This book title, in Korean 82년생 김지영, by Cho Namjoo has been a hot potato since it was published in Korea a few years ago. I read it for the first time exactly two years ago, and wrote about it here. After reading it for the first time, there were so many things about Korean society and gender hierarchy that suddenly seemed much more understandable to me. Not that I found them acceptable by any measure, but at least I felt that I understood Korea a bit better after having read the book.

Very briefly, the book chronicles the life of the fictional but very average Kim Jiyoung (a very common name) who was born in 1982, and from early childhood deals with the disadvantages and discrimination that comes from being born as a girl. We meet her when she’s in her mid-30s and struggles with depression and stress from juggling work and motherhood and all the expectations of society. Then we learn about her childhood and upbringing in flashbacks. Kim Jiyoung doesn’t lead a particularly bad life, rather a very average life, and that is exactly the point of the book. Showing precisely how women in Korea can be discriminated against as if it is not an issue, and how they can struggle and suffer in silence while living what may seem like ‘normal’ or even ‘happy’ lives.

The book sparked an outcry in Korea and drove a wedge between particular younger men and women, who found themselves on separate sides of the feminism debate, in some cases leading to a full-blown online gender war. Feminism, which has a positive or neutral connotation in the West, is a very loaded word in Korea. Recent surveys even show that younger Korean men are far more opposed to feminism than older Koreans according to this piece in the Korea Times by Prof. David Tizzard. Part of this is probably because younger men view feminism as an anti-male movement rather than its intended pro-female spirit. (Guys, if you’re reading: Pro something is not by construction anti something else.)

I even once met a young Korean man at a gathering, who said he liked talking to me only because I wasn’t a feminist (I am, though). I asked how he could possibly know that, and he said I was too feminine in my demeanour to be a feminist. I quickly told him that he was a prejudiced jerk and that I was indeed a feminist. And then I left. It seems a common prejudice among Korean men that feminists are masculine in their behavior and attire, wear their hair short and never use makeup. Well, like with women in general, some do and some don’t. There’s room for everyone and you can definitely wear lipstick and skirts and still be a feminist. How I look has nothing to do with my values or beliefs but about what I feel good in.

This encounter and this expression of prejudice is very symptomatic of my generation in Korea. Young men see feminism as an attack rather than as a movement to improve women’s rights. This is exactly why this book, which has now been made into a movie is so important. I have on several occasions discussed this book with my female students in Korea and they all tell me that they felt they were reading about their own childhood and adolescence in the book.

The movie starring Jung Yumi as Kim Jiyoung and Gong Yoo as her husband premiered in Korea last week and immediately topped the local box office. I’m personally extremely happy about it because I believe this to be the most important Korean movie of the year. (Unpopular opinion: I appreciated the acting and storyline but didn’t really care for the Korean Palme d’Or winner Parasite.)

Here’s a trailer with English subtitles. I’m definitely going to watch this movie as soon as I can and also re-read the book (again).

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