Beyond Beauty: Women In South Korea

Frances Cha's riveting debut, If I Had your Face, reveals modern-day South Korea to be influenced mostly by patriarchy and class stratification. The young, mostly working-class women in this novel are scolded constantly for not being mindful of the future, but when you can never make enough to buy a house or give any potential children decent prospects, why bother? The protagonists are trying to live up to impossible standards on all fronts, especially of beauty. Kyuri makes her living by her surgically-altered face, and Sujin will do anything to join her. Ara has bought into beauty culture as a hair stylist, though she'd rather spend all of her time following K-pop stars. Miho, an artist, is considered beautiful enough not to need surgery, but she can't hold on to her wealthy boyfriend. Wonna is married, but is fully aware of how tenuous her finances and pregnancy are. As Cha makes clear, if these women (and by extension, all Korean women) are going to make it, they are going to have to rely on each other. Told in alternating voices, If I Had Your Face accomplishes the feat of being specific enough to be universal while opening a window of a little-seen aspect of South Korea. If you like this novel, I have others about Korean women that may also appeal.

The title character in Nam-Jin Cho's Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, has adapted to the crushing misogyny in Korean society by developing the ability to transform into anyone she has ever met. Jumping around in time, Kim's life is a narrative of how even bright, privileged girls are treated as less-than. Even the psychiatrist Kim is sent to at the end of the novel for her "abnormal" behavior (she has the temerity to talk back to her father-in-law) is an entitled, sexist tool. While not a hopeful story, Cho is credited with starting a feminist movement in Korea with this international bestseller.

Crystal and Mina are best friends in Mina by Kim Sagwa. Highschoolers driven by their parents and society to achieve, their relationship breaks down as Crystal's suppressed rage turns to violence and Mina is shaken by a friend's suicide. The usual ingredients in a disaffected teen girl's life, disposable boys, clueless adults, etc., combine in a toxic, convincing mix in this character-driven novel with spot-on dialog.

Stepping back in time to 1978, Yoojin Grace Wuertz's Everything Belongs to Us puts us on a college campus where all seems possible. Four students are trying to find their place, whether climbing the social ladder in a world where the rich are getting richer and the poor are falling behind or pushing the tottering dictatorship into the grave. Among the women, Jisun must become independent of her wealthy, overbearing father, and Namin knows her medical degree is her family's only hope of financial security.  Everything must be made new in this well-plotted, dramatic story.

Pearl and Jeong-Ae are bad girls and best friends in the graphic novel Bad Friends by Angkko. Both abused at home and at school, they run away and try to get jobs at a hostess bar after a shortened academic career notable for its smoking, drinking, and general defiance. When they finally have to give up on their adolescent dreams of getting by on their looks, only Pearl has a home to go back to. Told in hard-hitting, black-and-white panels, Angkko still manages to infuse her story with empathy and warmth and a sense of the power of friendship.

Have more stories of young Korean women? Tell us in the comments.