Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Let’s talk about sex



As a fandom that exhaustively catalogs, critiques, and names kisses, we sure don’t talk about sex much.

For some English-speaking fans, there’s a good reason for this: to them, Kdrama is a bastion of safety in an oversexualized world. The relationships it depicts almost always revolve around the soul, not the body, and the rare act of physical intimacy is treated with an almost sacred mindfulness.

I’m glad that Kdrama exists for people like that, but I can’t say that I’m one of them. I don’t mind a tasteful, consensual sex scene, and have actually been frustrated by the lack of naughty bits in Kdramas. To someone with a Western mindset, a romance that’s as bloodless as the one in Autumn in My Heart doesn’t feel like a romance at all. But even for me, the courtly, spiritual love at the core of so many Korean dramas is part of their appeal. When they’re done right, these shows are fairy tales separate from the world of the flesh, always pure and perfect and good. And because of this, a single Kdrama kiss has more emotional weight than all six seasons of Sex in the City combined.

When it comes to Korean television, there’s not much sex to talk about, anyway. Drama kisses are precious and rare, but drama sex is harder to find than Bigfoot riding the Loch Ness monster with a unicorn in a party hat looking on from the shore. 
As far as I can tell, there are three standard Kdrama “bed” scenes. The first involves passionate kissing followed by a cut to some unrelated item, like the eye-covering teddy bears in Goong. Then there’s the wall-banger, which (obviously enough) involves an uncoordinated move toward a bed that sometimes results in less than graceful moments, like Dalja’s Spring and Lovers. And then there’s the big time: the undressing scene. It’s normally the woman who’s being undressed, and often to expose a scar that the male lead needs to kiss melodramatically before the main event (The Princess’s Man, Secret).

Lots of factors effect the intensity of skinship in dramas, but one of the most important is whether a show originally aired on a mainstream network or a cable channel. Most network shows will include at most one or two kisses, each calculated to coincide with a key relationship moment. Network kisses usually aren’t casual displays of affection that happen because characters like being close to each other. Instead, they’re contracts intended to cement a couple’s union. My Love from Another Star fits this bill: after an eternity of struggling with his feelings for Song Yi, Do Min Joon finally pulled her in for a kiss in the last few minutes of episode 15. But this was no kiss for the sake of kissing: It was a grand gesture intended to convey his willingness to finally be with her. 

As for actual sex on network television, I have only this to say: Don’t hold your breath. These days it seems that the only characters getting lucky are the ones who need to have babies to further the plot, like the lead couple in last spring’s Jang Ok Jung: Live for Love.

I Do, I Do: We did it against our will because the plot needed a baby

Korean cable channels approach things a bit differently. Dramas on these upstarts often push the boundaries of acceptability, just like their American counterparts. They’re much more likely to acknowledge the existence of sex (whether before or after marriage), and often show characters engaging in physical contact for no reason other than pleasure. The female lead in Queen In-Hyun’s Man initiated lots of casual kisses, and the youthful couple in Can We Get Married? were clearly sexually active before their wedding day. When they weren’t too busy fighting and breaking up, they spent most of their time lazing around in bed together or affectionately kissing, hugging, or holding hands. 

Skinship is also impacted by the age group of the drama’s characters. Kissing in high school shows is usually a one-off thing, as in both Monstar and Shut Up: Flower Boy Band, and it’s often laughably chaste, like the famous lip press in Boys over Flowers. Neither cable nor networks seem to allow characters to have sex until they’re in their twenties. (Intriguingly, a 2008 drama called Little Mom Scandal is a possible exception to this rule. I haven’t watched it yet, but it seems to revolve around teen pregnancy.)

The age of a drama itself is also an indicator of whether it will contain sex. Romantic comedies in the mid oughts were full of scenes that now seem shockingly explicit, even on network shows like Lovers, Coffee Prince, and My Lovely Sam Soon. Kdramas are nothing if not slaves to trends, and back then the trend was hooking up. Now, extreme chastity reigns supreme on the networks—and isn’t so uncommon on cable channels.

What’s Up, Fox: In this 2006 noona romance, the leads got to have sex twice

Almost nobody gets any tail in the past few drama cycles, even if they were grownups in serious romantic relationships. If memory serves, even the cable potboiler A Wife’s Credentials didn’t include any funny business, and that was a show about a woman who ends her marriage (partially) because she’s attracted to a man who isn’t her husband. Beyond one scene discussing sleeping arrangements at their new love pad, they might as well have been siblings. Based on Equator Man, That Winter, the Wind Blows and all of tvN’s Flower Boy dramas, you’d never guess that such a thing as sex even existed in Korea. (Although a group of clever Flower Boy Next Door fans did find a scene that hints that Dok Mi and Enrique might have gone all the way...off camera.) 

Korean culture really does seem to be less casual about sex than we are in most of the West, and it’s logical that this difference could be seen in stories told for Korean audiences. But the very structure of many Kdrama narratives also work to make sex improbable. Most Korean romances build narrative suspense from the fundamental conflict of will-they or won’t-they. To milk this tension for as long as possible, couples generally don’t get together until the very last minute, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for them to fool around. Therefore, no nookie.

Cable’s I Need Romance 3 is dealing with this issue right now. The latest installment in a series of cable dramas known for their frank approach to sexuality, it finds itself in an awkward position: Each of the earlier INRs set the stage for sexual activity by focusing on an already established central couple. But this show is a classic will-they-or-won’t-they with undertones of a love triangle. It’s highly unlikely that any of the triangle relationships will be consummated before the conclusion of the series, so the screenwriters are left with secondary characters and the occasional flashback to provide the franchise’s trademark racy bits.

I Need Romance: This drama didn’t screw around when it came to...well...you know

But even those carefully explicit scenes are nothing compared to what came before. INR3 has a strong tell, don’t show vibe. We’re told that one character meets a stranger for no-strings-attached sex, but we don’t see them engaged in anything more than a kiss. Another character is on the outs with her boyfriend, although they’re known to have saved up for trips to hotels and spent hours necking in random alleys. Compare this with the first I Need Romance, which devoted an entire scene to showing its lead couple cuddled up in the back of a van, all sweaty and bathed in post-coital bliss as they discuss the female lead’s first orgasm. The male lead gets adorably giddy about it, while his girlfriend seems cautiously interested in repeating the experience.

Shows that aren’t necessarily romances can use the sexual freedoms of cable networks in service of unusual narrative choices. Most dramas gift their lead couple with a romantic date or a few happy days of love before all hell breaks loose, but Cruel City didn’t have time for these niceties. Its inscrutable, dangerous lead was too busy living the thug life to spend much time with his female love interest, so the show used a steamy bed scene to quickly tie the characters together without “softening” the Doctor’s Son.

So is the Kdrama pendulum actually swinging toward chastity, or am I imagining it? Is this a side effect of Korea’s conservative new president? A response to so-so ratings for more graphic shows? I have no idea. But I can’t wait to find out where we go from here.

23 comments:

  1. I have only watched about 4 kdramas and at first I actually liked that lack of explicit sexual scenes. But now it starting to seem excessively naive, considering the Korean movies I saw didn't have any problems showing or implying sex. I don't want to be one of those people who infer things about a different culture based on the entertainment so I won't do that. But I will say that it makes shows worstwhen characters don't address the obvious sexual tension two adults will show for each other, and kisses become so dramatic they are damn near cheesy.

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    1. If I can elaborate, it is a challenge but I think you can show two characters actually care for each more than when it comes to sex. And when most of your actors and actresses are in the top 1% in terms of physical appearance, I can see why they wouldn't want to even try.

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  2. There does seem to be a trend lately toward extreme chastity in dramas these days. I think even allowing for cultural differences, it can lead a sense of unreality to proceedings.

    It might have been a subs issue, but am I right in remembering that the discussion in A Wife's Credentials was that they were going to share a room in the end only on weekends and have their own bedrooms during the week. This blew my mind, since I'd assumed (apparently wrongly) that at some point there'd been actual (by which I mean physical, I do understand about emotional affairs, but bear with) affairing going on. This made the extreme reactions of everyone make a bit of sense, but if they weren't. The mind boggles.

    A Gentleman's Dignity is a ridiculous example of this. In that case, we are talking about adults, hitting middle age adults. If you want your main male character to be that non-physical, don't keep telling us how he's a playboy. Her reactions to any and all physical contact were age inappropriate to the point where I began to wonder if she had some developmental or emotional issue. She wasn't just closed off, she was haphephobic.

    I didn't have time to research it, but I seem to remember that the -playboy chaebol turns appropriately asexual male lead- trope used to begin with a scene of him playboying it up. Now the trend seems more toward tell, don't show. The last one I can remember is the beginning of Flower Boy Ramyun Shop, but there could be more recent examples.

    This is of course to say nothing of the family dramas which often suggest that sex education is not a thing and that there is no exposure to outside specifically American cultural products. There are any number of scenes involving aftermaths of weddings that are baffling. I've mentioned before the one where they play, I think charades because the bride seems unaware of the sex potential of a honeymoon.

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  3. I think that some Korean mothers association (don't know the name) makes a big fuss when TV shows people making out. I read somewhere that they kicked up a big one over the bed scene in Secret Garden.

    On the other hand I stumbled on this article a few days ago and my mind was slightly blown away.
    http://www.ibtimes.com/south-korea-thriving-sex-industry-powerful-wealthy-super-state-1222647

    I for one appreciate the chasteness in Korean dramas. (although I do eyeroll over Kdrama females who act like they're allergic to kisses) But I think it would be healthier if Korean parents and TV were more frank about sex instead of acting like it didn't exist.

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  4. But isn't it all a question or ratings? I still can believe that all the drama I've watched were rated 15+ apart from one that was 12+. I can understand about murders and blood everywhere is some sageuk but I still have no idea why romantic comedies get 15+ ratings.

    Anyway, I've seen many really sexy movies that I believe were rated 19+. They just can't rate a drama 19+, can they?

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  5. My gut feeling tells me that network shows will continue the way they have and only after cable shows with skinship become more successful will the networks follow suit.Thanks for the great post Amanda! I will now take the time to ponder what were merely fleeting thoughts before. Great comments by the netizens too.

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  6. Cable drama ''Can we love'' has one teen actress playing an alcoholic and pregant teen (15) they didn't show any bed, kiss scenes with the teen but just for having a teen alcoholic and pregnant I give points to writer-nim.



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  7. Compared to some of the shows aired between '05 and '09, the networks, both regular and cable, are trending more conservative. Most of the time this doesn't bother me, though the fact that two grown adults will go a whole drama and sometimes not even kiss does elicit a lot of eye rolling. Fortunately I can watch Taiwanese dramas if I want a more realistic portrayal of adult relationships.

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  8. Don't even talk about sex, most dramas have chaste kisses, even when the leads are 30 year olds.. At first, it was okay, but now, most of it is silly. When I watch kmovies, I was blown by lots of explicit sex

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  9. In many ways I appreciate K-dramas for retaining a "pureness" about them. It's nice to get away from all the physicality that's abundant in Western TV shows. But often times I end up rolling my eyes when a kiss becomes this huge 1 minute scene, and it's not even a good kiss. I mean what the heck, all these grown adults (the characters obviously) get excited over what is basically a lip touch. Not impressed.

    But I suppose it's because it's on TV where supposedly anyone can have access to it, unlike movies which tend to me risque and out there. The writers have to be able to satisfy and suit a larger audience, which means watering down a lot of things. Whether or not chastity is a trend, I don't know the current social situation in Korea to give any sort of judgement. I guess with anything on Korean TV, everything is all about trends no?

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  10. I've watched my fair share of Korean dramas and I've got to say that their lack of physical contact was what drew me in. From someone that grew up watching Western television, I was tired of heavy petting in the middle of an action series or a partially nude scene in a horror flick. I wanted to enjoy a movie or series without having to worry about what would come up. Not that I have a problem with it, it's just that there's a time and place for such things, and when I'm too deep in a series waiting for the murderer to be found, I don't need to see a pair of breasts.

    Now that I've watched over fifty dramas, I'm tired of their innocence. I think it's perfectly fine to settle with just a few kisses here in there when it's a high school setting, but when the drama focuses on couple in their 20's and 30's and doesn't even hint at sex? That's too much.
    The older (but not too old, early to mid-2000's) dramas that focused on older couples were a lot more open about their sex lives compared to the dramas airing today.
    I understand different cultures have different standards, like you wouldn't EVER see anything physical in Arab dramas, but it's a bit disappointing these days.
    Korea's movies are also very over the top when it comes to their sex scenes (ex. Frozen Flower and Concubine, Housemaid, and Searching for the Elephant, even though that wasn't as graphic as the others), so I assumed there would be at least one drama that didn't just graze over the topic of sex like it was some disease.

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  11. Just in case it interests someone, the ferris wheel kiss in What's Up Fox? was my favourite kiss scene in a kdrama just after the Coffee Prince ones. The way he looks at her... Sorry for being off topic.

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  12. I hope it is not too late to comment on this excellent essay. I don't need to see romantic partners in a graphic bed scene although if tastefully done, it's great. But I do like to see some heat and animal attraction between romantic leads and this seems to be sorely lacking in the current dramas I watch. (Golden Rainbow is the exception for me. The romantic leads in that are going to have a great sex life once they finally get together and this is shown, not told, in the action.) The romances all seem to have a curiously bloodless quality to them as if the characters are completely unaware of what's expected of them. Even the male leads who are so-called "players" seem to be way too cerebral in their sexuality. It's like have they ever actually "done it" anyway? They almost all seem to be overgrown, way too skinny, asexual boys instead of flesh and blood men who feel real earthy desire for the women they are pursuing.

    I'm quite new to the whole K-drama genre but, even to inexperienced viewer me, this seems to be a change. I recently watched a 2005 drama, 18 vs 29, with Ryu Soo-young as the husband of a woman who has reverted back to her 18 year old self. She hated him at 18, is shocked to discover she is married to him and is thoroughly revolted by the idea she's shared a bed with him. He attempts to entice her back into it by saying, essentially, "your mind might not remember me but, if you come to bed with me, your body certainly will remember me". Now that is sexy!

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  13. I have to admit that chaste dramas was one of the things that attracted me to kdrama. I, too, was tired of gratuitous sex scenes inserted into western dramas that did absolutely nothing to advance the storyline at all. I wondered if Korean people were really as conservative as this. Asking some of my female friends in Korea, I was surprised at some of the things they said. One of my friends, despite having lived for a year in the US and a year in the UK, can't move in with her boyfriend before she gets married. Another told me (despite having lived in Canada for 2 years) that she has a curfew from her parents. Both of these women are 30!! A male friend in Korea told me that no, Koreans aren't as chaste as portrayed in Kdramas and that these days by their early 20s everyone has lost their virginity. He maintained this stance right up until he started going out with a 32 year old woman, who, as it turns out, is in fact a virgin. He told me that she has never had a boyfriend before, didn't know how to even kiss him, and didn't want to have sex before marriage. She's 32!! I was shocked. Anyway, he dumped her, he told me he wasn't a priest!!

    In a lot of ways (and not just as regards sex), Korea really reminds me of growing up in Ireland in the 70's and 80's. Very conservative on the outside, but what goes on behind closed doors is a different matter (especially spousal abuse). Korea is definitely at the forefront of the technological age, but in some ways socially it's still the 70's.

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  14. The world needs more well made movies and dramas without bed scenes so that families can watch them together and not feel awkward, lol. I really loved Titanic, and wanted to enjoy it with my family, but the portrait and car scenes were incredibly embarrassing to watch with them. Maybe my family is more conservative, but I imagine most Asian families are this way. If you like a spicier drama that still has a great story line, I recommend "City Hall" with Cha Seung Ho. He is smoking hot in that one. The most chaste drama I have seen so far is "Be Strong Geum-Soon", and it was highly enjoyable. The script was so fine, and Kang Ji Hwan was hot, but restrained. There's too much sex in American tv shows. Seriously, there's a whole generation of people raised on Friends and Sex in the City that have wasted too much of their life on casual relationships that lead nowhere.

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  15. I come from a culture where screen kisses were taboo till of late and I think part of the appeal of K dramas is the chasteness. This is probably why K dramas are popular say in the Middle East and other conservative countries. Plus in most countries watching TV is a family thing and there is no certainty that a child will be tucked in by the time adult viewing starts. A lot of K drama conventions therefore make perfect sense in most societies.

    The kiss is a big thing in Western culture. It is a constant signifier of potential sexual interactions to audiences. Also the history of sex in Western culture has been towards making the private as much public as possible. This is not true of all cultures. The erotic charge that an audience feels - and this of course is what romantic dramas are aiming for - comes from many things. In many Asian countries this is through dialogue, the slow build up, a bit of skinship. Not necessarily The Kiss. The viewer response i.e the stimulation of romantic feelings in the viewer - remains the same :)

    Having said that Korean movies can be quite explicit, sometimes I see Western audiences complaining about this too. Some of these movies are successful in Korea. So its not as if it is conservative all the way through. Rather I think the way sex or more correctly the erotic is portrayed depends on the medium in Korea.

    There should be an internal logic and cultural continuity I think. Hence you know what a French drama will be like and you are on board with its morality (or lack of for some folk). Similarly I think forcing a "must have kisses" on Korean drama will ruin it. Part of the charm of the world is in the different ways we look at the same thing, there is little point in a Korean drama conforming to someone else's ideals. Just my 2c worth!

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    1. indeed - agree with u

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  16. Witch's Romance has a steamy sex scene in the beginning when the characters were supposedly drunk and getting an one-night stand on....but later they copped out and ended with cute kisses. It was a disappointment.

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  17. it depends on the Kdrama you are watching.
    i don't watch kDrama and haven't seen any.

    but i am searching for details about this:
    why korean movies have so much sex scenes.

    it is not that they have a lot of sex scenes, it is the details behind them.

    i remember back in the days of watching American movies.
    the sex scenes are just soft, women laying on top of the man, nothing much, nothing rough.
    But today, the sex scenes in movies is almost similar to porn, well of course not showing the private parts. The acting for the sex scenes is well done, that looks like they are actually doing it.

    I watch a lot of Korean movies, and i have noticed that, majority of these mainstream korean movies seem to have hardcore sex scene in them.
    No i am not talking about banned movies or controversial movies such as Morbius.
    For an example movie like The Yellow Sea.
    the guy had a dream, where the wife was having sex, that was ....ok...
    but it got to a scene where a bad guy was having sex, and showing different positions.

    I can't even watch these kinds of good movies in front of friends, because of the sex scenes. Another example is "I Saw the Devil", so much provocations, for an example the guy wanting to rape the school girl. And then it got to the part where the bad guy was having sex with the woman.

    Where is the limit and boundaries? how do we classify these kinds of movies?
    Japan has Pinku type movies, or guinea pig movies. You know what you are in for, what to expect.

    It's like watching martial arts movies, and all of a sudden a wide sex scene. wtf?

    why is Korean focusing on sex in movies?
    thanks

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  18. Partly the reason I started watching Korean dramas was that I was fed up with all the explicit sex scenes in newer American series. I want to see the story, not all the sex.
    It seems that there is more explicit sex in TV-series from US nowadays, while less in books. Probably why fifty shades sold so well. Example: Read the series of Clan of the cavebear and notice the chaste last book (and extremely badly written - only for fans)

    I looked for statistics on virginity in Korea and if I remember right, a bit past twenty, which is quite late, and a lot of the boys had first experience with prostitutes, which is terrible.

    One reason I liked Coffee Prince is that it is clearly stated that they are sexually frustrated, the girl also wanted sex, and they did have sex, yet we don´t need to actually see them doing it. Just the right approach for me.

    I recently watched Answer me 1997, and although really well made, I cringe when the couple supposedly close to thirty : The woman says no no then yes, and she beats the man because she fell pregnant because "he promised to be careful". How, exactly?

    Your post is a few years old by now. Do you think the trend is the still sex in movies, chaste on TV?

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