Between Love and Obsession: Mothers in Popular Culture

In the past mothers were depicted as self-sacrificing, nurturing characters, and modern depictions still show them working hard to help their children realize their dreams and goals.


“Don’t trust anybody. I will protect you.” This line from the movie Mother reflects the role of mothers in modern society. The protagonist Do-joon is a murder suspect under trial with nowhere to turn for help. An impoverished young man who is mocked by his neighbors for his learning disability, the only person who can help him is his mother. With the wealth gap growing wider and social security networks collapsing, the socially marginalized have increasingly fewer places to turn.

Director Bong Joon-ho’s Mother is a movie about a man that finds himself in a situation where only his mother can come to his aid. It is also the story of a mother who believed that she was the only one who could protect her son, only to discover that her son had betrayed her. Do-joon (Won Bin) is a mentally handicapped young man whose behavioral difficulties have plagued his mother (Kim Hye-ja) all his life, but he is now in danger of being convicted of a murder he did not commit. His mother has no connections or power, but searches desperately for anything that can prove her son’s innocence. Everyone else, however, sees Do-joon as an easy scapegoat because of his disability. The mother finally succeeds in proving Do-joon’s innocence at the risk of her own life, only to discover that he really was a murderer who killed a schoolgirl he was trying to rape.

It is not hard to see supermoms in TV dramas these days who manage to be great mothers while also being successful working women. In reality, however, many mothers struggle to raise their children while juggling careers. This is not by choice but out of financial necessity. At the same time there is an increasing tendency for adults to remain chronically dependent on their mothers. While most women dread meeting a mama’s boy, the importance of a mother’s role is only increasing as true independence from one’s parents becomes more difficult in modern Korean society. Needless to say, mothers occupy an extremely significant place in Korean pop culture.

In an episode of the television drama Dae Jang Geum, one of the shows that sparked a global Korean culture craze known as the Korean Wave, the main character comes up with an interesting riddle. Jang Geum, a former cook in the palace who becomes a physician to the royal family, faces her toughest challenge ever when one of her patients refuses treatment. As the patient in question is the king’s mother, the entire palace goes into an uproar. Jang Geum is only a low-ranking physician, but makes a daring proposal to the king’s mother. The dare is that if the king’s mother cannot answer Jang Geum’s riddle, then she must submit to treatment. The king’s mother hardly wishes to bend to a lowly physician, but is too proud not to take the dare. Jang Geum then asks her the following riddle:

“This woman is the taster to the crown who tastes and inspects all food consumed in the palace. Her post originated in China when the Chinese emperor appointed a taster to sample all his food. This woman was born a house slave, but she is actually wiser than anybody in the house. Legend has it that when she was alive the world was surrounded by mountains, but after she died a great flood covered the entire world.” Who is this woman? The answer to this riddle is: a mother. A mother takes care of her family without ever stopping to rest like a house slave, but when there is a family problem she is everyone’s wisest confidante. As long as she is alive the family has nothing to fear, as if they were in a land protected by mountains, but when she dies they will weep so much that they will barely see through their tears. The king’s mother in Dae Jang Geum finally guesses the answer to this riddle but agrees to Jang Geum’s treatment, as the king wishes, instead of punishing the insolent physician. Jang Geum’s reasons for posing this riddle to the king’s mother was not to win a dare, but in the hopes that the king’s mother would remember what it truly means to be a mother and not cause her children pain.

Dae Jang Geum is a period drama set in the Joseon era, yet features a maternal character that is very progressive even for modern standards. That character is Lady Han, a senior lady-in-waiting who becomes Jang Geum’s mentor. Lady Han is not Jang Geum’s biological ...