Book review: Cho Nam-joo’s 'Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982' is as popular as it is polarizing

Johanna L. Añes- de la Cruz

Posted at Oct 11 2020 04:17 PM

Book review: Cho Nam-joo’s 'Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982' is as popular as it is polarizing 1

MANILA -- "Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982" is only 163 pages long. Ordinarily, I could finish that many pages in a sitting or two, but Cho Nam-joo’s runaway bestseller packs so much truth, so much power in each page that I felt tired after finishing a few, and found myself needing a breather every now and then. 

It doesn’t help that the main character is only a year older than I am making it easier for me to relate to some of her experiences. 

It took me two weeks to finish the novel, and more than a month to get this article done. In between breaks, I found myself reflecting on my own encounters with sexism as a Filipino woman. 

Jiyoung is 33 years old at the beginning of the novel and lives a life of perfect ordinariness. The author takes us through Jiyoung’s everyday struggles with gender discrimination across every phase of her life in modern-day South Korea. In fact, she has already been discriminated against even before she was born as Korean families prefer having boys over girls. 

This daily brush with discrimination takes a huge toll on Jiyoung’s mental health. She descends into madness and begins showing signs of dissociative identity disorder -- she starts acting like the different women in her life. Indeed, there is no better metaphor for the impact of gender discrimination on many women than what happens to her. Jiyoung is everywoman. And every woman, not just in South Korea but everywhere, must have experienced misogyny and sexism at least a few times in their lives. This also explains why the novel is an international bestseller, because the truths it carries resonate with so many women across the world. 

Reading "Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982" is not so different from perusing a case study, with Cho’s spare prose highlighting the triteness of Jiyoung’s existence that is so constricted, so burdened by the unbelievable social expectations on women like her. The footnotes further add a layer of veracity to what we already know to be the reality for innumerable women. 

Book review: Cho Nam-joo’s 'Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982' is as popular as it is polarizing 2

The novel took South Korea by storm. Immensely popular yet also immensely polarizing, the slim volume was a hot topic of debate with Jung Yumi, the actress who played the titular role in the movie adaptation, receiving thousands of hate comments on her Instagram account. K-pop superstar Irene of Red Velvet was cyberbullied, with some fans even burning her photos, when she briefly mentioned having read the book during a fan meet. Critics argued that the novel only fanned the fire of long-lingering tensions between Korean men and women. 

Filipino women, perhaps, don’t have it as hard as our South Korean counterparts. In the 2020 Global Gender Gap report of the World Economic Forum (WEF), the Philippines ranked 16th, still the highest in Asia. The region’s biggest economies -- Japan, South Korea, and China -- are still at the bottom rung. 

This doesn’t mean that we have closed the gender gap though, because despite ranking the highest in the region, we dropped eight huge notches from the 8th spot in 2018. In spite of narrowing the gap in the labor, health, and education sectors, the Philippines saw the gap widening in political empowerment. The WEF attributed this to the significantly lower female representation in President Rodrigo Duterte’s cabinet. 
We need not look into a report to know that gender discrimination is still very much a part of the quotidian in Philippine society. Every day, many Filipino women are subjected to discrimination be it at the office, on the streets, even at home, both in real life and online. Even celebrities are not spared the whip of rampant misogyny and sexism (e.g. Frankie Pangilinan, Liza Soberano, Julia Barretto).

During a conversation with good friend Dr. Teresa Paula S. de Luna, associate professor at the UP Diliman department of Speech Communication and Theatre Arts and Director of the University’s Office of Anti-Sexual Harassment, I asked what her thoughts are on the said report and the sexism faced by Filipino women. 

“I think this report is largely based on the positions of power that women hold in our country,” de Luna said. “It does look like it is a positive factor for us, however, what may be not looked into are how most women and the other vulnerable genders in our society handle the day to day oppressions.”

Indeed, Filipino women have already made strides in asserting our rights, and other genders seem to be mostly accepting and supportive. However, a closer inspection reveals that the same battles that Jiyoung fought are the very same ones that we are still trying to defeat, especially under this current administration where sexism and misogyny often goes unchecked and unpunished, sometimes even received with resounding applause. 

When asked if she still believes the day will come when the gender gap is finally closed, de Luna answered, “For me, there can never be equality. All genders, women and men, can never be equal. There are things we can do that men cannot, etc. However, gender should not be a cause or reason for oppression. Having less opportunities because we are women is a form of oppression; experiencing sexual harassment because we are women is a form of oppression. So yes, it is evident that women are oppressed habitually.”

“Closing the gender gap means practicing, performing what empowers us and seriously penalizing those who oppress us. We have laws already that aim to eventually create a culture that promotes empowerment, however, either these are ignored or not taken seriously. Closing the gender gap means all sectors supporting one another to close the gap. If it is just one sector that is fighting the cause, nothing will come out of it. It is imperative to hear the voices of MEN fighting for WOMEN and all types of gender, especially since they are perceived to be the most privileged gender.”

It may seem like a fool’s hope, but I remain optimistic that the sun will shine on that day when there are fewer, if at all, Kim Jiyoungs in the world. For now, the struggle against misogyny and sexism continues, and the best recourse as in most battles is to keep fighting.