Lecture Series: “Democratization and Gender in Postcolonial South Korea”

On October 31, 2018, Eunkyung Kim, Research Professor of Research Institute of Asian Women at Sookmyung Women’s University and Administrative Director of Korean Association of Women’s History, gave a lecture on “Democratization and Gender in Postcolonial South Korea.” Gender discriminations were concealed and expected to disappear after democratization. However, hate speech and violence against women and sexual minorities not only persisted, but  increased after Korean democracy has been stabilized. Dr. Kim questioned what democratization meant for women in contemporary South Korea.

Dr. Kim opened the lecture by sharing her experience as a college student. During the democratization movement of South Korea, young intellectuals were involved in series of protests. Female students had erased their femininity by not wearing make-up and skirts and using terms such as ‘hyung’– a term used by male to refer to an older male – to refer to their male counterparts, because femininity was perceived as emotional, passive, and wasteful. At the same time, some female students utilized those feminine qualities to avoid arrest.

Dr. Kim also introduced two Korean films: To You, From Me (1994) and Madame Freedom (1956) to address society’s perception on familial values, women’s sexuality, and intellectuals who led the protests. In the film To You, From Me, the director criticizes the popular intellectual ideas, by displaying an elite male activist expressing his arrogance and patriarchal attitude to the heroine. In the scene in which he engages in a violent, forced intercourse with her while yelling “Anti-fascism, anti-Americanism.”, the director points out his hypocritical behavior of committing another form of violent crime as he criticizes authoritarianism. Madame Freedom depicts western influence as threat to Korean ethnic values and traditions. Dr. Kim addressed that male intellectuals at the time were concerned about women becoming “Americanized” and spoiling the purity of Korean ethnicity. The main character in the film was an archetype of “wise mother, good wife” in a traditional patriarchal household until she was introduced to western culture. She began to have an affair with her dancing partner next door, who was “Americanized”. The man she has an affair with decorated his house with American goods and always spoke about liberty and human rights. Her husband was also having an affair, but his infidelity was portrayed as one that did not threaten the marriage and familial values. As the film explicitly depicts, the South Korean society perceived western culture as something that destroys traditional gender roles and alters female sexuality.

Dr. Kim then addressed the New Family Law and its implication on everyday lives. While the law seemed to support gender equality, it was actually gender discriminatory. The New Family Law allowed women to take legal actions, buy and sell property without permission from their spouses and even allowed free divorce. Male lawmakers were not concerned with women’s rights, but tried to evaluate women’s issues under a broader scope of democratization and modernization. Dr. Kim concluded the lecture by stating that the New Family Law did not reflect the voices of women, failed to break gender inequality, and did not enhance gender sensitization.

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