Authoritarianism Beyond the State: Recent Trends in Korean Cinema and Patriarchy as Authoritarianism from Below

Rafael Munia

 

The Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe uses the concept of Necropolitics to describe the use of power over people’s life including not only the right to kill, but also the right to expose people to death. According to him, Necropolitics helps us analyze how contemporary forms of subjugation of life and the power of death forces bodies to remain in different states of being located between life and death. In his seminal work ‘On the Postcolony’, Mbembe uses as examples of necropolitics in action the technologies of slavery, the apartheid, colonization, and terrorism; all different forms of necropower reducing people to precarious life conditions.

Yet, Mbembe seems to focus his examples on ways in which the State utilizes this power over the population, either an external population to the country or an internal one. But what if we took this concept of necropolitics in an analysis from below? What if we understand necropolitics as also happening parallel to or even despite State power? What if we understood misogyny as a form of necropolitics?

Let’s take the case of recent events taking place in South Korea as an example. Now, for those of you who have been following our last issues of The Advocate, we have been presenting the phenomenal gains that contemporary feminism in South Korea have produced these last years. From massive mobilizations of women on the streets and online, the repeal of the abortion ban as unconstitutional, funding of safe abortion clinics, taking out the main website for illegal porn sharing illegal footage of women taken from public bathroom and hotel rooms, to forcing the government to investing in bringing more women to the police force and allocating more budget to fighting against the spread of spy cams in public places. We have also discussed in our last issue how feminists have been shaping a new cultural movement in South Korea. Yet, all of that isn’t happening without a backlash from so-called men’s rights activists and the general misogyny enthusiast amongst the population.

Recently, the Korean entertainment industry has been shocked by the death of Sulli, birth name Choi Jin-ri, found dead in her apartment in what many believe to be a suicide. Sulli was known for her talent as a singer of the girl group f(x), as well as for her history of women’s rights activism. Sulli had been long suffering from severe depression, after going through traumatic cyberbullying for her attitudes. What attitudes you ask? Sulli had been severely criticized online for having appeared in public without a bra, for not hiding her drinking parties with friends, for speaking out for abortion rights, mental health issues, and cyberbullying.

Sulli’s death happened shortly after another Kpop star, Goo Hara, former member of the girl group Kara, was found unconscious in her apartment after a suicide attempt. She was fortunately found on time to revive her. Prior to her suicide attempt, Goo Hara had shared many depressed and suicidal thoughts on her Instagram account. Goo Hara has spent several months in a legal battle with her former boyfriend who had threatened to expose a sex tape including her. While Goo Hara attempted to kill herself, her ex-boyfriend opened a new hair saloon and moved on with his life.

Sulli’s apparent suicide and Goo Hara’s attempted suicide have been the latest outcomes of an entertainment industry marred by appalling violence against its women members. Earlier this year, the suicide of actress Jang Ja-yeon resurfaced after Yoon Ji-oh, an actress working at the same talent agency as her, came up with new evidence about her case, prompting a petition to the government to reopen the investigation on her death. Yes, the investigations had been closed without any significant consequences to the people who may have caused it, despite Jang’s suicide letter telling how she was driven by her managers to provide sexual services to other important members of the entertainment industry with the argument that it would help her with her career chances. What followed, however, was a national discussion about Yoon herself and the possibility of her statements being made-up as a publicity stunt, rather than the absurdity that had transcribed in the world of entertainment to caused the desperate suicide of yet another female artist.

That is not to say that no retribution has occurred since all these cases of induced femicide have been brought up to light. Internationally celebrated movie director Kim Ki-duk saw his career crumble after multiple accusations of rape surfaced coming from actresses who had to work with him. One of the accusers who was raped by Kim and another actor, also heard the two brag about the rapes of actresses they had committed during their career in a tone of competition. The actress has since quit acting and been in therapy.

As I write this, news that K-pop singer Jung Joon-young may be condemned to seven years in prison for his participation in a collective rape followed by online sharing of the act have just come out, as he may be joined by fellow K-pop singer and former member of boy band F.T. Island Choi Jong-hoon, who may get five years in jail for the same account. The sharing of the collective rape online, which was the evidence that led to the investigation being opened, represented many things: the bragging inherent to rape culture and also present in director Kim’s case; the taping of the video as a threat to the victim not to denounce it; but above all the sheer sense of invulnerability of these male artists who never ever fathomed the possibility of any retribution for their crime against women.

Egyptian feminist Mona Eltahawy has invited us to theorize the response of the patriarchy towards feminist as the State’s response to terrorism. The Korean case offers a prime example for this.  When men threaten women with the publication of sex tapes, we should understand it as terrorism. When women are bullied so severely for speaking up against misogyny and in favor of women’s rights to the point they consider taking their own life, we should understand it as terrorism. When, as we discussed on our last issue, a man stands by a unisex toilet at a busy subway station waiting to kill the first woman he sees to kill her, or when a group of men physically attack and leave two women bleeding and unconscious in a bar for verbally fighting back the insults hurled at them for “looking like feminists”, these should be understood as acts of terrorism. The message these soldiers of the patriarchy are sending to Korean women is if you dare to act against the patriarchal system, you will live in fear and your life is in danger. Women have been dismissed from military service for being discovered as a member of Megalia, an online feminist community. Women have lost their jobs for the same reason, as organized anti-women activists terrorized them with doxing, sending their online activities to their place of employment. It is no reach to say Korean women live under the threat of terrorism.

Recently, Eltahawy has been the focus of controversy for a hypothetical thought experiment she has been sharing in her latest interviews. She asks us the question: what if women had decided to organize and kill five men each week solely for the fact that they are men. What if next week they do it to ten, then fifty, then a hundred. How many men would have to be killed for society to say enough is enough and start to mobilize against this?

The thought experiment, of course, had less to do with a viable strategy to be undertaken by women worldwide, and more as a mirroring exercise to the very real fact that an alarming number of women are killed everyday around the world solely for the fact that they are women, and yet very little reaction is shown towards it. Yet, to the surprise of literally no one, men have managed to construed her words as that of a terrorist advocating for innocent boys to be killed. The fact that Eltahawy comes from a Muslim background just adds a racist undertone to the misogynist rhetoric.

Before Eltahawy, however, South Korean feminist have already experienced the same backlash. As online communities like Megalia and Womad decided to use mirroring as a strategy to expose online misogyny, the same misogyny who claimed Sulli’s life, several petitions arose asking the government to shut down those communities and arrest the members under charges of terrorism. Another reason why the Womad community forbids any member from using real names and pictures in their online forums and setting up manuals for acting online without identifying themselves. They are forced to perform as if they are a terrorist organization under constant surveillance, which is, itself, a terrorist campaign waged against them.

Besides sharing information on how to remain unidentifiable online and avoiding being the target of misogynist terror, the Womad community also shares female self-defense tutorials and information, DIY guides to reduce dependency from men, build up a ‘global forum’ to allow for international solidarity participation and became a mutualist community where women can look for help with legal issues, language lessons, academic advice, etc. Real terrorist stuff, if you allow me a dose of sarcasm.

If those reactions to both Eltahawy and Korean feminists say something about how misogyny operates as terrorism, it also shows the degree of fear that their propositions cause to the patriarchy. They help to demonstrate how vulnerable and fragile the patriarchy really is when their weak spots are exposed, and just like a wounded animal that feels cornered, their desperate reaction is to attack.

Despite all the anti-feminist backlash, the latest wave of feminism in Korea is managing to create a new culture in the country as well. Earlier this year the buddy cop movie Miss & Mrs. Cops became a box office hit among female viewers. The movie tells the story of a senior female police officer who, after marrying, is sent to the Public Service Center to handle bureaucratic work despite her history of heroic services. There, she meets a rookie policewoman who is sent to the same office as punishment after a sting operation to capture a serial pervert ends with her being filmed beating the wrong suspect after her male partners, annoyed that they have been tasked with crimes that concern only women, give her the wrong information. As they both start their routine at the office, they notice a woman trying to file a report for being raped on camera. She is afraid that the taped crime will become another video among the thousands of other spy porn videos online. The male officers do not seem to make much of the situation, complaining about the workload and not doing much to open an investigation. The two female officers team up with a computer savvy young woman in the office while trying to open an investigation on the side.

The structure of the movie is that of a classic buddy cop action-comedy, in which two cops of different personalities team up to solve crimes that the rest of the police force can’t solve. Yet, the director uses the cliched genre to bring to the silver screen several of the social issues harming women in contemporary Korea: competent women forced down the hierarchy ladder due to marriage and child rearing, male controlled police force relegating crimes against women as unimportant, female officers being relegated to bureaucratic jobs and out of crime solving, spy cam porn, female suicide, sex trafficking, the drugging and raping of women, to speak of a few themes that are tackled by the plot. Oh, yes, the film is an action-comedy.

In fact, SPOILER ALERT, as the investigation in the movie progresses, the female cops unveils a rape ring who developed a drug used to make women in a nightclub unconscious so that they can be raped and filmed in the back room. The case is an obvious parallel to the real case of the Burning Sun nightclub, when former member of the boy band Bigbang, Seungri, was investigated for overseeing the operation of a rape ring in his nightclub where VIP members selected young women in the club, who were then intoxicated with alcohol until they lost consciousness, and were then brought to the VIP rooms where they were taped as the members abused them sexually. At least one of the victims reportedly died from the violent abuses.

While the movie was a box office hit, breaking records, around 75% of its audience were women. Not only that, but while women gave the movie an average review of 9.6 out of 10, men gave the movie an average review of 1.6 out of 10. This practice of massively giving bad reviews to movies that address women’s issues in Korea have followed many other movies, but one more recent case helps us understand the practice a little bit better.

Originally published in 2016, the novel Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 became a major best seller in South Korea, selling over a million copies. The novel takes the reader through the life of Kim Ji-young, a name that was chosen for being the most common name given to girls in the year of 1982, since she is supposed to represent the life of the average South Korean woman. Through out the book, we see snippets of Ji-young’s life, as she is forced to confront the everyday sexism in different phases of her life. When Irene, member of the girl band Red Velvet, posted a picture saying she had read and enjoyed the novel, male fans of the band were enraged, attacking Irene, burning down goods with her face on, and unilaterally declaring that Kpop does not need feminism. It does, thought.

Despite male outrage, the success of the novel, who is scheduled to be released in English in 2020 (read it!), prompted a movie adaptation, released in October of 2019. The movie earned over eight million dollars in its first week, from over 1.12 million admissions. While hailed by critics, the audience reviews seem to have taken the same pattern, with women universally given great reviews, while most male reviewers given it the lowest possible grade. Yet, some have noticed an odd pattern in those reviews. Most of the negative reviews given by men were curiously posted before the movie had been open for public showing.

The terrorist reactions continued, as Suzy, former singer at girl band Miss A and actress, became the target of hate comments and cyberbullying after she used her Instagram account to like a picture of an event related to the movie premier. However, the loud barking of the dogs of patriarchy seemed to have little effect on the success of the movie. While Miss & Mrs. Cops tackled rampant crimes perpetrated against women and the inaction of the police force, Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 focuses on the everyday discrimination against the female protagonist. The movie follows the structure of the novel, as we are taken to flashbacks in Kim Ji-young’s life: her birth, school life, work life, marriage, and motherhood. The central piece of each flashback is an instance of discrimination she faced. It all begins literally when she is born, as her mother apologizes to the mother-in-law for having had a baby girl instead of a boy.

Terrorist attempts to silence the movie were aplenty, with petitions for the government not to allow its release, to hate comments directed at actress Jung Yu-mi, who plays the titular Kim Ji-young. Online portals took notice of online forums in which males were saying they would break up with their girlfriends if they asked them to be taken to see the movie, as only adult and mature men would talk, of course. If there was any need to reinforce the message of the movie, the disparate reactions it has caused to so many men in Korea would work wonders to serve as further evidence.

For any effect, the success of movies addressing sexism and misogyny in South Korea are a sign of the success that feminist activism has achieved in creating a new culture. Yet, the hate crimes targeted at female artists who have been spear-heading this new culture also shows the grassroots mobilization of a necropolitics aimed at women.

While one can find many informative researches about Korean cultural production throughout its authoritarian periods of dictatorship, I would argue that today’s contemporary Korean cultural production is also being produced under authoritarian power. An authoritarian necropower that does not emerge from the State, but emerges from the foot soldiers of the patriarchy. It will be this new wave of Korean feminist who will show the ways in which, in an increasingly Illiberal and authoritarian world, the ways for resistant art to be created.

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