If you have been an avid fan of K-dramas for a long time, you would’ve noticed a subtle yet powerful shift in its content. While typical boy-girl romances still dominate the entertainment market, we are certainly seeing a more diverse range of stories and subplots within each TV series that reflect the voices of the new generation. No longer are women just portrayed as damsels in distress, waiting for their knight in shining armour to get them out of tough situations, or wicked and malicious girls who fight over the affections of the male lead. Now we have strong female leads, quite literally in Strong Girl Bong-Soon and more realistically in shows like Sky Castle where the female characters truly call the shots.
This new wave of more progressive K-dramas is such a refreshing change that defy the usual TV tropes. And subscription platforms such as Netflix has proven to be a catalyst of this shift, giving talented young producers, writers and actors almost free reign to create. Itaewon Class and Extracurricular are some examples as both shows tackle taboo topics such as racism, transgender rights, prostitution and so on.
While many might think, what’s the big deal? It’s 2020! This is a monumental shift in South Korea’s more conservative and patriarchal society. Feminism is generally viewed negatively there. In early 2018, South Korea experienced their own version of the #MeToo movement, sparked by Seo Ji-Hyun, a prosecutor who bravely told her sexual assault story which involved a high-ranking individual in the prosecutor’s office, on national television.
He allegedly groped her at a funeral in 2010 and then used his influence to move her when she complained. The high-profile case gained nationwide attention and when the perpetuator was released on bail, feminists began calling out the failures of the justice system in protecting them. Eventually shining a light on the general treatment of women in South Korea.
Tensions between feminists and traditionalists heightened all through 2019, causing a massive divide among the locals. During these volatile times, the film titled Kim Ji-Young: Born 1982 premiered, sparking huge debate and backlash towards Jung Yoo-Mi and Gong Yoo, who starred in the film.
I watched the trailer back then and was puzzled about the uproar the film incited as it looked like a simple story around motherhood. It was then that I learnt that the film was an adaptation of a feminist book written by female author, Cho Nam-Joo with the same title. The book was as notorious as it was successful. It sold over one million copies in South Korea and has been translated into multiple languages since. It’s notoriety can be exemplified in the instance where Red Velvet’s Irene received backlash upon mentioning that she has read Kim Jo-Young: Born 1982. Fans allegedly burned photos of the star and got rid of merchandise featuring her image, criticising her solely for her seemingly feminist reading preferences.
I don’t know about you but when someone tells me I can’t do something, it makes me want to do it even more. And so, I read Kim Ji-Young: Born 1982.
The book tells the story of Kim Ji-Young, an ordinary South Korean woman. Her name was the Korean equivalent of being named Jane Doe and that perfectly encapsulates the unremarkable essence of Kim. When we first meet her, she is a married woman in her 30s with a baby daughter and loving husband. Everything is seemingly perfect and ordinary until Kim began to slowly lose her grip on reality after becoming pregnant with her first child. At times, she would transform into other women; speaking and acting like her mom or her husband’s ex-girlfriend. We follow her through the chapters of her life through childhood, into womanhood and eventually motherhood.
The beauty in Kim Ji-Young: Born 1982 is in its subtlety. Initially, I mistook it for banality but then quickly realised that it is precisely this element of Cho’s story-telling that allows the instances of micro-aggressions and casual sexism to scream so loud. It seems so obvious, almost jumping out of the pages at times.
Why does Kim have to give up her job as soon as she becomes a mother? Why are career women being forced to entertain their bosses at company dinners? Why is it that a woman’s assumed purpose in society is to give birth and be the caretaker? Why is it that when Kim wa bullied by a boy in school, her teacher simply said,”Guys tend to bug girls they like”? These instances of sexism and societal double-standard become abundantly apparent against the plainness of Kim Ji-Young’s life.
The deadpan story-telling is bolstered with facts and references to studies regarding gender inequality. “In 2014, around the time Kim Ji-Young left the company, one in five married women in Korea quit their job because of marriage, pregnancy, childbirth and child care, or the education of young children,” Cho wrote, “Women working in Korea earn only 63 per cent of what men earn.” This book is filled with these mind-blowing facts about the South Korean modern society.
It was truly an eye-opening read and as a voracious consumer of K-content, has allowed me to view such content through a richer lens. The book also gives me a whole new appreciation for mothers, including my own. Kim’s story, though fictional, is based on the lives of so many real women. The sacrifices they have to make, the pressures of motherhood and the loneliness that come with being a housewife. As Cho said, “It feels like Kim Ji-Young is alive somewhere in this world.”
Kim Ji-Young: Born 1982 the movie is available for viewing here.