“The grotesque is the estranged world.”
— Wolfgang Kayser
The monster is a composite of all that we as a society abhor. Although perhaps difficult to nail down to a specific meaning, the monster is generally taken as the “sickening Other [which] inspires disgust, anxiety, and even nausea”; in a word, the monster embodies our fears, but more so, “our hatreds” (Poole 13). Holding them in abomination, we banish our monsters to the periphery, and thus render the monstrous synonymous with the marginalized and vice versa. The monstrous represents the “estranged world” which does not fit in with and cannot gain access to the social norm. Still, from the Anglo-Saxon Grendel to today’s
This essay examines the monstrous women who appear in Korean female writer Woon-young Chun’s first short story collection
It is not my intent to downplay Chun’s keen ability to recognize women’s marginalized positionality as society’s “freaks,” nor do I wish to deny the possibility that through such disconcerting portrayals, Chun tackles the ways in which contemporary Korean society demonizes its women. At the same time, I maintain that we must heed Diana Taylor’s discerning observation that even though one major function of the literary monster may lie in its capacity to challenge particular norms, the monster more often than not fails to “render unintelligible or meaningless the concept of the norm, nor [is it able to] eradicate the distinction between the normal and the abnormal” (130-1). In fact, the monster oftentimes ends up “rearticulat[ing] and augment[ing] existing norms and power relations or develop[ing] and establish[ing] new ones” (130-1). Thus I submit that it is critical that we consider the real likelihood that Chun, as a “good subject,” is faithfully reflecting back and replicating the patriarchal discourse about “bad” female bodies that must be disciplined and punished if they fail to fall into line. For one, Chun, in her emphasis on monstrous women, seemingly veers away from a feminist discourse aspiring to destabilize a gender-biased view of femininity as a “handicap,” an inferior version of masculinity. Admittedly, almost all of Chun’s characters – both male and female – are outsiders. Yet, the marginality of Chun’s monstrous women is redoubled by their gender, and they are situated all the more firmly as the oppressed in the binary world of predators and prey. Furthermore, Chun does not appear to deploy the “emancipatory potential” in the characterization of her monsters (Taylor 126), nor does she foreground female monstrosity as a way to deconstruct and subvert gender conventions. Instead, she presents an alternative – i.e., a more socially acceptable – representation of women: the vegetarian woman who collapses the two mutually exclusive bodies – the maternal and the hypersexual – of conventional femininity. What is perhaps the most dangerous about Chun’s reliance on “the womanas-monster” trope is that her narratives end up reinforcing the marginality of these monstrous women
Woon-young Chun first entered the Korean literary scene in 2000 with the publication of her short story “Needle.” Alongside “Needle,” she collected eight others to publish
Chun, unlike her predecessors, does not take a unilateral approach to feminist issues by precluding herself from the realm of the feminine; rather Chun “defamiliarizes” the female body by highlighting the minutiae of their state of lack or abjection (Kim “Impoverished” 155). In its overabundant portrayal of monstrous women,
Foucault notes that the monster is a “strange mixture” that violates “laws of nature by mixing or combining aspects of the natural world that according to prevailing rules of internal cohesion (or classifications) ought to be distinct” (qtd. in Taylor 130). Chun’s conception of her female characters in
“Needle” relays the story of Youngsook Park, who is a female tattoo artist. As the story progresses, the readers learn that her mother has committed suicide after allegedly murdering a Buddhist monk, presumed to be her paramour. Her neighbor is an effeminate man who wants to fill his body with tattoos of armaments. Almost all of the characters of “Needle,” be they male or female, inhabit the dark underbelly of society alongside Youngsook, whose illegitimacy is compounded by her loathsome “unfeminine” appearance, by her lack of patriarchal parentage, and by her association to tattoos, which Korean society regards as a deviance. Youngsook’s transgression as a feminine grotesque does not lend her subversive potential and only serves to relegate her to negative stereotypes of aberrant femininity.
The story begins with Youngsook tattooing a great big spider up high on a male client’s thigh. Although a magnificent butterfly is fluttering its kaleidoscopic wings over his belly button, and a sturdy bamboo stalk pillars his forearm (11), the man still covets the spider’s hard integument, hoping that the tattoo will be his talisman, a source of virility and power. Youngsook notes that even though the needle is fragile and is easily broken, it can also be a great weapon were she to wield it as such. Remarking that getting tattooed makes a man extremely horny, he adds that Youngsook should be thankful that she is ugly, obese, and thus undesirable, as it is her monstrous appearance that keeps her safe from becoming a “gynecological disaster area” (13). Dispassionately acknowledging what the man says about her “pronounced cheekbones, her hunchbacked body with dangling flaps of body fat, and an unpleasant voice that makes people grimace” (13), Youngsook takes pride instead in her ability to create beauty via her tattoos, which remain untouched by the hideousness of her body. When the spider tattoo is completed, Youngsook sates her sexually deprived and unloved body with meat, cooked rare.
Two aspects of this opening passage deserve further discussion. Firstly, as Youngsook narrates in detail the intricate process of her tattoo work, she, as an artiste, commands authority over her “canvas.” In objectifying her male client as a clean parchment to showcase her artistic mastery and expression, Youngsook is thus able to dismiss the man’s disdain of her monstrous body. Emancipated from the dispraising male gaze, which endeavors to define her body by (and confine it within) the parameters of female normativity, Youngsook inverts the conventional gender hierarchy. She not only climaxes to an orgasmic high after the first prick of the tattoo needle, which releases the first virginal dewdrop of blood (14), but she also imagines herself a venomous spider poised to attack the prey that has become entangled in her web. The man is a pliant butterfly whose wings have become tattered in vain attempts to escape (15).
The subversion of the gender hierarchy is short-lived as almost immediately, the male gaze (and along with it, male authority) is restored. Emblazoned with his spider talisman, the male client enunciates in his reinforced virility with the remark that his spider will surely “drive the chicks wild” (15). Contrasted with the man’s vigorous enthusiasm, Youngsook is overcome with feelings of prostration; in a word, he is the one fortified by a hard integumental shield, while she returns to a state of vulnerability. Such an exchange almost becomes formulaic in that the tattoo work rebirths the masculinity of her clients (which ensures their re-entry into normative society), whereas Youngsook becomes enervated by the process. Youngsook narrates of other clients who requested to have knives, swords, and toothy tigers etched into their biceps, penis, and chests, all leaving triumphantly with a swagger. Repeatedly, an enfeebled Youngsook is reinscribed into the periphery by her association with the unlawful world of tattoos. Conversely, her male clients appear untouched by the deviancy of the tattoo and are even restored of the easy confidence of hegemonic masculinity.
Midway through the narrative, Youngsook receives a visit from Detective Moon, emblematizing patriarchal law, who unexpectedly appears at Youngsook’s door and brusquely demands answers about her mother’s whereabouts. Accused of killing her Buddhist monk lover, Youngsook’s mother is another monstrous woman rendered so by her unlawful act of murder, and we can easily infer that she will be disciplined and punished by the patriarchal order once she is placed under police custody.
If Youngsook reaps power from her indifference to being placed outside the realm of male desire, she re-conscribes herself within the very patriarchal order she destabilizes by reinserting (sexual) desire into her interaction with the male body. Because her monstrosity does not allow her body to be read as desirable, Youngsook sates her own carnal desires by participating in the ritualistic act of consuming blood-dripping meat, and thereby transposing her own carnivorous desires onto the man’s sexually unresponsive body. In so doing, Youngsook is not only able to produce desire where it was previously absent, but also to obscure the sexual undesirability of her deformed body (Oh 301, Goh 340, Lee 156).This convergence of desires is made all the more clear when the physically monstrous Youngsook and her ethically monstrous mother are juxtaposed over the image of a platter of uncooked raw meat, for as Youngsook looks over fleshy slices of gleaming red meat neatly displayed at the meat counter in the neighborhood market, she imagines not only her mother engaged in an adulterous sexual liaison with her Buddhist priest lover, but also of herself bloodstaining the priest’s smooth head with Maori tribal tattoos. This visceral imagining provides the potential for the dissolution of the gender binary as
As observed above, Chun attempts to overlap Youngsook (and her story) with that of her mother’s. I maintain that this is problematic in that such a connection reinforces the notion that monstrosity is an “inherited legacy” that is passed on from mother to daughter. Youngsook’s mother, who, unlike her daughter, uses
If Youngsook’s monstrous appearance leads to her alienation, her neighbor’s effete (and rather beautiful) features and body not only set
In “Needle,” Chun certainly aspires to addresses the issue of the binary and does imagine the possibility of a collapse between the two oppositions – male/female, beauty/ ugliness, powerful/powerless, and so on. Still, Chun’s endeavors, as I have tried to demonstrate above, fall short; if Youngsook’s monstrosity begets her alienation, it is, for her male counterparts, the tattoo that acts as a physical marker of their alienation.3 In the case of Chun’s male characters in “Needle,” what is initially an ugly and painful scar invests its wearer with power and beauty. But unlike the virgin who breaks her hymen and is then condemned by patriarchy as a defiled and disorderly body, the male body is able to reinterpret this “defilement” and use it to advantage. Consequently, the ability to see his tattoo as a source of power and beauty is what gives Youngsook’s male clients the possibility of reconfiguring the power structure altogether and to rejoin society (albeit partially) under normative terms. What I find problematic is how Chun treats Youngsook’s ‘tattoo’– that is, her monstrous body. In the story, Youngsook transforms and completes one man’s tattoos so that they become an emblem of masculinity. And yet, Youngsook’s tattoos are not as easy to modify; if her male clients’ “monstrosity” is regenerative and allow them to transgress and to destabilize the norm, Youngsook’s “monstrosity” is divested of such subversive potential. Youngsook is still very much trapped within the gender conventions that govern her body and deem it monstrous. Moreover, Youngsook’s prowess with the tattoo needle may enhance the masculine vitality of her male clients, but it is what ensures her permanent abode in the periphery. In the end, Youngsook’s power is symbolic and in name only as she has the limited power of suffusing others with power; in tattooing her neighbor with a needle, she may be dreaming of transgression but it is wishful thinking at best as Youngsook is simply reduced to a tool that facilitates achievement of male agency. Even the significance of the mother-daughter overlap (and with it, the delicate needle’s rise to the most stalwart weapon) is diminished as the mother turns out to be a murderer – a moral monster – who is, by her suicide, forever exiled to the periphery of society.
The second short story “Breath” features a male protagonist named Daechang; he takes the helm over the narrative and also employs his masculine authority to demarcate the two women in his life, the meat-eating grandmother and the vegetarian Miyeon, into the desirable good subject (who participates in the continuation of patriarchal hegemony) and the undesirable bad subject who deigns to (but ultimately fails to) overthrow the dominant discourse of gender. As with “Needle,” the plot is quite simple: Daechang, who works at the cattle market in Majang district, wants to marry his lover Miyeon, but he must first get his grandmother’s permission. He tries to appease the old woman by procuring for her the calf embryo still ensconced in its mother’s womb, a delicacy very hard to come by. In order to obtain this rare treat, he gets embroiled in an illegal operation of dressing cow’s head meat, narrowly escapes the police, and safely returns to Miyeon’s arms, waiting to hold him in a sexual embrace. The crux of this story is the contrast that Daechang establishes between his lover, who serves to enhance his masculinity, and his browbeating grandmother, who threatens to emasculate him.
The grandmother has been a surrogate mother to Daechang since his early childhood after his parents’ accidental death. Daechang, however, skews her maternal body and voids it of maternal intimacy and nurturance; to Daechang, his grandmother is a carnivorous monster thwarting his plans of wedded bliss with Miyeon.4 The grandmother is monstrous because she is thoroughly immune to “refeminization”; dried up and old, she is a cunning predator who preys upon the weak. Daechang still remembers the chills going down his spine as he watched her devour fresh (and uncooked) marrow after only wiping away the blood (37). This ancient woman still sprouts black wiry hair on her head, an anomaly that Daechang attributes to her diabolic witchery as well as her ravenous consumption of animal flesh (36). To Daechang, she is an old witch who, unlike the one in fairy tales that locks up Hansel and Gretel in a house of gingerbread, imprisons him in a reeking cage of animal flesh. She is also the witch of
Miyeon, on the other hand, is the Korean equivalent of the Victorian “angel in the house.” As the epitome of conventional femininity, she starts off her day with housework and strives to make Daechang the king of his castle. Though she is 3 years older than Daechang, at 34, she still possesses the timidity and purity of a young girl, and simply by this girlish act of slightly dropping her long black lashes, she is able to rouse Daechang’s sexual desires. Reifying conventional definitions of femininity, Miyeon is given permission to become the body maternal. Not only does Daechang imagine her as the mother of his children, he himself finds peace and tranquility in her arms as she clasps him in a motherly embrace to calm him after he narrowly escapes from the police raid of the Majang district. As the two shed their clothes and their bodies become entangled, Daechang remarks that he can detect a faint smell of the grassy knoll from Miyeon’s breasts and ponders if he can exist as a plant taking in, not the stench of meat associated with his monstrous un-motherly grandmother, but the scent of the forest breeze softly blowing from Miyeon’s body. In a word, Miyeon comes to personify “Mother Nature,” the life-affirming and nurturing force which provides fertile grounds upon which Daechang can reinvigorate his masculinity. The story ends with the two making love as Daechang imagines little leaves sprouting from their entwined bodies and he sees a baby calf with large gentle eyes taking one step then another to graze on the grass.
As previously noted, Daechang bifurcates the image of women, and the polar ends of the spectrum are occupied by Daechang’s grandmother and his lover, Miyeon. The meat-eating violence of the grandmother (who lacks maternal tenderness) is regarded as perverse, while the vegetarian docility of Miyeon (who abounds in not only maternal affection but also sexual allure) is desirable. Consequently, the male discourse succeeds in trapping Daechang’s two women, both rivaling for his undivided attention, in a dichotomous division of womanhood. As a result, neither the “monstrous” grandmother nor the angelic Miyeon is able to subvert the gender norm but is re-incarcerated in its clutches. And while the grandmother may partly subvert the norm via her (partial) authority over the male body, her body, which clearly lacks femininity, seemingly connotes that femininity is incompatible with power, for after all, the ending implies that, with or without his grandmother’s approval, Daechang will get his wish of marrying Miyeon. By the close of the story, the grandmother’s monstrous body is entirely erased from the narrative, and the image of womanhood that we are left with is that of Miyeon, the vegetarian woman who bolsters patriarchal authority. Miyeon’s rise to primacy also suggests the reestablishment of the “home,” which reinscribes women to the domestic.
Many feminists have observed that the feminine grotesque is “traditionally aimed at tearing down established boundaries and hierarchies from the perspective of the disempowered” (Mey 83). Renee Heberle writes that monstrous women “embody the worst of contemporary nightmares about women’s potential for disorderliness” (qtd. in Taylor 149). Likewise, Toril Moi observes that “the monster woman is the woman who refuses to be selfless, acts on her own initiative, who