Actress Kim Go-eun’s character in tvN’s “Little Women” is described as the typical Korean firstborn daughter.
She is a strong realist who is willing to make sacrifices to support her family. She saves up money, not for her own sake but for her siblings.
The burden of being the firstborn child in a family is a topic not only confined within South Korea. It is a subject studied by psychologists worldwide.
Yet, in a society where deep-rooted patriarchal practices of the past constantly clash with modern values of gender equality and individualism, there appears to be a new realization among firstborn daughters here that they need to put themselves first without feeling guilty.
K-jangneo is what they call themselves, with jangneo meaning firstborn daughter in Korean.
The ‘cornerstone’ of a family
There is an old Korean saying that “the eldest daughter is the cornerstone of a household’s livelihood.” On the surface, it sounds like an innocent compliment for the firstborn daughters, but underneath, lies a tale of sacrifice and discrimination.
“In the past, being a firstborn daughter in a Korean family meant helping out the mom with housekeeping and working at a factory to earn money to send her siblings to college, while being deprived of the same education and opportunities,” Lee Soo-jung, professor of forensic psychology, said on a TV program.
She referred to the “trend” of sending daughters to fabric and wig factories instead of school from the 1960s to 1980s as South Korea’s manufacturing sector grew rapidly in the cited period.
Some 70 percent of around 30,000 women who worked at a textile factory town in Seoul’s Dongdaemun area in the 1960s “failed” to graduate elementary school, according to local news outlet Hankook Ilbo. Over 80 percent of the workforce at the factory town were women in their 10s and 20s.
“The eldest daughters can never grow out of that burden of responsibility they felt within their family,” Lee added.
Responsibility is a common keyword shared between characters who are firstborn daughters portrayed in Korean dramas. They are often forced to grow up too fast and take care of their siblings in place of their busy or absent parents.
Oh In-ju -- Kim Go-eun’s character in “Little Women” -- gets embroiled in a life-threatening situation because she decides to steal her company’s illegal slush fund. A key motive is that she wants to provide a comfortable life for her younger sisters.
Hong Seol, the protagonist of a 2016 tvN drama "Cheese in the Trap” also played by actor Kim, is a firstborn daughter who had to take a leave of absence from university and struggled to earn her scholarship because her parents would only financially support her younger brother’s education.
The life of Ahn Young-yi, a beautiful and talented office worker in tvN’s 2014 show “Misaeng: Incomplete Life,” seems perfect on the outside, but her father constantly nags her, demanding her pay off his debts.
The dramas may not be an exact portrayal of reality. But it manages to show a key feature of the situation that Korean firstborn daughters find themselves in.
“A trait that is shared among real-life Korean firstborn daughters is that there is the role, the responsibility and the duty, but rarely the reward,” psychologist Lee Seul-ki said via email.
‘Say no to an old stereotype’
For Lee Yoon-ju, 44, the moment of realization came a few years ago when her younger brother – the only son in her family – tied the knot.
“Whatever my parents have saved up was handed over to him because he needed to buy a house to start a family. I supported family financially for more than 10 years and they apparently didn’t think I have a stake in it,” she said.
“Even now, I am the one who buys all those small things for parents like facial masks, cosmetics and warm shoes,” calling herself a "typical, foolish K-jangneo."
As seen in Lee’s usage of the term, K-jangneo carries a sense of bitterness shared by the new generation of firstborn daughters who, in their own marriage, at the office or other social spheres, raise their voice for equal rights.
On blogs, YouTube and at local bookstores, one can easily find content catering to K-jangneo, typically containing advice on how to resist the old stereotype.
Psychologist Lee said the latest spotlight on firstborn daughters is a reflection of a change in time; the country’s centuries-old preference for sons fades, families become more nuclear and firstborn daughters are able to leave their old roles behind.
“In the past, when patriarchy was more prevalent, the role of the eldest son in the family was to support the parents as they became older as daughters made other sacrifices within the household until they got married,” Lee explained.
“Today, women earn money and are able to make the choice to support their parents. But for many, the reward for their sacrifice remains meager, even if they sometimes become the breadwinner of the family.”