【by Jungha Kim, June 2022】
Since its publication in 2016, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, has been a phenomenon in South Korea. It has sold more than a million copies, was adapted into a feature film starring Jung Yu-mi and Gong Yoo in 2019, and ignited a heated conversation around gender inequality beyond the literary world. Celebrated for its crystal clear feminist message, the novel also saw massive backlash from young men. Female celebrities who shared their reading experiences on social media received hateful comments from angry male fans. A crowdfunding project for a book titled “Kim Jihun Born in 1990,” a fictional autobiography about a man who suffered all his life from reverse discrimination, raised a considerable amount of money.
As women’s studies scholar Hyejin Yum argues, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, was produced by and also mobilized the popularization of a new wave of feminism. This feminism was a response to a specific type of misogyny that is closely tied to male anxiety toward the neoliberally renewed female subject. Feminist responses to this unique mode of misogyny have aimed at confirming the universality of gender discrimination and affirming women’s rights and the need for gender equality. Since the 1990s in South Korea, neoliberal transformation and the institutionalization of the feminist agenda have been interlocked, and young women in their 20 to 30s have experienced complex contradictions therein. While policy efforts toward gender equality were geared toward women’s entry into the labor market and the publicization of care, the accelerating neoliberal drive at local and global levels neither secure women’s jobs nor lessen the burden of reproductive labor. As sociologist Bae Eunkyoung succinctly puts, care became marketized and failed to accomplish de-genderization. The dry, sociological statement in Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 that “In 2014, around the time Jiyoung left the company, one in five married women in Korea quit their job because of marriage, pregnancy, childbirth and child care, or the education of young children” resonates with this contradiction.
The novel’s sociological impulse that aims to debunk the hidden ideology of gender discrimination and misogyny, however, conflicts with the novel’s dry, clinical style and diagnostic tone. In an interview with New York Times, the author said that she wanted the story “to not just be a work of fiction, but a very likely true-to-life biography of someone out there.” Ironically, this biography turns out to be a case history written by her male psychiatrist at the end of the novel. Devoid of desire and voice, Jiyoung is a disembodied patient observed through a medical lens. That she appears to be an obscure and abstract being throughout the text not only indicates Kim Jiyoung’s typicality as an average Korean woman (Kim Jiyoung was one of the most common names in the 1980s), it also refers to a universality that this character’s typicality speaks to, causing the figure of Jiyoung to resonate transhistorically regarding women’s suffering and mobilize a wide range of female readership at home and abroad. Indeed, Jiyoung suffers from dissociative identity disorder. She becomes her mother and a university friend who passed away during childbirth. As her psychiatrist’s cold report says, “Jiyoung became different people from time to time. Some of them were living, others were dead, all of them women she knew. No matter how you looked at it, it wasn’t a joke or prank. Truly, flawlessly, completely, she became that person.”
Where the fictional clinical case story of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 leaves off, Ha Mina’s ethnographic essay Mad, Odd, Arrogant, and Brilliant Women (2021) begins. Based on her interview with thirty young women aged 20 to 30 years old, Ha Mina attempts to articulate their depression as a cultural and social phenomenon rather than a medical disease. While Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 ’s sociological impulse for documenting Jiyoung’s life is dissolved into a form of transhistorical female solidarity due to its medical narrativization centered on victimhood, Ha Mina’s project brings to the fore the figure of ill women in order to illuminate new ways of thinking about agency enabled by negative feelings. As one of her interviewees said, their stories, on the one hand, are typical “K-narratives” interwoven with the scenes of violence behind the nation’s rapid development and patriarchal culture. They are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. They are good daughters. They are experts in pretending to be fine. They usually maintain their social egos and function well in society.
On the other hand, these young women are not just victims. They attempt to write against those “K-narratives” by becoming their own therapists and analysts in their daily lives. This does not mean that they overcame depression and succeeded in converting their condition into a positive experience. Rather, they learned how to distance themselves from their traumatic experiences and situate them within a broader sociohistorical context. These women understand that their depression is a manifestation of internalized resentment that should have been directed outward, toward their mother, family, and society. They acquired this sensuous knowledge not from theory but from long, lonely hours. Hence Ha’s insight on the double sidedness of medical diagnosis and the thoughtful manifesto for the transition from diagnosis to description. “Diagnosis is oppression and liberation at the same time,” she writes. “It names all the unidentifiable symptoms and acknowledges the suffering whose existence others, even myself sometimes, neither approve nor believe in. However, it also confines my being and my life into a pathological category. It interprets my past at will, interrupts my present, and predicts my future.” Ha emphasizes that women should participate in producing and practicing the knowledge of depression as the subject of experience and as experts in their own bodies. We need more stories about negative feelings and more conversations around new ways of politicizing them without dismissing or erasing the other’s suffering. Women should be references to each other.
In a 2020 report, Hankyoreh called the rising suicide rate among South Korean women in their 20s “the silent massacre.” These young women feel the deep chasm between what they pursue in their own lives and what their social environments expect or allow them to do. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the labor market divide and accordingly the economic situation of young women worsened and their feelings of insecurity and anxiety were heightened to the point where death–whether it be actual or social–was not inconceivable. Ha’s Mad, Odd, Arrogant, and Brilliant Women is a timely intervention in this urgent call from unseen voices, especially because it reinvigorates the self-help discourse as something that the injured as a community, rather than medical authority figures, take the initiative for mutual care and cure. It is a friendly invitation for a collective work of archiving stories of vulnerability and of producing sensuous knowledge on the structure of gendered feeling. We still need more stories to be heard and processed collectively.
Jungha Kim, Seoul National University, South Korea