여자의 새상 (The Lives of Women) and False Consciousness

Yesterday I was taking a taxi downtown when I encountered a big chip on a cab driver’s shoulder. We were passing a group of cops who’d formed a Sunday afternoon traffic trap near the bridge downtown. Well, someone woman had just been stopped by a cop (for speeding in a busy downtown area, a rare example of enforcing laws which save lives) and was calling someone for aid—perhaps her father or uncle or something, I don’t know.

Anyway, the cop tried to get her to cut off her phone call, and she simply turned her back on him and kept talking. The cab driver laughed and commented to me about “women’s lives these days.” I asked him what he meant, and he explained that, in his opinion, in the old days, men were on top and women were in a bad position. Now, he said, the situation had been reversed. Women, he said, were by far on top, and men were in a bad position.

This was one of those moments when I wish I could speak Korean fluently. I told him that not only in Canada, but in Korea and many other countries, female professionals tend to make less money than male professionals. I told him that I know for a fact that in Korea, that male and female graduates from the same university don’t usually get the same jobs, but that professional jobs tend to go to males, and that males tend to make more money, even with the same degree as females. He insisted that, no, in fact, women make more money than men even with the same educational background.

Now, I can imagine why he might feel that way. The guy probably has a degree in something or other, himself, and here he is, driving a taxi in Jeonju. He probably has had more than his fair share of exposure to women who are richer than he is—something he probably exaggerates in his memory.

But he’s not being realistic about the situation in Korea, really. I mean, the few women who do go into professional positions aside, Korea is nowhere near a reversal of traditional gender roles, or even an equalization of them. If I hadn’t been rushing to meet Lime on time, I would have had him drive to City Hall, and as we passed down the street of brothels, I would have told him that, in fact, as Michael at Scribblings of the Metropolitician noted,

1.2 million women in South Korea are engaged in sex work right now, which means that anywhere from 1 of 5 to 1 of 10 adult women are presently in the trade.

That’s over 4% (perhaps even 5%) of the Korean GDP, which is, again from Hurt, about the same as, perhaps even less than, “the industries of forestry, agriculture, and fishing COMBINED”.

Would that be possible in a society in which women are more empowered than men? Would 10-20% of women in that society have to rely on selling sexual services for an income?

Is this question above make assumptions? You’re damned right it is: that prostitution is not a rewarding job. Yes, there is a standard Korean ajeoshi argument that the women who go into prostitution are nymphomaniacs and they enjoy it, and I suppose that might be possible for a few cases. It fails to explain how a fifth or a tenth of women in the country could end up that way, when a fifth or tenth of women in other developed countries, sex maniac or not, do not end up in prostitution. (I think it’s ridiculous to even entertain the notion that a fifth of women are sex maniacs, but even if we accept the claim, the results don’t measure up. Even if a fifth of women in Korea are supposedly sex maniacs, they’re working a dirtier, more dangerous job than their supposedly sex maniac sisters in other developed countries.)

Of course, there is a form of power that some women have, and it’s a real, undeniable one. I have met ajummas who are completely in control of their children’s upbringing and education. They choose the schools, the books, the educational trips, they check out the hakwons and teachers and they spend time improving their own English and other knowledge so as to better help their kids study and compete (or this is how they’ve explained it to me). Undoubtedly, these are women in the middle and upper class, but they do exist. Their husbands pretty much go out and earn money, come home and get fed, but these women control the household, the life of the family, and so on. This is not unique, it’s a traditional role for an upperclass domestic woman and far from new to Korea. But one must remember that some important limitations surround this—the relationship and the household is bound by laws of marriage (which are breaking down at present in Korea as the divorce rate is climbing to almost the highest in the world), the compliance of the wife when the husband decides it’s time to assert his masculine supremacy, and the limitation of the wife to domestic issues. It’s not like these power-ajummas can go out and become power-breadwinners as well; the two roles are quite mutually exclusive, and highly gendered at that.

I’m still trying to puzzle through what the cab driver was claiming. Can he really believe that women are on top in Korean society today? Is it just his resentment at his own lot in life, or is there a mythology that has spread among men? The way it looks to me is as if women have a long way to go before they establish equality to men in the workplace, in social relations, and in other arenas in Korea, and here is a cab driver telling me they’ve already conquered the nation and taken it for themselves.

I really don’t understand. Is this an isolated case of false consciousness? A pervasive myth? A recurring story? Is this a standard conservative reaction to the improved lot of women (which, we have to admit, has improved in the last thirty or even fifty years)? I think the latter might be the case, since I’ve heard plenty of North American men say the same thing. It’s kind of ridiculous in North America, too, but in Korea such a claim sounds insanely over-the-top.

Okay, there’s also the point that maybe through the language barrier, I missed some essential point in what he was saying. I have to admit that is possible. But he emphasized the point with simply diction and body language, and I think I basically understood what he was telling me. And it sounded to me like bollocks. But I couldn’t tell him why I thought so, only that I disagreed.

If you’d like to read more about women and Korea, the blog I referenced above, Scribblings of the Metropolitician, discusses these issues specifically. There’s a good recent post about Korean constructions of femininity that’s worth checking out. The author, Michael Hurt, is also a contributor at Seoul Selection, and you can see some of his photos in the Columns section (he usually posts under the title Everday Koreans). Check out Too Old and tell me that Korean women are equal to men in the workplace.

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