Impossible Feminism in the Era of Backlash | Joewon Yoon

by Critical Asia

by Joewon Yoon, June 2022】

I received a phone call from an unknown number early last September. The caller identified himself as a program manager at EBS (Educational Broadcast Service), Korea. He was working on the educational series entitled “Great Minds”—an EBS special extensively featuring world-renowned intellectuals to general audiences. Judith Butler was among the several scholars to be introduced, but Butler listed among the “Great Minds” was causing quite a stir, I was told. The EBS homepage was being bombarded with protesting messages from objecting viewers, who believed that Butler’s gender theory was detrimental to traditional family value and social order. They demanded that EBS cancel the Butler segments set to be aired later that month. Barrages of angry text messages and phone calls were crowding the staff’s private phone lines. The producers tried to remain undaunted. And yet, as EBS is a tax-subsidized public institution, they wanted something to fall back on, in case they might have to explain their course of action to the Congress at the annual audit. They were thus reaching out to a few academics for professional opinions regarding EBS’s choice of Butler.

Not long before I received the phone call, I had seen an egregious op-ed article attacking Butler and EBS, published in a Christian newspaper. Clearly, the same argument was being regurgitated in the objections posted on the EBS viewer opinion site. The article in question sketched out Butler to be a perverse lesbian whose work was all about deconstructing the incest taboo and advocating pedophilia. How dare EBS publicly endorse such a person, who is nothing but a corrupting influence, the writer deplored. As I realized later, other condemnatory columns cropped up in similarly oriented media. There was nothing new in these wholesale denunciations, though. Anti-feminist anti-queer conservatism and Christianity have long been happily wedded in Korea, crusading vigilantly and feverishly against any progressive move about women and minorities.

Gladly I wrote the requested defense, rebutting the column point by point, to assert that such a distortion of Butler’s theory is no mere ignorance or incomprehension but a form of hate crime, i.e., that of maliciously misrepresenting sexual minorities. Other feminists, scholars, and progressive media joined forces, and EBS went ahead with the “Great Minds” series as scheduled. When a public institution ends up not buckling under the pressure of so-called family value and public morals, it is an achievement in itself. But that was last year. Now that the at least superficially more flexible Moon Jae-in regime is replaced with the decidedly conservative Yoon Suk-ryeol government, I wonder if EBS could resist the same pressure today. The topography of gender politics in Korea is more complicated now, with the newly inaugurated government all too willing to validate anti-feminist sentiments of younger generations of men.

Queer and minority discourses have barely any occasion for public representation, much less advocacy, in the still strongly male-centric, heteronormative Korean society, where even gender is a volatile topic. We’ve been struggling to have the Congress to pass the Anti-Discrimination Bill for 15 years. But the Congress, instead of endeavoring to steer society in a more inclusive direction through legislation, keep shirking their responsibility. The need for social consensus is the shabby excuse they conveniently resort to every time. But there will never be social consensus as long as the majority of Congresspeople—whether men or women, themselves either conservative or indifferent (except only a few in the progressive Justice Party) when it comes to gender, sexuality, reproductive rights—continue fawning on their Christian constituency for statesmanship. Now that the right-wing People Power Party is back in power with vengeance, it would be a surprise if gender and minority issues should not regress a few steps. In fact, the momentous backward movement already began, when the then Presidential candidate Yoon declared in February that there was no systemic gender inequality in Korea. As if things weren’t bad enough already. So, we must be the very first nation in the world where complete gender equality has been realized.

The previous Korean government, headed by Moon Jae-in, a self-announced feminist President, launched itself in 2017 with a promise to tend better to gender equality. However, the feminist facade soon fell apart, failing even to effectively disguise the complacent male bonding in and around the Blue House or their inability to properly deal with high-profile mayors’ and governor’s sexual harassment cases and aftermaths. The lawmakers kept pushing the Anti-Discrimination Bill to the back of the table, even as the governing Democratic Party were an overwhelming majority. Rather than normalize gender equality as a valid and urgent agenda, their flimsy feminist rhetoric without sustainable policies ended up only fueling backlash already palpable among younger generations of men, who felt they were being overlooked. This exacerbated the sharp sense of deprivation, which today’s younger men feel but do not know where else to attribute other than to women, resenting what little advancement women earned in the past century.

The PPP did not miss an opportunity to capitalize on such sentiments. Yoon Suk-ryeol, then Presidential candidate, appealed to younger men with a summary promise to get rid of the Ministry of Gender Equality altogether. Apparently, no need to allot political and material resources for a particular gender or particularly vulnerable sectors any longer. This vision (or a blatant lack thereof) was likely inspired by the PPP’s young Chairman Lee Jun Seok, an unabashed upholder of the neoliberal creed of meritocracy. Lee insists that women, as they claim to be equal with men, are free to complete “fairly” as befitting their abilities. (This personage, by the way, belittled as an uncivilized act the recent protests of the disabled, who demonstrated in the Seoul subway stations how limited and prohibitive the public transportation system is for them.) While Lee presumed to represent the sensibilities of younger generations of men in Korea, Yoon was eager to adopt Lee’s tactics of catering to disgruntled young men in their presidential campaign. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, were scrambling to come up with matching male-focused campaign tactics. Women and minorities were thus blatantly ignored. If a large part of the last presidential election was about addressing young men’s discontent in an advanced neoliberal economy, it was not by envisioning feasible ways to a more stable life, but by letting them lash out on women.

The election of Yoon as President certainly marks the beginning of—I don’t know exactly what, but a new atmosphere, to say the least, a new discursive landscape. He publicized and normalized the belief that we no longer need feminism at all. Forgoing even the customary effort to increase the number of women in the cabinet, he lightly brushed away the few critics’ and journalists’ words of concern. Merits and abilities of the individual are the only standard for him. The parrot-like invocation of meritocracy reflects a neoliberal impulse that translates its principle of free competition into a license to further marginalize non-hegemonic “others.” Even now Yoon is reasserting his resolution to dismantle the supposedly obsolete Ministry of Gender Equality as he had promised. In lieu of it, the new government is proposing “the Ministry for Population and Future.” It is said to be a working title just yet, but how telling already. When the matters of gender equality are reduced to population control, it will be a bleak future for women; and an even bleaker future for minorities, whose less than “productive” sexuality will be misquoted as a ground for continued discrimination.

One of the most flagrant symptoms of anti-feminism is a denial of existing inequalities. That is why such a denial always betrays its own purpose. This is emblematic of a unique neoliberal condition of feminism in Korea today. If, for instance, the neoliberalism of the U.S. tends to deploy feminism to emphasize women’s individual empowerment as a` capitalist subject oblivious to structural problems, in our society a neoliberal politics that disavows feminism altogether makes it impossible for many women to forget the systemic inequality we live in. Despite the prohibitive pressure, many young Korean women remain aware and active. More women identify themselves as feminists and come out as queer or queer allies. What is feminism but imagining and aspiring to another world—a world different from this? Feminism is a critical space where we can and do resist being subsumed and assimilated into the male homosocial neoliberal political economy. If feminism can be a space where differences are acknowledged, explored, and lived through, it is what makes life livable. It was what I wrote last year in my defense of Judith Butler—that her philosophy in the end is a desire for a “livable” life.

Joewon Yoon, Korea University, South Korea

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