The Banality of Sexism: Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Ju

  • onDecember 12, 2018
  • Vol.42 Winter 2018
  • byBonnie Huie
82年生的金智英 (Kim Ji-young, Born 1982)
Tr. Yin Chia Hsuen

If a novel’s traction within popular culture is any barometer of social progress, Cho Nam-Ju’s Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 may well be a standard-bearer for our times, having been made a signifier of the Korean feminist firebrand. Published in 2016 and now available in a Chinese translation, Cho’s debut became a bestseller, and later on, the focal point of controversy when it was touted by a female K-pop idol (Irene of the girl group Red Velvet), infuriating some of her male fans, who took their shattered fantasies to the trash bin—but not before publicly desecrating her image with fire and shears.

For a book treated as being polemical, Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 is strikingly devoid of opining. In fact, its style is marked by restraint and objectivity in rendering the stark realities of an ordinary woman’s life: its chapters are divided into phases of maturation (roughly from birth to age twelve, twelve to eighteen, eighteen to thirty, thirty to thirty-four), while its spare prose integrates quantitative and historical data. Thus, as part untold story, part documentary, the narrative recounts a lifetime of gendered experiences that culminate in her meltdown—at age thirty-four, and as the mother of a toddler girl—at a holiday gathering with her in-laws. Yet the novel’s detached perspective betrays a tinge of weltschmerz. The protagonist’s name, Kim Ji-young, is a rather common one that serves to underscore her everywoman quality, alongside the casual sexism she must endure, as if to depict a woman so average that she is in constant danger of becoming little more than an anonymous statistic.

By distilling a life into the banal moments that shape female consciousness, the book succeeds in displaying the cultural logic of sexism and the crude transmission of its values from one generation of women to the next. In a patrilineal society where there is no shame in a parent admitting his or her preference for boys or choosing abortion in order to prevent the birth of a girl, Ji-young’s grandmother comforts her daughter, who is the apologetic mother of a newborn girl: “Don’t worry, as long as the second one is a boy.” Decades later, when Ji-young’s mother becomes an expectant grandmother to a baby girl, she repeats the same cowering words of consolation to her own daughter: “Don’t worry, as long as the next one is a boy.” Self-negation is noble in the mind of the servile subject who never experiences her state as degradation and instead finds fulfillment in self-sacrifice. Whereas women of Ji-young’s grandmother’s generation toiled in factories to earn money to send their brothers to college, taking pride in their educated, well-off male relatives and allowing them to forget their own sickliness, those of her mother’s generation pamper their sons at the dinner table, as shown in a scene from Ji-young’s adolescence when her older sister tries to force their mother to eat instead of giving her portion to their younger brother. Their mother insists it is a matter of convenience, since it means fewer dishes to wash. Challenging her daughter, she asks, “Are you going to wash the dishes, then?” In other words, there’s no way she will allow that burden to be taken away from her—unless the younger woman is ready to take her place.

Entry into the adult world, Ji-young soon discovers, begins with the recognition that financial independence and meritocracy are largely illusory. It doesn’t take long for her to burn out and lose interest in her studies once she has to pay her own way through college, or to despair once it becomes apparent that old boy networks are a perennial element of job recruitment. Moreover, the moral contest among women never ceases to remind them of the ongoing terms of their survival—including sexualization at the will of others, not by self-determination. At a group interview, three female job candidates are asked what they each would do if their boss accidentally brushed his hand against her thigh, a moment that perfectly captures the perceived brashness of the candidate who calls it sexual harassment outright, compared with Ji-young’s honest, if non-confrontational, response that she would excuse herself, and the self-righteous answer of the third candidate, who winningly answers that she would reflect on what she may have done to cause the situation. It’s grim, priceless scenes like these that make the book not only a riveting read, but a mirror to society that is daring enough to portray us as faceless as we truly are.


by Bonnie Huie
Writer, Translator
Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin (2017)
Winner, 2018 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize