2020 Korean Literature Essay Contest winning essays

Breaking the Wheel: How Kim Jiyoung Dismantled the Internalization of Sexism in Kim Jiyoung Born 1982

By Veronica Coffey

In 2016, Cho Nam-joo’s masterpiece, Kim Jiyoung Born 1982, gained international praise for its depiction of the everyday woman’s experience of misogyny rooted in contemporary Korean society. However, with this praise came much backlash from younger men, who accused Cho of depicting the male characters as insensitive and misogynistic people. Interestingly, while the novel primarily focuses on the injustices instigated by men, Cho’s novel emphasizes that women, too, can play an equally culpable role in preserving the patriarchal culture that is entrenched in Korean society. Cho rejects the trope of all women being victims of misogyny by examining how the obscured effects of patriarchy influence women’s internalization of sexism.

Essentially, the internalization of sexism is a product of misogyny that acts as an instrument for repressed women to perpetuate sexism in situations of power-imbalance between women.

However, the protagonist, Kim Jiyoung, begins to recognize women’s own involvement in preserving inequality and chooses to defy this system rather than be complicit in the oppression of other women. In Kim Jiyoung Born 1982, Cho Nam-joo uses the concept of women internalizing misogyny to reveal the active roles women play in upholding the patriarchy, while simultaneously demonstrating how women, such as Kim Jiyoung, can empower themselves and others to break this cycle of female complicity through uniting women’s voices.

One of the earliest patterns in the novel of the internalization of sexism is in the domestic sphere. During Jiyoung’s childhood, her grandmother and mother played an active role in imposing sexist ideology onto Jiyoung, often without intent. At home, they constantly showed preferential treatment towards Jiyoung’s younger brother rather than to Jiyoung or her older sister, Eunyoung. Their grandmother, Koh Boonsoon, ensured that the brother got the freshest rice out of the rice cooker, the best pieces of meat, and received the newest clothes each year. In contrast, the girls received leftover food and hand-me-downs, while always expected to perform traditional gendered tasks such as doing the laundry, cleaning, and cooking (48). Unfortunately, this theme of son preference prevails throughout Jiyoung’s childhood, and her mother and grandmother negatively impacted Jiyong’s self-esteem through the favoritism of her brother. The bottled-up rage and accumulated generational trauma of sexism subjugated onto these women throughout their lives forced them to reassert their familiar yet sexist expectations onto the next generation. In fact, Jiyoung’s grandmother lived during the devastating Korean War, and was the breadwinner while her husband never worked a day in his life. However Koh Boonsoon “truly believed he was a decent husband for not sleeping around and not hitting her” (16). Furthermore, Jiyoung’s studious mother sacrificed her entire education to work in a factory to pay for her brothers’ school fees (25). These women’s sexist experiences have evolved into a cruel heirloom that gets passed down from grandmothers, to mothers, and eventually to their daughters. Given that these women have forfeited their rights in the pursuit of upholding patriarchal expectations, the injustices imposed on them by their forebears have obscured their ability to recognize their own involvement in perpetuating internalized sexism onto Jiyoung and her sister.

While Jiyoung’s first experience of this women-on-women discrimination begins at home, instances of women’s involvement in preserving patriarchal norms can be identified throughout her life. During middle school, the majority of Jiyoung’s teachers were women, yet her educational experience was rampant with sexism. The female teachers constantly showed preference to Jiyoung’s male pupils, either by repeatedly choosing them as class monitors, allowing boys to be first in line for lunch, and only forcing girls to adhere to the strict dress code. In addition, the teachers even suspended five female students who helped arrest a notorious neighborhood flasher after he sexually harassed them on school grounds (46). In these examples, the female teachers have created a system in which they preserve misogynistic attitudes to reassert an illusion of power by stripping younger girls of their rights. This internalization has left them with a tolerance of sexist behavior and given them an opportunity to assuage their personal sense of injustice through the subjugation of other women.

Not only has the internalization of sexism impacted Jiyong’s adolescence, but her adulthood has shown numerous instances in which women actively discriminate against Jiyoung. As soon as Jiyoung marries her husband, Daehyun, her female in-laws immediately invade her personal privacy, and pressure her to get pregnant. In addition, after Jiyoung becomes pregnant, she was commuting home from work on the subway when a female university student said loud enough for her to hear, “About to pop and still taking the tube to go to make money - clearly can’t afford a kid” (128). This incident was extremely traumatic for Jiyoung, and highlights the hidden hypocrisies women retain about other women. This young student, like Jiyoung’s female in-laws, maintained the cycle of female repression in exchange for a false sense of superiority and control.

While some of the female characters are portrayed in an unfavorable light, there are plenty of women who break this cycle of internalization. For example, Kim Eunshil and Kang Hyesu, Jiyoung’s boss and colleague, united the women in their office to expose the injustices of the spy cam incident in which women were unknowingly recorded in bathroom stalls. After joining together, the women were able to take legal action and receive assistance from a women’s organization (142). Additionally, a random woman saved Jiyoung as a child from sexual assault at a bus stop. Rather than blaming Jiyoung for the boy’s advancements as her father did, she was the first to tell Jiyoung that sexual assault was never a woman’s fault (57).

Instead of participating in the victim-turned-oppressor trope, these women have become role models in which they empower other women rather than reconstruct their oppression into anger to suppress other women. Jiyoung, too, becomes a prime foil to these sexist women when she discovers a mechanism in which vulnerable women’s voices can be heard. Jiyoung achieves this through her ability to channel other women’s voices through herself, and begins to share these stories with people such as her close-minded husband and in-laws. Through channelling other women’s voices, Jiyoung empowered those who had been systematically neglected to have their once silenced stories heard.

Essentially, Cho argues that the key to abolishing the internalization of sexism is rooted in understanding other women’s experiences. Rather than judging each other, women need to empower one another through storytelling and mutual support. Jiyoung’s gift demonstrates that only when women connect with each other through the power of storytelling can they begin to make a new system that does not pit women against each other, but unites and empowers them. Jiyoung’s defiance in not becoming just another pawn in the game of patriarchy allowed her true liberation from this cycle of internalization. Similar to Jiyoung, this book in itself united people across the globe to recognize our own complicity in perpetuating sexism, regardless of gender, and that women must join together to overcome these challenges. Kim Jiyoung, while a fictional character, has accomplished her goal: through the retelling of Jiyoung’s story and other women in the novel, readers of Kim Jiyoung Born 1982 have united to share Jiyoung’s story, their own, and countless others who have now been given a voice.

Overworked and Underpaid: Intersections of Female Agency and Responsibilities in Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

By Kolten Conklen

From a glance, the title of and size of Cho Nam-joo’s novel, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, appears dull and just another run-of-the-mill story about a girl with a basic name born in a random year. However, behind this generic title lies the dynamic protagonist Kim Jiyoung, who is a mother, a wife, a sister, a friend, a daughter-in-law, a female, a human, a revolutionary, and a voice of South Korean female liberation. Most importantly, Jiyoung is a breathing anthology of female lived experiences in Korea’s predominately patriarchal society. In observing Jiyoung’s life, it is evident that Korean women lack agency compared to men. Yet, they are responsible for being the nation’s caretakers, without proper reimbursement for their labor. It is the intersection between agency and responsibility that allow men to gain power, while women, like Jiyoung, are hidden in the shadows.

Starting from the cover art, Cho demonstrates prevailing perceptions of a woman’s role in society. There is no honorific, whimsy, or extravagance added to the title; it is merely a name and a birth year. The title’s sterileness acts like a barcode that objectifies and sets limitations to Jiyoung’s ability. This isn’t to say that Cho believes women are objects, but often women do not have the personal agency to make independent choices. Cho holds the agency in titling and determining Jiyoung’s narrative; men also possess Jiyoung’s agency. The inclusion of a woman’s silhouette with a desert scene superimposed over the face furthers the notion that a woman’s worth is evaluated on her ability to birth and care for life, nothing else. For Jiyoung, this desert scene implies that she is infertile, unable to live up to society’s standards. Yet, the erasure of facial characteristics represents the collective struggles Korean women have faced in modern-day life—many women see themselves in the landscape that occupies what would have been Jiyeong’s face. Furthermore, the inclusion of the desert invokes American artist Georgia O’keefe’s feminist paintings, tying Korea’s recent feminist movements to larger global movements in the #MeToo era.

Additionally, Cho’s structuring of this novel parallels women’s ever-growing list of societal responsibilities and agency absences. In just under 160 pages, decades of experiences fly by. The novel’s speed accelerates after every page turn to the point where you start to feel overwhelmed, and it’s not even your life. With the responsibilities of caretaking, marriage, child birthing, cleaning, etc., thrust upon Jiyoung, the reader starts to question who is actually in control? Cho’s answer to this exists in the novel’s voice. The minimized third-person narration and frequency of male characters being narrated in active tense while female characters tend to be written in passive tense asserts that this is a woman’s story, not written by her. This assertion falls in line with Korean society’s patriarchal aspects and Jiyoung’s lived experiences validate this assertion. Perhaps, this novel’s most aggravating moment comes at the last chapter when Daehyun and the psychologist discuss Jiyoung in first-person voice. These two men are evaluating Jiyoung without her being present. In essence, they hold the keys to her destiny and her value. Perchance, they intended to better Jiyoung, but their methods highlight the inability for women to be in total control of their lives and the stigmatization they receive for failing to fulfill their prescribed societal responsibilities because of their gender. Not only is the last chapter from the men’s point of view, but up until this chapter, Cho included statistics about gender inequality throughout the book as a way to quantitatively support Jiyoung’s experiences, but Cho does not include these same statistical footnotes in the last chapter. By doing this, Cho implies that men do not care about female experiences or the truth; rather, they are purely in pursuit of their own self-interests.

One of the scenes that truly embodies Korea’s gender disparity and women’s caretaker responsibility is when Jiyoung is stalked by a predator while riding the bus. Jiyoung comprehends that a man is profiling her and does all she can to mitigate the situation before stepping off the bus. However, she knows that she can’t make a scene or defend herself because that would violate her responsibility to take care of the social order. Her lack of agency prevents her from being taken seriously even if she were to act brazenly in this situation. As Jiyoung steps off the bus and the scene intensifies, leading almost to sexual assault, Jiyoung is saved by a fellow woman. Through the woman’s own lived experiences with patriarchy and an engrained intuition to be a caretaker, she is Jiyoung’s savior. Jiyoung’s father passes blame from the male predator onto Jiyoung. He scolds Jiyoung for putting herself in that situation, further adding more non-consensual responsibilities to Jiyoung’s life. Had a man intervened in the situation, he most likely would have been heralded as a prince saving a damsel in distress, but because it was a woman, business resumed as usual. It is this intersection of a woman’s dictated responsibilities and the absence of power to effectively fight back against societal norms and patriarchic policies that have shaped current-day power dynamic inequalities between men and women.

Lastly, the scene that starts the novel, Jiyoung’s standoff with her mother-in-law, illuminates how society’s imposed gender-based responsibilities and agency can uproot families and livelihoods. Jiyoung is expected to go to her husband’s family for holidays, and the women of the family are expected to cater the entire celebration. When Jiyoung pushes back against these expectations, she is characterized as a psychotic demon rather than a human desperately craving personal agency. It is easy to see the mother-in-law as the villain here, but there is sympathy to be felt for her. The mother-in-law has been performing her womanly responsibilities for years and is presumed to be exhausted with the ever-growing societal prescribed responsibilities, like Jiyoung. Jiyoung’s defiance forces the other women to carry more caretaker responsibilities, while the men continue with their lives as usual. Cho’s implementation of this scene at the beginning of the book foreshadows that Korean women’s struggle for gender equality, past and present. This scene reveals that gender equality will not exist until women hold equal amounts of agency as men. However, because men hold power and dictate responsibilities, women are pitted against each other, and attention is taken away from fighting the patriarchal system.

Ultimately, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, is an exquisite novel. Although the novel’s life starts with Jiyoung’s birth in 1982, if you remove the historical framing, the time period is undistinguishable—are the events happening decades ago or right now? The novel’s ability to distort the reader’s understanding of time emphasizes the relevance and importance of fighting for gender equality in South Korea today. Through Jiyoung’s lived experiences and her female counterparts’ oral histories, agency and responsibility disparities are revealed, which have created one of the largest gender gaps in any developed country. The novel is a vehicle for women to share their experiences and act as a catalyst for change, yet the novel shares no resolve. As Ji-young said about motherhood, “some demeaned it as ‘bumming around at home,’ but others glorified it as ‘work that sustains life,” but none tried to calculate its monetary value. Probably because the moment you put a price on something, someone has to pay” (pg. 137).

Unfortunately, as frustrating as it is, women will continue to pay that price because they are the caretakers, whether they like it or not.