Korean Women on screen, between the covers

As many readers might know, I recently gave a talk at the British Korean Women’s Society on a pretty risky topic: I was asked to give a Western male’s perspective on Korean women.  I decided to play it relatively safe, and discuss the topic through the lens of Korean novels, films and artworks that are accessible to a London-based audience. Here are the preparatory notes which helped me keep going for nearly an hour (including discussion) with the BKWS on 6 October. I didn’t necessarily stick to these notes, and I don’t stand by them, but I’m putting them up here in case any of the attendees want a copy.

Korean Women on screen, between the covers

Is there such a thing as a typical Korean woman?

To be asked to give a talk about Korean women, to the British Korean Womens Society, as a white Western male, is fraught with problems, and is a task that is far too dangerous to approach directly. I start from the position that generalisations are usually wrong; and when different gender and racial perspectives are thrown into the mix it will be impossible to get anything right. So to play it safe I will refrain from expressing any personal or subjective views, and restrict myself to selecting stereotypes, and in particular highlight how particular stereotypes are portrayed in contemporary Korean cultural contents.

I shan’t delay too long in talking about K-pop. There are plenty of websites which talk about the presentation of young women by the entertainment industry, from the latent sexuality of the cutsey aegyo …

Two X: Ring Ma Bell
Two X: Ring Ma Bell — super aegyo

… to the more outwardly sexual dance moves which have resulted in the music videos getting banned1

AoA: Miniskirt
AoA: Miniskirt — the more provocative look

Of course, the Korean music industry is not alone in using sex to sell records.

Turning to something that is not representative of K-pop, but which is possibly the first track that many people think of when they think about K-pop: Gangnam Style. In this famous video, one of the main characters parodied is 된장녀 – Beanpaste girl. The stereotype is of someone who scrimps and saves on food – eating cheap doenjang jjigae – in order to be able to afford conspicuous “luxuries” such as a Starbucks coffee. I have no idea if such girls ever existed, or still do. I’m not sure if there would be a Western equivalent. I can only observe that I managed to find a decent coffee for KRW1,000 in Euljiro 1-ga subway station – better and cheaper than anything in London, or indeed in any Starbucks anywhere.

Dwenjangnyeo
Searching for an image of beanpaste girl I also came across gochujang man

But if Beanpaste girl is said to live, or at least hang out, in Gangnam, the other thing that Gangnam is known for is their plastic surgery clinics.

The Gangnam jawbone tower
The Gangnam jawbone tower

Physical evidence for the amount of surgery undertaken at one clinic made it into the blogosphere last year with the photograph of the jawbone tower of bone fragments that one plastic surgeon had collected.

200 Pound Beauty
200 Pound Beauty

200 Pound Beauty (미녀는 괴로워, Dir Kim Yong-hwa, 2006) is one film which addresses the subject head-on, in an extremely uncritical way: an overweight girl goes through extreme surgery to win the love of a man: not a particularly feminist agenda, and the situation is made worse is that she tries to disown anyone who knows who she really is – one of the reasons being that her intended boyfriend would prefer to be going out with a natural beauty than someone who has been under the knife. Initially you support her, and want her to get her man, but then you perhaps start to turn against her and her man, but also perhaps sympathise with her.

Works by Debbie Han
Works by Debbie Han (at I-MYU Gallery and Saatchi Gallery)

The supposed pre-occupation with facial features, particularly double eyelid surgery, finds its echo in the works of Debbie Han, who is a Korean artist living in New York. Taking an oriental female body as her starting point, she satirizes this preoccupation by exaggerating these western features, producing distorted faces in the style of a classical Greek bust.

The Korean cover for Pavane
The Korean cover for Park Min-gyu’s Pavane for a Dead Princess

But although there are countless statistics about the number of women who have supposedly had plastic surgery, I have never met anyone who admits to it, and most people I’ve met say the same.

The obsession with youth and beauty is picked up in a rather sad book called Pavane for a Dead Princess, a novel by Park Min-gyu which explores a love affair involving opposites: a handsome man and a girl who is the opposite of all ideals of beauty.

Let’s move on to the older women.

Kim Hye-ja as Mother
Kim Hye-ja as Mother

Bong Joon-ho’s Mother (마더, 2009)is about a struggling woman with a slightly mentally handicapped son who is accused of murdering a girl. Refusing to believe that he is capable of such a horrendous act she herself goes to extraordinary lengths to prove his innocence – including if I remember right the inappropriate use of a golf club to ensure an inconvenient witness never gave evidence.

Mother is perhaps one instance of the managing controlling mother who wants the best for her children and will stop at nothing to achieve that. But is that so unusual for a mother? Tiger moms are not unique to Korea.

Jeong
Jeong – a warm-heartedness that endures though everything

Perhaps something much more unique to Korea, so unique that the word is untranslateable: love, affection, duty, warmheartedness that survives everything. A film by Bae Chang-ho from 2000 (Jeong, 정) presented the life of a woman who despite everything behaved with dignity and understanding, even love: when her husband abandoned her; when the local potter abducted her; when she was widowed; when she takes in a woman who had been sold to a local trader; and in her sustaining love for her unasked-for adopted son, all as we get sweeping changes in society in Korea’s colonial period. I’ve yet to come across any novel that examines Jeong, and the script for the movie was created by the director in conjunction with the lead actress. A unique film. But is saintliness unique to Korea?

The halmoni in The Way Home
The halmoni in The Way Home

The long-suffering, enduring, loving mother and grandmother is not unique. Take The Way Home (집으로…, Lee Jeong-hyang, 2002). Here, the grandmother is associated not only with love and family but also a nostalgia for the past (as is the mother in Shin Kyung-sook’s PLAM). But also the film is a tribute to her endurance despite all her lifelong troubles. In art, Chun Kwang-young’s sculptures using Korean paper and natural dyes sometimes pay tribute to the Korean halmoni:

Chun Kwang-young: with the worn-out heart of a halmoni?
Chun Kwang-young: with the worn-out heart of a halmoni? (courtesy of the artist)

One of his most recent works in this vein is more irregular in shape, like a human heart. At a discussion linked to his London solo show in Bernard Jacobson Gallery (April 2014) he commented:

These women have lived all their lives confined within a small boundary,” he explains. “They were never allowed to express what they wanted. They worked hard and only lived for their families. At the end of their lives, they are exhausted. Their hearts are all burnt out.

In novels, perhaps the two best-known Korean novel to have been translated into English have versions of the same long-suffering mother as the central character.

Hen + PLAM

Hwang Sun-mi’s Hen who dreamed she could fly is a more complex book than it appears on the surface. Yes, it is about a woman who becomes a mother, and who escapes from a hidebound existence.

It’s natural to think of it as a feminist story. In Korean culture it is taken for granted that mothers will sacrifice for their children. The intention though was not to focus on that. It’s a book about ordinary people make extraordinary decisions.

And of course Please Look After Mother. Bella didn’t like really it much. But I did. Not because it is Korean. Not because of her endurance, of her fussing with making the best kimchi or doenjang. Not because of the way Shin equates mother with the country, with the past, with family and nostalgia for the past. It appealed to me because as the author implies, no-one appreciates their mother until she is gone, and that is a universal message.

  1. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNwhagcLVDo and
    http://www.koreaboo.com/interactive/12-explicit-dance-moves-that-were-banned-by-the-korean-government/ for examples of other banned videos. []

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