In the heyday of the HIStory series (yes in that entire year of 2018) it produced two very short stories of only 4 episodes each.
One of these – Crossing the Line (otherwise known as Boundary Crossing) – was widely praised both for the story and the romance. It’s often cited as one of the best BLs ever made. However, there was a second story in that year: the somewhat controversial Right or Wrong.
Like its title says, however, viewers weren’t supposed to unquestioningly accept the romance as… well… romantic. We were supposed to be asking ourselves whether what we saw on screen was okay or not. Because, on paper, everything about this romance is wrong. And yet it works. So is it right or is it wrong?
Shi Yi Jie (Steven Jiang) is a divorced man in his 30s. An associate professor in The Department of Anthropology at a University, he is a workaholic who finds it difficult to take care of his 8-year-old daughter, Yo Yo.
Fei Sheng Zhe (Hang Zhang) is a 19-year-old gay man with little romantic experience due to some bad bullying when he was in highschool. Raised by a hardworking single mother, he’s used to managing a house while someone else works long hours. He is in his first year of University.
When Fei Sheng Zhe finds Yo Yo neglected at home one day, he confronts Shi Yi Jie and gets employed as a housekeeper and nanny to take care of her. At the same time, Yi Jie takes over one of Sheng Zhe’s classes as a lecturer when his normal lecturer goes on leave and then hires him to work as an assistant in his office as well.
The three of them – Sheng Zhe, Yi Jie and Yo Yo – slowly become a family as both the two men and the little girl fall in love.
Right or Wrong?
It doesn’t take much effort to see the multiple issues in this relationship. The large gap in age and life experience between the two, the multiple points of authority the older man has over the younger (employer, teacher), and the heteronormative roles implicit in the smaller gay man doing childcare and housework while the larger and more masculine partner works.
So, is the relationship right or wrong?
Well, the show has several things working both for and against it (bearing in mind it’s only four episodes). And while I was tempted to give my own verdict on it, I think I’ll let viewers make up their own minds – especially since that’s also what the show is asking them to do.
The age difference
As far as I know, Yi Jie’s age is never outright stated by the drama. But as an anthropology professor with an 8 year old daughter he has to be at least 32 years old. The drama takes the time to tell you he ‘married young’ but with his career at this level he can’t be below 30. This puts the age difference at a minimum of 12 years and those 12 years were full of experiences Sheng Zhe hasn’t had yet, up to and including being in a relationship before. Sheng Zhe may be openly gay but he’s still a virgin with no dating experience. And there’s an age gap between the actors as well.
Fei Sheng Zhe is extremely mature for his age
Raised by a strong, hardworking single mother and with a group of loving and supportive friends around him, Sheng Zhe sports an appealing and laid back sense of humour, a pragmatic, intelligent approach to life, and has few romantic fantasies. He is the kind of person who takes joy in simple domestic pleasures, values family and – most importantly – he doesn’t let his inferior social and employment position stop him from confronting Yi Jie if he thinks he’s in the wrong. His feelings for Yi Jie are consistently less important to him than Yo Yo’s wellbeing and it’s no surprise she’s the one most invested in him and her father working out as a couple. Unlike most people his age, Sheng Zhe is ready and able to be a father and he and Yi Jie want and value the same things.
In terms of power dynamics, for some reason the drama decided to go all-in with multiple points of authority for Yi Jie to hold over Sheng Zhe. Not content with him being his employer at home, he also becomes his lecturer and then employs him to work in his office as well. Yi Jie is not just Sheng Zhe’s main source of income; he has control over his academic performance as well. And for a man of his age that is probably more important even than the financial side, although as the working child of a single working mother, money is implied to be tight in Sheng Zhe’s family.
Gay For You? Yi Jie’s emotional honesty
Right or Wrong was plagued by Gay For You accusations when it aired. Yi Jie is ostensibly straight but falls for a man. And Gay For You has been a problem for the series as a whole so it’s an understandable accusation to make. Yi Shi does admit he’s never had feelings for a man before and this throws weight behind the idea. And yet, as a standalone series, the accusation of Gay For You in relation to Right or Wrong is probably misplaced. It’s more of an extreme normalisation whereby Yi Jie seems so comfortable in his sexuality that he doesn’t feel it needs remarking on. He never identifies himself as straight, gay or bi and doesn’t express any surprise or confusion at falling for a man. It’s something he just accepts and, once he does, he pursues the relationship openly and honestly with no sense that he sees it as wrong, embarrassing, strange or shameful. If anything, Sheng Zhe’s negative experiences in the past mean that he is the one who wants to hide their relationship, a fact that Yi Shi gets very angry about at one point. While the show never deals with the University issue, it’s not a stretch to assume that Yi Jie has or would inform HR about the relationship and take steps to ensure somebody else helps to grade or moderate Yi Shi’s assignments. He’s only a substitute teacher and is unlikely to be in charge of one of his classes again.
Either way, Yi Jie’s response to his growing feelings for Sheng Zhe is forthright, open, honest and respectful. And unlike a lot of BLs he never tries to control Sheng Zhe or override his bodily autonomy. There’s no stalking, harassment or assault disguised as romance and he demands nothing but that Sheng Zhe be proud and unafraid of his feelings and who he is. It’s actually quite swoonworthy. Oh wait, I wasn’t going to try to influence your opinion.
Fei Sheng Zhe as a housewife
“He never knew what love was until a woman moved in and did all the cooking, cleaning and childcare…”
This is a joke I often make about dramas that involve romances between men and their housekeepers – like Korea’s 2010 drama Oh My Lady where a 35-year-old single mother gets hired as a live-in nanny and housekeeper for a Kpop Idol.
There’s really not much to say about this that isn’t obvious from watching the show. Yi Jie over the course of the series expresses his like for – in no particular order – Sheng Zhe’s organisational skills, his cooking, how he takes care of his daughter, and how nice it is to come home to a well-kept house. It’s hard not to wonder if he likes Sheng Zhe or just his housekeeping skills. Either way, referring to him as his ‘wife’ only re-enforces the dynamic, as does Sheng Zhe’s best friend referring to him as the ‘family matriarch’, and Yi Jie going to Sheng Zhe’s mother to ask for permission to date him.
And there it is in all its problematic glory.
So, is the relationship right or wrong?
I can only recommend that you watch it and decide for yourself.
A Coda: Gay marriage, family and normative homosexual relationships
Made in the midst of Taiwan’s rather fascinating and complex journey to legalising same-sex marriage, Right or Wrong is ultimately not about a central romance between two men but is about a gay relationship being at the centre of a family. In this respect, the heteronormativity starts to be seen in a new light. While some people might not like the show reassuring people that gay relationships can be “normal” and all that philosophical position entails, it does somewhat explain the show’s emphasis on traditional familial gender roles.
The couple’s plan – to get married in two years – is eminently sensible considering Sheng Zhe’s age and the fact he hasn’t graduated from University yet. But it also coincides with the date in which Taiwan would have had gay marriage forced upon them if they hadn’t moved to put in limiting legislation beforehand.
Seen from the lens of an upcoming and seismic shift in the way that Taiwan has been asked to see relationships, family, childrearing and marriage, HIStory2: Right or Wrong then gets reframed as a call for viewers to see the universality in the formation of families – whether the couple in the middle is two men, two women, or a woman or a man.
And so I guess my initial decision to not come down on either side about this drama gets jettisoned for my need to always have a strong and clear opinion.
I’m going with Right. How about you?
HIStory 2: Right or Wrong is available for streaming on Viki, along with the rest of the HIStory series