How studying family law has ruined my favourite pastime
Part I: It started with this book
It is 5pm on a Saturday and I have been procrastinating on my essay on domestic violence for the whole afternoon by re-reading Silent Separation (何以笙簫默) by Gu Man for the umpteenth time. It is a very simple love story written in simple language that makes for a nice simple read when you should be doing other (more pressing) stuff. However, reading it this time round, I realised that things I appreciated as part of the “romance” and “character development” on my previous reads actually corresponded with the concept of domestic violence that I was half-heartedly dabbling at.
There is yet to be consensus on what exactly domestic violence encompasses. There are questions such as how “domestic” the relationship must be. Must there be violence of some sort or is coercion sufficient? For present purposes, I will go with the definition in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, where it means “any incident, or pattern of incidents, of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (whether psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between individuals who are associated with each other”. It is worth noting that “physical” appears as the second word, marking a shift away from the notion of “battered wives” to other patterns of behaviour that can lead to harm, affirming the Supreme Court in Yemshaw v Hounslow London Borough Council.
Silent Separation, set in China, is a story of two university students breaking up in bitter circumstances to find their lives entangled once again seven years later. It is evident that the male protagonist perpetrates forms of physical and sexual abuse on the female protagonist, for example, by waiting outside her home late at night and ambushing her with kisses while drunk, and then subsequently kissing her again while sober the next day to prove that he intended it, without her consent. Additionally, when he finds her packing her luggage (to go on a business trip that she forgot to tell him about), he manifests his insecurities. Thinking that she is leaving him again, he grabs her wrist until it is bruised and then proceeds to push her onto the bed, rip her clothes off and almost rape her, saying this is her duty as a wife. No doubt this is an offence of sexual assault under section 3 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, and possibly assault occasioning actual bodily harm under section 47 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861.
Psychologically and emotionally, the male protagonist fluctuates extensively between being passive and aggressive. He and other male characters refer to the female protagonist as stubborn, stupid, noisy, exasperating, ordinary and “just-too-plain-Jane-how-did-she-end-up-with-such-an-exceptional-man”. He addresses her with commands: come here, go away, eat, sleep, move in to my house. When she crosses the road negligently and almost gets hit by a lorry, he berates her and patronisingly instructs her to write a self-criticism letter on how to cross roads (though tbh this may just be a remnant of the Cultural Revolution). Most outrageously, after rejecting her offer to get back together one night, he turns up at her house the next morning and mandates: either she gets in the car and goes to the marriage registry now or he will never see her again, effectively forcing her to marry him under duress. These instances are all interspersed with scenes of blissful happiness, pointing dangerously to the Cycle of Domestic Violence where a honeymoon period is followed by tension, then violence, then a honeymoon again. If you remove the author’s romantic gloss from these incidents, you can definitely see the pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour between the characters that delineates the modern understanding of domestic violence. Yet, this novel has been adapted into a movie and a TV show with A-List actors starring in them, demonstrating a failure by numerous, influential parties in the public duty not to promote gendered violence.
In the past, I interpreted these actions as romantic. I mean, after seven years of separation, the two protagonists cannot forget each other. The male protagonist is resentful of the female protagonist for leaving him but cannot control his love for her. I remember my friend (who was very into anime) asking a group of us during our teens whether we preferred “romantic” (i.e. gentle) or “beastly” love. We all giggled and unanimously said “beastly”. Being “kabedon-ed” (壁ドン: when a man forces a woman against a wall with one hand leaving the woman nowhere to go) was probably high on our teenage fantasies lists. There was an obvious perception that an overbearing man who is so consumed with emotion that he cannot control himself in front of the girl he loves is what we should desire.
In the present, having been enlightened with the study of family law, I find these acts quite alarming. In the story, the female protagonist parted on the same resentful terms — she thought the male protagonist had chosen another girl (whom she found out was his adopted sister lol). I don’t see her projecting her emotions by violently grabbing the male protagonist or drunkenly making out with him. Instead, her role in the relationship dynamic is to fall asleep on the sofa so that he could carry her to bed and tuck her in like a man; to hold timidly onto his sleeve while he’s trying to storm off because he’s angry about something she did again; and to accept his credit card as a gift because she should be economically dependent on him and rejecting it would destroy his self-esteem. She must tiptoe around his insecurities in fear that the relationship will fall apart any second.
I’m curious now: why must the power-balance be so extreme for an Asian audience to find a story alluring? Can’t a character’s emotions of longing, desperation and passion be manifested in healthier ways? If a woman need not be violent or abusive to exhibit these emotions, then why must a man be? If the author really finds scenes of sexual assault and abuse add to plot and character development, can she not at least hold the man accountable later on? Gu failed miserably at this in Silent Separation.
Part II: The same story goes for dramas
Silent Separation is not the first time I’ve been irked by revisiting an old favourite book or drama (and by drama I mean the lovey-dovey romance shows, not the crime or political thrillers etc.). I watch a lot of dramas (too many, some say). While some encapsulate strong female characters and blunter gender roles (for example, Healer 힐러 or Descendants of the Sun 태양의 후예), many are still very problematic and flag up issues of gendered violence and patriarchal society in East Asia (NB: I will only discuss Taiwanese and Korean dramas because that’s all I watch, but I’m sure my points apply to Japanese, Thai, Pinoy dramas etc.).
Violence in dramas
Autumn Concerto (下一站，幸福) is one of the most famous Taiwanese dramas, and I tried watching it again a few months ago. Again, I found things problematic that I definitely did not find problematic or even enjoyed before. Like in Silent Separation, the male lead is jealous and insecure after the characters’ first breakup. He forces the female lead to marry him, and then tries to force himself on her in bed (NB: SPOUSAL RAPE IS STILL RAPE and the marriage is technically voidable for lack of consent).
He orders his secretary to stalk his wife and report back to him when he suspects her of pawning her wedding ring (which he forces her to wear) in order to raise money to bail a male friend out of jail. Evan Stark commenting on coercive control in domestic violence says that tactics to isolate or control victims include “forms of constraint and the monitoring and/or regulation of commonplace activities of daily living”. *Ahem* Crazy, jealous, insecure husband much? I really can’t believe I used to enjoy this.
Another thing about abuse in Asian entertainment is that if it’s done against a woman, it’s romantic, but if it’s done against a man, it’s comedic. In Oh My Ghostess (오 나의 귀신님), one of the hilarious scenes is where the female lead tries to seduce the terrified male lead despite his resistance. In My Sassy Girl (엽기적인 그녀), the “sassy girlfriend” is downright aggressive, smacking and kicking the male lead on multiple occasions and pushing him into a lake. In fact, the movie poster is of the girl choking the guy with her arm. This film is a classic and has been remade in other countries.
It can be said that these novelists, producers and actors are being socially irresponsible. There is nothing funny or romantic about domestic violence, no matter who is perpetrator or victim. They are collectively trivialising and creating amusement at the expense of a serious public harm. If producers would not make a joke out of racially aggravated hate crimes, then they should also not do so for gendered crimes. In fact, Jonathan Herring argues that we should see domestic violence as worse than a crime in the street, because it involves, among other factors, a breach of trust. In intimate relationships, one opens oneself up and becomes vulnerable to the other. The perpetrator takes advantage of the vulnerability and turns against her, striking particularly at the heart of the individual.
Patriarchy in dramas
Aside from domestic violence, the following are some Asian drama norms that I think are guilty of reinforcing archaic gender norms:
KISSES: There are usually only two types of kiss scenes: surprise kiss and ambush kiss. In a surprise kiss, the female must be shocked when the male suddenly kisses her. Being super sexually innocent and totally not expecting it despite a lead-up for the past ten episodes, she must act stupefied (cue different camera angles and replays of her eyes widening and unmoving lips).
Ambush kisses are more intense surprise kisses. The female tends to try to fight back for a few moments before giving in and either going limp or kissing back. The female should not initiate a kiss, and if she does, it must only be a peck on the cheek because females are supposed to be pure and innocent.
DRIVING: The male is always the one with the car and is always the one who drives and picks the female up to take her places. Because females do not drive. Also they probably cannot afford a car. This allows the man to control where he takes her. The best exception I’ve seen to this is in Another Oh Hae Young (또! 오해영) where a total of two female characters (not the lead though) drove cars because Hyundai or something was a major sponsor and they needed to show more people driving cars.
AGE: Male leads can be significantly older than female leads but God forbid if it’s the other way round! Gong Yoo in Goblin (도깨비) was 37 while Kim Go Eun was 25. In the drama, their characters are a 939 year old goblin and a 19 year old school girl respectively (..um ok).
On the other hand, once a female is past her mid-thirties she is a “defeated dog” (Queen of No Marriage 敗犬女王) or a “witch” (Witch’s Romance 마녀의 연애), especially if she falls in love with a male younger than her.
TALL, RICH & HANDSOME: The male is usually outstandingly handsome (the character as well, not just the actor — they always get flawless actors to play supposedly “ugly” characters). He is also economically strong while the girl is the opposite is-he-blind-why-did-he-choose-her-out-of-all-girls type. He will usually be a lawyer or successful businessman, while she would be a secretary or delivering fried chicken. If the man starts out as poor, don’t worry, he is probably a chaebol heir who was separated from his family and lost his memory and will receive a large inheritance by the end when he is reunited with his empire (e.g. Beautiful Gong Shim 미녀 공심이 or Rooftop Prince 옥탑방 왕세자). Because he is so tall, rich and handsome, the female should feel inferior and dependent. Thoughts such “I know the situation is shit but be happy, this is more than I deserve” or “I’ve caused him too much trouble already by being with him so I must never ask for more” should consistently play out in her monologues (Fated to Love You 命中注定我愛你). Also, even though he is rich, she must never like him for the money, otherwise she will no longer be pure and innocent.
EXTERNAL DRAMA IS FOR MEN, INTERNAL DRAMA IS FOR WOMEN: If there is a politics subplot, it must be male dominated. If there is conflict within the family (and plotting), it will be organised by the grandma or mother-in-law.
I have been listing problematic cases and speaking with generalisations. In truth, some dramas exist that are worth commending. The Fierce Wife (犀利人妻) tells the reverse story of shows a woman breaking free from her childhood notion of “good wife, good life” and finding independence without men. In Time With You (我可能不會愛你) shows a confident and ambitious woman making her own judgments on what will bring her the most happiness, including taking her friend out of the “friendzone”.
The dramas in which I perceive a more equal relationship are those where the female lead is given a status occupation. In Descendants of the Sun, the female lead is a doctor. In It’s Okay, That’s Love (괜찮아, 사랑이야), she is a psychiatrist. In Signal (시그널), she manages a police unit on cold cases. In Reply 1988 (응답하라), she is a student political activist turned lawyer. The romance in these dramas is much more refreshing. Conversation goes back and forth as opposed to up and down. Moreover, the recent drama of Jealousy Incarnate (질투의 화신) covers the issue of breast cancer in men and is the driving feature. It deserves applause for dealing directly with a sensitive, taboo issue.
What I am trying to say is that orthodox “romantic” scenes involving male dominance are not necessarily central elements to a good Asian drama. Asian dramas can be just as entertaining and relaxing, and arguably more so, when gender is non-defining. Show producers should be more imaginative. While there is a tension between preserving traditional Confucian values and giving credence to modern liberal values, I don’t believe that this is the paramount agenda behind dramas. Instead, it is tempting to stick to the orthodox tools and pre-existing character norms because after all, it is well established that pushing a girl against the wall to confess is effective in exciting an audience and wheeeee! look at those viewer ratings skyrocket and pitter-patter the advertising revenue comes raining down. But that is an easy option at the expense of damaging the feminist agenda and reinforcing the patriarchy. Anyhow, the aforementioned tension is not so delicate that it cannot be manoeuvred around with a bit of effort and conscientiousness. The audience cares about drama, but this drama does not have to derive from the degradation of women. Arguably, creators of modern popular entertainment who have widespread influence have a social duty to unravel ingrained prejudices. I believe that it is in principle possible to reconcile being a feminist with enjoying Asian dramas. I will continue watching Asian dramas and reading Chinese books, but in some cases, I will need to switch my critical brain on low power mode.
…Anyway, I should probably go back to writing the real essay that I set out to write on domestic violence.