Women look for a new way to be free

Sept 27,2007
Illustration by Bae Min-ho
To pretend or not to pretend ― that was the question that haunted Jeong Mi-hwan before a recent blind date.
“He was good on paper, well-mannered and polite,” said Jeong, a 27-year-old journalist for a culture magazine in Seoul. “I knew he was too good a catch to just let him slip by without giving him a chance.”
Jeong is many things ― an avid drinker, extroverted yet insecure at times, a music lover, a smoker, struggling with her weight, and an aspiring writer of poems and fiction.
On the morning of her blind date however, when she put on an ivory-colored blouse and a kelly green A-line skirt, she decided to reveal none of those things and instead assumed the role required for an amicable first date with a Korean man.
The result was a successful first encounter, so Jeong and the man went on a few more dates.
They walked around downtown Seoul, saw some exhibitions, drank coffee, sliced up some steak and clinked a few wine glasses.
Everything seemed as pleasant and normal as a Norman Rockwell painting, until Jeong got a bit drunk after a few too many glasses of red wine and instinctively lit a cigarette.
The blind date expressed disappointment at his girl in the ivory-colored blouse behaving in such a manner.
Jeong, on the other hand, had an epiphany.
“If this guy is getting so upset over a stupid cigarette, I wondered what else he would fret over,” she said. “I heard alarm bells ringing.”
It wasn’t so much that the guy was conservative or opposed to women smoking, because she was planning to quit anyway.
The revelation was more about herself and what she wanted from life.
“I suddenly felt tired of playing the roles required of me when meeting men, of being innocent yet not a prude, the femme fatale, naturally thin with no obsessions about dieting, independent but vulnerable, seductive but not slutty,” she said.
In a modern-day feminist essay titled “The King Kong Theory,” French novelist and filmmaker Virginie Despentes addresses the paradox of femininity from a modern woman’s point of view.
She suggests that women be “genderless,” much like King Kong.
Despentes explains that there is no eroticism between King Kong and the character Ann Darrow but only gestures of protection.
Although King Kong dies at the hands of a male-dominated human society, Despentes says that King Kong’s fight should also be the battle of the modern woman as well ― to act upon instinct, fight for something you love and refuse to be something you’re not or try to change yourself to fit somebody else’s image of who you should be.
In the preface to her book, Despentes writes, “I don’t know if the kind of alluring femininity that men want really exists so I decided to write about the women who don’t have that, the losers, if only for the simple fact that I am one of those losers. Also, I find the losers more intriguing. In fact, we are the ones with more humor and creativity.”
The book was translated into Korean and published this August by Mago Books under the title “King Kong Girl.”
Despentes says that her archetypes are women like the singer Madonna and Marlene Dietrich, the German-born actress who ruled Hollywood movies in the 1930s.
“Marlene Dietrich was extremely beautiful yet exuded leadership and power,” Despentes says about the Teutonic movie star who was famous for turning men into helpless devotees.
The low-budget project has been a surprising hit with major local publications, including the weekly Hankyoreh newspaper which dedicated a cover story to the book and the King Kong girls it has inspired.
Despentes makes it very clear what a King Kong girl is not.
“An ideal woman in today’s society is someone who doesn’t lose her charms after the toil of everyday life that marriage creates, who keeps her youth without the help of surgery, who always smiles while being a sexpot in bed or helping her children with their homework,” she says. “This happy woman, who we all strive to be, doesn’t exist.”
Given its frank appraisal of the victories and defeats of 21st century feminism Noh Mi-yeoung, the head of Mago Books, is also surprised that the book has been a hit.
“It was a bit of a risk because the book had a completely new approach to feminism and Despente’s approach was, in some ways, politically incorrect, unapologetic and frank.”
With the book being a hit in Korea, the term King Kong girls has become the new buzzword used to categorize women.
Many other terms, such as doenjang nyeo (or beanpaste girl), gold miss and alpha girls preceded King Kong girls, but for fans of the book, the theory behind this term is not just a media catchphrase.
Lee Soo-hun, 34, picked up the book in September and loved it.
“Instead of putting pressure on women to be superwomen and alpha girls, good at everything and going at things with a vengeance, this book encourages women to be themselves with no delusions or projections,” she said. “It was encouraging and refreshing.”
“People think we [women in their 20s and 30s] have everything and are, for the first time, enjoying the fruits of the women’s liberation movement which preceded our generation. But in fact, we are struggling to stay afloat,” said Kim Min-a, 33, a successful corporate woman who read the book last month.
“We are more obsessed with our weight and appearance than ever. Although more of us are financially independent, we try not to not appear more successful than the man we are involved with. The book exaggerates from time to time but on the subject of this duality of femininity, Despentes hit the right notes.”
The problem of gender categorizations seems to be a double-edged sword for some. Han Ji-hwan, a columnist who writes for several local newspapers including the Chosun Ilbo on topics related to gender issues wrote a column last month titled “King Kong Girls! Protect Ann Darrow” in which he expressed concern about the different connotations of the book’s title.
“I am all for female empowerment but creating catchy titles for women leads to more segregation between the sexes,” he wrote.
Many traditionalists say these trendy titles and books cause more problems than they solve because they force men and women into an adversarial relationship in which nobody can win.

Illustration by Bae Min-ho
Professor Cho Hai-jeong, author of “Men and Women in Korea” stated in an interview, “Trendy, media-driven titles for women like alpha girls, King Kong girls, gold miss and so on, create social hostility toward the opposite sex. The essence of the problem is the social and legal system that discriminates against women, but books with these titles only turn the problem between men and women into a time-consuming emotional fight.”
In fact, essays and self-help books for women in their 20s and 30s are pouring out like never before.
“Before this decade, feminist books were like textbooks, very stiff and analytical,” Noh says. “However, with the success of books like ‘Everything about a Woman’s Life can be Changed in Her 20s” [2004], the trend shifted and coffee-table style books that are easy and fun to read became the trend.”
“These easy ‘limiting-my-losses’ type of book are now hugely popular,” says Jeong Ku-yeong, an editor and book reviewer at the men’s magazine Luel. “The theory is simple ― people get quick motivation from these books without reading page after page of history and philosophy. Everything is simplified in black and white and people buy into that.”
Nevertheless, for Jeong, the idea of a King Kong Girl and the thought that there are other women like her in the world seems to have been a consolation.
“As hard as it is, [after reading the book]I decided to embrace the dichotomy inside myself and not reduce myself to a stereotype. Of course I’m still looking for love, but now I want someone for the whole of me, not just the part with the soft laugh and innocent allure but also the girl who loves a good time with wine and sometimes falls off her chair.”

“These days, there is lots of fiction written by female authors but even in those books it is difficult to find a female protagonist who doesn’t possess a mysterious sensuality, who doesn’t meet the prerequisites required to attract a man. In these books, the woman falls easily or quickly in love, sleeps with the guy after two chapters of courtship and is immensely satisfied by one paragraph of sex.” From “King Kong Girls” by Virginie Despentes.

“I do not try to seduce a man. I have always thought I was ugly but I have also always thought that being luminous and beautiful is not just for the physically beautiful.
I think knowing that I am unattractive has helped me gain perspective in some way, in that I like desiring something or someone, instead of being the object of desire.”
From “King Kong Girls” by Virginie Despentes.

Actress Renee Zellweger
For many Korean women the fictional character Bridget Jones is an archetypal King Kong girl. The highly popular figure from Helen Fielding’s best-selling semi-autobiographical novel “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” which has spawned two hit movies, features a clumsy, overweight, 30-something nicotine-addict seeking true love with a man who loves her “just the way she is.” Jones doesn’t loose a pound or take public speaking classes to snag him. Instead, after a string of failed diets and mournful diary entries she begins to accept herself, cellulite and all.

Actress Kim Sun-a in the 2005 MBC drama “My Name is Kim Sam-soon”

The character of Kim Sam-soon played by actress Kim Sun-a in the 2005 MBC drama “My Name is Kim Sam-soon,” stirred the hearts of Korean women in their 20s and 30s all over Korea. Kim is a pastry chef, outspoken and overweight but also independent and honest. After much trial and error, the drama ends with Kim finding a younger man who chooses Kim over his younger ex-girlfriend, Yu Hee-jin, who possesses more traditional feminine qualities. Korean women saw the drama as a vindication of their new independent stance.

By Cho Jae-eun Staff Writer [jainnie@joongang.co.kr]

dictionary dictionary | 프린트 메일로보내기 내블로그에 저장