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?
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?