Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Is Age Just a Number? Kdramas and Noona Romances


I've been going through phases with King of High School. Sometimes, the age difference doesn't really bother me. Other times, it's harder for me to see past it. Based on the debates that have been raging on Dramabeans and elsewhere, it looks like I'm not the only one who's a little conflicted. On nearly every episode, you have some people saying that it's icky for them, and then you have other people telling them to shut up about age already and just enjoy the show.

The debate over noona romances definitely aren't confined to this drama. Witch's Romance and I Need Romance 3 are two of the other dramas I've watched just this year that feature an age gap between the female lead and the male lead. Since it looks like older female leads are here to stay, let's take a look at what makes noona romances really work:


Benefits of an older female lead

At their best, noona romances allow writers to give female characters some power in the relationship. Given the emphasis on seniority in Korean culture, having a woman who is older than the man offers a balance to the control that rude chaebol-type leads tend to have. Noona leads have established lives. They have careers. They know who they are as people. Oftentimes, they aren't total novices at romance, which means that they also have a sex drive of their own (not that they're just hopping into bed with any random man, but it means that they reciprocate kisses instead of staring blankly ahead). All of these things are beneficial not only to having well-rounded relationships, but also to having well-rounded characters in general.

At their worst, noona romances ignore these possibilities and make their female leads extra infantile to make sure that the guy still gets to be the boss of everything. When noona romances go wrong, they go very, very wrong. It's like adding insult to injury if the writers have an easy option for writing a competent female character and then immediately let it go to waste. 



The case in point would be I Need Romance 3, where the female lead was headstrong and great at her job--but had the emotional development of a turnip. Sung Joon's character was a gentle second male lead type, and yet he still spent the majority of the show telling his lady love how she did and should feel. 

How old is too old?

Sure, noona romances can be great, but that still doesn't answer the question of whether there's some kind of limit on love. It's nice to say that age is just a number, but I don't really have much interest in watching a show where an 18-year-old guy is macking on an 87-year-old woman. (Or DO I? I'm imagining the old lady from Titanic with the curly-haired guy in One Direction, and it's slightly fantastic.)
A love so strong that not even arthritis could keep them apart...

What I've noticed in discussions about age gaps is that people tend to break down their views in three different ways:

1. Literal age difference

For some people, what matters most is the actual age difference between the leads. I don't know how they draw the cutoff, but at some point, there are too many years between the characters, and that's when it starts to feel uncomfortable. Is it that old rule of being allowed to date someone half your age plus seven years? I don't know. It seems to vary person to person, but usually if you're in the age camp, the ten years between the leads in King of High School is less offensive than, say, the fourteen years in Witch's Romance.



A quick note on gender bias

Before moving on, I want to pause for a second and mention gender bias. I'm a pretty big fan of gender equality, and that extends to noona romances. To me, the best test for whether or not an age gap is "creepy" is to think about whether or not it would feel uncomfortable if the genders were reversed. If it were an ahjussi romance instead of a noona romance, would it still be okay? If not, why is it okay if the woman is older?

I have heard the argument that in the traditional setup, men domineer women, so having an older man just makes that domineering worse, whereas having an older woman makes it more equal. A few paragraphs ago, I said something similar, but I think this argument only extends so far. I like having female characters who are old enough to feel confident in their own identities, but that's very different from using age to bully or dominate the other party. To assume that men can use an age gap to manipulate and domineer but that women can't is not only shortsighted, but also a little condescending.

Regardless of gender, there may be a point when an age gap creates a situation where one party has control, and that's where it becomes a problem for me.

2. A difference in life status

This is generally where I fall. I don't know that there's some magic number where you're too old for the other person, but I tend to feel a little iffy cheering for couples who are in completely different stages of life. For me personally, there's a pretty firm line drawn with high school students paired with established adults--especially if that adult is a teacher or other authority figure. The big objection is that high school students aren't adults (and yes, we can quibble about consent laws state to state, but that's not the point). 

King of High School is the perfect example here. Yes, Min Suk is mature for an 18-year-old (but we need to note that it's 18 in Korea, which means that he's only 17 by western counting), but he still has a full year of high school left. Soo Young, on the other hand, has been out of college for several years, which means that her life experiences are very different from his. Not only is she an established adult, but she acts as the primary mother figure for a girl Min Suk's age. That's why, when she comforts him at the end of episode 12, it was hard for me to see it in a non-maternal way. I could go on about brain development and stuff, but you get the point.



That's not to say that cases like this don't or can't work out. It's also not to say that I dislike this drama or the actors in it (because I love Seo In Guk in this role). It's just to say that it's more likely to make me, as a viewer, hesitate before being able to cheer them on wholeheartedly.

On the other hand, Witch's Romance boasts a larger age gap that bothered me much less. Both were consenting adults. Both had lived independent lives for several years. Both had previous dating experience that put them on equal footing. Both of them also knew about the age gap from day 1, so they entered the relationship with eyes wide open.

If we apply the gender-reversal rule here, it still applies. A 27-year-old man dating a 17-year-old girl would give me pause. A larger age gap between adults (like the one in Prime Minister and I) doesn't really bother me. Even though I haven't seen it, the 20-year age difference in Secret Love Affair was also fine by me for the same reason.

3. The actors' actual ages

Now this one's interesting to me, and I'm curious to hear what all of you think about it. Some people worry less about the ages of the characters and more about the literal age gap between the actors themselves. Seo In Guk is only five years younger than Lee Ha Na in real life. He's also 26 years old, not 17. 

To give a contrasting example, there has been some recent controversy over the casting in High School--Love On, where Nam Woo Hyun is 23 in real life, but his costar, Kim Sae Ron, is only 14. In the drama itself, both characters are supposed to be 18 (though she's an angel, so her technical age is probably older).

 

If the characters were 14 and 23, that would definitely be too much (even worse than 17 and 27, for the reasons stated above), but should actor ages be a factor? I can see why actor ages would impact our feelings about the onscreen couple, but I also feel like we should give the actors credit if they can play a convincing role. Seo In Guk has been incredible at capturing the mannerisms of an 17-year-old boy. Should viewers discount that effort because he's 26 in real life?

This isn't a perfect comparison, but in some ways, it reminds me of the complaints in romance movies when a gay actor plays a straight character or vice versa. If they're acting out a fictional story either way, why should their real life make a difference in how we view the characters?

Conclusions

Like I said at the beginning, I go back and forth in my feelings about King of High School, and I'm genuinely curious to hear how everyone else feels. Does age ever matter? Do you have a hard time watching certain dramas? Or do you wish everyone would shut up and let your favorite characters fall in love in peace?

30 comments:

  1. I haven't seen King of High School because it's weird for me to see a teenage boy having a love line with an adult (she's twenty-something right?) although I love Seo In Guk, but this drama is not on my watch list (for now).
    It's a different case with Witch's Romance, at first I was hesitant until I watch a scene when Uhm Jung Hwa drunk and they started to make out, I just thought, hey I don't see why the age gap matter here, so I started watching and enjoying every episodes, it's good love story and I love how they overcome the age gap, and the most important thing is they both are adults, 39 and 25 yo (on drama).
    But as much as I love dramas and the love story and the age gap, when it comes to the real life, if I were to have noona-dongsaeng relationship, I hope it's gonna be 2-5 years younger, that's my limit :D

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  2. It's a complicated situation to dissect. I'll just say what I said on
    dramabeans and leave it at that. There is no one size fits all solution. It's something that should be taken very seriously, regardless of the ages of the people involved. What is okay in one situation won't necessarily be okay in another.

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  3. I tried watching King of High School because I've loved everything Seo In Guk has been in so far, but watching the romance develop made me uneasy. I don't mind age gaps, either in drama characters or real life actor differences, so I definitely fall into the "difference in life status" category. There's such a major life experience difference between high school and the real adult world that I can't see how they could be on equal footing in a romantic relationship, even if he's mature and she's a bit socially stunted. I would feel the same way if the genders were reversed for exactly the same reasons, so it's not just in noona romances. Personally, I've never considered dating guys that are significantly younger than me, but I'm only 36, so anyone much younger than me would be high school or college age. I think the biggest gap I could handle would be 10 ten years, but that could all change if my Kpop or Kdrama bias decides they are looking for an older noona to take care of them. :)

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  4. I instantly thought of Flower Boy Ramen Shop as well because he's still in high school and she's older, but I didn't have a problem with that romance. I agree with you that it could be because she's not as much older also, she's just getting started on establishing an "adult" life, so the gap in life status doesn't seem as large. The female lead in King of High School has been out in the real world awhile and as mentioned in the article, has long been a parental figure for her sister, who is the same age as her love interest. And that makes me cringe.

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  5. You hit a good topic. I've been aware that some dramas make me uncomfortable because the actors and or writers aren't doing a good job of selling the story. I have been known to look up the actors' actual ages to compare to the story's character as some of the actors seem really too young for parts they are playing or too old. There is a lot to be said about onscreen chemistry that adds credence to the drama. So personally there is no one answer as it depends on each situation/story.

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  6. Thank you for your comment. It's the main reason I've been hesitating to watch this drama. As Vivi rightly pointed out a huge age gap between two consenting adults could be tolerated, but, as much as I love Seo In guk, he plays a HIGH SCHOOL character who falls in love with an adult 10 years his senior. When I read the premise of the drama, I felt uncomfortable immediately, why not make him a college major? That would have been more tolerable. A kid in high school is not old enough to make real world decisions let alone romantic decisions with someone who is already well established in life. I couldn't get over the "ick" factor of this drama.

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  7. Great topic and one I've debated in my head as well, precisely because of HSK. I'm an admitted lover of noona romances, and I'm pretty much on board with all of them, so I found it odd that I was having trouble accepting it in HSK. I would like to say my main issue is that he's still in high school, but that would be hypocritical because I've enjoyed too many like Biscuit Teacher, Ramyun Shop, High Kick and Big where the teacher/student dynamic should have bothered me but didn't. In this particular case I think it came down to the fact that she entered into the relationship under false assumptions and that her character would never had done so if she knew his true age and his connection to her sister. But otherwise do I think they belong together? Yes, but because the relationship was based on a lie, I'm having a harder time believing she can be okay with it so soon. In general though when it comes to age differences, you covered the main points that I take into account, but it all varies depending on the drama. It is easier to accept SIG and LHN in this drama because they're close in real age, whereas if you take her sister and Lee Soo Hyuk (which some people have suggested) it totally creeps me out because Lee Yeol Eum is actually 18 (and looks 15). I think the maturity level and life experiences plays the most important part for me and is why him still being in high school and fairly immature is a problem. At least with those previous dramas, the couples never got together until after the guy came of age, and in the case of I Hear Your Voice, his maturity and life experience helped bridge that gap. Witch's Romance was great because despite an even larger age gap, they were both mature adults. So in general, I don't have a problem with age differences if they are adults and if the drama handles the differences intelligently.

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  8. To me knowing the actor's real ages does affect how I view a drama relationship. In real life I would never approve of a grown woman, or man, dating a high school student, but it doesn't really bother me in KoHS because I know the actors are actually older. I would be more comfortable if Minseok was at least a year older, but it's not a deal breaker. The drama with the lead actress that is only 14 IRL does bother me though, especially since the male lead is in his 20's. Even though there the same age in the drama, the real life age gap is to squicky for me.

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  9. I actually watched Witch's Romance because Park Seo Joon is hot. I find the noona scenes really weird most especially if they kiss and damn they did kiss a lot. Most of them passionate.


    But noona stories always have a backlash and societal tendencies. People just wont accept it.


    In the Witch's Romance, she's 39, he's 25. SHE SHOULD GET MARRIED ALREADY while he is about to start his life.


    That's where complications come. I feel like I don't see a future in it.

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  10. Right?! But at the same time, I find myself forgetting that as I watch the drama because she seems so socially stunted. I often feel like SIG's character feels a lot older and more mature than she is because of his life experience. He's had to be tough and grow up a lot emotionally, whereas she seems like she hasn't really emotionally matured.

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  11. I didn't read a premise that told me he'd fall in love with an adult and in fact, for the first episodes, there's really no hint that's it's coming, especially because she has a crush on a different co-worker. So, when it started being clear we were headed in that direction, I started to pull back because I really couldn't root for that relationship to work out and knowing it probably would, I'd be disappointed in the end, so I stopped.

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  12. If I'm made aware of the actors' real ages, then I tend to agree about the ick factor when it comes to skinship, but I think show writers are careful about things that would be considered scandalous, so I doubt there will be any kissing between the 14 and 23 year old. Although I don't need a lot of sexy romantic scenes to get the point of a love story across, I sometimes wonder if a story/show suffers from those kind of restrictions, like actors not wanting to damage their public reputations or a big age gap that would cause trouble.

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  13. I love the point you made about cultural acceptance. If I remember my Jane Austen correctly, Emma and Knightley had a 16-year gap. It was a big deal to Knightley, but only because he saw her as a younger sister for so long. I don't think it was a big deal to the people around them.

    And yes, there has to be some sort of protective line. Am I the only one who has the Mary Kay Letourneau case floating around uncomfortably in the back of their minds when shows involve relationships between students and adults?

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  14. Yes! There are things that I like about Soo Young, but they have been stunting her emotionally, and that bothers me.

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  15. Wise words. What works on one show doesn't always work for another show (or in real life, for that matter).

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  16. For the first few episodes, I kept imagining that he was in college instead, but eventually that stopped working.

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  17. This is such a good point. The fact that she didn't know about the age gap makes a HUGE difference. I probably had the hardest time watching the episodes where they were together, but he was still lying to her.

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  18. That's the same complaint they made in the actual show! And in the end, it was interesting that SHE was the one who didn't want to get married yet.

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  19. As another commenter mentioned above, it will be interesting to see how the real age gap impacts the writing on High School--Love On. I'm sure they will be careful to avoid any scandals. On the other hand, that actress is really talented, and I wish they would pair her with someone closer to her age so that it wouldn't be an issue.

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  20. With Witch's Romance, that early scene was so important to establish that the age gap didn't impact their chemistry. It was a smart choice, I think.

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  21. You know, I did think of that case (and some others). It's that sort if idea that's bugging me. Then again, 16 is adult age in many countries and the age of consent is pretty low in many countries. I think it all comes back to power differentials and emotional equality as well. And then there's Romeo and Juliet who were super young, and people got married really young at that time. I just don't know. I wonder how Korean culture feels about this. I think I am going to Katalk one of my best friends in Korea and ask her...

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  22. gosh, this topic has been debated for centuries already, are we still here? a 10 year diff is not as bad as 20 or 19, right? in witch's romance, everybody seems to approve and in secret love affair , nobody cares, either? why are you people not bother by it when the age difference between the actors is real! so real! but in King of High school, SIG in real life is 26 and lee hana is 31, that's just 5! and in this drama , it is a 10 year age diff, but soo young is not like any other 28 year old woman. She is not too mature and her her mental age would probably be just 22. it was important for the drama to establish her character as such to make you people understand that these two connected on some emotional level you probably did not understand coz you were too busy being judgmental. maybe I could understand your bias if the actor playing the role is truly 18 in real life, but he is so not, really not. How would you guys like to rectify the situation, since the real director lee hun suk is back, the 28 year old hyung, you are wishing for soo young and the real lee hun suk to fall in love with each other and give your some piece of mind?! not gonna happen! it is too late already and this is about the high school hockey player and his noona romance so accept the situation and just enjoy it. here's the thing: the koreans are not bothered by it, if they were , they would have shut down this show as early as episode 2 if they think that this show is too scandalous in that level. grow up a little, it is just a kdrama! sheesh!

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  23. For me, it's more odd if the actors have a huge age gap. I don't try to look it up while watching the drama for that same reason. I feel it will ruin me, even if the rest of the drama is perfect. I especially find myself comparing the ages to people I know. (ie: My mom's age versus my older brothers age.) Which makes it even creepier. As for the characters, I don't mind too much. (But then again, I find myself only like noona romances with very young looking noonas and older looking boys.) Awesome topic by the way. I'm so glad someone brought up the gap in high school: love on

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  24. Great topic and you explore many sides of it. I like that you mention the reversed genders, because while noona romances do very well, ajeossi ones are less loved, perhaps because we have been sold the "old horn dog taking advantage of young girls" stereotype more than the "cougar enjoying innocent guys" one. I find that unfair, personally. I like ajeossi romances and I want to see the same chances given to them as noona ones, even if some of those watching and criticizing would prefer the idea of themselves with younger men than that of their husbands with younger women. :P My point is, age is not the issue. As you said, even noona ones can go horribly wrong. It's the tropes that follow them which can be problematic, not the age itself. Give me 20 or 30 years. I'll ship it if there is chemistry, if the actors are adults, the characters non-related and consenting adults and it is written well (read: not the usual abusive kdrama relationships).

    I want to comment on the Kim Sae Ron case though. I have not watched the show, so I am speaking about the buzz that happened before it started airing and about such situations in general. The reason why it matters here, or rather raised worry, is because the actress is a minor. So there are two issues here.

    One, is it ok to place a minor in romances with adults for their own safety? What moral does getting paid to be on-screen romanced by adults, being turned into a romantic goal and having people cheer that on give? Is 14 an ok age for that already? Is it something parents of child actors should allow? Are said child actors (I guess it goes by individual case) old enough or rather mature enough to consent to being portrayed that way and approached that way, even if it's not reality? Her magazine photoshoot, where they had her curve her curve-less child body in a pose aiming to make adult women look sexy (chest and backside sticking out) and all the talk of her "mature" air is also a very creepy territory for me.

    Which brings us to audiences. Even if most people can get immersed in the characters, is it perhaps dangerous aiming to make people swoon over adults paired with children in romantic pairings, especially considering this fandom tends to blur reality and fiction a lot (they call characters by the actor names, ship actors like they own them etc.)? How "romantic" can it be before it's borderline condoning pedophilia? Like I said, I have not watched the series, but I do believe creators need to be extra careful when minors are involved and I still feel selling a "romance" with minor + adult is quite risky, unless very juvenile and not approached as an adult relationship. Especially when the lolita concept sells so well in Asia. Look at idols and how the aegyo and "purity" and "innocence" coupled with sexuality sell. Very tricky topic.

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  25. You bring up some good points about the High School--Love On case. To be honest, while I don't think that actor ages should make a difference most of the time, I do think that pairing minors with adults is a different story. Not having seen the show itself, I just assumed that it would have the innocent, asexual kind of high school romance that we got in Dream High.

    This example reminds me of Natalie Portman. She has said on multiple occasions that she regrets acting in Leon: The Professional at such a young age. Of course, the context of that movie is pretty different from this drama.

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  26. I don't think there's anything wrong with noona romances. I mean, oh come on, it's a drama for christ's sake. It has all our guilty fantasies in it (and sometimes they're lewd) and that's what makes it so good. You all complicate it too much so I'll go with the "I wish everyone would shut up and let your favorite characters fall in love in peace".

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  27. Hmmmmmmm the way I see it is in kdramas there quite a few plots to choose from but one with a whole new concept doesn't come up very often. One of those is the age gap plot.The age gap is VERY nessecssary for the plot development in some dramas like a witches romance. Think about it: if in that drama there was no age gap and she wasn't that far in her life already how much would the story change there would be no story because the story problems are built on that age gap. It also adds a little comedy and a sense of lightheartedness also presenting a way for the romance to develop a little faster and go farther than it would than say...two awkward teens *cough cough monstar*. I honestly don't see it as a problem but the acting has to be goooooooooood for it to work and I don't mix well with super shallow plots either.๐Ÿ˜”
    Ps. They tend to cut it off at fourteen years haven't seen one more than that๐Ÿ˜‰

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  28. I mainly stay in the mind frame of " I don't give too much thought to age differences in dramas regardless of character's age or actor's age" but I do have those instances when it becomes a bit disturbing in regards to the content material at hand. For example, if the drama or movie has to do with sexual matters especially aggravated sexual matters, then I would hope the actors are of adult ages. Otherwise, if a Noona or younger woman, older man romance with actors that may be in their teens, i would hope they would portray it as a sweet and childlike romance with limited skinship ie. holding hands and hugging such as High School Love on and My Little Bride.

    Easy way to say it. Adult matters should be portrayed by Adult actors:)

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  29. I think the actual age argument is important. I knew Kim Sae Ron was young but I didn't know how old Nam Woo Hyun was. Partly because I don't know who he is and because he looks the part well. Though now I'm going to be creeped out if I watch the rest of the show and see any kissing scenes.

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  30. From what I've read, there's regulatory restrictions on what actors can do on screen depending on the differences in their ages. That may explain the almost kisses in "High School Love On."

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