“Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” is an ordinary novel. It traces the life of an ordinary woman from early childhood to marriage and motherhood. But it is this mundane, systemic misogyny in South Korea that eventually drives Kim Jiyoung mad. The story illustrates the everyday sexism that women face since birth. They are experiences every woman, every girl undergoes. They almost become a distinguishable trait to being female.
The Korean novel, translated to English, includes footnotes to actual research done on gender inequality in South Korea. It has been a significant catalyst for the #metoo movement in South Korea. The book came out in October 2016. It was months after a man murdered a young woman. It was said that “he had been ignored by women a lot and couldn’t bear it anymore so (he) committed the crime”.
Social Conditioning of Gender
From the onset of the Jiyoung’s life, we are shown that the systemic bias begins at home. Food is given out in order of the father, son, grandmother, mother. The daughters simply have to contend with whatever is left over. Despite the daughters preparing the food, the son gets the first pick. This is not common today. But it’s not unheard of. Granddaughters prepare meals and clean up. The male counterparts, in the words of one of my aggrieved friends, “don’t lift a finger”.
Jiyoung gets her first period in middle school. It is described as “an irritating, painful, somehow shameful secret shared only among mothers and daughters.” In her home, her mother and sister refrain from speaking about it in front of her father and brother. When unknowingly, blood leaks onto her clothes, Jiyoung’s mother will gasp and jab her in the side to signal her. Then, as if being on her period is something to be ashamed of, Jiyoung will rush to her room and change. Despite menstruation being a natural biological process that half the population goes through each month, women go to lengths to hide it because we have been conditioned to feel embarrassed about our periods.
Casual Misogyny and Double Standards
Jiyoung’s life doesn’t get easier in adulthood. At her workplace, Jiyoung learns that she is not selected for a planning team because the head of her company does not see female employees as prospective long-term colleagues. His rationale being that with the intensity of the marketing job, it would be difficult to maintain a decent work-life balance, especially if childcare comes into play. When Jiyoung finds out that the guys who entered the company with her are paid better from the start, she is not surprised.
After Jiyoung marries, leaves her job and has a baby girl, she goes job hunting and finds that the most common scenario among mothers is getting a part-time minimum wage job such as a cashier, waitress or service worker. According to reports given in the novel, it is common for women after childbirth to end up in jobs more menial than their previous employment. This is one of the reasons women delay having children; they don’t want to put their career plans and goals on the line. Companies are unwilling to hire mothers. This is based on unfounded assumptions that the women are not up-to-date with the latest industry trends, that they won’t be as good at their jobs after they return from maternity leave.
These scenes are just few out of the countless that Jiyoung faces that ultimately drives her mad. While the premise is set in South Korea and the protagonist South Korean, it doesn’t divert from the fact that Kim Ji Young is every woman who has ever encountered sexism at home, in school, at work, and on the street. Evidently, such problems do not occur just in South Korea. All over the world, many women are robbed of the opportunities that could have been theirs if not for the chauvinism that oppresses them. Perhaps they don’t even realize it because somewhere along the way it became normal. That’s why we cannot cease talking about this until the appropriate action is prioritized, double standards are eradicated, and gender equality becomes the new normal.
Written by Natalie Seah