Did Extraordinary Attorney Woo Have to Make a Villain Out of Young-woo’s Mum?

The one blemish on Extraordinary Attorney Woo is the way it treats the protagonist’s mother
Did Extraordinary Attorney Woo Have to Make a Villain Out of Young-woo’s Mum?

Within the first couple of weeks of being aired, ExtraordinaryAttorney Woo charmed audiences around the world. In India, the show made a place for itself on Netflix India's most-watched shows, alongside other K-dramas like the ongoing Alchemy of Souls and the rom-com Business Proposal (which finished its 12-episode run back in April but remains on the platform's top 10 list four months later). It's easy to see why. Park Eun-bin as an autistic rookie attorney is a joy to watch and she's supported by a talented cast that matches her for both wit and charm. The storytelling is excellent with writer Moon Ji-won layering the plot of each episode with humour, drama, character development and progressive thinking. An episode about a wardrobe malfunction during a wedding ended up championing queer love. In another, a North Korean defector reminded the South Korean legal system of the need to be humane. One episode focused on how subtly sexism works in corporate offices, where policies seem gender neutral but are actually positioned against women employees. Extraordinary Attorney Woo is all the more impressive because it delivers its messages without being preachy. The star of the show is Park's Woo Young-woo as she has a whale of a time (pun intended) while discovering new things about herself and working as an attorney at the prestigious law firm, Hanbada.

So far, so groovy — but for Tae Su-mi (Jin Kyung).

We were first introduced to Su-mi as the superstar lawyer at her father's law firm, Taesan, which happens to be a rival of Hanbada. Young-woo watches Su-mi with big-eyed admiration as she elegantly demolishes Hanbada in the courtroom, but even in this 'hero moment', there's an unmistakable air of negativity. Not only does it seem like Su-mi has benefited from nepotism, Taesan's winning strategy relies heavily on superficial gloss and corrupt practices like bribing. In sharp contrast, Hanbada's attempts at being underhanded are so embarrassingly bad, they're played for comedy. There may be glory in Taesan's win, but there's integrity in Hanbada's failure. It's a classic case of failing upwards.

Once Su-mi is revealed to be — SPOILER ALERT — Young-woo's mother, the storytelling in Extraordinary Attorney Woo makes some disappointing calls. When Su-mi doesn't know Young-woo is her daughter, she's impressed enough by the young lawyer to try and poach her for Taesan. Her stance changes sharply after she finds out Young-woo's identity. Su-mi goes to meet Young-woo's father Bae-Soo (Woo Gwang-ho) and tells him to convince Young-woo to leave not just Hanbada, but South Korea. The reason? Su-mi is angling for a powerful job and doesn't want it to be known she has an illegitimate child. (Never mind the detail that Bae-soo is adamant about keeping the connection with Su-mi a secret.) The meeting between Bae-soo and Su-mi is presented in a way that casts Bae-soo as the golden-hearted family man while the ambitious and career-minded Su-mi is shown as cold-heartedly rejecting everything Bae-soo stands for, along with their daughter.

The reunion with Bae-soo is not the first time that Su-mi has rejected motherhood. When she discovered she was pregnant as a young law student, we're told she wanted an abortion. The one who longed to have a child was Bae-soo, then her boyfriend and fellow law student. (It's reasonable to assume that a baby is a lot more appealing as an idea when you don't have to think about what it will take out of your own body to nurture a pregnancy and then deliver said baby.) Bae-soo promised Su-mi that if she had the baby, he would raise the child. He also said he'd make sure their paths never crossed in the future. Bae-soo sticks to his word and becomes a gimbap seller instead of a lawyer, while raising Young-woo. Every scene Bae-soo has with his daughter emphasises how kind and domestic he is. He cooks for her, makes sacrifices for her, comforts her — in short, he's the ideal mother, just in a man's body. (It's worth noting that although Su-mi's legitimate son is mentioned in passing in an early episode, we are yet to see her with her own family.)

Extraordinary Attorney Woo is the second show in recent times to put forward the idea that a man can be a good primary caregiver for a child (the other show is Our Blues, in which a teenaged couple discover they're pregnant. Once again, the girl is the one who wants an abortion because she can't imagine being a mother and pursuing her dreams of going to college. Once again, it's the boy who convinces her to keep the baby and makes all the sacrifices). Neither Our Blues nor Extraordinary Attorney Woo have even a throwaway line to suggest the pregnant women's concerns are valid. Both shows ignore the reality of the physical wear and tear of motherhood, as well as the prevailing bias against working mothers around the world. Employers and colleagues invariably assume the women will not pay enough attention to their workplace while socially, the presumption is that a working woman will neglect her family.

It's not surprising that the popular entertainment from a country with a declining birth rate will advocate having babies, but you've got to wonder whether the only way to get that message across is by demonising single, working women. Even as Extraordinary Attorney Woo champions women's rights by drawing attention to the prejudices faced by married women in corporate offices, it also presents Su-mi as a villain for thinking a baby may hold her back as a professional (even though there is more than a grain of truth to this). Meanwhile, Bae-soo is cast as a hero for wanting a child and making the sacrifices necessary to raise his daughter. He gets sympathy from the audience and support from his society as he brings up his daughter on his own. The reaction to a single mother is very different — just look at When the Camellia Blooms — even in the soft-focus fantasies of K-drama.

Both Extraordinary Attorney Woo and Our Blues present father figures who are a marked contrast to the conventional patriarch in Asian families. Like so much else in K-dramas, superdads like Bae-soo appear to be figments of feminine fantasy. A 2015 article reported that men made up just 5% of parents taking leave in South Korea even though mothers and fathers are entitled to equal amounts of childcare leave. Apparently, a family in which mothers and fathers share parenting responsibilities amicably is too much of a fantasy even for K-dramas.

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