Imposing rules on rule-breaking seems to be contrary to the spirit of rule-breaking itself. After all, rules are often broken precisely to break down impenetrable barriers, cross forbidden boundaries and boldly go where no man has gone before. Romance dramas, in particular, frequently rebel against time, space, politics or class to bring star-crossed lovers together. In so doing, they feed into the universally shared fantasy of a love so powerful that no entity – God or human – is capable of stopping it in its path. Yet, isn’t this worship of forbidden love so prevalent that it nearly spells a rule? More fundamentally, wouldn’t the rule that rule-breaking is to be bound by no rules be, paradoxically, an inflexible rule in itself?
It seems that rules are unavoidable, in life and in dramas. Rather than aspiring to break all rules in the universe, it is more practicable to be judicious about rules to keep and rules to discard. In High School King of Savvy, we see a deluge of rules broken all at once: May-December relationship, older female / younger male dynamic, boss-secretary romance and skinship with a minor, with all of the above culminating in marriage – while the boy was still in high school. Unsurprisingly, this proved to be a divisive issue among its audience. In the wake of the controversy, it helps to take a pause and review conditions for rule-breaking.
A good starting point would be an examination of the types of rules in existence. Rules can be promises to oneself or others, in which case, all things equal, violation of the latter may have more serious ramifications than that of the former. A salesman failing to fulfill his personal target of finalizing deals within one week disappoints only himself, whereas one who has made it a contract with his employer and clients contravenes widespread expectations and undermines business operations. Rules may also amount to no more than guidelines based on methods that have proven effective in meeting goals in the past. In this latter scenario, one may claim the moral high ground in thinking out of the box and advancing more effective ways of reaching those goals.
Often, however, rules provide predictability and instill order in our lives. Laws and moral standards, including the social conventions flouted by this drama, belong to this category of rules. Without knowing that strangers will not, in most cases, claim your child for their own just because they take a sudden liking to him/her or trusting that your spouse will remain by your side in times of illness and poverty, for instance, lives will probably be pervaded with far more anxieties than they presently are. And when everything you hold dear threatens to evaporate at any instance, there is less incentive to acquire them in the first place. Instead of spreading such malaise around, it may be more sensible to seek out alternatives to outright rule-breaking. One approach less disruptive to social certainty would be the advocacy for changes to rules, as opposed to violation of them without any prior notification. On the other hand, this is obviously not always practicable in time-sensitive situations.
This brings us to another concern: what does the rule in question protect? Chances are the rule has been set up arbitrarily, such that it makes no inherent moral difference. Often, though, rules have evolved to safeguard persons and moral ideals. Weighing the importance of the entities under protection against that of potential benefits brought about by rule-breaking can help us determine the appropriateness of rule-breaking. Marriage with a minor is frowned about often because of the lopsided power distribution and exposure of the minor to sexualization. In other words, there is the concern that, owing to their lack of maturity and thus capacity to give truly competent consent to marriage, child grooms and brides are essentially being sexually exploited. Moreover, getting wedded at a premature age may upset children’s natural patterns of psychological and social development, cutting short their childhood/teenage-hood and placing too great a strain on them, in terms of financial and domestic commitments, at too tender an age. It is worth questioning if the conjugal bliss gained in marriage can offset these losses and whether marriage can be delayed to reduce these losses. Nonetheless, no two marriages are the same and it is not unimaginable that a particular high schooler can have higher maturity than his/her adult spouse and the requisite abilities to cope with marriage and academic work at the same time. Life is also too unpredictable to assume that the parties concerned will have a tomorrow to wait for. Forcing all members in a society to refrain from a particular decision just because the majority of members cannot handle the decision can be a crude approach that reeks of paternalism.
Still, rules like teen marriages are usually not flouted unilaterally. In deciding to proceed with a marriage, a precocious teen risks attracting social opprobrium for his/her adult spouse. Indeed, as the drama illustrates in its story development, it is the grown-up that bears the brunt of the criticism for supposedly not acting with the maturity they are presumed to possess. A person can consent to face public misunderstanding and punitive consequences of rule-breaking alone, but the justifiability of insisting that an “accomplice” faces the music with him/her, as is inevitable under these circumstances, can be ethically questionable. The couple in the drama did not compel each other into marriage so much as neglect to consider this aspect of their dilemma, but one last problem remains.
This problem is that of trend-setting. Rule breakers may like to think of themselves as one-off exceptions, but the reality is that one’s acts have the potential to influence others – including those whose situations do not meet the rule-breaking criteria above – especially when one is in a position of power. Broadcasters, in particular, have the ability to shape societal norms for better or worse. While some commentators may assert that viewers have the capacity to discern right from wrong and decide for themselves the kinds of lives they want to lead, there are several flaws with this argument. First of all, such statements usually stem from personal experiences, which, as authentic as they may be, do not necessarily represent those of the majority of audiences. Second, although people tend to think of themselves as independently-minded, it can be hard to resist the insidious influence of subtle messages (e.g. “doing x makes people happy” as opposed to a direct “you should do x”) exposed over an extended period of time (e.g. months in the case of drama serials) – society has, in fact, come to embrace ideas like Internet communications and homosexualism it disparaged just decades ago. Finally, even if the majority of audiences can separate fiction from reality, history has shown that there is still a minority who transgress such boundaries. It is one thing to opt for teen marriage personally, but quite another to portray minors as cute potential dating material. Nevertheless, the endorsement of chasing dreams even at the cost of contravening societal rules is not entirely immoral in itself – it can provide much hope and comfort for those battling societal objection for rightful causes. While the suggestive publicity angle and plot details like a quasi-bed scene and references to “my little high schooler (boyfriend)” in the drama leave much to be desired, the heartwarming union of the main couple reminds the audience that when people stick to difficult, unconventional choices, we may admonish them and advise them to exercise better judgement, but when all is said and done, they are possibly better off living with our blessings than with the unnecessary stress of our continued censure.