Standing up against misogyny in the arts : Sexual abuse cases brought to light major issues in cultural scene

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Standing up against misogyny in the arts : Sexual abuse cases brought to light major issues in cultural scene


Recent hate crimes and comments against women, like the murder of a young woman at Gangnam Station in southern Seoul in May of this year, triggered women to have a stronger sense of sovereignty, critics say, which is why more people are speaking up against sexual abuse cases that are prevalent across Korea’s cultural industries. [YONHAP]

For those in the Korean literary community, 2015 was quite a monumental year.

Triggered by the plagiarism controversy surrounding star novelist Shin Kyung-sook’s works, the issue of so-called “literary cartels” emerged to the forefront.

Made up of publishers, critics and writers, the “cartels” were a sort of omnipotent gang who worked collectively to promote star writers, even condoning some unethical practices.

The practice was known about by insiders, but rarely talked about openly.

This year, Korea’s literary world is in unprecedented turmoil once again, as even uglier skeletons tumbled out of its closet.

Since October, a slew of sexual abuse allegations have emerged against established poets and novelists accusing them of habitually violating aspiring female writers. In some cases, the victims are minors. The details of the accusations were shocking, to say the least.

This too, as it turned out, was something that took place very frequently in Korea’s literary circles but was not discussed openly.

Allegations of sexual abuse or misogyny surfaced outside the literary set and in other cultural fields like fine arts and the film industry as well, suggesting that the issue is deeply rooted and has a long history in many parts of Korean society.

Cases include senior curators taking advantage of young artists or renowned film directors forcing sexual scenes on young actresses.

The difference now, however, is that the women are speaking up, often through social media. Hashtags like “sexual abuse in literary circles” or “sexual abuse in cultural industries” are easy to find on social media like Facebook and Twitter.

The Korea JoongAng Daily examined the issue, the structural problems that allowed such practices as well as what’s ahead for the Korean cultural scene, particularly the literary world.


Left: The cover of the Maxim Korea magazine last year, which insinuated a crime against women, was harshly criticized. Right: As more revelations of misogyny surfaced in literature and other cultural fields, critics arranged a number of forums, including one in November held at the National Assembly. [YONHAP]

How it all began

In October, an aspiring writer claimed on Twitter that she was forced to have sexual intercourse with poet Park Jin-seong at a noraebang (karaoke bar). The 38-year-old poet admitted to the claims to a certain degree on his blog, apologizing for his “inappropriate comments and behavior.”

But this was only the beginning.

Three days after that accusation, an editor claimed on Twitter that star writer Park Bum-shin - who is famous for his 2010 book “Eungyo,” which was adapted into a film in 2012 - had groped a television writer at a drinking session, as well as two other female fans who had also attended. He called the women there “young Eungyo” and “old Eungyo.” Eungyo in the novel and the film is a 17-year-old girl, who is the sexual fantasy of both an old poet and an aspiring writer who studies under him. Park also apologized saying he’s sorry to “all those scarred because of him.”

Around that time, a group of high school students taking a poetry class with poet Bae Yong-je also claimed through Twitter that he sexually harassed them. One of the students said she was raped by him. The students, most of whom are minors, say the 54-year-old made comments like, “you are [not successful] in literature because you are not breaking the mold and going astray,” suggesting that if they freely have sexual intercourse they will be successful writers. Students also argue he would make remarks like “You must have pretty breasts. Can I touch them?” and “Let me be your first man.” Bae apologized and said he will not engage in any future literary activities.

As the entire country fell into political mayhem due to the Choi Soon-sil scandal around this time, the issue got less attention than it would have normally.

Throughout the arts

More disturbingly, similar accusations emerged in other areas of the arts world, like fine arts and film.

On Oct. 21, an art student claimed that Hahm Young-june, a chief curator of Ilmin Museum of Art, had sexually abused her. Hahm admitted to the claims and the Ilmin Museum laid him off shortly after that.

Another allegation surfaced that a curator with the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) had sexually harassed a female artist in a cab while telling her that he would give her a chance to hold an exhibition.

The film industry was no exception. A recent study conducted by female film director Sin Hui-ju said 15 percent of women in the film industry gave up their career in the film business because of sexual violence, often conducted by male members of the production crew.

Actresses are often forced to show skin or shoot scenes not found in the script. For instance, director Jang Kun-jae said that while shooting his 2014 film “Midsummer’s Fantasia” he had not told Kim Sae-byuk in advance that she would be kissed by Ryo Iwase but said “Kim was extremely confused but I believe that emotion is well portrayed in the film.” It is also a known, but not-highly-talked-about, tale that highly-acclaimed director Im Kwon-taek forced actress Lee Sang-a, then a sophomore in middle school, to go fully nude for the shoot.

A matter of power

What is deeply disturbing is how in all of these cases, men used their positions of power to harass or assault women who look up to them or who need their recognition to succeed in their industry.

“All throughout my 20s, I had to deal with flirting [from men], some serious and others less serious. But once I turned 30 and became a member of the editorial committee at Munhakdongne Publishing Group, all that flirting stopped,” literary critic Gang Ji-hee said at a recent forum.

Novelist Chung Se-rang agreed. “When I was working as an editor, I often had to deal with experiences that made me uncomfortable to the point where I had a hard time fulfilling my daily duties,” she said. “But once I debuted as a writer and received an award, all of that stopped. I feel it’s so cowardly how people choose soft targets.”

Oh Min-seok, a literary critic and professor of English literature at Dankook University, said this is exactly what makes the recent revelations more grave: “That the literary figures who would have to be angry about and fighting against wrongful hierarchy and authority, in a paradox, used their power to abuse people who have deepest admiration for literature and literary figures.”

“The term munhasaeng (a pupil) already has its roots in the feudal rank,” he wrote in a recent column. “The word munha could mean a student but it could also mean a person who goes in and out of the house of a powerful man.”

Oh said that in feudal Korea, the life of literary figures - who sang poems with lines like “with gisaeng (female courtesan) in my arms” - were glorified as a life with taste for the arts, and that artists’ “deviant” lifestyles were considered an artists’ privilege that no average man could emulate.

The mood continued well into modern days. In the 21th century, he said, insiders all know the sex scandals that occur frequently in literary sets and a unique environment was formed in which a womanizer is considered a hero and their sexual deviance were tales told proudly.

“Literature is not a pass for creepy flirting or extramarital affairs,” he said.

Deep roots

Even before the allegations of sexual abuse surfaced in October, the debate over misogyny in literature began a month prior as poet Kim Hyeon wrote in a literary magazine about the issue. He said in drinking sessions, it’s common for Korean literary figures to offend and harass their female counterparts and wrote that he could not understand why things never seem to change.

Linking Korea’s literary circles and other cultural fields with misogyny may disturb some people, but it is undeniable that the institutions have historically been male-dominated, as literature was often thought of as the domain of men.

There is also the term yeoru, in Korean, which specifically refers to female writers.

Sexual objectification is also deeply rooted in Korea’s highly regarded early modern literature - for instance, “Mujong (The Heartless)” by Yi Kwang-su (1892-1950) which was based on a serial novel published in a newspaper in 1917.

Lee Gwang-ho, a literary critic and professor at Seoul Institute of the Arts, said “the novel focuses on objectifying women from the perspective of the male protagonist.” There is Seon-hyeong, a daughter of a church elder and a modern woman, and Yeong-chae, the former gisaeng who’s been through many hardships. “The two become [dominant] female stereotypes of Korea,” he said.

“In many cases, misogyny is the problem in the method of liking a woman,” Lee Gwang-ho said. “It’s been 100 years since Mujong was released. How much has changed in terms of gender stereotypes? Is there a need to mention how many more Seon-hyeongs and Yeong-chaes there were?” But he did note, by citing Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian,” queer literature movements, and gender-neutral writing, that Korea may be just beginning to change.

Kim Myoung-in, a literary critic and professor at Inha University, said “often misogyny includes attitudes that appear on the surface very women-friendly, like protection, respect and attachment, because such acts can promote discriminatory gender roles and perpetuates a male-dominated structure.”

Rule change

But, critics say it is encouraging how there are signs of change.

It’s now not easy to spot actresses opposing to be called actresses. Actress Um Jee-won also wrote on her Instagram account; “People say actresses are the ‘flower’ of the scene. Why should an actress be a flower? I want to be called an actor, not an actress.” Film director Park Chan-wook also made similar comments.

Recently, a young Korean actress, Lee Joo-young, said through Twitter that the term actress is not politically correct. The tweet was bombarded by so much criticism that she had to halt her Twitter activity for some time.

Those who make abusive comments are also harshly criticized. In a recent press interview, actor Kim Yun-seok said if his film was successful, he would show what’s beneath the blanket that was covering the knees of his co-actor, a female. He was harshly criticized and publicly apologized.

Hip hop group DJ DOC who hoped to perform a song that criticizes the embattled President Park Geun-hye and her controversial cosmetic treatment at a recent candlelight vigil were also banned from performing at the venue because of the lyrics were considered offensive towards women.

Kwon Kim Hyeon-yeong, a specialist in women’s studies, said that women’s voices in Korea are louder than ever. “Korean women’s sense of sovereignty has increased after a series of recent events like TV personalities Kim Tae-hoon and Jang Dong-min making misogynistic comments as well as the murder of the young woman at Gangnam Station,” she said. “Before women weren’t sure if this kind of abuse was a problem or was something that other women experienced as well. But now, they view it as a social issue.”

Another important factor is social media. Choi Jin-bong, a media professor of Sungkonghoe University said that, “before, hashtags were used so that people could share content, but with events like the Charlie Hebdo attack … people are using hashtags to set agendas and create a political voice. In that sense, [this new way of revealing abuse] is highly meaningful.”

But some also warn against restricting artistic freedom.

Case in point: Art critic Ban Yi-jeong was recently embroiled in a controversy for a post he wrote 12 years ago that discusses a sexual fantasy of girls in high school uniforms. While his opponents demanded that he apologize and be punished, the renowned art critic vehemently responded in his blog, saying “It’s hard to explain what art is but I believe most people would agree that it’s about recreating something that is a taboo in reality, even though it may deeply disturb some people,” he said. “But it’s not about executing that ‘taboo’ but allowing ‘imagination’ and ‘expression.’”

Literary critic Gang Ji-hee also said she’s against calls for putting books by those accused of sexual abuse out of print, saying that “the writer and the text should be separated to guarantee artistic freedom.”

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