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Susan Kim

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Powerful Women, Heroic Girls

Posted: 01/22/2013 5:01 pm

I have mixed feelings about the presidential election last month in South Korea. Like other Asian female politicians before her (Benazir Bhutto, Corazon Aquino, Indira Gandhi), Park Geun-Hye comes to power with the hefty advantage of legacy, one-handed to her by a male relative. Clearly, a potent family connection can trump gender, even in a place like Korea. Parks' is a dark inheritance indeed: she is the daughter of Park Chung-Hee, who ruled as a brutal authoritarian from the 1960s through the 70s. Yet despite her dubious lineage, Park is also the first female to have been elected president in Korea; and to the Asian-American women I know, this is not insignificant. The tiniest part of us is made proud and even hopeful by her victory, despite the sobering facts: her legacy-aided win, her nonexistent record on women's rights and the shadow of her father's savage regime. Neither puppet nor figurehead, the 60-year old Park appears to be her own woman, as well as a seasoned politician. There seems something to celebrate here, however guardedly.

Or wait -- am I being sentimental, even childish? While I hope for the best for Park's presidency, I'm reminded of Caryl Churchill's play, Top Girls, in which a successful 1980s businesswoman gushes about Margaret Thatcher and her sister retorts, "I suppose you'd have liked Hitler if he was a woman. Ms. Hitler. Got a lot done, Hitlerina." Yet I can't completely reason away my optimism, having grown up with the lingering sexism of Korean culture. True, I was raised in New York, not Pusan, and my immigrant parents are, I think, unusually progressive. Yet it was always clear within our small community that boys mattered more than girls and that females existed to tend to the men and children. In Korea, women still hold only a tiny percentage of seats in parliament and managerial positions at major firms. They also earn nearly 40 percent less than men -- one of the biggest gender-based pay gaps in the world.

I write quite a bit for children and teens (right now, I'm working on an upcoming YA trilogy with Laurence Klavan called Wasteland); and perhaps because I grew up rebelling against a traditional, male-oriented culture, I've always been drawn to young heroines who are outsiders, girls struggling to carve out their own place in the world. So I was delighted to read Prophecy, the new YA adventure from fellow Korean-American author Ellen Oh, which takes place in ancient Korea and features Kira, a yellow-eyed warrior who battles demons that threaten her world.

Like me, Oh grew up a tomboy, railing against the sexism that surrounded her. "Look at the old legends and myths and you will find tale after tale of the sacrificial woman," she wrote me recently.

The gisaeng who wraps her arms around the invading Japanese general and throws herself off a cliff, the mother who sacrifices herself for her sons, and the famous story of Shim Chong, the dutiful daughter who sacrifices herself to help her blind father regain his sight... It says a lot about the culture of Korea that a woman is only a hero when they are sacrificing themselves, usually for the sake of some man.

Oh spent much time researching ancient Korea, and her work informs her story. "During the Three kingdoms period, women were allowed high positions of power in government," she explained. "Which explains why I set my book during the Three kingdoms period and not during the Joseon dynasty, when the rigid regimentation of women became the norm."

When I asked her about president-elect Park, Oh also remains cautiously optimistic. "I refuse to judge the daughter by the sins of her father," she wrote. "She will leave her mark based on her own merits. Maybe she will be the catalyst for finally overturning the deep-seated roots of Confucius misogyny in Korean culture. I will only hope for the best."

So will I.

 
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