I haven’t felt this kind of depression after watching a Korean drama series since Autumn in My Heart (2000)/가을동화.
Jang Ok-Jung, Living by Love (2013) is a period piece from SBS. It is based on the historical novel work of the same title written by Choi Jung-mi, and is directed by Boo Sung-chul. The series is set during the Joseon Dynasty in the late 1600s.
The show centers on a young, aspiring fashion designer Jang Ok-jung (Kim Tae-hee) who is born of a middle-class rank (중인) but falls in love with King Suk-jong/Yi Soo (Yoo Ah-in) and becomes his favorite concubine. It starts off as a lovey-dovey tale simply about a young woman and man whose affections for each other seem pure and eternal, then of course shit hits the fan when every single person around each character has a political problem with their getting together. Drama ensues.
Jang Ok-Jung is not only an intense political drama, but also an interesting critique on Joseon’s classism stemming from a caste system that damns a person’s life according to who s/he is born from and what the parents’ ranking is according to Joseon’s societal standards. This is the show’s primary critique–the rigidity of a society that make class mobility near impossible. But the protagonist Ok-jung makes it up the ranks (4 to 1) as a consort, eventually even taking over the dethroned Queen In-hyeon’s place as Queen herself for a short term reign. But In-hyeon returns and Ok-jung is demoted back to the place of consort Hui Bin. She eventually is framed for having placed a curse on the queen and is forced to kill herself, ordered by her beloved King.
Ok-jung in her early appearances takes a fascination to Joseon days’ erotic illustrated novels, which are essentially just some softcore sketches of men and women caressing. Ok-jung takes a liking to the way the women’s dresses flow depending on their sensual positions. The drawings inspire her vision. Sexuality is where Ok-jung sees beauty, and the show has plenty of coded sex talk throughout that compares women to flowers and men to bees.
The drama relies heavily on the female characters’ catty tension throughout, mostly rooted in jealousy over things like beauty and male attention. There’s really just one man who all the women desire, and that is the King. Around Ok-jung, however, there are men galore. She has three different pursuers but the King is the one she wants and eventually gets.
The women on this show all must rely on their only agent of power and that is their body. The women must be beautiful. Her face is the main selling point. After that, she must know how to dress well. If the King desires her, then she has found “favor” by him, meaning that he sleeps with her. Her vagina is the access to bringing her status and power–it is her only agency towards class mobility. From there, she can move up by becoming pregnant but her status upgrade is only a possibility if she births a son–a potential heir to the throne. Ok-jung accomplishes all of this. She even maintains her favor with the King until the end of her days.
Throughout the series, Ok-jung and Lee Soo’s romantic theme is their little promise to each other that they would never let go of each other’s hands. (Ring a Titanic bell much? Yoo Ah-in is the Korean doppelgänger of Leonardo DiCaprio. They remind me of each other so much that I can hardly contain myself; they have the same nose, the same voice, the same trembling mannerisms that have a danger of appearing trite/overused at times; a tendency towards frequent explosions in their performance that oozes thick passion.)
What depressed me at the end of the series is that ultimately the King does not overcome the political powers that be and allows his beloved consort to be put to death by poison. Her crime is breaking the palace rules of having no shamans make an offering on site; at the desperate situation of possibly losing her son to smallpox, she brings the shaman in, gets caught and is blamed for the death of Queen In-hyeon by placing a curse or some bullshit…
What then added to my depression is how after Ok-jung dies, the King mourns her at Chwi Seon Dang (Ok-jung’s place of residence and the King’s gift), and the drama immediately cuts to King Sukjong’s grave site, calling him one of the greatest reformers of Joseon history. Be that as it may, the namesake of the show seems almost completely forgotten at this point. Later, another title card appears, explaining that Ok-jung’s damnation was lifted in 1965 and that her grave was moved to be placed beside Sukjong’s.
Anyway, what made me so sad was how awful, limited, and impossible a woman’s life was back then. What the hell’s even the point of rewriting the history of Hui Bin this way? Even if there’s the mediated, dramatized effort to make her appear a little less evil, and make the relationship with her and the King more meaningful, it doesn’t change the fact that she was a victim of rigid circumstances and was ultimately killed by the man who was supposedly in love with her.
The rules back then were insane. Truly, truly insane.
Now, I have to refer to the Wikipedia page because it’s just so fascinating how it writes about her (FYI, Wikipedia’s citations link back to website descriptions written by museums, government sites, cultural sites, etc.), and the general consensus is simply that she was an awful woman. Historical references even blame her son King Gyeongjong’s illness and infertility on her (Gyeongjong’s illness, according to these records, made him an unsuited King, and he was replaced by his half-brother Yeongjo, who held a very long tenure on the throne). This type of blatant misogyny on a lower status historical figure is just more evidence of patriarchal sexism and bias. In a lot of ways, the drama rationalizes some of those accusations of evil that is frequently placed on her while also moving against the grain of patriarchal injustice. Some of the best dialogues are the ones shared by Queen Inhyeon and Ok-jung when they discuss the King’s flaw which is being male.
Anyway, what a great show. The costumes were utterly beautiful. Color coordination, head pieces, lipstick shades–all of it–utterly beautiful. (Think Marie Antoinette (2006) level of costume beauty.)
I read about female genital mutilation (FGM) in an anthropology class as a freshman in college, and what I recollect the most is that one of the main purposes of FGM is to make sex unpleasant for girls in order to prevent infidelity—essentially, perform a painful circumcision on women for an ideology that suits the dominant group—the patriarch. But notice how in Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade (2004), polygamy for men is the norm at the village in Burkina Faso; women must remain faithful to one man and not enjoy sex, but men can have more than one wife and enjoy sex.
While reading Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus,” I thought a lot about what causes harmful/oppressive traditions and practices to continue in spite of being inhumane. Althusser notes ideology’s “reproduction of production” and the agencies that allow this production to perpetuate. While watching Moolaade, I kept wondering why the male elders in the film persistently remained ignorant to the problems that were arising from the practice of FGM as a ritual for young girls in the village. As Althusser might put it, the male elders’ ideology does not “correspond with reality,” and as agents of reproducing the product of their ideology, they must uphold tradition (protect their ideology) and all of its rituals including FGM. For instance, when news spreads that the girls have run away from the “purification” ceremony, the men simply say that the girls must return to the ritual and have the performance done. When news spreads that two of the girls committed suicide at the well to avoid the circumcision, the men simply move on from the topic and avoid discussing it (meanwhile, the women of the village all gather in the night by the well to stand vigil). When Binetou dies from the performance, the men remain firm in their stance and express no remorse for the death of yet another young girl. While doing so, they cite Allah, and say that a man’s word trumps that of a woman’s, and so Colle must undo the Moolaade. Althusser’s diagnosis of a hurtful practice continuing in spite of its harms would simply be that this village is performing what any other Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) would perform, and that is protecting the actions and agents that produce the State’s ideology by putting it to practice, thus allowing this ideology to regenerate, perpetuate and reproduce.
Jacqueline Bobo writes in “The Color Purple: Black Women as Cultural Readers” that “traditions are made, not born.” Similarly, Althusser argues that ideology is a concept that is universally present in the minds of individuals and as a collective: “Ideology has no history.” If this is true, then it introduces the possibility that a new idea that gets upheld as an ideology can also permeate through groups and enter the collective consciousness to become the new ideology; as Bobo puts it, “When an articulation arises, old ideologies are disrupted and a cultural transformation is accomplished.” In Moolaade, this articulation begins with Colle first claiming a Moolaade for the girls who ran away, and protecting them. Then Colle is beaten in public before everyone in the village including the male elders. The transformation happens in the form of encouragement from the women standing by for Colle, telling her not to give up or fall down; this begins to materialize a new ideology by disrupting the old ideology; the tears shed by Amasatou while watching her mother get beaten is another disruption of the old ideology, where she would have done anything (buy new clothes, get her genitals cut) so that she could marry Ibrahima—a wealthy man of a respected family. This breakdown of the old spirit leading to an awakening for all of the village women is finalized in the film through the death of Binetou, one of the youngest of the group of girls who fled the ceremony.
When the women arrive at the center of the village—at the site of the phallic-looking mosque—where the women’s confiscated radios burn, the women confiscate the Exciseuses’ knives and throw them into the same fire; the women no longer need the radio to inform them of what is right and wrong; they hold that information internally, they have a voice to express what they believe in, and the willingness to put those beliefs into action. Furthermore, when the Exciseuses give up the knives, they become allies with the mothers—even for a moment; the mothers who suffered pain and loss stand together with the women who performed FGM and killed their daughters while upholding an old ideology: “An articulation results from a coming together of separate discourses under certain specific conditions and at specific times” (Bobo, 105).
Althusser says that an ideology “recruits.” Ideology functions through “interpellation” or “hailing.” It catches the attention of the subject through a Subject (mirror effect). In Moolaade, the Exciseuses finally recognize themselves in the mothers who suffered child loss and pain, and most especially in Colle—a martyr figure (like Christ, as Althusser might put it). The women in the village who previously stood with the Exciseuses later come to tell Colle that they “felt the blows” when Colle was being beaten before them, thus hailing them towards a new ideology. This cross recognition leads to what Bobo calls a “cultural transformation.” Bobo is not naïve, though. She says, “[Cultural transformation] is always in the process of becoming.” Ideology—new or old—can only exist when there are agents who keep it in function, and allow it to materialize.
In the second to last scene, when Amasatou tells Ibrahima that she is and always will remain a “Bilakoro,” her stance is as important as Ibrahima’s decision to accept her for what she is without trying to fit her into the outdated ideology—one that silenced and ignored the women’s cries against FGM; the union of these two will put the new ideology into motion through practice. Sembene’s maleness as a filmmaker is important for this film. The two men who express their support of the women’s ideology—Ibrahim and Colle’s husband—do so by physically walking away from the shade where the male elders sit; they each come to terms with leaving behind what ideologically defined their masculinity in order to find union and happiness with the women in their new ideology. This recognition from agents of the patriarch is also noteworthy. This alliance is also part of the articulation that Bobo describes, and part of the unity that must be “strengthened.”
(Originally published on UCLA’s FTVDM Bulletin.)
*There is a new film out entitled Sembene! (2015) which recently played at the AFI Film Festival. Check your local theaters to find play dates.
“Women of color come of age and have the same experiences Dunham depicts in her shows, but we rarely see those stories because they don’t fit the popular imagination’s rendering of Other girlhood, which is generally nonexistent in popular culture. At least there have been a few shows for black women to recognize themselves–the aforementioned Girlfriends, Living Single, A Different World, The Cosby Show. What about other women of color? For Hispanic and Latina women, Indian women, Middle Eastern women, Asian women, their absence in popular culture is even more pronounced, their need for relief just as palpable and desperate.” —Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist
There is a certain feeling that most diaspora Asians (Asian-American, Asian-Canadian, Asian-English, etc.) are accustomed to. It’s the feeling that whenever a conversation involving something or someone Asian by non-Asians occurs, that conversation is indirectly directed at you or about you; you’ve inspired it just by being in the vicinity of it; it’s happening because the participants want to engage you somehow, kind of/sort of; the participants want to see some kind of reaction from you so that they can add an element to their day in the form of enlightening entertainment; the moment will be added to their barometer to use for future reference, and you are a kind of experimental social study; these are the reasons why they are talking about sushi versus sashimi right now while standing behind you in line to get into the theater.
This kind of thing happened to me at a work function once. The filmmaker our company invited for a screening and dinner happened to be Korean, so my boss said I had to join. (He does things like this very often. For instance, when I recently criticized DocuSign’s silly way of offering prepackaged “styles” of signature for the signatory to choose from, I said it was “so American,” and my boss shot back, “Don’t say that. For all you know, this was originated in Korea.” This man has a PhD in art and literature. He also refuses to use the word “foreign” when speaking of foreign cinema because he deems the word “xenophobic.” He prefers the word “international.” His company also docks half of my pay to pay for all kinds of taxes because I am an American, but he still says shit like this to me.) At this dinner, I was seated at a table full of older white men and women. Everyone was super lovely. We talked about Pink Floyd, MoMA, Russian cinema, Iraq, theater, etc., and then out of the blue, one white lady–after a few glasses of wine–said to me, “I just love Japanese aesthetics. They just seem so minimal and lovely to me.”
I was confused so I just nodded at her without saying anything until the realization firmed up inside of me. As I continued to nod, I looked at her straight in the eye. Soon, the woman reached for her wine to take another sip, and began to turn red.
Another instance: Not too long ago, two white colleagues and I were standing in the hallway, talking about dogs and how cute they were. All of the sudden, out of the blue, the male colleague said to the female colleague, “It’s so fascinating how some Chinese cultures eat dog.” He said this in front of me but without looking at me. His remark was aimed at me but addressed the other colleague–the white female one, who didn’t have anything to say in response except for, “Yeah. That is really interesting.”
When this remark was made, I immediately felt myself distancing from the conversation–like a lone planet coming off loose from the solar system and hurling itself elsewhere, out there–some place else. While just a moment ago I was just as avidly discussing dogs and breeds, and at one with the other two–in tune, circulating fine. I was now clammed up, and didn’t feel like saying anything, and my mind began to wander the same few paths it always traverses whenever something like this happens to me:
I immediately assume that the conversation is happening because I am there and because I look/am Asian; the person who brought it up did it to bait me into the conversation somehow, hoping that I might drop some knowledge on whatever it is that he is talking about, add some constructive input, some textured analysis to the shallow discussion on the culture of dog-eating, or he is doing it to see what kind of reaction I might have: would I snap at him and insist that this is a cultural stereotype and that it isn’t true? Does he expect me to agree and admit to having tasted dogs? What exactly does he expect from me?
I went to an all-white school from age 12 through 18. I know how to pronounce names like “Deirdre” and “Siobhan,” even though I don’t have the slightest interest in knowing how to do it. In high school, I openly spoke out against the Japanese internment camps during World War II when we were learning about it in US history class. All the other white students in class raised their hands and said that the US was right to put them away because they were a threat to this country. Then they turned to me and said, “Why do you even care so much? You’re not even Japanese. You’re Chinese.” (I’m Korean-American.)
It was the same year when the World Trade Center was bombed. I saw quite a few white kids walk around in black T-shirts with Osama bin Laden’s face on it with a big sniper’s target pointing to his forehead. I found it distasteful but I didn’t dare say anything because everyone at the time was an emotional explosive. The teachers didn’t say anything either–the same teachers who had a problem with seeing kids make out by their lockers, or when I cursed off racist shitheads who said racial slurs. The same teachers who didn’t correct the students when they openly said that the US was RIGHT to put Japanese-Americans–Americans–away at internment camps.
I can understand a fresh-off-the-boat Irishman when he speaks. But these kids I graduated with in 2005 never learned how to pronounce my Korean name. They never bothered. They tried, but mockingly. When the teacher took roll call aloud and butchered my name, my face burned the fuck up red, and the kids laughed hysterically. And if there were one or two other Asian kids in my class witnessing this, they would clam up and look down at their desks silently, thinking very hard to themselves: “Don’t look at me or come near me, you name-diseased Asian girl. I don’t know you. Life’s hard for me as it is. Leave me out of it.”
I legally changed my name in 2009 right before graduating college. It took THAT long to do it. (My father was naturalized as a US citizen just days before I turned 18, so I became, by default, an American citizen, too.) So from kindergarten through my senior year in college, my legal Korean name was on everything, and I always had to take preemptive measures to keep whoever was going to take roll call from calling me out by my Korean name and saying it all fucked up–correcting them with an easier one to pronounce–one that is biblical and chosen by my parents’ reverend when I was age 11. One that is on my US passport today but the other one still haunts me every now and again whenever people can’t find my records:
Me: “Try looking up __________.”
Person: “Ah-ha! Found it.”
The persistence of these kinds of situation happen consistently throughout my life and has made me more accustomed to tuning people out completely when I feel a slight jolt of discomfort from a sensitive scenario (like the defector planet scene), or feeling an arresting sense of paranoia: I get tunnel vision, my heart thumps loudly inside my ears, and my whole body clenches. These instances have made me develop a condescending bias when it comes to white people who try to have a conversation with me about Eastern anything or Asian anything, and I look down on them, as if they were below me–dumb, ignorant and clueless.
All of these things are a form of defense. I see my defenses rise up at a distant attack’s most inchoate stages. I can interpret something as simple as two people talking about Chinese food into some kind of warped plan against me: I’ll think that I’m involved in this conversation, and that those two people forced me to be involved just by having it where I can hear it. Maybe my looks inspired the conversation. Maybe they want to ask me something about what they’re discussing. Maybe they want a recommendation.
These thoughts are obviously crazy, but about 80% of the time, my crazy thoughts actually align with the reality you and I exist in, only that my experience is hell, and your experience is just, “Today’s simply a rainy Saturday in New York,” and you’ll look at me with eyes widened, head frozen in place thinking: ‘You are so crazy.’
I was at a work-related party around this time in October. We were promoting a project created by a Chinese artist. I said that I really liked the artist’s style to a colleague in the room, and a white woman (my boss’ wife actually) eagerly asked me from way across the room: “Wait, what? What? What did you say?” just so she could hear what this Asian girl had to say about that Asian man. To see if anything would illuminate what she perceives to be so foreign and mysterious…
Crazy thought–maybe. But I know what I feel. And that feeling is defensiveness and anger at her misguided curiosity. My feelings don’t lie to me. They come before words do. There’s nothing more honest than that.
I recently finished reading Lena Dunham’s book Not That Kind of Girl. It was an easy, entertaining read, and I liked how everything she discussed was quite ordinary. Nothing was really especially unique or particularly amazing. They were all ordinary events. What I admired was how she was able to give her ordinary events a platform and a prominent voice–a home-run bestseller. Good for Dunham. Not too many young women can accomplish something like this. My only take away from the reading experience is that Dunham was a very beloved girl. She had a strong foundation when it came to family, and she learned how to communicate well at an early age because of her social exposure and her childhood therapy sessions. Such privilege.
While reading, however, I experienced the same feelings I mention in the above. So I marked down every instance in the book when she mentions Asians, an Asian country, Asian food or places in the Middle East. Here they are along with my raw, immediate and deluded reactions to them at first-glance:
“I try and look relaxed as pierced NYU kids and pink-haired Asian girls stream past me.”
1) Lena Dunham is afraid of Asian girls who dye their hair because the very act that they’ve turned their hair a color other than black means they are potentially volatile and aggressive. 2) Why did Dunham feel that it was necessary to mention the fact that the girls were Asian?
“It was the twenty-page account of a young man very much like himself trying, and failing, to seduce an Asian girl who worked at J. Crew in Soho. Although the prose was unusual and funny, the story sat with me like a bad meal.”
1) Dunham is experiencing a bad feeling in her stomach because this Asian girl in her love-interest’s story is someone that the love-interest pines for, and Dunham herself is not Asian. This depresses Dunham. 2) Why did Dunham feel that it was necessary to mention the fact that the protagonist was pining an Asian girl? 3) Dunham wishes to be an Asian girl.
“We went out to a twenty-four-hour Pakistani restaurant and, having been rejected, I was hungry for the first time in days.”
1) Dunham eats at Middle Eastern establishments when she loses an appetite. 2)’Exotic’ flavors bring back her desire to eat again.
“Mike was the first person to go down on me, after a party to benefit Palestine, on my dorm room rug.”
As a college student, Dunham’s participation in activism was only to find boys who would give her oral sex.
“When he turned around, it wasn’t Joey. It was Barry. Uh-oh played in my head like a loser’s sound effect on a Japanese talk show. Uh-oh uh-oh uh-oh.”
1) Dunham has come across Japanese talk shows in the past, and probably watched it with a condescending or offensive fascination. 2) Dunham thinks participants of Japanese talk shows are inferior. 3) Dunham occasionally sounds out the way Japanese people speak in her head, or at least her writing voice.
“As we sat, smiling and satisfied, an old Chinese woman passed and hocked a loogie on his shoe.”
1) How does Dunham know that the woman was Chinese? 2) Dunham felt it was necessary to mention that the miscreant was Chinese.
“It was 1977, and they both lived downtown and ran with the same crowd of artists who wore Chinese slippers and played tennis ironically.”
Dunham finds Chinese slippers to be frivolous fashion choices.
*Dunham lists all the things she ate and logged at the time of her diet. A great deal of the food she consumed originate in Asia, including but not limited to Chinese broccoli, green tea, rice noodles, etc.*
Dunham believes Asian food items will help her to lose weight and look like the stereotypically thin Asian women who at past lover finds attractive.
“I bought my wallet while high off my ass on legal prescription drugs in the Hamburg airport. It is decorated with clowns, cars, and dachshunds, and is uniformly beloved by children and Japanese women alike.”
1) Dunham equates Japanese women’s aesthetic sensibilities with that of children. 2) How does Dunham know that the Asian women who complimented her wallet were Japanese?
“Three straight girls were experimenting with universal love in a corner at a party to benefit Palestinian rights and, when they offered me membership, I took it.”
Dunham’s Palestinian activism in college was primarily motivated by the desire to hook up with people.
“‘Do you want a brother or sister?’ my mother asked me that night as we ate takeout Chinese off the coffee table.”
Dunham is well accustomed to the Chinese-American takeout cuisine.
“We were sitting at the dining room table eating pad thai, our parents out of town, as they often were now that we were old enough to fend for ourselves. Twenty-three and sponging mightily, I forked some noodles into my mouth as Grace described a terrible date with a ‘dorky’ boy from an uptown school.”
Dunham does not know how to use chopsticks when eating noodles.
“Did you know that there is a Colonial mansion in Brooklyn here a Japanese surgeon lives with his blind wife, or so I was told?”
1) Why is this something to write down in a book? 2) How is the person who told Dunham that the surgeon is Japanese sure that he is indeed Japanese? 3) Why is it important to mention the fact that he is Japanese?
“Did you know that you can buy a tiny turtle with highly contagious salmonella in Chinatown that is so adorable you will want to risk it?”
Dunham believes Chinatown is the reason why its turtles have salmonella, but she doesn’t mind it because they are tiny and adorable.
“In school, we are learning about Hiroshima, so I read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes and I know instantly that I have leukemia.”
1) Dunham is so self-absorbed that reading about Hiroshima doesn’t cause her to worry about the city that was bombed into oblivion by the US forces in 1945, nor the leukemia that is destroying Sadako’s young body. Instead, she worries about her self-diagnosed and fictitious leukemia. 2) The Hiroshima bombing does not mean anything to Dunham.
” ‘Well,’ he said, ‘last week I was walking around late at night and I accidentally wandered into a gay bar and I met this Filipino guy and let him come to my house, and he fucked me in the ass and the condom broke and then he stole my wallet.”
1) Dunham felt it was worth mentioning the fact that the man she was beginning to dislike had had relations with an aggressive, irresponsible and criminal Filipino man. 2) How did the man Dunham had relations with know that the man who fucked him in the ass was in fact Filipino?
“Is it a long line, like the Japanese girls lined up outside a newly opened Topshop?”
1) How does Dunham know that the girls are Japanese? 2) Dunham believes Japanese girls are vapid and eager women who are willing to stand in long lines outside of a Topshop that is yet to be opened.
“Then I say something that would probably make the Buddha roll over in his grave: ‘I think I could be enlightened, but I’m not in the mood yet.’
1) Dunham has no respect for Buddha, although she borrows some of his practices such as meditation. 2) Dunham is not willing to become enlightened because it is too inconvenient for her. 3) Dunham prefers a mode of ignorance over enlightenment because ignorance is easier.
I don’t know how long the paranoia will last. Not sure when the defenses will be lowered completely. Possibly never.
For dessert: Lena Dunham’s writeup about her trip to Japan.