‘Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982’ offers Western #MeToo activists a chance to catch up to radical Korean feminists

Jamie Chang’s English translation of the best-selling Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 will soon be available to Western readers, and its film adaptation is already screening throughout Asia. The novel, originally published in 2016, describes the sexism faced by a young South Korean woman from childhood to early motherhood, when it eventually breaks her. Fictional accounts of sexism’s impact on women are quickly genre-ed part of the #MeToo literary cannon these days, but Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 was published in Korean before the country’s feminist uprising in late 2016. In fact, the novel’s narrative is underpinned not by the #MeToo movement, but the politics of the women’s liberation movement that came before it. Its upcoming English-language release in March 2020, therefore, is an opportunity for Western #MeToo activists to learn the politics of the movement that preceded it, and catch up to Korean sisters.

#MeToo is fuelled by indignation at the misogynistic excesses and sexual abuses of overly powerful men. Extraordinary practices of woman-hating, like assaults on women in the American entertainment industry and fatal gang rapes of girls in India, drove the global feminist outrage that launched #MeToo. The movement responds to sexual excess, so is focused on rampant, long-standing perpetrators like Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump, who represent everything #MeToo stands against.

But the earlier women’s liberation movement was the inverse. Consciousness-raising groups stoked women’s indignation at everyday, routine practices of sexism that drove them to examine even mundane aspects of their lives, from housework, to feminine beauty practices, to penetrative, heterosexual sex. Outrage at unremarkable practices of household and labour inequality, including male segregationist pursuits of work and leisure, led to feminist actions like “pub liberations,” wherein groups of women took over men-only bars.

Women came to comprehend wrongful treatment beyond extremes of male violence like rape, incest, and domestic violence, even if these were targets of political action.

Outrage, too, at insidious forms of sexism produced novels like Doris Lessing’s portrayal of Anna Wulf’s breakdown in The Golden Notebook. Wulf keeps diary entries of her life as a writer with a young daughter while in a relationship with a male physician who is leaving her. In the grief of the break up, she writes of resenting him “because he will spend his day, served by secretaries, nurses, women in all kinds of capacities, who will take this weight off him.” Sexism in the lives of Lessing’s female characters is not portrayed dramatically or violently, but nonetheless leads them to mental breakdown. Lessing’s readers are taught to see the intolerability of the sex inequality that pervades even the most unremarkable female lives. Raising the bar of tolerance in this way, rather than lowering it, is what distinguishes the politics of the women’s liberation movement from those of #MeToo.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 puts readers through the paces of the same politics, if in more concentrated, blunt form, and with even greater attention to fine-grained, unexceptional practices of sexist discrimination in the lives of women and girls. Kim Jiyoung is deprived of food in childhood in favour of the feeding of her brother, whose existence came at the sacrifice of an earlier aborted sister. On the other side of the coin, the male chivalry she later enjoys in a university mountaineering club, in which female members have their packs carried and choice of “what to eat from the lunch and post-hike menus,” is shown as hollow when she overhears the friendliest, most trusted male club member referring to her, after a break-up, as “chewing gum someone spat out.” She reflects on the incident that, “[E]ven the usually reasonable, sane ones verbally degrade women — even the women they have feelings for.” Even in the best of circumstances, in other words, women’s degraded social status, decided before birth, sees them held to a different standard of human existence. Even when, in the case of the mountaineering club, “[i]nstead of choosing the lunch menu, they want to run for president.”

Author Cho Nam-Joo pushes readers to confront sexism as relentless and inescapable, and thereby attempts to lower their tolerance of it. Her trick is to regularly punctuate the narrative with accounts of women intervening in the sexist situations Kim Jiyoung faces, helping her in times of hardship, and serving as models of stronger female behaviour. In these recollections, readers’ hopes are raised, in a liberal, individualistic way, that Kim Jiyoung will find a way out of the condition of womanhood. But these hopes are continually dashed, and readers are left helplessly waiting for her impending mental breakdown.

The kindness and efforts of other women, in other words, are no match for the overwhelming power and seriousness of sexism. Kim Jiyoung descends into psychosis even with a mother who goes against her husband’s wishes and allocates her daughters a room of their own with study desks, a female primary school teacher who takes her complaint of bullying by a male classmate seriously and moves her classroom desk, an older woman on a bus who saves her from a would-be rapist, another older woman who shoos train passengers off seats to allow her to sit down in the late stages of pregnancy, a fellow female job interviewee who stands up to the sexist question of an interviewer, and a gang of tough girls in her middle-school class who catch, tie-up, and drag a flasher at the school-gates to the police station.

Readers are also not permitted the luxury of imagining men waiting in the wings to save women. All the novel’s male characters, except Kim Jiyoung’s husband Daehyun, are left unnamed. In remaining indistinguishable from the flashers and rapists, in other words, they too constitute the everymen of women’s lives who enact the treatment that reflects and secures female subordinate status.

The sexist treatment women face in the best of circumstances, even when their male minders are kind, is Cho Nam-Joo’s relentless focus. She shows this treatment as arranged in biologically defined terms, beginning before birth. In her teenage years, Kim Jiyoung asks her sister why, “[i]n a world where doctors can cure cancer and do heart transplants, there isn’t a single pill to treat menstrual cramps.” Years later, she begs nurses for pain relief when giving birth to a daughter in agony, and afterwards reflects on the fact that, around the time she married, there had been a “sudden widespread popularity of natural births, the crux being minimal medical intervention and a natural birthing experience in which mother and baby make their own decisions.” Her best friend later dies in childbirth. After the birth of her own daughter, Kim Jiyoung develops paralysis in her wrists, and comes close to being unable to care for the new baby and household. Regardless, she is told by a doctor, “I can’t prescribe anything too strong if you’re breastfeeding,” and is encouraged instead to attend time-consuming physiotherapy sessions. The message is that, even for relative winners of the patriarchal lottery, different treatment on the basis of biological sex can be fatal.

Female fatalities of sexism are mostly not portrayed in physical terms — women’s spiritual destruction is shown as equally devastating. The self-esteem Kim Jiyoung gains through securing a white-collar job and succeeding, despite its workload and pressurized environment, crumbles when she later finds out early-career female employees are allocated the company’s highest-maintenance clients not because of competence relative to male peers but because “management didn’t want to tire out the prospective long-term male colleagues from the start” — the assumption being that women do not constitute permanent employees. Ironically, these same male colleagues later complain about company policy allowing pregnant female employees to arrive 30 minutes late to work, even if they must make up the time at the end of the day. Futilely, Kim Jiyoung insists in response that “she didn’t intend to get a single minute for free.” Their acts of betrayal continue even after she leaves the company, when they are found to have secretly shared pictures of her colleagues taken by a spy-cam in the company’s female bathroom and uploaded to the internet. Kim Jiyoung’s experiences in the workforce remind readers that women cannot count on solidarity from their brothers even when they work hard and accommodate themselves to the man-made world.

Even in environments of capitalist enterprise, which are supposed to be impersonal and gender-blind in their single-minded accumulation of capital, Kim Jiyoung and her female colleagues discover sexism overrides rational profit-seeking, and their social value is determined by forces overruling even the market. This value drops even further, though, when they find themselves on the outside. “[B]eing an individual who did not belong to any group, Jiyoung realized that the company had been a fortress for her.” She is awakened to this in even more jarring terms when men from the same cohort of “office guys, 30ish, wearing suits” verbally abuse her in public. Sitting on a park bench with a pram, drinking coffee, gives the men license to call Kim Jiyoung a “mum-roach” — a freeloading housewife whose husband should be pitied for having married. This sudden confrontation with the escalating nature of her socially degraded female status comes as a shock to Jiyoung, and prompts the now-famous line of dialogue with her husband that defines the novel and, indeed, the politics of women’s liberation:

“Am I stealing from you? I suffered deathly pain having our child. My routine, my career, my dreams, my entire life, myself — I gave it all up to raise our child. And I’ve become a vermin. What do I do now?”

The novel’s thesis, that the sexism of female life in its mildest form is so intolerable as to induce psychosis, will not likely resonate with the #MeToo politics currently animating feminists in the English-speaking West. Being called a name like “mum-roach,” after all, pales in comparison to the horror of being raped by Harvey Weinstein on a hotel bed after waking up to him banging on the door. Being compared to vermin (and this treatment deemed rightful), though, is the factor that unites these experiences: degraded treatment enacts sub-human status whether it is delivered through men’s words or their most brutal, violent acts. Even under the best of conditions, Kim Jiyoung and Anna Wulf find this treatment incompatible with soundness of mind. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 therefore confronts the #MeToo movement with the possibility its approach has been both too serious and not serious enough. The extremes of male violence the movement brings to light are, without a doubt, a threat to female personhood of the most serious kind. But these extremes exist in a world that has already chipped away at women’s lives and sanity to the point of destruction.

Caroline Norma lectures in the Master of Translation and Interpreting degree at RMIT University in Australia.

Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, by Cho Nam-Joo, translated by Jamie Chang, is published by Scribner UK (2020).

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