Have you ever heard “Because the day was good, the day was bad, and the day was proper. All days were fine”? The words come from the drama “Goblin”, one of the most popular dramas of 2016 and 2017. The main character, Goblin, and Ji Euntak who is the heroine of the drama fall in love, but they suffer from a big age gap. Like this drama series, romance dramas are focusing on the love of an older man with a younger woman. “Goblin”, an illustrative example, along with “My Mister”, tvN’s more recent series, are becoming more and more common. However, in reality, is there a happy ending for a couple in which the man is much older than woman? Well, although it’s not the norm, there are cases of older men having successful relationships with younger women, but the reverse case is rare. Society needs to consider the correlation between television drama content and life in the real world. What effect will media content have on society?
Uncle + Romance = ?
“Goblin” and “My Mister” are just two examples of the huge number of these types of dramas. Recently, dramas that deal with love between relatively older men and younger women are flourishing. MBC’s drama “Money Flower”, which aired from 2017 to 2018, storylined the relationship between a couple who had a 12-year age gap. The main actors were Jang Hyuk and Park Seyoung. The drama “Two Ccaps” also had a similar run on television, with the leading male actor, Cho Jungseok, being fourteen years older than his female co-actor, Hyeri. On the OCN drama “Black”, which aired in 2017, the main stars Song Seungheon and Go Ara, played a couple in love with a 14-year age gap. “Mister Sunshine”, due to be aired this summer on tvN will feature a couple with an age gap of 20 years, played by Lee Byunghun and Kim Tae-ri. All dramas casted recently are focused on large age gaps between characters. The actors themselves also have real-life age gaps. The leading male actors are generally middle aged, in their late thirties or early forties. However, the female actors are all in their twenties. In other words, scripts that call for large age gaps between the stars are focused on showing real-life actors of similar ages. Moreover, the male actors are always older, without exception.
This age gap storyline trend has now become a casting trend. Many dramas are centered around age gaps and more are due to be released. One magazine has even dubbed this phenomenon ‘Uncle Romance’. That is, the male actors are old enough to be the female actors’ actual uncles. Once casting is complete, the stars of the drama get caught up in swarms of controversy. A representative example is IU(Lee Jieun) from “My Mister”. When news got around that IU was considering playing as the main female lead in the drama, many fans posted opposition and urged her not to take a part in the drama on her official SNS page. News of her being cast for the role brought about huge controversy, and it is still a topic of much debate on SNS and entertainment news shows. Why are fans and reporters so concerned, and why are these kinds of dramas continuously produced despite strong opposition?
Plot behind Romance
The most plausible reason is the attempt to alter women’s views toward marriage. While it may sound like a conspiracy theory, it may just be true. In February 2017, the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHASA) reported on the causes of Korea’s birth rate in a forum that deals with it. The published findings were heavily criticized because they attacked women by recommending absurd countermeasures such as disqualifying women from jobs due to their proficiency in a language certificate, which was acquired from overseas study, when applying to jobs in major companies and public institutions. Additionally, the researcher who wrote the report suggested cultural content development should change social awareness towards highly educated or high income earning women’s avoidance of marriage. The researcher even went so far as to suggest that more than just social campaigning those issues, there needs to be authentic campaign progress at a level that doesn’t harm the public. Taken all together, the National Institute views the reason for low birth rate to be directly related to the increased stature of women in society. To enforce glass ceiling, the Institute recommends lowering the status of women by discrediting some of their employment qualifications and modifying cultural content streamed to the public. Although the researcher responsible for the report has since been disciplined, his suggestions for alterations to cultural contents are underway. Hwang Chingmee, a film columnist, wrote, “A young woman gets into a relationship with a man old enough to be her uncle (“My Mister”, “Mister Sunshine”); a young woman falls in love with the father of her friend (“Wrestler”); a young professional falls in love with a naive country man (“My Husband, Mr. Oh!”). All stories are of the same theme.”1) Movies and television dramas are brainwashing young woman to accept downward marriage. The idea of marrying someone old enough to be your uncle is now a common theme in today’s cultural contents.
This ‘Uncle Romance’ also increases the fantasies of older middle-aged men. Jung Deokhyeon, a culture critic said, “The idea of having a younger partner is not only trendy, but triggering interest among the middle-aged.”2) That is, middle-aged men who are top pop culture consumers are being bombarded with images in the culture industry that stimulate fantasy. Jung also added that though, “Such stories are seen as unrealistic, there is a danger that the contents are misread or misinterpreted.” Contents creators use fictional ‘Uncle Romance’ to satisfy fantasies of the middle-aged. Society’s interest in young females getting together with empathic older male characters is clear. Also, there is a realistic factor behind the fantasies. In an age of multimedia and multichannels, competition is tough, so the marketing of dramas by broadcasting companies is intense and production companies prefer to cast relatively older male actors who have a solid career and fan base than to risk failure and search for fresh male actors.
Moreover, the male dominated atmosphere in Korea supports the success of these kinds of contents. Society often sees the older male as being a ‘capable man’. A mere search of entertainment news headlines will show this to be true. In such news features, wives are generally depicted like 12-year younger and beautiful women. Without her youth and beauty, all other qualities disappear, and she is treated as just proof that shows men’s ability. Notions like these help make ‘Uncle Romance’ acceptable and creation of contents like it ease. This kind of contents solidify the notion again. Recently, however, there is a movement to dethrone such ideas.
Harmful Levels of Culture Contents
Why is this ‘Uncle Romance’ so harmful and why have so many people raised a voice against it? First and foremost, it distorts reality. Granted most people realize movies and dramas are fictional and unrealistic, yet the content they present distorts reality too much. As a result, people are now using the hashtag #mymister_boycott (#나의아저씨_불매) to show their anger. Also, an increased number of younger women are coming forward to post their experiences with older men including the experience of meeting rude middle aged male customers at part time jobs and enduring sexual harassment by middle aged male superiors at the workplace. To young women, the middle aged man is not someone they have a love interest in but threat of life. If a female’s heart races when an older male sits beside her on the subway or walks past her, it is not out of excitement or love, it is out of fear and anxiety. Young women are sick of the hurtful middle aged man and they do not wish to have any contact with them in the real world or on the fantasy television land. ‘Uncle Romance’ attempts to pretend one-sided power in a relationship in the real world as romantic one.
Countering the female opposition, is the acceptance by middle aged men. They are losing the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. For example, when the drama “My Mister” aired, one male posted ‘She’s not a minor. She’s an adult. What is the problem here? It gives hope to people like me in their forties.’3) This one comment clearly highlights how such contents incite wrong mindsets. The comment expresses the men’s fantasy of falling in love with a young woman. To him, it may be a sweet dream but to young women it is another unpleasant experience. ‘Uncle Romance’ content is inspiring false hope among men to find young women and making young women sex objects. In short, it is the ‘Lolita Syndrome’, which refers to a middle aged man’s sexual or emotional obsession with young immature women. Referring to the theory of cultivation in communication studies, the more contact with pop culture, the more tendency there is to believe the pop culture images are reality. The safety and well-being of person is of absolute importance, not fantasy satisfaction. With the negative effects of this type of content, producers should rethink their priorities.
These kinds of content also make the film industry male dominant. The young women characters are seen as damsels in distress. Saving her is giving top urgency and this job is always done by the older male character and reinforces stereotypes. There is also the difference in treatment of characters. For example, the middle aged male character adapts himself to fate and doesn’t care about grooming, but if a middle aged female character were to do such things, she would be shown as hating to look at herself in a mirror and would be doing her utmost to cover her flaws. To sum up, these contents reinforce stereotypes, are misogynic, and harmful.
You are JUST a ‘Mister’
Due the outcries of females, after airing the first episode on March 21, tvN’s “My Mister” quickly modified its relationship between star characters. They deleted red line which means the love affair between the two main characters due to their huge age gap. It may seem trivial but it is symbolic. The change came as a result of the power of the people and their expressions of countless objections on the web. People bring change. Society needs to express how it feels and why it objects. This will lead to more culture creators listening to the voices of its audiences. In a consumer-based society, producers will stop creating such content when they know it will not earn them a profit. Voicing opinions and objections and refusing to view such content are the only ways to bring about change. Fellow women, speak louder and stronger, “I am not your play fantasy. You are not my master. You are just an old man.”
1) Hwang Chingmee, “’Be with You’, What Do You Mean by Son Yejin Is Fairy Who Soothes Inferiority Complex of So Jisub”, Enter Media, March 21, 2018
2) Jung Yujin, “[N1★Focus] Lee Seon Gyun, IU Follows the Trend Set by Stars Like Lee Byunghun and Kim Tae-ri...Is a 20-Year Gap between Couples Trendy?”, News1, November 8, 2017
3) Kim Sangmin, “Controversy over the Age Gap between the Main Actors of ’My Mister’…Netizen Harsh Condemnation for “My Father Is Correct””, The Seoul Economic Daily, March 22, 2018