(Source: Sunghwan Yoon; CC BY-SA 2.0)
Of course, a society’s accepted norms of sexuality are always in flux, and popular culture both reflections of and a huge catalyst for that. But while you and I will undoubtedly be able to name individual dramas, movies, novels, and so on that have been deeply influential in that regard (yes, Sex and the City was the first thing that came my mind too), it is probably much harder to think of a recent period which had many in rapid succession, fundamentally and forever changing a society as a result. But according to So-hee Lee, who wrote ‘The Concept of Female Sexuality in Korean Popular Culture’ (pp. 141-164) in Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class and Consumption in the Republic of Korea (ed. by Laruel Kendell, 2002) and the must-read text for Korean gender studies, this is precisely what occurred in Korea in the mid-1990s.
Which is not to say that equivalent periods in Western, English-speaking societies don’t exist: it’s just that with having spent most of my adult life in Korea, then none really spring to mind, although I am interested in learning about any that readers can think of. And there are certainly many instances of Western-Korean cultural transmission too, with Friends and (again) Sex and the City in particular arguably having surprising impacts on Korean consumerism and gender relations here despite – nay, because of – the much more sexually repressed and sexist context in which they were received. But these earlier works Lee discusses were definitely home-grown, and:
…should be considered not only as illustrations of contemporary concerns but also as generating social discourse on female sexuality….each publication and each media screening provoked intense discussions throughout Korea (p. 142).
But although this post is ostensibly about popular culture, even some of my friends in academia that specialize in it admit that the three novels, three films, two dramas, and one play Lee discusses would probably be too dated for them to enjoy watching, let alone worth going to the time and trouble to find. Moreover, my own aim in looking at this subject is primarily to demonstrate that on the eve of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98, Korean women were already very open to challenging sexual stereotypes and their ideals of men, and that this partially explains their alacrity in doing so afterward, as I’ll be arguing in this conference presentation I’ll be giving in Daejeon in August (but which has evolved a lot since I first submitted that abstract many months ago: see here for my latest, hopefully much more nuanced thoughts on the subject, and to which I owe a great deal of credit to commenters on this blog). Hence, with apologies to culture buffs, this post is much more about those “intense discussions” than in the cultural works themselves.
Naturally enough, Lee starts with the context in which these cultural works were received, recalling her embarrassment and confusion when she attended some English literature lectures at Cambridge University in the mid-1980s:
My topic was “Women Characters in Victorian Novels”. During the lectures and seminars, I was acutely embarrassed by what I heard. Why was everyone talking about sexuality, masculinity, and femininity?…
In those days, Koreans did not have exact counterpart terms for “sex”, “sexuality”, “sexual intercourse”, and “gender”. I was very confused as I struggled to determine the appropriate meanings. In Korean, one very general term “seong” (성) could be used for these four concepts, its particular meaning dependent on the speaking and listening context….
It’s actually a little more complicated than that, “성” really being the chinese character that means “nature” and “life” as well as “sex”, but that probably adds to rather than detracts from her point.
….Korean society in the mid-1980s did not find it necessary to make sharp distinctions between these concepts. At the annual Korean Women’s Studies Association Conference in 1989, the issue of sex language was raised and discussed. More recently, the Korean counterpart of the term “sexual intercourse” (성교) has gained wide usage, accompanied by the frequent use of the a Korean counterpart for the term “sexual violence” (성폭행)….Sexual violence has now become a recognized issue in need of a discourse.
Korean concepts of sexuality have changed profoundly since the Democratic Revolution of 1987….In 1995, the most popular topics among university students were sexuality, sexual identity, and other sexual subjects. There are many reasons for this…In Korea, there is still no broad popular social discourse on female sexuality outside of marriage.
Which changed a great deal as a result of the 2002 World Cup, as I wrote here, but I’m getting ahead of myself. All of the above I originally typed from the book when I wrote this post about the (literal) Korean language of sex and sexuality, and in which based on my own largely unsuccessful attempts to find Korean-language internet sources on such issues as “sexist advertisements” and “sexual discrimination,” I argued that the change Lee noted was more apparent then real, and that Korean gender studies as an academic discipline clearly somewhat lagged its Western counterparts. Ironically however, that may well add to rather than detract from her arguments for the explosive impacts of the movies and so on that she discusses, for they would have been all the more exceptional and unprecedented at the time.
On top of that, something that can be said with some certainty was how exceptional Korean women (then) in their late-20s and early-30s were in themselves, as they were really the first ever Korean generation to have grown up going to school en masse, alongside their brothers, and while doing so to have learned as an abstract, academic concept the notions of democracy, liberty, and equality. Indeed, Lee is by no means the only author to note Korean military regimes’ curious desire for at least the trappings of democratic legitimacy through (tightly-controlled) elections, and a reflection of this in the education system, replete with references to Thomas Jefferson, the Magna Carta, the French Revolution, and so on. But, this meant that in the 1990s:
Looking at their mother’s lives, Korean women in their early thirties believed that their marriages would be different. Because the Korean standard of living and patterns of material life changed very quickly, they believed that Korean ways of thinking had been transformed with the same speed. This is where their tragedy begins….[this] generation experiences an enormous conflict between the real and the ideal. During sixteen years of schooling, they have learned that equality is an important democratic value, but nowhere have they been taught that women experience the institution of marriage as a condition of inequality. Many married women of this generation have [thus] experienced a process of self-awakening….(p. 144)
And another way in which that process is a novel one is because women of their mothers’ and grandmothers’ generation:
…would have had an entirely different concept of female sexuality. [They] accepted the sexual double-standard as a women’s fate and put their sexual energy into rearing children, identifying themselves as asexual, strong mother figures. [But] Korean women [of this] generation give priority to their identities as sexual beings, struggling to conceptualize a sense of individual selfhood while the mystified ideology of mothering and family obligation, which has repressed Korean women for so long, collapses. (p. 145)
The novel Go Alone Like the Rhinoceros’s Horn (also know as Go Alone Like Musso’s Horn) (무소의 뿔처럼 혼자서 가라, 1993) by Gong Ji-Yeong (공지영) , produced as a play that performed for several months in 1994, and released as a film in 1995 (both adaptations were successful), is about the lives of three married women friends, all 31, and all of whom deal with that process in different ways. Another is the widely-read novel Marriage (결혼) by Kim Su-hyeon (김수현) in 1993, which was made into an even more successful television drama the following year, and about the marriages of three sisters (aged 25, 32, and 34) and their different perceptions of the institution based on their different ages, and indeed it is in Lee’s discussion of it that I first came across the quote that I’ve used repeatedly in this blog:
Generation is an important attribute of identity in Korea, like race in the United States. (p. 146)
But in this section of the chapter I think Lee disproportionately blames Korean husbands seeing their wives as asexual, unattractive ajumma (아주마) for their sexless marriages (and finding their own sexual relief with mistresses and prostitutes and so on), whereas in reality just as many Korean women share widely-held stereotypes and expectations of rarely having sex after getting married or having children, even in 2009 (I am not exaggerating: see here).
( Source: KoreanMovie)
Probably by coincidence, at about the time that these were making waves, the new term “Missy” (미시) was invented, which when Lee wrote (it’s not so common these days) was used widely as:
…an expression of the strong desire of young Korean wives in their late twenties for an alternative way of life. The term was first used…in the marketing advertisement of a grand department store in Seoul. As soon as it came out, it was adopted widely to indicate a particular kind of housewife, a married woman who still looks like a single woman. Even the copywriter was surprised at the speed with which this term took on social meaning and evoked specific images of women and femininity. “Missy” rapidly permeated the Korean language once the advertising industry recognized the consumerist implications of this target age group’s flamboyant desires (pp. 149-150).
I think Lee ascribes too much importance to the Missy concept, as both Cho Haejoang in the same book that Lee writes in, and Dennis Hart in this book on Korean consumerism, have written about a steady series of (mostly negative) terms invented in the 1980s and 1990s for different kinds of women that “Missy” is just one example of, culminating in this crass one used today and which in hindsight make Koreans’ recent predilection for naming women’s body-parts and shapes after letters of the alphabet a little more explicable (but still absurd). I also think she exaggerates its novelty, as the Korean advertising industry, buttressed as it was by Neo-Confucianism and associations of the development of a consumer industry with national security (see this series), had developed a profound and intimate relationship with Korean housewives well before 1994. But, regardless, I’m sure you can already see how well the Missy concept meshed with the provocative novels and films I’ve described. Moreover:
The essential condition of being a Missy is a preoccupation with being looked at….Film, as a visual medium, has provided the best representation of this kind of social desire, not confined to material possessions but inclusive of an active and blatant sexuality. While [some characters] in Go Alone Like the Rhinoceros’s Horn and…Marriage decide to have lovers in reaction to their husbands’ relationships with mistresses, the Missy jumps into affairs to satisfy her own needs and desires (p. 150).
And another fundamental condition of being a Missy is having a professional job, yet another reason why women being the first to be fired a few years later during the Asian Financial Crisis would have had a big psychological and cultural impact.
(Source: Equal Writes)
The film Mommy Has a Lover (also known as Mom Has a New Boyfriend) (엄마에게 애인에 생겼어요, 1995), was about two Missys, and was exceptional in doing away with the previous film conventions of portraying women as reluctant and ashamed when they intentionally or unintentionally had a lover outside of marriage, nor of having a woman somehow punished for her “fall”. At its first screening, reactions were divided along gender lines, men complaining about the ending because it seemed to glorify wives having affairs, whereas no women expressed any complaints. Probably a more influential work involving the development of a late twenty-something’s sexual identity though (and not about a Missy per se, but in a similar vein), was the novel of the same year called The Pornography in my Mind (내마음의포르노), by then only 26 years-old Kim Byeol-ah (김별아), and whom:
…bravely deals with a previously forbidden theme. The novel rebels against the sexual double-standard, insisting on the existence of female sexual desire in contemporary Korea, where adultery is still illegal (p. 143).
This novel [played] an important part in an emergent sexual politics by bringing the forbidden theme of sexuality into the public sphere via television talk shows and other media events. However, this public discussion has been confined to the experiences of married women (p. 151).
And which paved the way for the even more provocative and controversial drama The Lover (애인) and the film The Adventures of Miss Park (박봉곤 가출 사건), both of which came out in September the following year. In particular, the drama’s depiction of an extramarital love story between two highly successful professionals in their mid-30s hit Korean society like a bombshell, primarily because television tends to be conservative because of its wide audience of course, but also because both the ages of the characters meant that the drama had to confront the all-important issue of familial duties and roles. Indeed, by October it reached 36.3% of television viewers, and it:
…even was discussed in the National Assembly because of the social implications of its theme, a challenging portrayal of a married woman’s sexuality. This response reveals how powerful the television is in subverting the traditional ideology of female sexuality (p. 154).
(Above: Screenshot from My Wife got Married)
An important point for me to remember, although I would have liked to have also learned more about the contents of that discussion in the National Assembly! There is, however, also a third possibility for its success that Lee does not really mention, and that is that in many senses both characters ostensibly had perfect and desirable lives, with no apparent reason to have affairs, and yet they did anyway: it must have been quite confounding to many, and which may also play a role in “many married men in their 40s and 50s [calling] the broadcasting company to protest this drama, demanding ‘What is it trying to say?’ (p. 155).”
Rather then getting into details here, for a very thorough examination at The Lover see this lengthy presentation by Kim Sumi entitled “Popular Feminism and the Hegemonic Practice of Mass Media: A study of two South Korean TV dramas, Lovers [The Lover] and The Woman Next Door,” which was presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association in New York in May this year, and in passing let me note a point not unimportant to my presentation, which is that like in Mommy Has a Lover, the man that the lead female character has an affair with “has a soft, gentle, and sweet personality, reflecting the new masculinity of 1990s Korea” (p. 155). Meanwhile, Lee sees the drama as having:
…accomplished a great deal in bringing into public discourse the issue of a middle-aged wife’s sexuality. Until recently [which is 2002 at the latest, but I think she’s actually writing in early 1998 – James], the wife’s subjective sexuality has been elided by the web of obligations spun by the husband’s family or by the terms of a wife’s subordination to her husband, as in [one character’s] case in Go Alone like the Rhinoceros’s Horn. However, in the mid-1990s, as the wife’s subjective sexuality emerged through the weakening of Korean familism, a sympathetic rapport between a man and a woman became more important than the functional element of role obligations between a husband and wife, or of a father and mother to their children (pp. 155-156).
Coming out at the same time as The Lover, on the surface The Adventures of Mrs. Park is an average romantic comedy, albeit a very successful one, but Lee notes that unlike the convention of most films in the genre, this one ends with a women running away from a domineering husband, achieving her dream of becoming a singer, and finally entering into a happy second marriage, “thus subverting a traditional morality that expects the runaway wife to come back home to restore everyone’s happiness and family security (p. 156).”
As such, Lee notes the film director was concerned about how a conservative audience might respond to the uncommon story and its unexpected ending, and in many ways the movie presents a guerrilla attempt to sneak a serious social message into Korean cinema by presenting it as comedy. In the poster above for instance, it appears that the female character is in possession of two men simultaneously, and what’s more she is bursting into laughter while her soon to be ex-husband and the detective he hires to find her (who falls in love with her instead) stare fiercely at each other, whereas in reality women less wealthy than the Missys described earlier (and the characters in Mommy Has a Lover and The Lover) tended to be (and still are) very economically dependent on their husbands and therefore very submissive to them, and hence that is how they tended to be portrayed in previous Korean movies. Moreover, the happy ending made possible by the comedy genre here implicitly highlighted the grim reality that such an act would entail for most women in that position…and which probably explains much of its success, for it articulated their feelings.
And that marks the end of the works that Lee looks at. By way of conclusion, let me mention just two things that she mentions in her final section of the chapter, entitled “Prospects for the Social Concept of Sexuality in Twenty-First Century Korea”. First:
Looking at Korean culture with a certain detachment, I can imagine that the years 1995 and 1996 will be remembered as a critical period for the emergence of a social discourse on sexuality, particularly female sexuality (p. 160). The year 1995 was particularly remarkable in that housewives began, on their own initiative, to speak in public about wives’ subjective sexuality (p. 160).
Although the book this chapter is in was published in 2002, I strongly suspect that Lee actually wrote this in late-1997 at the latest, as only 2 out of 50 or so references are from sources later than 1996, and she writes in the next paragraph that “even with the economic downturn since November 1997, this tide is still in motion.” Unfortunately, when the true extent of Korea’s economic crisis became apparent just a few months later, and in particular its profoundly gendered nature (women, particularly married women, were overwhelmingly targeted for layoffs, under the explicit presumption that they would be provided for by their husbands or fathers), then this “tide” was to proved to be at best a mere ripple against new economic realities.
On the other hand, she proved to be remarkably prescient with the following:
…while this discussion of the changing process of female sexuality in the popular culture from 1993 to 1996 gives the impression that Korean women now are marching to demand their sexual subjectivity, in reality, most Korean women are marching only as the passive consumers of the sorts of cultural products described previously, not as their active cultural producers. When women are able to intervene in the process of cultural production as subjective consumers with a feminist point of view, the Korean concept of female sexuality can be transformed more rapidly than before (p. 159, my emphasis).
And as I explain here in great detail, such an opportunity was provided by the 2002 World Cup, and Korean women more than took advantage of it. That will be the focus of a follow-up post, hopefully to be written well before the conference!
Update) For those of you fluent in Korean, this short essay also discusses some of the movies mentioned here, and adds many more from the 2000s that in the same vein)