[KS] KSR 2002-14: _Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class, and Consumption in the Republic of Korea_, ed. by Laurel Kendall

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Sat Nov 2 17:04:19 EST 2002

_Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class, and Consumption in
the Republic of Korea_, ed. by Laurel Kendall. Honolulu: University of
Hawai'i Press, 2002. 206 pages. (ISBN: 0-8248-2407-5, cloth; ISBN:
0-8248-2488-1, paperback)

Reviewed by Heike Hermanns
University of Glasgow

	_Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class, and
Consumption in the Republic of Korea_ is an edited collection composed of
six chapters with an additional introduction by Laurel Kendall. The book
was conceived at a workshop on "Gender and Social Change in Late
Twentieth-Century Korea," held at Columbia University in the spring of
1995, at which three of the published papers were first presented. In order
to extend the scope of discussion three more contributions were added and
some revision of the original papers has been made in light of the
financial crisis of 1997. The term "gendering" in the title of the book
refers to its concern with both the position of women and changes in the
perception of masculinity. The volume provides a balanced view of the
influences of modernity on the conceptualisation of gender and how Korean
middle-class women and men contest and define modernity and gender. The
authors use a variety of sources, from interviews to the study of novels,
popular films and television programmes.

	In the introduction, Kendall places the contributions to the book
within the context of the construction of Korean modernity and gender
relations. The volume's title, _Under Construction_, as she notes, 'evokes
the language of contemporary gender theory in its assertion that
masculinities and femininities are perpetually constructed and
reconstructed in the busy unfolding of histories' (p. 1). But the title
also plays with the situation in South Korea over the last 50 years, during
which the entire urban landscape has been demolished, rebuilt and
extended. In a similar manner, Kendall argues, the social landscape is
changing and families themselves have become '"construction sites" for new
definitions of home and family, work and leisure, husband and wife' (p. 1).
 	Kendall points out that modernities are inherently gendered and set
in the context of class: the modernity of a middle-class Korean housewife
is therefore different from the modernity of her husband, her mother, her
daughter or that of a working-class woman. In this book the 'different ways
Korean women and men "did" modernity in the 1990s' is emphasised (p. 2).
While describing the Korean experience, the contributions rely upon the
theoretical frameworks of western anthropology. Here, they follow a trend
in the anthropology of gender that turns away from the search for the
causes of female subordination to an 'analysis of the historical, cultural,
and class-based specification of gender-relations and the tension between
gender as an ideological construct and gender as a lived experience' (p. 3).
	Kendall shows how the conceptualisation of gender has changed
during the modernisation process on Korea, taking up each of the
contributors' topics in turn. Following the introduction of military
service for all young men after the Korean War, Korean society as a whole
experienced a noteworthy militarisation. The hierarchical order of the
military was copied by the large conglomerates, the chaeb™l, in which many
middle-class men found jobs after their military service. The chaeb™l
expected their employees to put in long work days, which included
after-hours socialising. Through their work in the companies men became the
main providers for the family, while women were assigned the role of family
caregiver and concerned themselves with the domestic aspects of family life
and status. Middle-class women in the 1970s and 1980s actively pursued the
advancement of their family and engaged in consumption. This led to the
stereotype of ambitious housewives, with little respect for their husbands,
who are such a frequent target of media criticism. Their daughters, in
turn, were pushed to higher education but then found that few opportunities
of employment existed for them. The members of this younger generation of
middle-class women now seek to express their individuality within the
traditional framework of marriage through consumption and a different,
younger and sexier, appearance.

	In the first chapter "Women, Mobility, and Desire: Narrating Class
and Gender in South Korea," Nancy Abelmann's focuses on how women narrate
and interpret their experiences. Abelmann's interests in gender appear in
three ways. First, she discusses the 'particular roles that women play in
the daily production of status and in the inter- and intragenerational
(re)production of class' (p. 33). Here, it is relevant that women in recent
decades have been engaged in securing unearned income, for example, through
real estate investment and land speculation. Their actions improved the
class status of their families but also made women vulnerable to
accusations of overconsumption. Second, Abelmann also takes into account
the way class itself is gendered. Through the culture of families, class
hierarchies are connected with gender relations. Third, Abelmann also finds
that the rhetoric of class mobility is gendered, and that 'women narrate
the social and psychological circumstances that produce gendered traits,
traits that in turn engender particular life trajectories' (p. 35).
Abelmann maintains that competing narratives of social mobility can be
found in Korea. On the one hand, there is the construct that suggests
anybody can climb the social ladder through hard work. On the other hand,
people speak of structural barriers, such as the importance of good
connec-tions with the "right" people, that limit chances of mobility. The
contradictions of these narratives become clearer when the narrative of
one Korean woman is presented.
	Abelmann tells the story of "So-y™n's mother", a woman from
impoverished Yangban-background who moved to upper middle-class status
through hard work. Challenging her role of a passive woman and housewife,
she achieved personal and family class mobility, often ignoring the social
and gender norms of her time. This included working at a bank before
getting married despite her social background and engaging in real estate
speculation after her marriage. Although behaving in a masculine way, she
aspired to a feminine career for her daughter as a pianist (the ultimate
symbol of modernity and femininity in Korea). So-y™n's mother, despite
pursuing material gain herself, 'criticizes women who are caught up in the
desire for material things that ruins society' (p. 47). Her narrative -
while representing only one woman's experience - gives interesting insights
into the construction of social mobility and gender in contemporary Korea.
It also gives an idea of the mind-set of the wives of politicians and
generals who were implicated in 'overconsumption' scandals in Korea in the

	In the second chapter, "Discourses of Illness, Meanings of
Modernity: A Gendered Construction of 'S™nginby™ng'," June J. H. Lee explores
the phenomenon of _s™nginby™ng_ and Korean media discourse about the
illnesses of middle-aged white-collar workers in the early 1990s, following
the publication of statistics that Korean men in their forties had the
highest mortality rate in the world. Nonetheless, as Lee notes, the
statistics used were fundamentally distorted and exaggerated. She points
out that according to the _National Health Survey_ of 1992, 'women in their
forties actually showed higher morbidity rates than did men of that age'
(p. 61). In Korean society, however, the image of a generation of men
falling ill after giving their life to the development of the Korean
economy by working long hours and socialising after work (involving heavy
drinking sessions) at the expense of their family struck a chord. The
situation was exacerbated by the lay-offs in the aftermath of the financial
crisis in the late 1990s. _S™nginby™ng_ involves more than medical
symptoms; the demise of traditional family values and the authority of the
family head has also been lamented. In this conservative discourse, women
were blamed for insufficient understanding of the pressures these men were
facing. Lee also points out that in society the illnesses of middle-aged
Korean men were viewed as the 'unforeseen consequences of their
victimization as worker bees and of their sacrificial suffering as family
heads' while the 'sufferers see themselves as entitled to social
recognition and individual attention' (p. 74). Women, workers and the poor
were marginalized in the construction of _s™nginby™ng_ narratives.
	Lee illustrates through the narrative of one such white-collar
worker, "Park-sangmunim," how this phenomenon was seen and conceptualised
by Koreans. Park was clearly aware that his long working hours and heavy
drinking afterwards for the "good of the nation" had alienated him from his
family and ruined his health. Given that modern ways were having such
negative effects on his health and his position as head of his family, Park
like so many other Koreans took refuge in the traditional ways he
remembered from his childhood. This included meetings with his childhood
friends and eating _posint'ang_ (dog meat soup). Like So-y™n's mother in
the previous chapter, Park fondly recalled the past, the poorer but less
stressful days of his childhood. The renaissance of restaurants serving
_posint'ang_ and other traditional dishes in Korea are an expression of
this longing among many older Koreans.

	In the third chapter "The Production and Subversion of Hegemonic
Masculinity: Re-configuring Gender Hierarchy in Contemporary South Korea"
Seungsook Moon provides a study of the dominant notions and practices of
masculinity in Korea. In the first section Moon discusses how gender
hierarchy has been reconfigured over the last fifty years. Although women
now achieve a higher degree of education, they are still spending most of
their time working in the household (on average 8.5 hours a day). Mostly,
the Confucian tradition is blamed for the gender inequality in Korea, but,
as Moon argues, there is little investigation of 'why Confucian tradition
persists and how "tradition" itself is constructed' (p. 82).
	In order to understand this phenomenon Moon looks at some aspects
of Korean mas-culinity, namely the role of the family provider, the role of
the militarisation of Korean society and male distance from housework and
child care. The role of principal income earner justifies men's domestic
authority and dominance in society.  This notion of a provider-husband
became the normative ideal only in the 1960s with the industrialisation of
the country but was firmly established by the 1980s. The notion of women
staying at home as housewives is, of course, a middle-class ideal. Women
are, and have been, active in a wide range of economic activities that are
often related in some way to their primary role as mothers and wives, such
as formal or informal employment as teachers and investment in real estate
and the stock market (as Abelmann's example of So-y™n's mother has shown).
	Moon uses several popular novels to describe the conflict between
the materialistic and moral aspects of the male role. As noted, with the
introduction of compulsory military service in the 1950s, Korean
masculinity became militarised. The population has accepted military
service as duty to the nation. Companies were more likely to employ young
men who had done their military service, and service was also seen as
preparation for employment in the chaeb™l. There remains, however, a
negative perception of military service (p. 96), which explains why so many
rich and well-connected families try to get exemptions for their sons or at
least preferential treatment while serving. The stress of hierarchy during
military service and the role of family provider justify Korean men's
disengagement from social reproduction and working as caregivers within the
family. The financial crisis and resulting rising unemployment rate have
seriously undermined this image for many men. Although a growing number of
men would like to spend more time with their families, structural barriers
remain. Furthermore, Moon points out, men also fear that their paternal
authority will decline if they change their behaviour.
	Following the discussion of masculinity, the resulting image of
femininity is presented: women are reduced to domesticity and reproductive
labour. Since men have served in the military and thus shown their
willingness to fight and die for their country, they are perceived as more
responsible citizens than women. Women are therefore expected to play only
a secondary role in politics, economy and household.

	In the fourth chapter, "Gender Construction in the Offices of a
South Korean Con-glomerate," Roger L. Janelli and Dawnhee Yim take a closer
look at gender relations in offices using fieldwork data they collected in
the headquarters of a large conglomerate in Seoul during the mid-1980s. At
that time, there were very few women working at the headquarters of the
chaeb™l and nearly all were in secretarial positions.[1]  The division of
labour within an office is by no means unique to Korea but it was (and is)
frequent in many other countries. In Korea, however, the division between
female secretarial staff and male career-orientated workers is extreme.
	Janelli and Yim describe the gendered hiring process at that time:
male office workers were hired after college in nationwide recruitment
drives. Women, by contrast, were mostly from Seoul and hired after
recommendations from their high school officials. Their lack of college
education was then used to deny promotion. Women also received less job
training than men, who had to undergo two separate weeks of training by
both the conglomerate and the individual company, which was then followed
by further on-the-job training. Promotions, largely based on seniority,
were very rare for women. All this showed the short-term orientation the
company took to women's employment and the expectation that they would
retire upon marriage in their mid-twenties. It also helped the company to
keep labour costs down.
	Within a section, the company management stressed the importance of
harmony between co-workers, despite the competition for positions among
them. To increase the communal spirit among office workers and to relieve
stress, funds for after-hours recreation were allocated to the section
managers. This recreation took place at least once a week and often
included dinner followed by social drinking. Women were largely excluded
from these activities or left after dinner. Often, Janelli found, women
were excluded by the activities male workers had chosen. The exclusion of
women, the authors conclude, 'may not have been intended by the
owner-managers but was rather instigated largely by the new middle class
male workers' (p. 130). All in all, women showed little resistance to the
unequal treatment at their workplace. The focus of both the public and
labour activists was on the plight of working class women.
	As the authors point out in the postscript office dynamics have
changed during the 1990s. Female college graduates have also been hired
during general recruitment drives, al-though their numbers remain low.
During the financial crisis of 1997, however, (married) women were the
first to be dismissed, which revealed the conservative values of managers.
As promotions became dependent on achievement rather than seniority,
competition became fiercer and the communal spirit in the office became
less important. After-hours activities were reduced, as younger office
workers (and their families) resisted the extra hours expected of them, a
phenomenon that in turn alleviated the exclusion of female workers.

	In the fifth chapter "The Concept of Female Sexuality in Korean
Popular Culture" So-Hee Lee examines the development of a discussion of
female sexuality in the 1990s. Lee fo-cuses on the 'sociohistorical
discourse and textual analysis of three novels, two films and one
television drama that were written, for the most part, by women' (p. 141).
Her examples deal with women in their 20s and 30s and their experiences of
love, marriage and sexuality and reflect the social transformation of
Korean society in the 1990s. The chosen novels, films and dramas have
achieved popular success in Korea and initiated and reflected discussions
about topics previously not talked about, such as unhappy marriages,
domestic violence, women's reactions to their husbands' infidelities, women
taking lovers and sexual experimentation.
	Lee shows that the experiences of women in that age group are by no
means uniform. Women in their 30s grew up during the 1970s and 1980s and
were educated in democratic ideals in school. While mothers at that time
taught their daughters to live differently from themselves, they still
taught their sons to live like their fathers (p. 144). This has led to
quite different conceptions of marital life between partners. Furthermore,
the mobilisation of students on university campuses during the 1980s
changed the views of many women who were involved in protest or at least
sympathised with the protesters. The active opposition against the regime
also influenced women's attitudes towards traditional arrangements such as
mar-riage; they were far more idealistic than their mothers. Their younger
sisters, now in their 20s, in contrast grew up in the early 1980s and have
known only abundant consumption. This group of women is aware that their
employment opportunities are limited and they are far less idealistic than
their older sisters. They tend to marry for status and gain, as the novel
_Marriage_ (Ky™rhon) by Kim Su-Hy™n shows.
	In 1996, a popular television programme called _The Lover_ (Aein)
portrayed a woman, married and successful in her job, who begins an affair
with another married man. This challenging portrayal of a married woman's
sexuality was even discussed in the National Assem-bly because of its
social implications (p. 154). It shows that Confucian notions of chastity
and fidelity no longer dominate female sexuality but rather the notion of a
woman's individuality. While women are influenced by the discourse of
sexual liberation, many are not yet ready to experience sexuality outside
their marriage. Lee finds that younger female writers have a clearer idea
of their own sexual identity (p. 158) but overall most Korean women are at
the moment 'passive consumers of the sorts of cultural products described
previously, not as their active cultural producers' (p. 159).

	In the sixth and final chapter, "Living With Conflicting
Subjectives: Mother, Motherly Wife, and Sexy Woman in the Transition from
Colonial-Modern to Postmodern Korea," Cho Haejoang argues that Korea over
the last fifty years has seen three different generations of middle-class
women. With economic development the "housewifization" of Korean society
progressed, a nearly universal phenomenon associated with modernisation. In
Korea, it im-plied the transition from a mother-centred to a wife-centred
patriarchy (p. 167). Cho finds that while modernity has changed the role of
women in society, it remains male-centred. Modern patriarchy still sees
motherhood as the only fulfilment of womanhood, thus pressuring women into
	The first generation of women Cho describes, the "grandmother's
generation", lived through colonial times and the Korean War. Women held no
position in society but had some influence on her sons in their role as
mothers. With families torn apart during these years women often assumed
the role of a family provider and worked hard for the survival of their
family. Their daughters, the "mother's generation", grew up in the 1950s
and 1960s. Rapid urbanisation led a move toward the nuclear family, and
women idealised a happy married life with a successful husband and
children. They spent their energy on their children's education and aspired
to a rise in class-status and engaged in activities to bring in more money,
as illustrated in previous chapters. They expected their husbands to leave
family affairs to their wives and lead a public life - thus living their
mother's lives, despite rejecting it (p. 175). Cho also points out that
this generation, with its endless yearning for achievement, was a major
force in Korea's economic transformation. The behaviour of its members is,
however, often criticised in the media.
	The "daughter's generation" grew up in the 1970s, not experiencing
hunger but the pressures of school exams and consumerism. Their mothers
pushed them to achieve the best possible education, but the daughters then
faced very poor employment prospects. Even women who were working found it
hard to keep their positions after marriage and childbirth due to the lack
of childcare facilities. They also found that their mothers, unlike
previous generations, were unwilling to provide childcare for their
daughters. Further pressure is placed on the daughter's generation by the
promotion of the "Missy" (_agassi_) image in the media. This image was
given its name and created by a department store advertisement campaign and
then taken up by the media. Young married women are pressured not to become
like an _ajumma_ (a middle aged married women), but to keep their youthful
appearance, look like an unmarried woman and lead active and independent
lives. The "daughter's generation" has learnt that their aspirations for
employment remain unfulfilled for the time being and thus they have secured
their own space and new sources of power - within the spaces of the
domestic realm. They no longer identify themselves as mothers and wives but
as individuals and try to find self-realisation through consumption (p.

	The contributions to this volume are theoretically well grounded,
and thus will interest not only Koreanists but also anthropologists who
focus on issues of gender in 'non-western' contexts. Gender relations in
Korea are analysed in historical, cultural and class terms. The tensions
between gender as an ideological construct and as personal experience in a
patriarchical society are well brought out through the use of different
sources. The acceleration of change in Korean society and the growing
differences between generations during the 1990s make the book a timely
contribution. Moreover, its essays illuminate many recent developments
such as the nostalgic wave for the 'good old days' before the economic
miracle. The skilful illustration of generational conflict and the
contradictions Koreans are caught in when modernity collides with
conservative institutions (such as patriarchy) render _Under Construction_
a fascinating document of Korean society at the end of the 20th century.

[1] In this reviewer's own fieldwork experience not much has changed ten
years later at a chaeb™l headquarters. Many young women may be seen in
company uniform, which is reserved for secretarial staff, but very few
other women in plainclothes, who would be working in other position, are to
be observed.

Hermanns, Heike 2002
Review of _Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class, and
Consumption in the Republic of Korea_, ed. by Laurel Kendall.(2002)
Korean Studies Review 2002, no. 14
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr02-14.htm

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