Lately the Korean society is abuzz with increasing news of sex crimes, from sexual harassment such as the Korea University Kakaotalk chatroom incident to outright rape of a Shinan-gun schoolteacher. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that the increase is on the media coverage of such sexual crimes rather than in the actual number of crimes committed. This alone serves to show that the society is much more sensitive about such issues compared to the past. People are voicing discomfort, not only about crimes to do with sex but also about gender stereotypes still rampant in everyday life or popular culture. K-POP girl group Twice’s hit song “Cheer Up” proved the group’s firm place in pop trends, but at the same time caused some controversy with its lyrics that sing about the virtues that women and men should respectively embody. Still others criticize such opinion-holders, saying they are being overly touchy. Whether the Korean society is a mature, developed one in terms of gender sensitivity, or human rights in general for that matter, is an issue that requires some thought.
The world is largely divided into two genders, and gender-related conflicts seem never to cease throughout human history. This is perhaps only to be expected. After all, sexuality constructs a major part of human identity, as psychoanalysts Freud and Lacan posited. However, a large proportion of these conflicts arise from stereotypes to do with gender, and the disparity between such typical gender ideals and reality. Thus the fundamental questions that should be raised are: (1) Do humans really possess different traits according to the perceived concepts of Masculinity and Femininity? And (2) is it right for human beings to be distinguished into such dichotomous categories, and renounced if this effort fails? We have consciously or unconsciously been exposed to numerous gender stereotypes ever since birth, and this serves to cement the notion that our personalities or actions are (or should be) heavily influenced by gender. Norms to do with gender, be it masculine or feminine, perpetually put constraints on our every movement. The word gender itself is, after all, fruit of such sociocultural interpretations of biological sex and sexuality.
The Myths of Femininity and Masculinity
A good way to analyze the deeply rooted gender stereotypes in our society is to look at popular culture. “Cheer Up” by Twice states that “a girl shouldn’t give her heart away too easily,” in order to make boys “want her more.” These lyrics epitomize the common ideal of femininity that requires women to play hard to get, and not be too “easy” or “loose.” This stereotype goes back to the now outdated traditional idea of female chastity from the Chosun dynasty, which was heavily influenced by the Confucian culture, and where women were treated as lesser beings than men. Although this kind of male chauvinistic atmosphere has of course been much alleviated since then, the Korean society is far from realizing gender equality. Women are still oppressed by social norms, and this includes the taboo of being free or expressive about their emotions. The lyrics of “Cheer Up” show how the female has traditionally been considered as a type of passive object within a romantic relationship that should be wooed and won by men. Another common idea of femininity is regarding it as something to be worshipped, a kind of fetishization if you will. ZICO’s song “Boys and Girls” includes lyrics that say “Beautiful women should be treated well.” Aside from the immediate implication that raises questions of lookism, this sentence attempts to put the entire female population under one category, one that “should be treated well.” Not only is this overgeneralization, it is putting women on a pedestal and fixing them inside a certain frame. A woman is not a being that should be treated well just for being a woman, and still not because she is beautiful. In other words, even saying that a woman should be treated well is a type of violence, because assigning someone a certain place or position within society is treating that person as a lesser being.
In a later part of “Cheer Up,” the speaker urges her lover to “be a real man.” This suggests that the boy’s attitude of tentativeness and agitation throughout the song is not sufficiently “manly.” The myth of masculinity is just as constricting and pervasive as its feminine counterpart. It is widely perceived within our society that to be manly, one must be physically strong, in control of one’s emotions, rational, etc. This normative masculinity taken to its extreme is referred to as hegemonic masculinity, or a certain concept of masculinity that subordinates all other versions of masculinity, as defined by sociologist R.W. Connell. One good example of this abstract concept can be found in the Korean drama Descendants of the Sun; the male protagonist Yoo Si-jin embodies the essence of hegemonic masculinity from his military occupation to his call-sign “Big Boss.” (The latter is especially masculinity-oriented when considered in relation to the female protagonist’s extremely feminine call-sign “Beauty.” For further reference, some examples of real call-signs in the military are “Razor” because the soldier’s name was Gillette, “CHIMBO” which stands for Chick In a Man’s Body, or “Syndrome” because the soldier was prone to PMS.) It also doesn’t hurt that Capt. Yoo is the leader of the “Alpha Team,” further cementing his role within the plot as the literal alpha male, and causing all other male characters to occupy a subordinate position in relation to him. This type of hegemonic masculinity can be traced back to the Victorian Era, where nearly the exact same strain is found. The soldier/adventurer male characters that appear in late-Victorian literature (Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Van Helsing from Dracula would be good examples) call into question whether the other men within the plot are sufficiently “manly.” When Capt. Yoo and Sergeant Major Seo Dae-young encounter a gang of criminals, they have no trouble getting the better of the thugs (who are all portrayed as examples of failed masculinity), even though they are outnumbered by far (the respective military status of Yoo and Seo is also a noteworthy point – Yoo as the hegemonic male character occupies a higher position than Seo, a rather more subordinate version of masculinity). Similarly, Sherlock Holmes exerts his astute powers of deduction to solve a case that has his faithful sidekick Watson hopelessly confused, and Dr. Van Helsing ultimately defeats the hideous monster of Count Dracula and successfully rescues Mina, the damsel in distress. In essence, the most dearly sought-after form of masculinity ideally embodies courage, physical strength, confidence, and aggressiveness, to name but a few. This was the case in the Victorian Era, and it still has a firm place in today’s remarkably enlightened age as well. Men are yet encouraged to be “masculine,” when the word itself is a myth.
The public apathy toward such skewed gender representations is a major concern as well. One worrying phenomenon in recent times is the emergence of names such as “professional discomforter,” used to condemn individuals who express discomfort over relatively minor sexist factors as being rather obsessed. The exact same pattern can be found in the concept of the New Woman, which was once a derogatory term used to describe the pioneers of feminism in modern times. Being labelled a New Woman was considered an embarrassment, as the name entailed negative connotations such as man-hating or dowdy in appearance. Thus many women rigidly policed their own actions lest they be branded with such a scarlet letter. Similarly, many people today refrain from voicing their opinion due to fear of being derided, which is clear proof of our society’s regression and general unawareness of basic human rights sensitivity.
“THE WOMAN Does Not Exist”
Pop culture has its origin in the general public, and so it is often a mirror image of what society thinks or desires. This characteristic puts culture in a doubly powerful position, as it is created by the general public but at the same time heavily influences its creator as well. People watch dramas like Descendants of the Sun and listen to songs like “Cheer Up,” and unconsciously develop respective mental frames for male and female identities. Culture is all the more influential because of its pervasive insinuations in the nooks and crannies of everyday life. Public Opinion reporter Cho Yu-jin (15, American Culture) of The Sogang Herald commented that she finds herself humming “Cheer Up” even though she doesn’t like the lyrics, and that this is more worrisome because most K-POP idol groups target children and teenagers who are not fully mature. We as culture-formers must be aware of and take action against cultural gender misrepresentations. One may be male or female, but no human being should be forced into the yoke of either masculinity or femininity because of his or her gender. After all, the paradigm of either femininity or masculinity is inherently impossible in its nature, and to expect such an unattainable ideal is violence in an ideological form. As the eminent psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan famously said, “The Woman does not exist.”