Feminism for All
- onSeptember 27, 2017
- Vol.37 Autumn 2017
- byKim Suyee
Feminism started from the singular and then evolved into the plural; no feminist theory or method dominates. In a sense, the history of feminism is the history of this realization, for each country in the world has its own history and culture, and women’s issues are spread over various dimensions even within the same society. To imagine feminism as a homogenous unity is to repeat the mistake of conformity and exclusion made by that which feminism resists (patriarchy or androcentric thinking).
Feminism is not a new ideology of domination towards the destruction of the patriarchy. Feminism is a universal project towards the peaceful coexistence of all genders and is inclusive of both women and men. Feminism, in other words, is for all. The actors in feminism are not just women but all of humanity. The ideal world according to feminism is a democratic society in which everyone respects each other regardless of gender and lives together in harmony.
Feminism is critical of historically constituted false gender ideologies and the power relations based on such. Not only are unjust patriarch-centered power relations violent in of themselves, they are perpetuated through violent means. The authoritative violence of patriarchy is deeply rooted in society, even in the lives of the individual and their interiority. Power as expressed through violence destroys human lives and devastates our ability to love. In her book Feminism Is for Everybody, bell hooks says, “love can never take root in a relationship based on domination and coercion” and that the subjects of love could only stand “counter to everything patriarchy upholds about the structure of relationships.”1 In this light, feminism is an opportunity to restore love, and a feminist is simply someone who loves in the most “love-like” way possible.
The contemporary feminist movement in Korea can be roughly divided in two waves: first came the late twentieth-century “singular” feminism in opposition to patriarchy. Feminism began to be examined in earnest by Korean poetry in the 1980s and 1990s. The work of Choi Seung-ja, Kim Hyesoon, Moon Chung-hee, Kim Seung-hee, and Kim Un-hee disclosed the oppression and inequality experienced by women, arguing for the fundamental reform of societal structures and awareness. This movement was followed by “plural” feminism in the early twenty-first century, a comprehensive ideology embracing all of society. Particularly notable in the latter is how male poets have joined women poets in identifying with the feminist movement. Of the six poets in this edition, Kim Hyun and Kim Seung Il are cisgender men. Kim Hyun styles himself as a femi-writer.
The reasons for this shift are varied. First is the criticism against systemic patriarchy, which still holds on to male-centric Confucian values despite our having entered the twenty-first century. Second is a new focus on other minorities such as queer-identifying people, and the subsequent rediscovery of feminism as a voice for such minorities. Third is the recent reckoning with the sexual violence prevalent in Korean literary circles. While it had been long understood that male literary figures perpetuate their power in the process of creating and distributing literature, the specific methods that came to light were more nefarious than what was feared. A new, reflective stance is replacing the previous attitude of compromise and silence, leading to moral discourse on the meaning of literature and aesthetics.
Related to this shift, renowned poet Moon Chung-hee published a “Lament for Tansil Kim Myung-soon,” exposing the sordid underside of the Korean literary scene. It is shocking to read Moon testifying that certain male writers had expressed their misogynistic hatred in violence, the experience of which is also reflected in their writings. With her witty declaration of “I Wish I Had a Wife,” Moon proclaims that patriarchy is an enemy of Korean literature as well. Feminism is no longer a special ideology or a choice but a comprehensive morality that we all must endeavor to realize. Writers and literature are no less exempt.
Kim Hyesoon reconstitutes female identity on the one hand and considers how femininity should be manifested in these perilous modern times. Kim creates images of the life-force of women with a warm and bright touch that defies oppression, and records the language of women that cannot be co-opted by the language of men. She has written a collection of poetry decrying humanity’s crime of massacring livestock animals in the name of preventing the spread of disease. In “Dear Pig, From Pig,” she points out the irony of humans using pigs as symbols of greed and vulgarity when it is really humans themselves who fit such descriptions.
The work of young women poets Lee Young Ju and Park YeonJoon are interesting and brutal. Lee more than any other Korean poet calls upon the figure of eonni, or older sister, who is otherwise more commonly a background figure in a national poetic tradition that tends to privilege the hyeong (honorific for older brother from a younger man) or oppa (older brother from a younger woman). Lee shows through the eonni’s perspective, voice, and story how “eonni’s world” was overshadowed by the patriarchy, while further exploring how eonni can be redeemed. Park’s poetry features the dynamic of a broken father and the pitying daughter. Through the gaze of love upon her powerless father, the speaker-daughter relaxes the animosity between women and men, and attempts to find a new path of feminism for all through the family.
Femi-writer Kim Hyun examines the misogyny deeply sunk into his own thoughts and senses. To him, the core of misogyny is a hatred for the weak. Women have long been considered weak, and Kim finds solidarity between women and queers, understanding feminism as a narrative for a better world for all minorities. Kim, through the energy of his youth and his borrowed pop culture references, is also known for his unique, experimental aesthetic.
Kim Seung Il, another rising star in Korean poetry, problematizes the twisted relationship between love and violence. Love cannot function properly in a violently patriarchal world, and in a world without love, we are all victims. Kim decries love that is subservient to power and violence, and proposes a new movement for the recovery of true love and life. In the end, we all exist as potentials for love “next to” one another. As he says, being beside is the very place where love is made possible, and the direction towards which love moves in its most love-like way.
1. bell hooks, Feminism Is for Everybody, (New York and London: Taylor & Francis, 2014), Kindle edition.
Professor of Korean Literature
Kyung Hee University