Monday, July 20, 2015

Weekly Response 4

My response to this week’s theme of “The Visual Politics of National Division”:

Militarized Modernity, Maternalism, and Gendered Nationalism

Suzy Kim’s chapter, “Liberated Spaces” provides an interesting look at the North Korean liberation movement from both the perspectives of male and female freedom fighters. Kim’s narratives demonstrate that men and women conceptualized their contributions to the liberation movement in very different terms: “men's life stories appropriated national history as their own while women attempted to insert their life into national history by joining the national struggle, equating national liberation with women's liberation.”[1] I was also delighted to read Professor Hughes’ piece, “Planet Hallyuwood,” and particularly, his discussion of the 1963 film, The Marines Who Never Returned.[2] These two pieces actually dovetailed with current research and readings I conducted this past spring in preparation for my doctoral qualifying exams, especially on the topics of gendered citizenship and, interestingly enough, settler colonialism and maternalism.

Suzy Kim’s observations remind me of Seungsook Moon’s book, Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea,[3] which has been a very useful text for my own research. While Kim discusses North Korean efforts for liberation during the Japanese colonial era, and Moon focuses on South Korean nation-building after the Korean War, I definitely found parallels in how national history, belonging, and Korean subjecthood are constructed and mobilized. In Militarized Modernity, Moon argues that argues that the different ways in which males and females were mobilized to modernize the nation resulted in differences between men and women’s citizenship trajectories. Using the notion of militarized modernity, Moon illuminates the three interrelated process of sociopolitical and economic formation: “the construction of the modern nation as an anti-communist polity, the making of its members as duty-bound ‘nationals,’ and the integration of the institution of male conscription into the organization of the industrialized economy.”[4] Thus, for South Korean men, the military becomes an integral route through which they contribute to strengthening their nation into modernity. Similarly, in Kim’s piece, North Korean men highlighted their military service or their involvements in the resistance movement, and the national framework informed their personal narratives. South Korean women, on the other hand, according to Moon, are called to implement birth control measures in order to help build a strong industrialized economy. Hence, women’s civic contributions are framed through limiting reproductive labor—which extends their ability to work in industrial labor positions—and their economic contributions go unacknowledged and erased. Similarly, Kim describes how in the women’s narratives, their political involvement in the liberation movement was dismissed or devalued, and talked about only in terms of their roles as mothers.

I believe that The Marines Who Never Returned exemplifies the way in which military service was conflated with masculine South Korean citizenship. Film scholar David Scott Diffrient notes that “military enlightenment” films such as The Marines Who Never Returned “turned time and time again to the perennial themes of familial division, civic reconstruction, and heroic self-sacrifice pro patria,” which “formed the emotional backbone of the anticommunist film, and ostensibly conservative ‘umbrella genre’ predisposed . . . to the governing ideals put forth by the authoritarian administrations of Presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee.”[5] Connected through the affection for war orphan Yŏng-hŭi, a troop of young, virile marines establish the close bonds of brotherhood and family in the face of the destruction of war. Deployed to battle the North Korean and Chinese communist soldiers, “so we can live in a war-free world,” the film portrays the soldiers both as happy-go-lucky young men on an adventure in the prime of life, as well as deeply moved by the ugliness of war. Between these two poles of life and death that comprise the military experience, the film paints these marines as ideal masculine South Korean subjects, who can at once embody a wholesome joie de vivre and willingly shoulder the heavy mantle of wartime sacrifice for the good of the country.

As Hughes points out in “Planet Hallyuwood,”[6] the title of the film alludes to the final outcome of the narrative: the marines make the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield, dying to protect an idealized South Korean way of life. All but one do not return. But it is through the single survivor that the boundaries of masculine subjecthood are reinforced. As Seungsook Moon reminds us, “[M]en are the protectors who leave home for the barracks, and women are the protected who stay behind and watch their men leave.”[7] The “milquetoast radio operator nicknamed Ŭnni, or Sister,” however, does not make the vital sacrifice of his life for his nation, but returns to base camp where orphan Yŏng-hŭi is fulfilling her the gendered expectation of staying behind to be protected.[8] The fact that the surviving soldier’s nickname is Older Sister emphasizes the fact that he does not conform to the militarized modernity standard of the male South Korean subject.

Conversely, I found parallels between Suzy Kim’s discussion of female liberation occurring within the domestic space and maternalist projects in settler colonies led by female European settler colonists. While North Korean women engaged in efforts to be liberated from colonialism, and Victorian maternalists sought to use the domestic sphere as a place to reinforce colonial power, I think that both these cases demonstrate how women extended and reinterpreted their roles as mothers to influence political change and construct specific national imaginaries. Further, in both cases, I believe that the “domestic has a double meaning that not only links the familial household to the nation but also imagines both in opposition to everything outside the geographic and conceptual border of the home.”[9]

In terms of female projects of settler colonialism, the domestic is in intimate opposition to the foreign, and related to the imperial project of civilizing. As Amy Kaplan argues, “Through the process of domestication, the home contains within itself those wild or foreign elements that must be tamed; domesticity not only monitors the borders between the civilized and the savages but also regulates traces of the savage within itself.”[10] Kaplan makes the important point that the development of the Cult of Domesticity in America is contemporaneous with notions of imperial expansion and Manifest Destiny. Through what Kaplan terms “imperial domesticity,” the home became an arena that promoted Manifest Domesticity’s aspirations of national expansion. The Cult of Domesticity became a unifying ideology that united “women of different social classes in a shared project of construction while sustaining class hierarchy among women” (Kaplan 587).

Yet, Kaplan also observes that tension exists as the domestic settler colonial woman gains her symbolic sovereignty through “imperial isolation,” by withdrawing from the outside world, cloistering herself within the contracted space of the home. She becomes what Barbara Welter calls “the hostage in the home.”[11] As the market economy run by men continued to devalue feminine domestic work, white women sought climb the ladder of imperial power and social hierarchy dominated by men while maintaining the virtues of feminine domesticity. As Margaret Jacobs observes, “While they enjoyed racial and colonial privilege, [white women] also endured gender exclusion; their uneven status enabled them to simultaneously collaborate with and confound colonial aims.”[12] Thus, through “maternalism,” white women edged their way out of the home to become agents of colonial control and advocates for social policy reform. In her book, White Mother to a Dark Race, Jacobs lays out the characteristics of the politics of maternalism:

(1) elevating motherhood as woman’s most sacred occupation; (2) justifying women’s presence in public reform as a natural extension of their experience or socialization as mothers; (3) acting in a motherly manner toward other women they deemed in need of rescue and uplift; and (4) upholding a maternal and domestic role as most fitting for other women, not for themselves.[13]

Using maternalism to justify their participation in politics outside the home, white feminists argued that they were “merely extending their natural role as potential mothers who had values and skills that were necessary to solve the major problems of the day.”[14] Similarly, Suzy Kim observes that “[North Korean] women appropriated one of their core traditional identities, as mothers, to justify and validate their entry into the political arena through a form of revolutionary motherhood that had striking parallels with discourses in North Korea.”[15] Thus, for both female North Korean resisters as well as female European settler colonists, “Motherhood was taken from the private into the public realm to embrace not her own child but society at large and the future generations to come. The private was indeed the political as motherhood was transformed into a revolutionary identity.”[16]

To conclude, and to incorporate this week’s discussion of the politics of museums, memorials, and national narratives, I would like to argue that the representation of women in the War Memorial of Korea reflects the gendered trajectories of Korean citizenship and the erasure of women from the “masculine” nationalism of militarization. The War Memorial of Korea has relegated just a single small room of its 220,000 square feet of gallery space to the contributions of women in the military. The space displays the varying uniforms women in Korea’s military wear, and yet, the majority of positions women seem to occupy are limited to nursing or administrative positions. The single solid wall of the exhibit is occupied by photographs of Korean female soldiers “in the field,” yet in contrast to the grim depictions of combat and casualty throughout the rest of the museum, these photographs show smiling Korean (female) soldiers occupied with humanitarian and domestic tasks: holding babies, embracing civilians, administering medical aid, building schools. Thus, in the state-sanctioned narratives, as well as the oral histories of “everyday” Koreans that Suzy Kim analyzes, women are relegated to familiar feminine roles of mothers and caretakers, and their contributions to liberation, nation-building, and national defense are devalued, deemed not important enough to record.


[1] Kim, Suzy, Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013, p. 231.

[2] I was particularly pleased that Professor Hughes highlighted the ubiquitous presence of orphans in Korean films, which happens to be a pet project of mine.

[3] Moon, Seungsook. Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. Print.

[4] Ibid. 2.

[5] Diffrient, David Scott. “‘Military Enlightenment’ for the Masses: Genre and Cultural Intermixing in South Korea’s Golden Age War Films.” Cinema Journal 45.1 (2005): 22–49. Print, p. 23.

[6] Hughes, 202.

[7] Moon, 44.

[8] Diffrient, 41.

[9] Kaplan, Amy. “Manifest Domesticity.” American Literature 70.3 (1998): 581–606. Print, p. 581.

[10] Ibid. 582.

[11] Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly 18.2 (1966): 151–174. Print, p. 151.

[12] Jacobs, Margaret D. “Maternal Colonialism: White Women and Indigenous Child Removal in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940.” Western Historical Quarterly 36.4 (2005): 453–476. Print, p. 456.

[13] Jacobs, Margaret D. White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009. Print, p. 89.

[14] Ibid. 91.

[15] Kim, 232.

[16] Ibid. 234.