Seoul and the city: a new look at womenThe serialized novel “My Sweet City” begins with a 31-year-old publicist named Oh Eun-su being startled by her mobile phone alarm, which she set to coincide with her ex-boyfriend’s wedding.
“Condolences! The Gorilla is Dead,” she mutters. Her ex used to claim that marriage is the death of freedom. She blows her nose in the bathroom. Later that night, she has her first one-night stand with a much younger man.
The serial, which runs in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, delves into the hopes and fears of 30-something women in the unending wars of sex, love and relationships, and is increasingly popular among young single women in Korea.
Often likened to the HBO hit series “Sex and the City,” the serial openly discusses the values and agonies of 30-something single women who feel excluded from mainstream society and who refuse to exist within the traditional system of marriage.
It’s only the latest example of books, TV dramas and reality shows to touch on the topic. Such stories have became a cultural fad in Korea because they romanticize the ideals and lives of single women as they struggle with career and bedroom issues, which were previously considered taboo.
Including last year’s hit TV drama “My Lovely Kim Sam-soon,” the reality show “Singles in Seoul” and to a lesser degree the drama “Legendary Days of Young-ja,” the stories have facilitated change while reflecting the already changing reality of Korean women.
According to a recent report by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, up to 37.9 percent of single women in Korea said they would consider staying single as an option. The population of unmarried women between 25 and 29 was below 10 percent in 1970, but by 2000 the group had risen to 40 percent. Unmarried women between 30 and 34 jumped from 1 percent to 11 percent in the same period.
One visible change that such stories, particularly the TV dramas, have brought to single Korean women is a new consumption pattern.
Such shows helped to romanticize female vanity, fashion and trends in an explicit way that had not been done before.
“Sex and the City,” which still secures high ratings on OCN, a local cable channel, has certainly made a contribution.
“The show is still doing really well,” says Am Ae-mi, a spokeswoman for Onstyle, a lifestyle channel for women that has been running “Sex and the City” since 2003. “It drew attention because many single women in Korea experience similar issues in their lives. Many people think the show helped to create a new market for single women, but it’s the other way around. The reality of changing women fueled the show’s popularity.”
Since the show became popular, posh brunch restaurants have been sprouting up all over town, catering to young women seeking to emulate the girls from New York chatting over scrumptious meals.
Obsessions with shoes are also on the rise, inspired by Carrie’s (Sarah Jessica Parker) collection of designer shoes in “Sex and the City.”
Lotte Avenuel, a luxury department store in downtown Seoul, opened a local branch of Manolo Blahnik, made famous as Carrie’s favorite footwear. One display case has exactly the same pair of silver heels stolen from Carrie at her friend’s baby shower in season six.
On local fan sites for “Sex and the City”, members upload pictures of home accessories and fashion ornaments from the show, including everything from Charlotte’s bathtub to Carrie’s latest purse. The HBO site has a separate page for lists of clothes and accessories worn by the actors for entire seasons.
Jeong I-hyeon, the author of the serial “My Sweet City,” says that freedom for single women in Korea could be difficult to attain without a promising career to support a well-heeled lifestyle.
“The problem is money. If you don’t have money, you can’t enter the system of social relationships. The nature of defining your identity in an urban society is through consumption,” says Jeong.
But aside from setting fashion trends, shows on single women are also selling the idea of being single.
“Single women with careers tend to look at life differently now,” says Ms. Am. “There are many single women in their 20s who look up to shows like ‘Sex and the City,’ wanting to be like the characters. That’s why we have added shows like Oprah Winfrey, who is a role model for many young women.”
Indeed, the term “single” today refers to more than premarital status. It also encompasses the values of those seeking freedom and an independent way of life.
According to Singles, a fashion magazine launched last year by four female editors, the term means “men and women who hold off the system of marriage either through divorce, cohabitation or late marriage.”
Inspired by the HBO drama, Onstyle recently launched “Singles in Seoul,” a reality-show featuring single men and women in Seoul who juggle careers and relationships. The program quickly became a household name, although it was also criticized for depicting a superficial lifestyle of “New Yorker wannabes” instead of dealing with real issues.
In their last season, the show introduced the “contrasexual,” unmarried men and women interested in adventures and a successful career more than a serious relationship or having children.
In Korean society, which emphasizes traditional values, the glamour of being single seems like a refreshing alternative among life options.
On the other hand, others note that women in the trendy dramas are far from attaining the next level of female empowerment or resolving issues aside from relationships.
Jo Jae-hyeong, a 35-year-old publicist who watches “Sex and the City,” thinks the show hasn’t facilitated change, especially for men.
“I don’t think there was any major impact,” Jo says. “Some of my male friends watch the show to catch up with trends, but it didn’t penetrate the Korean mentality. The cultural gap is just too vast.”
by Park Soo-mee