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Posted : 2009-08-14 17:16
Updated : 2009-08-14 17:16

Sexism in Korea ― Again

By Alex Lee

While touring a bookstore the other day, I came across a title with an intriguing cover. Staring straight at me, breaking the fourth wall, was a Korean woman, blank-faced, with her baby-coddling white husband.

The book, entitled ``Happy Together," was a photographic showcase of interracial couples (all Korean women with white men) in South Korea. The author, Kim Ok-sun, herself married to a German man, described the book as a personal portrayal of ``Korean women living in this country with foreign spouses … further expand[ing] to the portraits of Asian women." Innocent enough, I thought.

Then I read the other commentaries. Max Henry, a New York-based male art critic, applauded ``suffering martyrs" like Kim who broke with tradition and aligned with Western men. He followed by chiding Korean society (and presumably all Asian men) for maintaining ``prejudicial obstacles" to such supposedly socially progressive pairings.

Park Chan-kyong, a Korean male artist, wrote how the ``prejudice of ultra nationalistic Koreans (men)" had rendered Korean women like Kim ``guardians" against an oppressive Korean system. The overall message: Korean (and Asian) men are really sexist; white Western men … not so much.

As a Korean-American man, I agree wholeheartedly that sexism ― both individual but especially structural ― remains a truly frustrating bane on Korean (and Asian) society. Whenever an insecure Korean man struts his manliness, tells me his future wife dare not be ugly, or encourages me to watch ``Minyeodeului Suda" (Beauties' Chattering) ― that ridiculous program featuring foreign women ogling over Korean men, i.e. a sad fantasy ― I feel shame and anger.

What's more, I respect Korean women like Kim who shed artistic light on a controversial but very personal issue. And yet, her book's critique of ``sexist" Korean (and Asian) men is still problematic.

By trumping gender over all other categories (race, class, or sexuality), Kim's book ignores that oppressions don't exist in a vacuum. Instead, they are always relational and work together. For instance, ``the Orient" historically has been gendered ``passive," ``feminine," and very likely ``gay" by the West, while the latter has been gendered ``dominant," ``masculine," and most definitely ``straight."

Moreover, her book doesn't recognize the extent to which the West actually oppresses both Asian men and women _ only in different ways. Consequently, to paraphrase Nadia Y. Kim, Asian women often cannot resist one kind of oppression (Asian patriarchy) without reinforcing another (white Western heterosexual masculinity).

Sexism is all around Western culture, but it is difficult to see. Look closer and you'll find it throughout the blogosphere, across airwaves in ``America," and especially in everyday conversation. How may times do I still hear the casual taunts of ``liberal" white Western men accusing each other of being a ``girl," ``bitch" or ``fag?" Of course, these are only personal examples. Plus, they do not speak to the many ways Asian women experience sexism and racism in the West, e.g., being stereotyped as sexually submissive, exotic, and so forth. Instead, they simply illustrate how much misogyny and homophobia still frame much of white Western masculinity.

In 2004, Details Magazine printed a notorious article featuring a strikingly average looking Asian man next to the insidious title, ``Gay or Asian?"

Historically, such displays of Asian male emasculation are nothing new. To quote my feminist sister, they merely expose what white Western masculinity secretly loathes and fears: women and ``queers."

Of course, most people (including Kim) don't acknowledge this. Most Koreans I meet still have this vague notion that the West is a paragon of feminism. Unfortunately, they forget that ``Western feminism" emerged largely on the backs of poorer women of color (non-whites) who were willing to do the jobs richer white women left. South Korean women do not share the same luxury (at least, not yet).

Similarly, most white Western men are only as exceptionally ``liberal" as Asian men are eternally ``sexist." Sadly, most people forget this. For instance, many women misdirect their energies fighting against each other instead of challenging the real culprit, patriarchy. Likewise, many Asian men do the same by fighting over ``their women" ― usually in a bid to outdo white Western men ― instead of challenging another culprit, sexist and racist white Western masculinity.

Ultimately, all men need to be less sexist. Only then can we have a truly sustainable, ``global" feminist movement. I know I need to do my part. Korean men have their work cut out for them, too. And what about ``liberal" white Western men? My sister has good advice: ``They should look in the mirror." Sounds like a good book title to me.

The author has been a frequent contributing writer for The Korea Times. He can be reached at kifakorea@gmail.com.

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