic situation, married to successful doctor Kang Woo-hyun (Lee Dong-ha) with whom she has an adorable daughter named Ha-eun (Park So-yi). Over the course of the show though, Yeon-seung starts to find cracks in her marriage and eventually discovers that her husband is gay, although he is in deep denial and self-loathing about his sexuality.
Again, She Would Never Know gives all its characters a fair shake. Woo-hyun and his former flame Ryu Han-seo (Choi Jung-won) are both depicted with complete compassion. Meanwhile, the difficulties Yeon-seung and Ha-eun suffer because of Woo-hyun’s deception are neither minimized nor over-inflated.
Additionally, She Would Never Know uses the story of this family unit to send a strong message of support for queerness. The most moving scene of the entire show is when Yeon-seung and Woo-hyun meet to discuss a divorce, and Yeon-seung delivers a heartfelt monologue in which she encourages Woo-hyun to open up his heart to himself and give himself the chance to fully live and love. It’s a beautiful moment of emotional generosity and catharsis. Of course, it would be nice if Woo-hyun had more agency and screen time as an individual character, but to see a queer storyline so relatively well-executed and well-integrated into a mainstream drama is already remarkable.
Other subplots in She Would Never Know also shine, including the sole fully functional couple in the show, the delightfully silly Lee Jae-woon (Lee Gyu-han) and Chae Ji-seung (Wang Bit-na). The show also manages a successful narrative correction on the initially queasy dynamic between secondary couple Jae-shin and Lee Hyo-joo (Lee Joo-bin).
The heavy relationship storylines of She Would Never Know sometimes clash with the drama’s bubblegum aesthetics and overall romantic comedy mood, but this contrast is also somewhat enthralling. If the same thoughtfulness had been applied to main couple Song-ah and Hyun-seung as is shown in the rest of the drama’s relationships, She Would Never Know could have been a slightly chaotic yet enjoyable light-hearted soap opera treat.
Alas, the disaster of Song-ah and Hyun-seung’s relationship overshadows nearly all of She Would Never Know’s good work. Despite its real potential, She Would Never Know is ultimately just one more romantic show that preaches love lessons that nobody should be learning.
(YouTube. Images via JTBC, iQIYI)