2020년 10월 12일 월요일

Discussion of Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo and Its Film Adaptation with Ms. Jang Su Yeon

Continuing our exploration of Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, Ms. Jang Su Yeon and I have sat down to discuss the book’s reception, its continuing impact on South Korean feminist discourse, and the differences between it and its popular cinematic adaptation. The interview was conducted via Skype between Seoul, Korea, and Berkeley, USA, in July 20, 2020 [Pacific US time]. It has been edited for length and clarity. The copyright for the interview content belongs to Ms. Jang and anyone who wants to quote from the interview below should contact Ms. Jang for an explicit permission. The letter “Q” indicates Kyu Hyun Kim, the interviewer, and “J” indicates Ms. Jang Su Yeon

Q: Let’s start the discussion, shall we? I read your essay with great interest and I am sure it will be extremely helpful for [UC Davis] undergraduates who will be reading the novel. What do you think their response would be like, when they first laid their eyes on it? 

J: My initial thought was that this novel was more specifically attuned to the experiences of East Asian women, as in China, Korea and Japan, growing up in cultures with influences of Confucianism, for instance. However, since then I have come to think that the problems Ji-young were subject to are a lot more universal. When I had first read Maria Mies’s Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (1986) in my undergraduate days, I remember resonating strongly with the examples the author discussed in her book, even though they were not based on South Korean society or experiences. So there definitely are experiences of women that apparently transcend cultural differences. 

Q: Well, the Amazon’s sales rank of the English translation of Born 1982, Kim Ji-young is currently [the July 20, 2020 figure] at No. 191 in the “Fiction and Satire” and No. 370 in “Mothers and Children Fiction” rankings. This is no mean feat. And in Amazon Japan, it is currently ranked at, Holy Mackerel, No. 1 in the “Asian Literature” list. 

J: Wow! 

Q: It is also ranked at No. 2 in the “Foreign Literature” category. What are the elements of the novel that would also “make sense” to the non-Korean readers, and what are those that the latter might consider more specific to the Korean situation? 

J: I think especially the sections in the novel where Ji-young encounters various hurdles and difficulties in the transition from school to workplace might have universal appeals. I don’t think Americans use the term like mamchung [see Su Yeon’s essay accompanying this discussion], isn’t that correct? 

Q: Not that I am aware. Actually, this segues into what I consider to be one of the problems I and my wife had with the film version. In the film version Ji-young’s husband struggles mightily with the issue of whether he should take a parental childcare leave from his job. And when he finally does, that is presented as if he had turned a big new leaf in his life. 

*Ji-young (Jung Yu-mi) tries to juggle childrearing and homemaking in a scene from the film version, Kim Ji-young, Born 1982. Source: Lotte Cultureworks/Movist.com.

J: I think the filmmakers tried hard to portray, Tae-hyun, the husband (played by the handsome star Gong Yu) in the sympathetic light. 

Q: But would the Korean men who had no consciousness about these issues change their mind by watching this single movie? 

J: I can understand that as a motion picture the filmmakers had to consider expanding their reaches beyond the readers of the source material. 

Q: Cho Nam-joo’s novel is distinctive from the majority of the novels written by male authors, in the sense that there is little physical description of its characters, especially female characters. You cannot develop an image in your brain about what Ji-young actually looks like, for example. So I can certainly see that this would have not been easy to adopt into a visual medium like a feature film. When a South Korean reader asks about a literary personage, “What kind of person is she?” the answer is really about the socially constituted image of that character-- What kind of dresses does she wear? Does she wear a lot of makeup? Does she drink a lot and talk like a construction worker (never mind that there actually are female construction workers, even in South Korea)? Does she wear her nails all black and matching black stiletto heels? -- these things are usually spelled out in great detail in literary works. 

J: I think that, precisely, is one of the strengths of the novel. Her “facelessness” in fact allows a wide range of women, not just South Korean women, to identify with Ji-young. I think the Japanese and American book covers capture this sense rather well. 

Q: My wife actually loved the novel’s ending, found it superbly chilling yet realistic. I was sympathetic to certain choices made by the filmmakers, such as giving voices to Ji-young’s mother, even if that plot development was a tad melodramatic, but the movie’s denouement was weaker than the novel’s, to say the least. 

J: My mother found the novel, not the movie, “boring,” because she thought that there was nothing that she did not know already. 

Q: That’s an interesting response. So all the hardships and frustrations she had experienced were retold in the novel, and for her, what’s the point of reading something that I would rather not relive through? (Laughter) 

*Ji-young and her "officemates." Source: Lotte Cultureworks/Movist.com.

J: Right, but at the same time, her mother, my grandmother, and in many ways, I, her daughter, have had so many experiences overlapping with those had by my mom, and the responses to this novel across these generations show how little has really changed. 

Q: It is interesting that the book inspired such a virulent backlash from some Korean men, to the point that a popular k-pop singer such as Irene of Red Velvet was subject to stupendous levels of vilification and personal attack, just for admitting to having read the book! 

J: I think if the book had dealt with an extreme case of physical or emotional abuse by men, it might not have inspired such a backlash. Then these angry men could safely set it aside as a treatment of an “unusual case” and easily deny that they are complicit in creating this kind of frustrating and oppressive experience for someone like Ji-young. Some female readers of the novel have reported to me the feeling of suffocation while reading it, so they had to take a breather or two in the middle just to keep going, even though nothing really violent or extreme takes place in the pages. I mean, none of the male behaviors described in the novel, including the truly scary episode of stalking and the disgusting incident of the company bathroom “molka (hidden cameras),” would be considered serious felonies in South Korea. And that recognition is plenty frightening for many Korean women. 

*Irene of Red Velvet, who got into a boatload of troubles by simply citing Kim Ji-young as a novel "she has read." Source: Huffingtonpost Korea.

Q: Isn’t all this vicious anger in a way copping to the fact that these angry men are well aware that their behaviors toward women are, you know, wrong? 

J: I agree. [Laughter] 

Q: As you have already hinted at, one of the unique features of Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 is that there is no division between “good men” and “bad men,” unfortunately a standard practice for many, perhaps the majority, of the allegedly “progressively pro-woman” works of literature or cinema, although things are changing. I think this is one of the reasons that so many Korean men get angry at the book. 

J: Right. As I have suggested in my essay, I really do not think it is possible to be a “good man” by remaining a “regular guy” in a rigged and exploitative system like the one described in the novel. So I must agree, yes, the men who have faithfully followed and never questioned the way things work between men and women in today’s South Korea are “bad.” They are all “bad,” unless they want to experience at least some levels of discomfort, if not outright persecution, through the acts of recognizing, criticizing and challenging the kind of mentalities and practices chronicled in the novel. 

Q: Another great thing about the novel is that it refuses to distinguish between “domestic” and “workplace” labor for women like Ji-young. One thing that the movie version did well was that Ji-young’s mother came to her defense, taking up a fight against some of her tormentors unlike in the novel. Yet, that section of the movie inadvertently illustrates that Ji-young’s husband, because he is a son, has many, many social and cultural resources he could mobilize, the least of which is the unwavering attention the family members give him whenever he demands it. So why do some young men of South Korea think that they are the ones who are persecuted and treated unequally? 

J: It is partly economical. South Korea has gone through a long phase of economic growth, but that phase is now pretty much over. The competition for jobs and comfortable lifestyles is much fiercer today than it was thirty years ago. 

Q: But if the anti-feminist men’s argument is that women are unfit to work, presumably compared to themselves, so they should stay at home and raise children, then why do they in the same breath put down those women who do exactly that, and call them “mom roaches” and otherwise denigrate them? 

J: Well, it is a schizophrenic behavior and attitude on their part. On the one hand, they hate capable women to be their competitors in the labor market and allegedly take away their jobs. But at the same time, at home, they act as if they are the victims of the cruel society, who work their butts off to “bring home the bacon,” and see their wives as freeloaders who should go out and make money for the household. Which they vilify other women for doing anyway.  

Q: [Deep sigh] “They are being illogical and self-contradictory” just isn’t going to be enough, I reckon. 

*Ji-young comforts her husband Tae-hyun. Source: Lotte Cultureworks/Movist.com.

J: This is why I think so many women today, and not just in South Korea, refuse to get married and have children. Not necessarily because of some ideological commitment or something like that. I remember confiding to one of my ex-boyfriends that I rather not have a child in a social environment like this. His response was “Oh no, we should have children.” From there we went through the whole cycle of all too familiar arguments step by step. I told him I would need to work outside home. He said but women must raise children, and men cannot take care of them properly. Okay, I will be a stay-home mom then. To this he said, oh no, my income would not be sufficient for us to have a decent lifestyle, so you should get a job too. All throughout this discussion, he had an absolute zero inkling of self-contradiction in his arguments. Absolutely none. 

Q: The novel is also unique in the sense that it refuses to blame “Confucian culture” or some such “traditional” boogieman for the plight of contemporary South Korean women. Cho Nam-joo does not drag in all the historical sufferings of Korean women with the clandestine purpose of demonstrating to her readers that, yes, it has been women’s fate to suffer like this from the time immemorial, boo hoo, and “ameliorate” their frustrations in a great cauldron of tears, the gimmick many popular Korean movies and novels still resort to. I anticipate such a question from an American undergraduate who has read this novel, “Professor, the Korean society’s treatment of her is the result of Confucian tradition, right?” or something to that effect. 

J: To be blunt, the “Korean” or “Asian” background of the novel is not that important. I believe it is the novel’s strength, and again one of the reasons for its cross-cultural appeal, that it precisely does not seek to pin its issues down to “Korean culture,” however it might be defined. I firmly believe that South Korea’s “women’s problems” today originate mainly from sociological and structural factors, not from some ill-defined cultural traits, not to say, of course, cultures and ideologies do not play a role at all. 

Q: Thank you so much, Su Yeon, this will be very helpful for the students! Good luck on your continued academic pursuit in the fields of sociology and women’s studies. 

J: I am so happy to help you out! I hope the [UC Davis] students find the novel (and the film adaptation) intriguing, disturbing and ultimately educational.

What is South Korea's Next Step for Gender Equality? Reading Kim Ji-young, Born 1982- Special Contribution by Jang Su Yeon

Ms. Jang has graduated from Ewha Womans College and recently completed MA program in Demography and Social Analysis at University of California, Irvine. Her MA thesis, “Gender and Marriage in Neoliberal Capitalism: A Case Study in South Korea,” won the Best Paper of the Year prize: she is currently preparing for a Ph. D. degree. 

Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 depicts various aspects of discrimination and violence against women. This book goes over the life course of its main character, Kim Ji-young, in its each phase as she ages: as a daughter, a student, a worker, a wife, and a mother. In the early years of her life, her brother always was given a priority at home only because he was a boy. Then, when she went to school, boys were allowed to be rude to girls and do everything first, such as standing first at the food distribution line for school lunches. As she grew older, daughters of low-income families were pushed into factories so as to enable their brothers to be educated. Subsequently, female students were persuaded to choose “feminine” majors because they were expected to take care of the family once they marry. Companies, similarly, prefer male employees because women ought to put their family in front of their careers. A woman experiences a career break once she has a baby because the company does not provide any support for childcare. But at the same time, a stereotype persists that women who sacrificed their careers have made little contribution to society. The sad thing about this book is that my mother, born in 1962, and I, born in 1995, have had strikingly similar experiences with those Ji-young goes through in the book. In other words, the Korean society has not changed significantly in terms of its treatment of and expectation from women in the last three decades. Furthermore, we now know that women across different countries are resonating and feeling sympathy for Ji-young’s story.

[Figure 1] Source: Lee, K. M., & Lee, H. (2019, October 14), "Bestseller ‘Kim Ji-young, Born 1982’ soars in global popularity," Korea.net (Retrieved from http://www.korea.net/NewsFocus/Culture/view?articleId=178612)  Note: From top left clockwise are the book’s covers from Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Hungary, Thailand, China, and Spain.

Love and hate for Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 

The popularity of this book in South Korea and other nations shows that those frustrating experiences described in the book are almost omnipresent across divergent cultures and geographies. An English version of the novel is ranked at 12,000th among all books sold at Amazon.com: in Amazon Japan it is the ranked first among Asian literature publications (as of July 20, 2020). Why is this book so popular? How did this book win sympathy so widely? 

First, Kim Ji-young does not have a specific characteristic. This lack of particularistic features implies that the story told in the novel encompasses everyday lives of many, if not all, women. A lot of books convey the personality of the main character by describing how he or she looks like. This book does not do that. Even the book covers usually deletes the face of Kim Ji-young as Figure 1 illustrates. If Kim Ji-young was an exceptionally beautiful or conversely a “plain” woman, the stories in the book could only represent the life of that particular woman. Kim Ji-young’s anonymity in a way enables most women readers to identify with and feel sympathy for her.  

Also, extreme episodes do not occur in the book. Main characters of many books that criticize the discrimination against women experience exceptional tragedies. Kim Ji-young is never subject to any severe form of violence. The only overtly criminal incident in the book involves a male student who stalks and threatens physical harm to her teenage self. But in the end, she is okay. Her father and husband love her, and the other male characters also tend to act reasonably. However, as one reads through the book, the reader feels that something is wrong. The social environment subtly pushes Ji-young and other female characters toward the lives that they did not initially dream of living. For example, Ji-young and her sister both give up their career aspirations to become mothers. No tragedy was needed to change their minds. At the time they had made those decisions, they appeared to be the only and the best option available to them. The consequences are also “normal.” Their experiences as mothers are what we (South Koreans) can see all the time around us. Nonetheless, we can feel how those are choking the women. I think banality of Ji-young’s story really is a key to the power of this book. The book shows that most mundane experiences force women to sacrifice their lives for their brothers, husbands, and sons. 

As much as this book was loved by many readers, it was also subject to vilification and condemnation. Irene, a member of the famous k-pop girl group Red Velvet, was widely criticized by publicly mentioning that she had read the book. Why do some people blame her for reading the book? I believe it is because that the novel, in the critic’s minds, implies that all South Korean males, including the most exemplary and generous ones, are in fact perpetrators of injustice. The book does not have a villain who specifically aims to ruin Kim Ji-young and other women’s lives. Even the stalker and the male teacher who sexually harasses female students are not exceptionally wicked. Instead, some characters such as Ji-young’s father and husband seem to be good persons. However, they still end up contributing to Ji-young’s mental breakdown. 

In the denouement of the book, the psychiatrist, to whom the book’s contents were narrated, seems to feel sympathy for Ji-young. However, apparently without any further thought, he goes on to state horribly discriminatory things against married nurses, and he does not take any action to stop her intelligent wife from losing her career due to childrearing obligations. The lack of separation between good and bad male characters suggests that the everyday actions people take can contribute to the solidification of structural discrimination against women. The male readers may feel like they are blamed for their ordinary, everyday actions that they feel are not malicious or badly intended, which explains some of their negative reactions to the book. 

The cycle of discrimination inside and outside the home 

Among many episodes in the book, what especially caught my attention were the interconnections among Ji-young’s experience as a worker, as a wife and as a (potential) mother. Women are expected to leave the work once they marry, so they are paid less and their jobs are harder to hold down. At the same time, as a result of their low salary and job security, they are chosen as caregivers within the family. However, Korean society does not recognize her social contribution as a caregiver. Mothers are sometimes vilified as “mamchung (mother-roaches, “infesting” public places with their loud, uncontrollable children in tow, to follow the excellent English translation by Jamie Chang).” It was painful for them to give their career up, but many Koreans think that they are wasting their time at home. So, women’s experiences at home and work reinforce one another in a vicious cycle: women cannot find a good job because she will one day become a mother and leave the company, but at the same time, they would be the one to give up their career in the family once the time comes because the male partner is more likely to have a better job. 

I had to question how we can escape from this cycle. Some feminists today in South Korea argue that women should not marry and should not have a child under these circumstances. Can this be a solution? A low fertility rate is compelling the South Korean government to look for a way out of this cycle. Still, so far, they do not seem to understand the fundamental issues underlying the phenomenon. The government has been merely blaming women for the low fertility rate, rather than trying to understand why women choose not to have children. The real solution, I am afraid, is acknowledgement of structural discrimination against women that cannot be blamed on “bad behaviors” of certain men, and to find ways to dismantle it. The private and public sector should both change to deal with gender discrimination. First, companies should stop viewing women as temporary workers bound to quit their jobs once they marry and provide them with continuous opportunities to work even after marriage. Also, systemic support is needed to coordinate division of labor within the family and release working mothers and wives from the double burden. Equal shares in house chores and childrearing should be normalized culturally. Only when these two issues are properly addressed, in my view, the discrimination in the domestic as well as public sectors will stop reinforcing each other.