Classes have just ended, it’s raining outside, and a girl finds that she doesn’t have a ride home. A boy with an umbrella offers to walk her home. She has a crush on him but he never seems to return the interest. This is her chance.
“Not that I like you or anything,” he says cooly, deflecting any hope that he’s doing it because he likes her. Behold: a tsundere.
The Japanese character trope — or attitude trait, depending on who you’re talking to — is familiar to any seasoned anime fan or film trope geek. Its direct translation is a combination of two terms used to describe attitudes: tsun tsun, which refers to someone with an aloof or indifferent personality and deredere, which means lovestruck.
Marrying the two, you get a tsundere: a character who seems stuck up and uninterested in the beginning, but eventually warms up and shows his (or her) true feelings over time. Usually a girl, but it’s recently been applied to boys as well.
The concept of the cold, brooding love interest isn’t limited to Asian characters. Take away the label, and it’s actually a universal trope that you’ve probably encountered in any kind of work of fiction. Ever come across a cold, stuck-up, occasionally borderline abusive romantic lead opposite the protagonist (like, say, Mr. Darcy *cough cough*) in a book or film?
Though originating from Japan, lately I’ve also been seeing it applied to other cultures, most notably through stan culture. They use it to describe K-Pop idols and celebrities; it’s even been parodied on SNL Korea.
The question here is: why do we, for all our progressive views on shattering standard dating norms, still get kilig over this? Imagine the tsundere in real life: you like a guy. The guy either a) shows zero interest, b) constantly teases you, or c) repeatedly ignores your messages. IRL, that’s basically a sign that He’s Just Not That Into You.
Looking at the technical side of things, the trope does have its good and bad sides. According to Gilbert Que, Media Studies professor at the Ateneo de Manila Communication Department, it’s a good way to add depth to what could be a typical romantic lead. Having an imperfect character develop over the course of a story can also be a tool to highlight his or her problematic traits, giving truth to the saying not to judge a book by its cover. On the other hand, it can go the other way, and cultivate an unhealthy outlook where you think a person likes you because he or she exhibits that cold behaviour.
Recently, a couple of my friends and I had a heated discussion on the dangers of this kind of character after we watched the Chinese drama A Love So Beautiful. The drama follows a group of high schoolers as they come of age. It stars Chen Xiao Xi, a typical lovesick high school student who has a crush on Jiang Chen, her next-door-neighbor and uber smart classmate who remains indifferent to Xiao Xi despite her persistent declarations of love.
A Love So Beautiful checks off all my requirements for a fun, light drama: the theme song is catchy, the supporting cast has personality, and earlier scenes gave off the right amount of kilig. Over time, however, the romance grew stale, and I found myself in a mini crisis. At one point, I hated Jiang Chen but couldn’t point out why. Was it because he kept his cold front despite knowing how Xiao Xi felt about him? Because he only started taking action when another guy expressed interest in her? That “I don’t care about you” attitude was getting old, and Xiao Xi was bordering on annoying.
My friends had other views. Jiang Chen had his reasons, they said. He had his own issues, and he made up for it in the end with his (SPOILER ALERT) drunken confession. And that is how A Love So Beautiful destroyed our friendship. Just kidding.
In the end, we agreed to disagree. One friend, a psych graduate, pointed out what was bothering us, saying that it could be the dissonance that we experience when watching these cold-to-warm stories unfold. Because of the confidence we carry as Strong Independent Women, we end up annoyed that all it takes is a ‘lil character development for us to let our guards down.
There have been attempts to explain the audience’s fascination with this kind of behavior through science and culture. We’ve got the gain-loss principle from psychology professor Gerald Clore’s experiment, which involves baseline expectations, with a person feeling more attracted if there’s a “gain”, such as receiving a compliment from someone who is initially cold.
Que also points to the influence of celebrity stan culture, wherein a person, who identifies strongly with a fictional character, might adapt her standards to fit the character’s, hence the attraction to the tsundere (who we often see in popular media) .
With all this, the bottom line is that it’s okay to get kilig, but remember that character development is there for a reason. Let the tsundere exist in fiction, but if you truly care about yourself, don’t go out looking for one. Not that they’ll ever really like you, or anything.