Haemi is a hair designer who loves pink orchids and leopard print ashtrays. Her gossipy co-workers don’t see beyond Haemi’s garish tastes to the way she can make customers relax at her fingertips, or how she never points out people’s flaws but treats them with respect. Eunjung is a working mom who has never felt the need to socialize with other kindergarten mothers. But months after her eight-year old son was in an accident that keeps him unconscious and bound to the respirators, Eunjung is ridden with guilt and loneliness, and longs for someone to shampoo her hair. Jihyeon works at Haemi’s hair salon. She disdains the ‘morality corset’ that keeps her from letting her hair down and spewing profanities like those speakers at the women’s protests. Her ‘niceness’ kept her from speaking up when her friend became a victim of unconsented filming. Niceness may as well be helplessness.
Haemi, Eunjung, Jihyeon, and nine other women of different ages and social contexts take turns to tell their stories in Yoon Yi-hyung’s Bungdaegamgi (Wrapping the Bandage, 2020). Like the cat’s cradle illustrated on the book cover, the author carefully weaves each story to shape and reshape the picture of feminism and womanhood in Korean society. Most of the characters are not revisited after telling their story, but the novel never devolves into a tangled mess. What keeps each character connected in various loose networks are the unexpressed and unpolished sympathies for one another revealed in intimate monologues and dialogues. These are stories of women on the periphery of Korea’s “feminism reboot“.
The Gangnam Metro Station murder in 2016 was the moment young Korean women began to take collective agency. A deranged man hid waiting for nearly an hour in a public, non-gendered restroom near the busiest Metro Station in Seoul, letting six previous men come and go until a woman finally entered. For women it sparked a visceral realization that it could have been anyone, and that their sheer survival was at stake. The same year, accusations of sexual violence in the media, the literary field, schools, religion, sports, and many other domains swept through social media. The best-selling novel Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 (2016) was widely derided by anti-feminists. The #MeToo movement started in Korea in early 2018 when a female prosecutor went public with the sexual harassment she had experienced from a high-level official several years before. The same year, the unconsented filming of a male nude model by a woman, and the swift prosecution that followed, sparked a series of angry protests. The women taking part in the protests couldn’t help but compare the efficiency with which the justice process held a woman accountable with the countless other cases in which men had filmed and distributed non-consensual material and gone unpunished.
But many of the ‘gender wars’ have been online. Online communities of women cropped up to write sarcastic ‘mirroring’ posts that reversed misogynistic hate speech back against the men. The posts were intentionally shocking to communicate layers of meaning, but men (and many women too) denounced them as hateful. Other online posts went further, to the extremes of hate against all males. There was also a “post-corset” movement advocating the liberation of women from the pressure of ‘beauty labor’ (kkumim nodong): the pressure to look presentable in society (cosmetics, glasses, bras). But other women experienced this movement as yet another imposition enforcing standards of appearance—judging whether or not a woman is truly liberated.
Extreme fear and exclusion of all men in some sectors of the feminist movement resulted in strange sights: feminists joining forces with right wing nationalists protesting against the acceptance of Yemeni Muslim refugees, and feminist clubs in a women’s university protesting against the admission of a transgender female student. This novel regrettably does not touch upon these intersectional issues of xenophobia (specifically Islamophobia) and gender spectrum—two of the hot button issues in Korea today. Nevertheless, it is sensitive to the growing pains within the feminist movement that struggle to embrace the spectrum and pluralities of opinion, generations, and gender identities within it. It gently encourages women to communicate and understand the complex contexts that can turn one woman’s liberation into another’s corset.
Voices on the margins
Most of the characters in the novel see themselves as not quite at the center of the feminist movement. The difference is in the degree to which they negotiate and accept their identity, context, and choices. The younger hair stylist Jihyeon struggles to form her own opinions on feminism and justify her own identity. Jingyoung, a stay-at-home mom in her mid-forties, is aware that her conventionally feminine appearance and personality, and her choice of domestic life, is subject to other activist women’s judgment. But Jingyoung’s inner monologue, addressed to her own spunky eight-year-old daughter, reveals her own process of self-acceptance.
Dear daughter, be yourself. I am sure you will grow up to be a strong, confident, and courageous person, and your mom will cheer you on with all she’s got. But I do hope that you become someone who doesn’t hate other women who are weak, the ones who are not as confident as you, the ones who are often lonely, scared, or cry because they are emotional, the cute and adorable ones, the ones who are flawed and sometimes make the wrong choices, just average women. No matter what kind of person you become, my love for you will never change.
Yoonseul, a character in her fifties, has long accepted that she is too old to connect with younger people on social media, that for the younger folks she is like “a zelkova tree or a rock you can’t talk to, more part of the achromatic scenery than human”. She has chosen to quit fighting to remain in Seoul, the geographic and cultural center of society, and instead retreat to and embrace the “sense of the margins”. The margins are where Yoonseul can enjoy the sunshine, take her vitamins, and accept that she need not be at the center of social currents. Myungok and Hyoryung are also near retirement age and no longer care to be relevant to the younger generations. But with their choice to move in together to take care of each other as they age, they are pioneering alternative forms of family in Korea’s aging society, in which more and more people are forgoing marriage and children.
Cho Hye-jung, a Korean feminist and postcolonial ethnographer wrote on marginality in her 1994 work Geul Ilki wa Salm Ilki 2 (Reading Words and Reading Life 2), that “when the marginalized find their place within the whole and decide to no longer identify that place as the margin, they can then resolutely begin to reconstruct their experience and perspective in completely new ways”. As talked about as it is, the feminist movement in Korea today is still on the margins of society and outside the hegemonic center. In that sense, the movement must continue to sharpen its sensitivity to the margins, being open to conflicting opinions and individual contexts that cannot be lumped into one unified voice. Yoon Yi-hyung’s novel accepts both the committed outrage and activism at the center of the margin called feminism, and the uncertain questioning and mundane housekeeping concerns at the margins of the margin. When Yoonseul gave up life in Seoul she was able to return to her own body and to nature. Myungok and Hyoryung’s friendship goes beyond the language of solidarity to a concrete commitment. These women’s lives on the margins of the margins may not relate directly to a feminist revolution, but they are unifying, generous, and life-giving contributions that integrate the self and others. A celebration of the often devalued body and of the everyday-ness of life (ilsangseong) is perhaps what is needed for women to stand in solidarity with each other and their own fragmented selves.
On the bus together
The two main characters, and the only ones who are revisited throughout the novel, are Seyeon and Jingyoung who have been friends since high school. Unlike Jingyoung, Seyeon is a well-established editor and writer on women and feminist issues, single and living alone. Ever since the Gangnam Station murder, Seyeon’s rage has burnt up all the “soft places, rich emotions, unripe thoughts, vacant spaces of the mind, and any generosity”, while Jingyoung feels she has been left by the wayside for more urgent, righteous causes demanding Seyeon’s attention. The demands of life and work, and unspoken presumptions, have created a distance which both friends are longing to bridge. Seyeon finally decides she needs to step back from her current writing project and work on her friendship with Jingyoung.
One can only speculate that Seyeon and Jingyoung are the author Yoon Yi-Hyung’s own conflicted and fragmented personas. Yoon is herself in her forties, married and a parent. She has been a vocal feminist, active in the social media hashtag movement on sexual violence in the literary profession (#문단 내 성폭력), demanding that the accused be held accountable. Yoon was awarded the prestigious Yi Sang Literary Award in 2019. The 2020 batch of winners have refused the award in protest of the foundation’s practice of owning the copyright to the award-winning publication for three years. Yoon then felt she had to take personal responsibility for perpetuating the extortionate practice and benefiting from the award, and in solidarity with other writers she announced early this year that she will never write again. Boongdaegamgi may well be Yoon’s final novel.
The novel’s title, which can be translated as “Wrapping the Bandage”, appears in a retrospect involving Seyeon and Jingyoung. In high school during military drill class Seyeon, an awkward outsider, was paired with Jingyoung, the most popular girl in class. Seyeon clumsily wrapped a bandage around Jingyoung’s head so tightly that it hurt. But when others laughed at Seyeon’s mistake, Jingyoung stood to defend Seyeon, making this an incident that helped form their friendship. The author explained in an interview, that the bandage can be a symbol for feminism. A bandage is used to dress wounds and ultimately give freedom of movement. Like the bandage, feminism sometimes feels harsh and confining to different individuals, but it is ultimately necessary in order to heal the wounds inflicted by the patriarchal society.
But what actually turns Seyeon’s clumsy bandage wrapping into an incident that sparks friendship is Jingyoung’s loyal and generous response. Well-intended activism may backfire to cause tensions and even inflict wounds on individuals with different identities and circumstances. Such mistakes should be admitted and corrected. But ultimately what makes the bandage of feminism an instrument of healing and liberation, and not just another corset, is the willingness to accept differences, to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and to accept everyone into one spacious tent.
Later, in an imagined dialogue Seyeon has with Jingyoung, they talk about feminism as a bus.
… Seyeon, you and others will be the ones who drive this bus. As for myself, I don’t want to be assigned any name, and I don’t want to ask to be part of it. I just want to stand with the people at the bus stop blankly staring at the illegible bus routes because they don’t know how to buy a ticket, because they are getting carsick, because they have a reason to stay home, or just because they’re lost. When they’re scared and lonely and crying thinking their life has gone wrong, I’ll stand by them and tell them that’s not true. Because they also need someone to be there for them.
I feel the same way, Jingyung, muttered Seyeon. I’m scared and lonely too. The bus? If this is a bus, I’m not the driver either. I don’t have a license, so I will probably never take the wheel. That’s up to the younger folks. But we’re grown-ups now. We can’t free-ride forever, so I just hope I can pay for my fare by learning at least the basics. I should at least learn how to drive, and what to do in emergencies, so I can be a back up when the driver is tired. You think you’re outside the bus, but I know we are all on the same bus. Ultimately, we all have to ride this bus together and help each other….
This spirit of friendship and solidarity would keep Korea’s feminism rolling on for the long haul.