Teen K-dramas are no “Skins”, but they can be more daring than your average K-drama

So I don’t usually do editorial stuff in English. I mean, I could, but when I write in English, I obssess so much over grammar and vocabulary that I’d rather keep it short for anything that doesn’t include translations. Besides, I’d rather spare you when I go into lengthy details when I try to make a point. However, I’d really like to talk about this subject because I’m currently working on it for my own studies and it’d be awesome if some of you would like to respond and share your thoughts.

The vision of love is definitely what sets K-dramas apart for me in terms of TV shows. I don’t know if this happened to you, but I started watching K-dramas because I was tired of US shows that seemed to focus just on sex and didn’t care that much about the “rom” in “romantic comedy”. Romance. Shy smiles. Butterflies when the one you love just smile to you or hold your hands. This was what I needed about ten years ago and this was what K-dramas gave me. It was a nice break. However, I also reached my limit of “first-love-is-meant-to-last-forever” and “on-screen-kisses-where-lips-don’t-move”.

There are many things I find problematic in teen dramas. “Boys Over Flowers” (based on “Hana Yori Dango”, but I will stay in Korea this time) and most recently “Heirs” are good examples of what I don’t like about high school stories, but if there’s one thing I found out over the years is that teen dramas often offer a setting that give writers opportunities to explore “controversial” topics in their country. The kind of teen dramas I’m talking about here is the raw and realistic type of teen dramas a la “Degrassi”, “My-so-called life” or Australian show “Heartbreak High”. All of them were broadcast in the 90’s. They were teen dramas that dealt with issues such as drugs, pregnancy, death/suicide, homosexuality, racism just about any topic you can think of. While I have yet to watch a K-drama that introduces the topic of drugs or, le gasp, would criticize drinking culture (let me know if you know one), some teen K-dramas aren’t afraid to at least acknowledge some of these issues… How they deal with it could bring another discussion (I hear KBS is preparing “School 2015″… while I really enjoyed the Namsoon/Heungsoo bromance of “School 2014”, I do think it shut down all possibilities to highlight real-life issues that the other characters, * cough * especially female characters * cough * Back to my point). Right now I’d just like to (briefly, I swear) focus on the topic of teen pregnancy which implies sex between two teenagers. It doesn’t matter if you’re 16 or 40, any unplanned pregnancy is scary. Right now, “Fated To Love You” and “I Do, I Do” come to my mind as recent examples of K-dramas dealing with this topic. However, teen pregnancy comes with its own share of problems, and, in less than a month, this plot was used twice in the dramas I watched. And I really don’t watch that many dramas anymore, so yes, I was surprised and interested in the way it was portrayed.

The first time I saw this plot in a K-drama was in “Jungle Fish 2” broadcast in 2010 (okay, it might be a bit too late to say it, but SPOILER ALERT). It wasn’t a BIG part of the story because the main plot was about finding out the reason behind Hyo An’s death. So the focus kept changing from one character to another, but the writer did dedicate episode 5 to talk about this issue and there were a couple of scenes to give a glimpse of the aftermath of the character’s decision in the final episode. The second time was in “Could We Love?” (2014). SPOILER ALERT. The writer really made a point to show the first months of pregnancy (before the time limit to get an abortion) and yes, there were screams, there were tears, there were slaps… But storytelling here was about to show how it can happen in any family and how hard it is for everybody involved to figure out what to do. If there’s one thing both examples have it in common is how teen love was never considered a key element which is, in my opinion, the big difference with “Seonam Girls’ High School Investigators” (jTBC) and “Heard It Through The Grapevine” (SBS).

“Seonam Girls High School Investigators”, in a quite dramatic way I must say, adressed the fact that two teenagers can fall in love and want to become parents. Would they overcome all the struggle of becoming parents at such a young age? There’s no right answer and Show didn’t try to go there. Here, it was about showing that pregnancy could be the result of an act of love too and it wasn’t just about lust. I believe that this was “Heard It Through The Grapevine” was (is?) going for. It’s too early to say which post-pregnancy approach this drama will take, but, SPOILER ALERT NOT SO MUCH SPOILER, the girl keeps the baby and the boy wants to take care of her and not just “take responsibility”. I hope the makjang setting won’t take away too much of the real-life issues… However, what I’d like to bring up here is how the writer and the director (who worked together on “My Wife’s Credential” and “Secret Love Affair”, so they have my full trust to explore the dark comedy genre) refered to the sex scene. I think there could be an underlying debate on how “shows insist that when a girl says no it means yes” and they really create every occasion for the girl to turn her no into a yes. My point here is that they showed… well, more like, they gave us a big visual hint of when the baby was conceived. And considering how Lee Joon’s 19+ scenes in the movie “Rough Play” were famous because the movie even got released, I say he nailed the nervous, awkward yet passionate teenage boy character within the limits and manneurism expected from non-cable dramas.

And the shoes thing is like the cutest and most technical way to say “THEY’RE ABOUT TO GET NAKED AND THEY’RE GOING TO DO IT!”. Considering how K-dramas in general are so light in showing, let alone implying, true intimacy, that actually surprised me that the show went straight for this during its first week of broadcast. I tried to google reactions about that and, maybe I just fail at googling, but I didn’t see articles going all “I can’t believe they showed a bed scene between two high schoolers”. The only one I found is this starnews article titled “a kiss between two female high schoolers, bed scene between two high schoolers… TV going crude”.

The bed scene between two high schoolers that was shown in the first of episode of SBS “Heard It Through The Grapevine” broadcast on February 23rd surprised the viewers. In this episode, main characters Han In Sang (Lee Joon) and Seo Bom (Go Ah Sung) have to say goodbye as they are about to take their college entrance exam. After they kiss in the dorm, they share love on her bed. Although the act itself isn’t shown on screen, the allusion that intercouse between two students happened in a school dorm was a big issue. Many viewers said about this unprecendeted scene that “it was uncomfortable to watch”.

Times have changed, so TV dramas material diversified, but it seems that the [form of] “expression” must be taken into consideration according to the medium used. TV is a medium that anyone can watch if they hold a remote. There’s no need to use a sensational way or expression to convey a theme.

So I don’t know how many “many viewers” stand for. Maybe this article reflects the issue of sex education in South Korea and how it is easier not to talk tabout something if you don’t want to deal with it. You can check this article from 2009 and this one from 2014. While these dramas may look tame or too raunchy to some people, they didn’t go for a common approach at all according to k-dramaland standards. TV shows usually highlight the technical aspect of sex, yes I mean intercourse, and the whole dilemma about getting an abortion or keeping the baby or giving him/her away for adoption. These two shows didn’t leave aside the fact that teen pregnancy can be (not all the time, I insist) the consequence of the love between two people who just happen to be very young. I think that what these two dramas showed was the physical aspect of this undying first love K-Dramas claim the existence of over and over again between two grown-ups but usually pretend sex was never a part of the equation when the characters were young. They also made room for a male perspective. It takes two to make a baby and while the woman has the last say in the decision to keep the baby or not in the end, TV shows tend to keep away the father through the whole process, mostly for storytelling purpose by making him a jerk or a coward and maximize the dramatic effect of the teen pregnancy trope. In both dramas, they actually let the father share his thoughts, express his emotions. In one word, they let him care and they show us and other characters that he cares.

So, are teen K-dramas really being crude and going way too far? I’m not Korean, so I’m not in a position to give an accurate answer on that. However, what I can say is that teen K-dramas aren’t as sulphurous as UK show “Skins” or US shows “Gossip Girl”, “Pretty Little Liars” that this the past decade brought us, but they actually follow some of the unwritten universal “teen drama” storytelling codes which allow them to poke at a conservative view.

PS: this also goes for homosexuality. Although teen K-dramas are definitely more conservative about it, it has also become a common theme for the past few years in a way that adult K-dramas don’t show. But this wasn’t the topic at hand. Anyway, thank you for reading all of this. 🙂 And fun facts: Lee Joon was in “Jungle Fish 2” and plays now “Heard It Through The Grapevine”. Jin Ji Hee was in “Could We Love?” and plays now in “Seonam Girls’ High School Investigators”. I’m not talking about a pattern, but in their “short” career, they have already encountered this teen pregnancy storyline twice.