Of all the relationships in family life, the one between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law is often the most difficult.
According to Cambridge University research, six out of 10 women find the relationship with their mother-in-law a strain.
That’s the territory that My Dearest Ladies – broadcast on Beijing Satellite TV and Mango TV (the streaming platform owned by Hunan Satellite TV) – has chosen to explore in another reality series. And as ever, the method is to monitor a few celebrities in action – in this case four wives as they take vacations with husbands and their mothers.
Feedback on the series has been busiest on Taiwanese singer Jimmy Lin, 45, and his wife Chen Ruo-yi, 36, also from Taiwan. Chen has to find common ground with her mother-in-law, who in her own words is “strict” and “conservative”. She admits at one point that she was worried about appearing on the show and audiences don’t take long to discover why.
As soon as Chen arrives at the parental house – in Yilan, a city outside Taipei – her mother-in-law is finding fault with her choice of clothes (denim shorts, with a skin-exposing slit on one thigh).
When Chen explains that this is part of the design, Lin’s mother retorts: “It is better not to wear shorts in our house. It is not polite.”
Lin’s mother also has no problem putting her daughter-in-law to work: Chen mops floors and wipes windows, while the rest of the family sits back and watches. And when her husband offers his help, his mother tells him to get some rest.
“Why does Lin’s mum thinks she is in a position to boss Chen around? Why doesn’t she hire a housekeeper if she has so many tasks in the house?” one netizen thundered. “At the end of the day, why must women torture other women? If one day Chen and Lin get a divorce, 80% of the responsibility is his mother’s.”
“It feels like Chen really respects her mother-in-law but the latter just wants to find ways to mess with her. The relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law is really complicated. Is this what the show is trying to show us? If that’s the case, we can all agree that we feel really bad for Chen,” another wrote.
Netizens thought that much of the bullying stemmed from Chen’s lack of a career. “In the eyes of rich people, marriage is no different from two people starting a company. The one who brings least to the table will always be suspected of taking advantage of the other. In this case, Chen’s cards are weak. No one had even heard of her before the two married. If she was more famous or more successful, her mother-in-law would never pick fights over cooking or housework,” ventured another viewer.
Other relationships on the show display lower-level tensions. Uighur actress Madina Memet says her mother-in-law is supportive of her career, and even reminds her daughter-in-law that she shouldn’t do the dishes because it’ll ruin her manicure. Her mother-in-law also helps to take care of Memet’s 11 month-old son.
However, childcare is the biggest source of contention between the two women. Memet wants her son to play while she’s at home; her mother-in-law thinks his time is better spent studying flash cards (tiger grandparenting is very much a thing).
Memet’s husband – the actor Jiang Chao – washes the dishes, staying out of the row.
“I feel like the show tells us that a mother-in-law and wife’s relationship is universally hard to navigate. Even celebrities can’t avoid the problem,” a netizen responded.
The dynamic between another of the featured wives – Annie Yi, another Taiwanese celebrity – and her mother-in-law is a bright spot in the show. The two have a warmer relationship, sharing similar interests. Probably it helps that Yi is older (at 51 she is 10 years older than her husband, the actor Qin Hao). That brings a little more maturity in handling the relationship. She happily calls her mother-in-law “mom” and links arms with her affectionately. On a shopping trip, Yi notices that she wants to buy new clothes but is put off by the price. Yi signals to her husband to buy them for her to make her happy.
“Many people say Yi Nengjing [her Chinese name] got along with her mother-in-law because she treats her like her own mother. I don’t think so. I think the relationship between the two is like that of two good girlfriends. If you look closely, you will find that Yi is a woman with high emotional intelligence. Her mother-in-law is also very cute,” Tencent Entertainment concluded.
As the series continued the debates on social media were soon widening to how mother-in-laws should behave in family situations. “A mother-in-law should adhere to the principle of ‘less intervention and involvement’ when it comes to her daughter-in-law. Young people follow the lifestyles of young people, so don’t just focus on the shortcomings of daughters-in-law and not their advantages,” one netizen suggested.
“The basic prerequisite is to give your daughter-in-law some respect and not be overly critical. Know that a tolerant heart is the most important element in maintaining family harmony,” was the primary lesson drawn by another viewer.
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