The Maternal Role in Korean Dramas: Motherhood and Womanhood in South Korea’s Popular Culture Media
In most Korean dramas, mothers are characters in the background, appearing in the foreground only to cause a plot to move forward. Although, depending on the format and genre of the drama, there are also a handful of examples in which mothers play the main role in the foreground; one example being You’re the Best, Lee Soon Shin. More often than not, especially in the genres of melodrama or romantic comedy, mothers play the stereotypical role of ‘evil’ mother-in-laws or step-mothers to function as an antagonist or a foil. In other cases, which often explore the subject of academic success and schools, the ‘tiger mother’ steps into the foreground as the demanding mother who disallows failure, weaknesses and mistakes.
This piece will look at the various roles or characters of archetypal mothers within the Korean dramas in recent years including an example of a maternal character that breaks the archetypal characteristics of mothers in South Korea’s popular culture media.
Representations of Womanhood and Motherhood
Before discussing motherhood, it is vital to understand that any discussion of motherhood should also include an exploration of womanhood. Mothers are first and foremost women. Typically, mothers are idealistically portrayed as the ‘good’ mothers who are the ultimate caretakers with intense maternal instincts to boot. Their other roles as women are mostly non-existent especially in cases of romantic comedies or melodramatic romances in which they act as antagonists, barring the two lovers from uniting with each other. This role has become a trope in Korean dramas to which most of the audience is already accustomed. On the flip side of the same coin, there is the mother who demands the best for their child. While they play stereotypical role of ‘evil’ mothers, they are simultaneously mothers who want only the best for their children.
The representation of mothers is highly dependent on from which point of view the narrative discourse is being told. The recurring representation of mothers within the Korean drama scene emphasises the role of mothers who are highly demanding. These stereotypical mothers are most prominent in cases where the families are rich. When rich meets poor, the worst threat is always the “evil” mother. This may appear incongruent with Rebecca Feasey’s assertion that “the contemporary media environment is saturated by idealised and conservative images of mothering.” While the stereotypical mother in a Korean drama – more typically involving the romance of two younger people – is never the ‘good’ mother, as explained by Feasey, these tropes seem to conform perfectly to the idea of mothers who insists on providing the best for their sons or daughters.
The Demanding Mother
Two of the most well-known examples of this would be the mothers in Secret Garden and Boys Over Flowers. These mothers insist that the young women – their son’s love interests – are not in their right social class to be in any form of relationship with their children. These representations of these ‘evil’ mothers obscure the fine detail of their intentions for their children. They are most often painted in broad strokes as the witch-like figure and there is never room for explanations or developments. They are often remembered as cold, unromantic and overly rational. They are capable of running mega-sized businesses or companies and they demand the same from their children too. The sons who are incapable of meeting these standards are often deemed a disgrace to the family. This then leads to the demanding mothers – who only have their own children’s best interest in mind – to become distorted into ‘evil’ mothers who insist on designing the lives of their children.
The Tiger Mother
Another stereotypical maternal role in most Korean dramas or films is the ‘tiger mother’ who wants their child to succeed academically. In School 2013, both Kim Min Ki and Song Ha Kyung have mothers who expect them to excel academically and make it into a SKY university (Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University – the most prestigious universities in all of South Korea). While Kim Min Ki’s mother is visible in the background throughout the series, Song Ha Kyung’s mother is only mentioned briefly and involving only questions surrounding her daughter’s academic performance and achievement never her own well-being. Her eventual appearance on-screen was only due to the possibility of Song Ha Kyung being penalized for the accident caused by her at school. Since this would jeopardize her application to top universities, the mother steps into the foreground in order to ensure her daughter’s clean record would remain untarnished. Kim Min Ki’s mother, on the other had, can be see throughout as the mother who would do anything and everything in her power to ensure her son’s success; including cheating and bribing. While this may seem extreme or exaggerated, it would not surprise a regular K-drama viewer.
The academic success of children demanded by these ‘tiger mothers’ may stem from “the emphasis on scholarship in Confucianism (in which) high value and priority (are placed) on academic achievement, because education often is viewed as a vehicle for economic opportunities and social mobility”. The strong belief in academic success that will bring about the upward social mobility or economic improvement has been deeply rooted in Korea for hundreds of years as can be seen in historical (or saeguk) drama series and films. This belief has continued being a strong pillar in Korean society’s value system. With this, ‘tiger mothers’ feel responsible for ensuring their children’s academic success. As a responsible mother, they are eager to secure a place at a well-renowned hagwon, university and ultimately a managerial-entry job at a conglomerate company. It is strongly believed that attending a high ranking high school and hagwon will ensure higher SAT scores. Consequently, this will secure an entrance into a top university which will create better career opportunities. There seems to be no way around this system of belief. In cases like Song Ha Kyung and Kim Min Ki, their mothers find pride in their children succeeding academically. Scoring anything lower than an A for the important subjects will be a disgrace and they would do everything in their power to ensure that it does not happen.
Tiger mothers always appear to be strong and hard-headed. They are sometimes impatient, especially when it comes to anything that is related to their children’s academic success. Following Kim Min Ki’s focal point, the audience is then allowed a better glimpse into the uglier truth of a tiger mother’s sacrifice. However the portrayal and representation of her mother’s role is problematic in that the audience is not encouraged to sympathise with her. No one would feel that they should take her side and defend her as she appears to be almost robotic with her mind purely focussed on getting Kim Min Ki into Seoul University. Later, it is revealed to the audience that Kim Min Ki’s brother has been locking himself in his room for over a year. We are only told that he has been admitted into an Ivy League university in the United States and is currently pursuing his studies there. It is only when the audience is shown a scene of the mother breaking down in front of the older brother’s room that sympathy is invoked in the audience reversing the demonisation of the tiger mother role . The reversal is fully realized when she comprehends the pressure she has been placing on her sons and finally agrees to allow Kim Min Ki his own choice of undergraduate studies, albeit still with the condition of it being at Seoul University. With this mere compromise between the mother and son’s choice, the image of the tiger mother continues to be imprinted in the audience’s mind. She is still steadfastly adhering to the belief that entering one of the SKY universities is non-negotiable.
Crossing between the Tiger mother and Sacrificial mother
In one way or another, the tiger mother – and especially in Kim Min Ki’s mother’s case – is also a sacrificial maternal role. Her sufferings are not visible to those who are not able to identify with her beliefs or ideals. The effort and time she puts into ensuring her child’s success is not acknowledged by those who are not able to agree with her demands. Another similar situation is seen in the more recent prime time series God’s Gift 14 Days where Kim Soo Hyun initially appeared to be the typical tiger mother. When she is driving her daughter, Han Saet Byul, to and from school or hagwon classes, she drills her on the Hangul alphabet system and tests her on geometric questions. She insists that she does better. She strongly believes that her duty as a mother is to ensure her daughter’s academic success even though she is only in elementary school. Despite working full-time as a screenwriter, she ensures that her daughter follows a healthy and balanced diet religiously. The attention she gives her daughter sometimes appear to be overbearing and yet when she, in a moment of being caught up by her emotions from meeting her first love, had Saet Byul kidnapped by someone and later killed, the husband chooses to hold her responsible for it. She is blamed for being an irresponsible mother (in a way, also hinting at her being an irresponsible wife).
Following the time-travel sequence, Soo Hyun plunges into a frenzy in order to keep Saet Byul safe. Her husband pleads for her to stop acting “crazy” and to set her mind straight; to fulfill her role as a proper mother and not have crazy thoughts of Saet Byul being kidnapped or killed. More than her eagerness to keep Saet Byul safe, Soo Hyun learned to stop becoming the ‘tiger mother’ who insists that her daughter goes to all the hagwons. She allows her freedom and creative space to explore her strengths and interests.
During the sequence of events following the time-travel, Soo Hyun shows great maternal instincts in ensuring her daughter’s own safety. In the process, she also saves Saet Byul’s classmate and expressed her gratitude for Yong Gyu. This proved that Soo Hyun’s maternal instincts was not limited to her own daughter but also to others. Despite her fighting spirit, much of the audience showed distaste for her character. There was a lot of criticisms against her actions; many saying she was too impulsive. The argument against those criticisms is that Soo Hyun has been through the pain of losing Saet Byul and this intensified her fear of losing her only child. She is determined and stubborn in many ways; all of these qualities can be both good and bad yet in the circumstances she was pitted against, she turned those qualities into great values that would solve the mysteries around her daughter’s kidnapping and death. Her constant alertness and willpower to work through the clues she finds related to Saet Byul’s death are one of the most vital key to solving the mysteries and saving Saet Byul. There were times when she stays awake all-night, her eyes trained on a place or person’s actions. She displayed extreme resilience and competency in everything she does. Soo Hyun is both a mother and a heroine. She plays a dual role which is rather rare in the Korean drama scene and especially in a prime time series. Her character has risen above the stereotypical Korean drama mother to be the hero everyone roots for as she races against time and the messy politics of fictional K-Dramaland. She has altered the stagnant and stereotypical characteristics of the maternal role in the Korean drama scene.
Fighting against stereotypes in maternal roles of Korean dramas
Despite the continuously evolving role of the maternal role within the Korean drama scene, mothers continue to fall victim to certain stereotypes or representations that are deeply rooted in East Asian society. As a woman, their identity as mother becomes their defining role. Womanhood, in essence, is automatically translated into motherhood when a woman becomes a mother. Married and widowed women are never expected to seek a new romantic partner. Women who are married and have children will have their identities defined by their roles as a wife and mother. Soo Hyun was a mother to Saet Byul throughout the series without fail. She never truly had her identity defined otherwise and that never changed even when she spent a significant amount of time with Ki Dong Chan when they worked to solve the mysteries surrounding Saet Byul’s kidnapping. Yet, the maternal role of Soo Hyun has left an impressionable effect as she broke the stereotypical ‘tiger mother’ image by transforming into a heroine by saving her daughter from death. At the same time, she also became a mother who compromises with her daughter by trying to understand her daughter’s ideals. Even in the cases of other characters pointed out in these examples, the mothers do not have a story to tell beyond their roles as mothers; their stories revolve around the narrative discourses of their children’s rather than their own.
The maternal roles of more recent dramas have witnessed an increasing breakthrough in the stereotypes and representations of mothers in the media. Although not all series filmed and broadcasted in recent years prove to be the same, the increase has become significant enough to challenge the tropes surrounding the maternal role within Korean dramas. This should continue to be the case in order that the maternal role would not be inevitably defined by one or two forms of representations. Motherhood should include womanhood. With that, motherhood should be much more individualised rather than all mother characters being generalized into mere stereotypes within the contemporary media.
 Rebecca Feasey, ‘From Soap Opera to Reality Programming: Examining motherhood, motherwork and the maternal role on popular television’, Imaginations, 4.2, 2013, p.28
 Priscilla Lin and David E., ‘Tiger Moms: Popular and psychological scientific perspectives on Asian culture and parenting’
 The Chinese in America: A History from Gold Mountain to the New Millenium ed. by Susie Lan Cassel, All images/screencaps belong to Dramabeans