[Dramaland Catnip] Noona romances
I Hear Your Voice
In my happy inner world, there’s never been anything weird about an older woman with a younger man. But in the reality we actually live in, it unfortunately remains an anomaly, and so, rom-com lovers everywhere must acknowledge that despite our best wishes, age matters. You can be sure that if the words “noona romance” are uttered anywhere, I’m somewhere close, skulking hungrily in the shadows.
In a noona romance, couples have to swim against the tide of social pressures, facing judgment and disapproval, all while working through their own emotional baggage: It’s an underdog romance in a meaningful way, and there’s a real excitement in watching that unfold. It’s an intricate problem with a wonderfully tangled-up set of dynamics, but within an ultimately resolvable context.
One of noona romances’ biggest draws for me is the promise of a smart, successful, strong female lead. It’s often the case that her workplace success makes her romantically inaccessible, or even undesirable, as is the case with Uhm Jung-hwa in Witch’s Romance. Her colleagues hate her and go so far as to attempt to humiliate her by hiring a man to pretend to woo her. He then shames her on a public stage for being too old to be kissable.
It’s a keen strike, because it picks at her lurking insecurity that she may be somehow unlovable, which is rooted in a previous failed relationship, having been stood up at the altar. In I Need Romance 3, Kim So-yeon had a whole string of successively worse dumpings, to the point where she barely turns a hair at her latest breakup and simply goes about business as usual, even though we know how much she’s hurting inside.
But while it makes some heroines outwardly thorny and closed-off, others retain a tender optimism about life despite being disappointed. In Dal-ja’s Spring, when Dal-ja’s boyfriend ditches her for someone hotter, a mixture of anger, desperation, and fierce pride leads her to contract a younger man to pose as her boyfriend in an attempt to save face and get revenge. I’ll always fall for a heroine whose pragmatism is dashed with a little wickedness (especially if it leads to some epic revenging on a dastardly ex), and My Name Is Kim Sam-soon’s heroine has the distinction of being my first love when it comes to willing-to-be-wicked women with warm hearts.
One of the best things about noona professionals is that they invariably come with buckets of self-awareness, which makes them burst off the screen and climb into your heart, though they can be jaded and unhappy when we first meet them. These women don’t necessarily want to be swept off their feet (who’s got the time for that?)—what they want is someone who’ll unfailingly be on their side, at their side. For example, in Witch’s Romance, the heroine makes peace with her single status, only to have it upended by her younger man. But what’s just lovely to watch is how she blooms again under that constancy and sweetness, even against her own expectations.
But while age differences can pose problems for the relationships, the heroines rarely have trouble seeing their respective heroes as men. It’s much harder—and funnier—when the heroine can’t actually see the hero as a man at all, and nothing sums that moment up better than Uhm Jung-hwa booting Park Seo-joon out of bed after discovering their fourteen-year age difference, head filled with the sound of a baby’s gurgling.
In I Need Romance 3, the young hero has a similar problem, but his struggle is even harder, since his would-be ladylove actually has known him from babyhood, and even nicknamed him “sweet potato” because she thought him particularly ugly. But of course, that makes for the most satisfying reversal, like the moment Kim So-yeon wonders who in their right mind would call Sung Joon’s manly glory (lol) at all potato-ish. And yep, she swoons a little (or A LOT) as the sweet-potato veil is finally torn from her eyes.
I Need Romance 3
I Hear Your Voice’s heroine also has a past with the hero, and these young men really have their work cut out for them, as they contend with heroines who insist on seeing them as their past selves rather than their present. Moreover, the balance of power is all over the place: How does the couple find equal footing in a sea of inequalities? But what a drama offers in a noona romance is access to the tipping point—as the encounters add up and the emotional stakes rise, their feelings demand a decision be made one way or another, and then… that moment comes when everything changes.
And what would a noona romance be without its puppy half? I love that the hero is forced to work much harder, because as well as making her see him as a man, he has to go further to prove to her that he really means it. If there’s even one percent of him that doesn’t mean it, it won’t work—not because it takes more to win a noona’s heart, but it takes much more to earn her trust. He also needs to be more direct—but such directness demands reciprocity from the heroine, too, as I Need Romance 3 and others prove, because no puppy, however much he loves you, can wait forever. These relationships have no room for complacency.
Ny Name Is Kim Sam-soon
Unfortunately, not every noona romance provides such a compelling hero. Some leads can be disappointing: My Name Is Kim Sam-soon’s hero spends so long belittling the heroine and making her do the work in the relationship that despite the noona setup, I had little tolerance for that kind of faffery. And that’s nothing compared to Flower Boy Ramyun Shop, which was my most disliked noona romance because the hero jerks the heroine around for much of the show even when he’s wooing her.
But more than simple age difference, we run into more significant problems when the noona setup includes a teacher-student relationships. Flower Boy Ramyun Shop played out that relationship in a way that felt inappropriate, while on the other hand, Biscuit Teacher Star Candy dealt with the same dynamic in a less problematic way, delivered as it was with utter charm: Teacher Gong Hyo-jin spends most of the show just laughing at student Gong Yoo, and pretty much never takes his puppy romancing seriously (not while he’s school uniform, at least).
The problem with high school boys is that in body, they’re full-grown men, and when coupled with the alluring confidence of youth, it’s easy—for our noonas and for us—to be tricked into forgetting that they’re not really emotionally mature, and not quite adults. I Hear Your Voice’s high schooler hero is an exception, but though he’s an old soul in a young body, he’s also a total puppy, and I admit it, I am a puppy-person and even low-key shipped the unshippable in Angry Mom. (Okay, not really, but bad boy Ji Soo’s crush on Kim Hee-sun—whom he was led to believe was a fellow student—was hopelessly adorable, if wholly unattainable!)
Biscuit Teacher Star Candy
Then there’s what I consider the most unusual and all-round delightful relationship, High School King of Savvy. To me, this show bucks the noona romance mold in so many ways. When hero Seo In-gook has to masquerade as his older brother despite only being a high schooler, he ends up being the boss to Lee Hana’s endearingly awkward, somewhat timid heroine. It tangles the “traditional” noona dynamics in quite a thrilling way, and both characters have an innocence that makes them seem at similar emotional maturity levels. The subsequent explosion of sweetness and charisma absolutely slays me.
With its offbeat heroines and beguiling heroes, I always find a magical alchemy in the noona romance equation that’s amplified by the reversed age difference: It’s the stuff of squee. Age? It’s just a number. Sometimes an unhelpful number, but when everything else works… age doesn’t matter at all.
High School King of Savvy
- [Dramaland Catnip] Secret identities and alter egos
- [Dramaland Catnip] Disastrous first meetings
- [Dramaland Catnip] Cohabitation shenanigans
- [Dramaland Catnip] Enemies turned lovers
- [Dramaland Catnip] Crossdressing and gender-bending romances
- [Dramaland Catnip] Opponents turned allies
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- [Dramaland Catnip] Swooning for dramatic height differences
- [Dramaland Catnip] Ragtag bands of misfits
- [Dramaland Catnip] Finding satisfaction in sad love stories
- [Dramaland Catnip] The magic of bad drama magic
- [Dramaland Catnip] The stinging embarrassment of thinking someone likes you… when they don’t
- [Dramaland Catnip] When the hero falls first
- [Dramaland Catnip] The angst and thrills of dramaland’s reunited lovers
- What’s your dramaland catnip? Tell us your stories!
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