The Sex and the City Effect
I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while but it coincides with recent topics, so here goes.
I think there’s a prevalent (mistaken) perception — particularly if kdramas are a primary source of information — that Koreans are puritanical about sex. In my opinion, they really aren’t. There are traditional elements in the culture, of course (just thinking about discussing sex with family is a horrifying concept) — but it’s like that common misconception that every generation thinks it invented sex. What’s most conservative about Korea, perhaps, is the representation of sex in the media, but I think it would be short-sighted to assume the culture as a whole is some Victorian, pearl-clutching, bless-my-heart, faint-at-any-hint-of-indecency society.
To wit, I present exhibits A, B, and C: the kdramas (because it always comes back to dramas!) Coffee Prince, Hyena, and Romance Hunter. Yes, I know dramas aren’t a complete or accurate representation of society, but I think it’s worth pointing out that there’s a spectrum here, too.
First up, COFFEE PRINCE.
Someone sent me this article from Newsen (thanks, SJ) about the positive reaction from audiences to the candid, unflowery treatment of sex in Coffee Prince. The article came out before this week’s episodes 15 and 16, but I think the same applies in light of recent events, too.
“In discussing the factors contributing to this drama’s strong appeal, the frank discussion of sex among the main characters cannot be left out. This drama depicts how the love between a man and woman doesn’t merely end with a mental or emotional understanding of love, as in fairy-tale books.”
The article cites the scene between Ha Rim and Eun Chan, where he asks her what she and Han Gyul did last night and chides her for not understanding a man’s sexual desires, as an example of this kind of frank talk. It also calls Han Sung and Yu Ju’s relationship “refreshing.”
“This couple is yet unmarried. However, Yu Ju and Han Sung have naturally progressed to a sexual relationship. This situation doesn’t feel very strange; they’re cool about their love, both mentally and physically. This couple of ten years loves each other in both mind and body.”
The article expresses a bit of surprise at the level of candor, because Coffee Prince’s handling of sex and love is rather new in the world of kdramas (at least the kind on broadcast TV). In that respect, the candor is not entirely familiar — but it’s entirely appreciated.
Next up: ROMANCE HUNTER.
This TVN cable drama aired earlier this year, and (rightly) found itself compared to Sex and the City. The mere setup — thirtyish working women talking openly about sex and going through the ups and downs of dating — is enough to merit the (ubiquitous!) SATC comparison, but Romance Hunter does pilfer a lot in its characterizations, too.
The five main characters and good friends (two of whom went on to portray rivals in Bad Couple) can all be assigned a SATC personality, or perhaps a combination of them. The main character is the most Carrie-like, narrating about the trials and tribulations of finding love. She’s no prude, but she’s still a bit naïve when it comes to finding her ideal guy. (She’s also a love advisor on a radio show called “Romance Hunter,” where all but one of the other women also work.) The girlfriends frequently go out for dinner and drinks to discuss their love lives.
There’s the writer-producer of the show, married with a kid, who’s the family breadwinner, often snappish at her slackerly husband — she resembles late-series Miranda. The younger one is naïve, feminine, and Charlotte-esque. Another is classic Samantha — experienced, cool, and unabashedly materialistic (wants a husband with the best possible qualifications, even if she likes someone else more). The last is the least SATC-like, the woman we all hate to see being treated badly by her boyfriend — we wish she’d chuck his sorry ass out on the pavement (heck, she wishes she could too) — but she’s too dependent, lonely, and/or in love.
Being a cable show (official TVN site), Romance Hunter is able to venture into more explicit scenes and discussion, bearing an age restriction of 19-and-up. Despite the overwhelming similarities of the show to SATC, I found myself able to enjoy the matter-of-fact way the characters discuss sex, without the coyness or preciousness that sometimes accompanies the topic on more mainstream broadcast dramas.
For instance, the woman with the asshole boyfriend does her best to treat him nicely, and receives nothing but dismissiveness in return. After she’s spent a long day working, then cooking and cleaning for him, he finds solo gratification in demanding a blowjob (asserting his demand with the never-cool downward head-push), then relaxing back with no intention of returning the favor. On top of that, he takes offense to how his girlfriend won’t “swallow” — insinuating that spitting means she doesn’t love him.
Then, our main heroine goes to a motel with a new boyfriend, eagerly anticipating her first time having sex with with him, only to be sorely disappointed at his early finish. Or shall we say premature finish. He’s not the most handsome catch, but she’s found herself falling for his earnestness and kindness — but the day after the failed attempt, she moans to her friend, “What if he’s always like that? I hate rabbits!” (Rabbits might best be translated with the English counterpart “minutemen.”)
There’s more to the story than just sex, of course — at the core is the familiar theme of women looking for love and (hopefully) finding it. Romance Hunter is light amusement — and at first I was on the fence about continuing. But I’m female, and I’m weak, because the hint of what will probably be the final romantic pairing for our leads is this guy right here >>>. Currently, he’s a PD also working at the radio station, whom the heroine talks to easily and comfortably. I’m guessing his role will gradually become bigger as he watches the main character stumble through one failed romance after another.
(Also bearing the Sex and the City comparison is the short mini-drama (also cable, also 19+) Five Girls, but IMO, that show isn’t worth your time. You can check out the official site here if you care to.)
Last up: HYENA
This TVN cable drama (19+) was billed as the male Sex and the City, and I certainly see where that comes from. (Official site here.)
What I like about Hyena is that despite the SATC comparison, its characterization of the four male friends feels more natural, and less forced into a mold, than in Romance Hunter. While Romance Hunter feels like an attempt to be modern, Hyena has a ring of “this is what guys really are like.”
It’s very boys-will-be-boys, as we watch our main character (played by Kim Min Jong) stumble through and muck up a good relationship. He’s due to be married any day now (to his longtime girlfriend, played by Park Shi Yeon) but can’t help himself from looking at every hot girl who walks by. We wince along, knowing he’s ruining things for himself.
In fact, the thing I don’t quite like about Hyena is probably also the thing that makes it more watchable — and that is in seeing Kim Min Jong’s character suffer for his stupidity. He’s a bit too reckless and inconsiderate for me to care about his well-being (after the first episode), but since he doesn’t get away with his foolishness, I’m able to watch without wanting to throw something at him.
One friend is even worse than he is — the only thing holding him back from being insufferably unscrupulous is the fact that he’s perhaps less good-looking than his friends, and doesn’t have quite as many opportunities. Still, he’ll do (and say) anything to get a girl into bed, and has no pride to speak of where sex is concerned.
A third friend (Oh Man Seok) is the complete opposite — highly principled and extremely picky. On every blind date, he asks the woman a logic problem, and doesn’t bother cultivating any interest if she fails to answer. Then, when he finally meets a woman who answers correctly, he takes an interest in her — but then sees her poorly groomed feet and is immediately turned off. (You know, Oh Man Seok isn’t the most handsome actor around, and his character isn’t even a type to make the ladies swoon — yet — but there’s something really compelling about him.)
The fourth friend is a cool, detached playboy who doesn’t seem to have any emotional attachment to anyone, and regards the women who throw themselves at him with mild amusement.
Dude, when I started this post, I totally had a point, and now it’s kind of fizzled into the air. So I’ll just say this: I’m not saying Korean culture is wild and sex-crazed, but as with anything, there’s a range. I just thought it was worth pointing out something on this end of the drama spectrum.