AAS Annual Meeting

Korea Session 529

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Session 529: Locating Gender: Neoliberalism, (Inter)Nationalism and Familism in Popular South Korean Discourses

Organizer: Sharon H. Lee, New York University, USA

Discussant: James Thomas, McGill University, Canada

This panel explores a wide range of cultural and social discourses—advertisements, newspaper articles, films and dramas—in order to explore the role of gender in the deployment of neoliberalism, inter/nationalism and familism since South Korea’s 1997 Economic Crisis. Taken together, these papers interrogate these cultural productions and examine how they operate at the vexed intersection of gender, race, capital and nation. Panelists address these issues from multiple disciplinary vantage points: Hye Gyong Park explores how discourses of familism were effected by the 1997 Economic Crisis in South Korea’s neoliberal society. As Park illuminates, while the crisis itself was deemed a masculine head of household problem, emotional responsibility was feminized relegating women to the domestic sphere. In his paper, Anthony Kim examines issues of neoliberalism and multiculturalism through his examination of the film, Thirst. Focusing on the film’s Filipina lead character, Kim asks: What transformative political possibilities can we gather out of just a century’s worth of historical damage? Taking a more playful turn, Bonnie Tilland explores inter/nationalism in Korean gourmet dramas focusing primarily on the transnational meanings deployed by these much consumed dramas particularly in regards to gender and youth. Lastly, Sharon Heijin Lee illustrates, through an examination of the films Address Unknown and Time, how two seemingly disparate figures, the Korean sex worker and plastic surgery consumer, are mutually imbricated in processes of imperial racial formation and what implications these discursive representations have on the Korean diaspora.

Commodities or Consumers?: (Dis)Figuring Korean Women in Kim Ki duk’s Address Unknown and Time
Sharon H. Lee, New York University, USA

Starting with the Korean comfort women and extending to U.S. military camptown prostitutes and military brides, the yanggongju, has simultaneously been both the catalyst for demands for justice as well as the allegorical figure of the nation’s shame and domination. In marked contrast, another signifier has also emerged in recent popular depictions of Korean women. In opposition to the image of the usually disenfranchised and lower class yanggongju, the specter of the Korean plastic surgery consumer has emerged as a marker of South Korean modernization. While these seemingly disparate images of Korean women appear to exist in tension with one another, my paper asserts that these central figures have more in common than it may first appear. As discursive conjurings and as lived experiences, these archetypes illuminate how South Korea’s modern history—under the auspices of modernization and militarization—has demanded different types of “body work” from gendered bodies depending on their social and class locations. Using controversial Korean director Kim Ki duk’s films, Address Unknown and Time, as entry points into thinking about these two types of “body work” and how they are mutually imbricated in processes of imperial racial formation, this paper, rather than framing these two representations in binary opposition—commodity versus consumer—articulates these figures as instantiations of how capitalism, (neo)colonialism, and neoliberalism mobilize gendered bodies towards different ends.

Dead Matter: Neoliberalism, Necropoli(tic)s, & Park Chan-wook’s Thirst
Anthony Kim, University of California, San Diego, USA

In the 2009 South Korean film, Thirst (Korean: 박쥐; Bakjwi; Bat), director Park Chan-wook offers a distinctly modern take on the gothic vampire genre. In this paper, I consider how Thirst de-composes the corporal, discursive, and ethical formations of the human as they are unsuccessfully disciplined and policed by the technologies of neoliberal progress before being mutated and unleashed to wreak havoc on the metropolis of present-day Seoul. By interrogating the two lead characters – a Catholic priest who develops a libidinal thirst for blood and the repressed housewife who becomes his fatal attraction – I argue that their peculiar passage into the undead becomes a state of exception that pushes against, and indeed explodes, the limits of heteropatriarchal desire, civil society, and the modern subject that contour the onto-epistemology of a divided Korea. For if, in “Necropolitics,” Achille Mdembe exhorts that politics is the work of death and sovereignty, the right to kill, I suggest that Thirst provides one such narrative bloodletting for the anxieties, excesses, and horrors that emerge out of the material and psychic conditions of “being modern” on the peninsula. I focus, then, on the figure of the Filipina and how her errant body speaks to an ambivalent and ultimately unresolved multiculturalism in South Korea. What is national development now, especially when South Korea is increasingly immersed in free market capitalism? What transformative political possibilities can we gather out of just a century’s worth of historical damage?

Masculinization and Familialization of Economic Crisis in South Korea
Hye Gyong Park, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, South Korea

As a result of South Korea’s recent neoliberal social system, South Korean citizens face limitless competition amongst one another, creating a situation in which familism (the privileging of family needs over individual needs) obscures criticism or even recognition of South Korea’s “winner take all” society. This paper analyzes how discourses of familism were affected by South Korea’s economic crisis, parsing its meaning from a gendered perspective. After the 1997 IMF Crisis, divorce rates increased and family collapse discourses garnered great attention. Meanwhile, feminist researchers asserted that the gender division of labor was weakened and predicted that families would become more diverse. On the other hand, through what I call the “masculinization and familialization” of the Economic Crisis, the crisis was represented as male breadwinners’ i.e. head of households’ problems. At the same time, these discourses also put the burden of encouragement of and emotional care for men onto wives (“Nampyon Kisaligi”), which led to the representation of wives as psychiatrists for their husbands and family members, thus feminizing the responsibility for overcoming and emotionalizing the crisis. Such discourses resulted in the privatization of the crisis, eliding its social aspects while corporations contributed to the situation by employing emotional marketing strategies, which pushed family values. As such and as my paper will show, housewife CEO subjectification discourses revised familism, making the domestic sphere women’s primary locus.

An Order of National Pride with a Side of Cosmopolitanism: Korean “Gourmet” TV Dramas
Bonnie Tilland, Yonsei University, USA

This paper represents one part of my dissertation research on television viewing practices and changing family values in South Korea. In the early 2000s the phenomenon known as Hallyu (the “Korean Wave”) swept across Asia and established a diverse fan base to consume Korean popular cultural products, much as a “Japanese Wave” had in the 1990s. “Korean Wave” products were mainly television series, films, and pop music, but with the wild transnational (as well as domestic) success of the series Daejanggeum (Jewel in the Palace, MBC, 2003) Korean cuisine also became a target for export. Daejanggeum told the story of a low-born woman in the Choson dynasty who became a chef in the royal court, and later the royal physician. The television drama led to an increase in popularity of both exported Korean television and Korean “traditional” cuisine. Since the success of Daejanggeum many other Korean television dramas have featured both Korean food and international cuisine—from the competing chef brothers of Shikgaek (Gourmet) to the cosmopolitan staff of Coffee Prince and Pasta. In this paper I examine the interplay of nationalism and internationalism in Korean “gourmet” dramas, paying attention to the way “Korean taste” is constructed. I also explore the way international cuisine is portrayed as a youthful pursuit, the ideal career choice for the flexible and creative young generation. My paper combines both analysis of “gourmet dramas” themselves and interviews with Korean viewers about their interpretations.