TV families show class divide

By Claire Lee

Popular TV dramas show state of social immobility and family

  • Published : Feb 20, 2013 - 20:21
  • Updated : Feb 20, 2013 - 20:24

The popular terms “eomchinddal” and “eomchina” have become a syndrome in the last few years, indicating the “perfect people who have it all” by the Korean standard.

Literally translated as “my mother’s friend’s daughter (or son),” they refer not only to a son or a daughter-in-law, but also to the ideal child: An eomchinddal is good looking, a graduate of a top Korean or U.S. college, holds a high-paying job, and on top of everything else, is also popular. Some well-known real-life eomchinddal include actress Kim Tae-hee, a Seoul National University graduate, and Korean-American Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk.

But what if you “have it all” except for parents who can provide financial support? Recent local TV drama series’ protagonists are not eomchina or eomchinddal, but instead capable or trying individuals who struggle because of the socio-economic status of their parents. No matter how hard they try, these young men and women find it difficult to get the jobs they want, marry the ones they love and, sometimes, be the person they want to be. The shows reveal the complex duel between traditional Confucian values and today’s social immobility, where one is often judged and even stigmatized by the status of their parents, rather then who they are as individuals.

A sin against heaven

The protagonist of popular KBS drama series “My Daughter Seo-young” would have been a perfect eomchinddal ― if only she were born into a financially stable family.

The established and attractive lawyer (played by actress Lee Bo-young) is married into a chaebol family, while hiding the existence of her father. In fact, she lies that he is dead and completely cuts ties with her father ― a debt-ridden gambler who spent all the hard-earned money that she had saved up to pay for college. One of the biggest hit dramas in recent years, the show’s Jan. 27 episode lured 45 percent of viewers. 
A wedding scene from the popular KBS drama series “My Daughter Seo-young.” In the show, the protagonist Seo-young (second from right) marries into chaebol after lying that her debt-ridden father is dead. (KBS)

What Seo-young has done is often locally described as “paeryun”: a sin against heaven. It goes against the country’s traditional and Confucian value of filial piety. In the show’s promotional poster, Seo-young holds a red apple ― a clear stand-in for Eve’s forbidden fruit ― right beside Sam-jae, her incompetent, troublesome father. She is permanently scarred by her unforgivable lie, just like Adam and Eve by the original sin after the fall of man.

The drama series reveals a rather disturbing and complex truth about the Korean marriage market: Incompetent parents can be an obstacle for one’s marriage prospects. Some may argue that it is better to market yourself as an orphan than as one with inept parents.

“I see it as a denial of one’s class,” says culture critic Lee Moon-won on Seo-young’s “sin.”

“It is important to note that the rigid Confucian class system, which did not allow any social mobility, existed in this country up until just about 70 years ago. I think many Koreans still subconsciously think they are subordinate to their parents, and they automatically inherit their parents’ status. There is also this inherited victim mentality that one’s poor family background severely limits one’s potential for success. Seo-young’s decision can be seen as an extension of that.”

One’s family background, including customs as well as reputation, has always been regarded as important. However, the contemporary marriage market, which is an opportunity for upward social mobility for many especially in these economically difficult times, now evaluates a marriage candidate based primarily on how much wealth and power their parents wield. It is one’s inherited wealth ― not self-made success ― that is highly held. Seo-young’s “sin against heaven” is motivated by her desperate desire to be judged as an individual ― not as the daughter of an ex-gambler ― based on her own accomplishments.

“It’s a phenomenon that appears when society offers limited possibility of social mobility,” Lee said.

“Back in the ’80s and ’90s, one’s social standing was often labeled by the college they went to. But education and training no longer guarantee a higher socio-economic status. In such an economic environment, you either have to be rich by birth or marry someone rich. In a way, we are going back to the old caste system.”

Climbing the ladder

The fact that many young, capable female characters choose marriage to climb the social ladder in TV shows and films (last year’s romance film “Architecture 101,” SBS’ “King of Ambition” and KBS 2TV’s “The Innocent Man”) has to do with the economy and increasing class immobility.

A study released on Monday by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs said while 73 percent of the people in the country’s lowest income bracket saw no change in their income, 79.9 percent in the highest bracket also maintained their income level without changes. The study also said the proportion of households that escaped poverty from the previous year ― measured by their disposable income ― fell from 35.4 percent from 2005-06 to 33.2 percent from 2006-07 and 31.3 percent in 2008-09.

In 2011, Hyundai Research Institute estimated the real youth unemployment rate, for those between ages 15 and 29, to be 22.1 percent.

Social critic Lee says today’s young women, born in the 1980s and ’90s, tend to be more “conservative” than those of the “386” generation ― those born in the ’60s who were very politically active as young adults, and are considered instrumental in the pro-democracy movements of the 1980s.

“Today’s youth experienced the financial crisis of the late ’90s while growing up,” Lee told The Korea Herald.

“They witnessed their parents losing jobs. They saw families breaking down. I think the shared experience of the recession gave them a sense of collective anxiety and yearning for a financially secure life. And for many who experience fierce competition and unemployment, the way to get that security is through marriage.”

Becoming a ‘Cheongdam-dong daughter-in-law’

“Cheongdam-dong Alice,” a popular SBS drama series, is in fact about a young woman’s “journey” to Cheongdam-dong ― one of the wealthiest areas in southern Seoul ― by seducing a second-generation chaebol into marriage. Its protagonist, Se-gyeong (played by actress Moon Geun-young) believed in “l’effort est ma force,” meaning “hard work is my strength.” The fashion designer couldn’t afford to study overseas, but won many local design contests and mastered French on her own.

She slowly begins to lose her positive outlook toward the world when her father’s small bakery closes down after losing customers to larger retailers. Se-gyeong’s boyfriend of six years, who has to pay his sick mother’s medical bills, runs away with her savings.

After much struggling, Se-gyeong finally lands a job as a designer at GN Fashion, an apparel company in the ritzy, image-conscious Cheongdam district of Seoul. She is stunned to find out, however, that her actual job is being a personal assistant to the president’s wife ― who turns out to be her high school classmate. Her “official” boss In-hwa is the president’s younger sister, at 29 only two years older than Se-gyeong, who became the youngest person to be appointed to her position.

“What sucks is your taste, not your resume,” In-hwa bluntly tells Se-gyeong. “Taste is an accumulation of what you see and think, as well as the kind of things you are exposed to, from the moment that you were born.”

What she says completely shatters Se-gyeong’s life philosophy rooted in hard work and consistent effort. “My taste is the accumulation of what my parents have done for me throughout my life,” Se-gyeong counters in despair. “It’s the accumulated result of the town I grew up in, as well as the friends I hung out with.”

Upon this realization, Se-gyeong changes her life’s course to try to become a “Cheongdam-dong daughter in-law,” a term referring to stylish young married women of the upper crust living in a wealthy neighborhood. Her bitter disillusionment leads her to seduce Cha Seung-jo, the youngest CEO in the luxury-brand industry. She gives up being the person she wanted to be, and decides to live like those she once despised.

Behind the term ‘eomchinddal’

The two drama series reveal the bitter reality behind the eomchina fantasy ― that an eomchina or an eomchinddal can hardly ever be self-made in today’s Korea.

“I know many people who work hard to become ‘something,’” said Adrienne Lee, an aspiring fashion designer in her 20s who recently decided to go abroad after failing to receive job offers here. Just like Se-gyeong, she speaks foreign languages and attended a prestigious local fashion school.

“But all you can be after working hard is really just a ‘hard worker’ and that is it. I think the title of eomchina can only be achieved by receiving quality education from an early age, constantly being exposed to high culture. And one cannot enjoy any of that without the help of one’s parents.”

Words are not “mere vocal labels,” says 20th-century Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. They are “collective products of social interaction, essential instruments through which human beings constitute and articulate their world.”

The terms eomchina, eomchinddal and even “Cheongdam-dong daughter in-law” have one thing in common: Those who are considered to be “perfect” and “have it all” are all indicated with their family titles, as sons, daughters and daughter-in-laws ― above all else. The terms indirectly honor the parents for their children’s accomplishments, rather than the sons and daughters themselves.

The eomchina and eomchinddal are a fantasy not because they don’t exist, but because they leave out people like Seo-young or Se-gyeong, who could have it all except for the right family.

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)