Korean TV dramas often cast actresses who are older in real life than their leading men. Take the case of the drama Hyena, which stars actress Kim Hye-soo and actor Ju Ji-hoon as a pair of attorneys locked in a love-hate relationship.
Kim, who is best known for her roles in the films Tazza: The High Rollers, The Thieves, and Coin Locker Girl, and the TV series Signal, is 49. Ju, who appeared in both Along With The Gods films, and stars in the Netflix zombie drama Kingdom, is 37. The subject of their age disparity is never raised in the drama plot. What’s more important is determining which lawyer is more aggressive in court and in love.
Hyena is a refreshing case of casting, even if you consider that Kim’s beauty and talent make her a desirable addition to any production. Although the Hyena actors have a wider age discrepancy than usual, it’s common for k-dramas to cast female actresses that are a few years older than their male counterparts, and it’s not always because the plot requires it.
Mary Ainslie is an associate professor of media and communications at the University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China, and author of the paper Korean soft masculinity vs. Malay hegemony: Malaysian masculinity and Hallyu fandom. According to Ainslie, casting beyond age-stereotypes is a side effect of the Korean pop culture wave known as the Hallyu.
“One issue that might explain the lack of interest in age difference between pairings in Korean dramas (such as Hyena) is the general focus upon female-centric issues, which have always been a key part of Hallyu dramas,” said Ainslie.
Korean dramas include more than a fair share of what are known as “noona” dramas, referring to the affectionate term for an older sister. The dramas are so called because they feature an older woman in love with a younger man. The age difference is yet another obstacle for love to overcome, a drama plot device, because the family is bound to disapprove.
Casting an older actress with a younger actor is to be expected in a drama where the plot requires it, but it also happens when the plot does not. While dramas do pair actors of the same age or feature an older actor/younger actress couple, the number where actresses are older than their male counterparts is noteworthy. It also differs from what has traditionally been a casting practice in Hollywood, where casting can pair actresses who are decades younger than their male co-stars.
One recent example is When The Camellia Blooms, which stars actress Gong Hyo-jin, 39, as a character in a relationship with the character played by actor Kang Ha-neul, 30. Jung Hae-In, 31, starred in the noona romance Something in the Rain with Son Ye- jin, 38, where her character was meant to be older than his, but then he starred in One Spring Night with actress Han Ji-min, who is nine years older than him. In that romance they were supposed to be the same age.
In My Love From The Star, actress Jun Ji-hyun was cast across from Kim Soo-hyun, even though she is six years older. The drama I’ll Go To You When The Weather Is Nice stars actor Seo Kang-joon, 26, as the love interest of actress Park Min-young, 33. In The Crowned Clown, Lee Se-young, 28, plays the queen to Yeo Jin-goo’s king. Yeo, 23, also played the love interest for actress IU, 26, in Hotel Del Luna.
According to Ainslie, the rise of the Hallyu aligns with a recognition of increased female agency in Korea, which came about through women being part of a new middle-class, urban-set workforce. As the Hallyu continues to redefine conceptions of masculinity across Asia, male characters in prime time TV more frequently present a female-friendly model of masculinity and gender relations.
“This is why we see such a change in the depiction of masculinity in particular, as well as a focus upon urban work-centric issues and female-centric issues, such as how to hold down a job and get a boyfriend at the same time,” said Ainslie. “This doesn’t mean that the drama needs to be necessarily focused around age or relationships, just that for the female audience, who are, arguably, the main viewership, the character’s age is not a key factor in their desirability or their coupling with the actor, and a more mature actress can also be more believable and relatable given the urban-set challenges they face. Obviously, there are quite a few Korean dramas/films that overtly tackle issues around aging in women too.”
Does casting actresses older than their leading men reflect demographics?
“According to Statistics Korea, about 17.2% of married couples in 2019 consisted of an older woman and younger man,” said Lee Seung-ah, an assistant professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. “So I would say placing/casting an older woman and younger man couple in the TV dramas is just one way to reflect society.”
At the same time, said Lee, it can satisfy both writers, the majority of whom are female, and audiences, the majority of whom are female, as well.
Globally, an overwhelming majority of directors, producers and writers have traditionally been male, but in Korea today 90 percent of the drama writers are women. Although the number of women working in the U.S. film industry continues to increase, the percentage of female screenwriters is less than 30 percent, which may influence casting.
“It’s the storyteller that defines what’s appropriate,” said Thelma Adams, a U.S.-based film critic and the author of female driven historical fiction that flips the genres of westerns and crime.
To date, those storytellers have been mostly men.
“It’s the male gaze,” said Adams. “It’s a simple answer and I keep repeating it.”
In an industry dominated by men, you get men’s fantasies.
“The fantasy is an older man and a younger woman. That’s the difference. Who is telling the story? When you have women telling the story, you don’t have that dichotomy.”
As more women work in the global film and TV industry and make films with strong female characters, the focus is changing. However, in Hollywood, actresses in their 40s and 50s still have a harder time being cast, said Kristen Paladino of New York City-based Paladino Casting.
“There are so many great actresses that have reached the so-called peak in the industry that should be portrayed in TV and film,” said Paladino. “They are stronger than ever and really should be considered for these roles.”
As well as focusing more on female-centric issues and downplaying age differences on and off screen, Korea’s screenwriters have recently created a host of complex entertaining female characters, who are not necessarily defined by their age.
Kim Hye-soo plays one of these characters and nothing about the age discrepancy between the drama’s leads diminishes their chemistry.
This article was originally published on forbes.com.