Blurring the Lines of a Modern Taboo

A contemplation on the love between Dong Hoon and Ji An. Is it transcendent love, transcending physical and sexual needs? Or is it romantic love, minus the romance tropes? @40somethingahjumma thinks that it’s the latter, and that this drama is blurring the lines of a modern taboo… age gap relationships.

I personally think that the love between Dong Hoon and Ji’An is not transcendent but that the bond between them transcends compartmentalization. It may sound like hair splitting but to me there’s a significant difference. A transcendent love would be related to the metaphysical… like God’s love for humanity that can’t be categorized as erosphileo and storge. When I say that their relationship transcends compartmentalization, it means that I perceive elements of all three (as well as agape) at play between Dong Hoon and Ji’An as their relationship evolves.*

I’ve been reading comments on Soompi and elsewhere with interest and while I respect the diversity of views expressed, I can’t help thinking that if Ji’An weren’t 21 but 31, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. There’s no doubt that the show is blurring the lines of a modern taboo. It is a modern taboo because even seventy, a hundred years ago, this would not have been an issue. Men took wives that were much younger than themselves not necessarily because there was a meeting of minds but because they had to “fulfill their duties to the ancestors” and produce progeny to continue the family line. While the age gap could be quite extensive, marriage was perceived differently and the division of labour between the sexes in a household was clearly defined. These days when people generally “marry for love”, it’s hard for people to conceive that a couple with a large age gap could have much in common and their relationship would be tainted with “incest-like” connotations or at best, an unequal relationship dynamic because of varying degrees of life experiences.

Looking at My Mister more specifically, I’ve never once seen any kind of unequal dynamic existing between the leads because Ji’An has so much street smarts. In all my years of watching K dramas, I’ve seldom seen a young woman who has the kind of intelligence and maturity that she has. She is wise beyond her years. Far more savvy than most of the older adults in this show. She displays a lot more discernment than Yoon Hee apparently who for some reason couldn’t see through Joon Young for what he really is. Her suffering at an early age and the struggle to survive has made her a lot more aware of the darker side of human existence a lot more quickly. She’s had to grow up really fast to navigate the world of adults as best as she can. There’s nothing naive about her that requires any kind of parenting of the traditional kind. I don’t see Dong Hoon parenting her in any sense. If anything, he respects her independence and individuality in true inclusive fashion. He may act like her supervisor at times but he doesn’t even remotely pretend to act like her father. As for her not knowing her own mind or whether she’s in love… the nicest thing I can say is… we are watching different shows. Ji’An is very self-aware, quick-witted and perceptive. I think she hit the nail on the head when she told Gwang Il that she knows that he likes her.

Contrast that with Meari from A Gentleman’s Dignity who’s a petulant, whining woman-child who is in love with her brother’s forty-something year old friend. THAT was a mismatch.

What Dong Hoon’s care for her has done is to lift the cloud of cynicism that has followed her everywhere. She’s brightening up and feeling in ways she hasn’t before.

I’m not saying a man can’t be kind or have a friendship with a woman that doesn’t involve a sexual component. If all we’re doing is just focusing on what Dong Hoon does to show kindness to someone who’s never experienced kindness from anyone in her life, sure yeah… I can see how there’s nothing more to it than just the fact that Dong Hoon is a really nice guy who is caring for an ostracized subordinate that’s doing it tough.

However, it’s what he is or does when she’s not in the room that tells me there’s a lot more going on than him being a nice guy. It’s the way he looks at her cubicle, at the slippers… when he looks around the train for her. He is genuinely intrigued by her like a man who is discovering a woman who has piqued his interest. Dong Hoon may or may not know that he’s “in love” in the mean time but that’s irrelevant. Because the audience is being directed to think in these scenes that there’s more going on than even he realises.

Of course there’s also the matter of Dong Hoon being a married man. And the number of times he crossed the line as a married man to help Ji’An like he’s family? It can’t be denied. Even the hard-bitten cynical Ji’An senses it. Even if we think that that marriage is irreparably broken, he is technically still married. As far as most of the world is concerned, he is. And that’s another taboo area. For me, he is a man in limbo who hasn’t really come to grips with his own emotions regarding his wife’s adultery. He is avoiding dealing with it in the interim as he deals with the more urgent work-related issues and not wanting to disappoint his mother.

I’m of the opinion that the show is being deliberately coy. The fact that so many of us see an adult romance at work between a man and woman in Ji’An and Dong Hoon while others are thinking “platonic”, “transcendent”, “ships passing in the night” suggests to me that on some level that the drama is trying to circumvent certain social norms without being overt about it. It’s like the good old days of Hollywood when the censorship laws were much stricter and when people tended to keep their clothes on, the love scenes were done in such a way as to leave things to the imagination.


* A short note on the four kinds of love (as termed by the Ancient Greeks):

  1. Eros – love of the body / romantic love
  2. Phileo – love of the soul / enjoyment, fondness, friendship
  3. Storge – love of community / family loyalty
  4. Agape – unconditional love with stick-ability

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2 thoughts on “Blurring the Lines of a Modern Taboo”

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