게시물 상세



“Restructuring of Family” Becoming Inevitable




Korea has risen from a poor country to a rich country with a per capita income of 30 thousand dollars in just half a century. With such an astonishing economic development upfront, many parts of society have been transforming rapidly. It’s no exception for families. Recently, there have been voices from parts of Korean society that the structure of the “family” should be re-engineered from the bottom. More books in the publishing market have begun to discuss the “restructuring of family.”


Changes in Gender Norms in Korean Society


Korean society has undergone rapid industrialization and urbanization in the 1960s and 70s. This spurred a fast transition from the traditional way of having big patriarchal families to nuclear families. However, nuclear families still had some patriarchal elements left, and men-focused gender roles were maintained. Also, while there was no sturdy social safety net, it was a social climate where “there is nothing but our family to rely on in this gloomy world.” And such anxiety gave greater strength to the existing familist ideology.
As the Korean economy bloomed in the 1990s, with democracy taking root, Koreans began to take an interest in individual values and autonomy. And such changes collided with patriarchal familist ideology. However, the foreign exchange crisis in 1997 took away jobs from a great many people and put society under significant anxiety. And in this atmosphere, one novel drew sensation, which was Cho Chang-In’s Thorn Fish (Sanji). Male sticklebacks incubate the eggs, and when the chicks hatch, they provide their bodies as food for the chicks. The father in the novel is also willing to sacrifice himself to save his children. Such a devoted father image touched people’s hearts as it overlapped with the image of a middle-aged man in reality who had to endure all kinds of pain amid the financial crisis.
Another touching novel about mothers emerged as well. It was Please Look After Mom (Changbi) by Shin Kyung-Sook, published in 2008. It was around the time when the financial crisis that started in the US was spreading around the world. In this book, the mother silently keeps the house and raises her children even though she suffers from an irresponsible husband. Then, one day, she goes missing all of a sudden. Never coming back until the end, she leaves regret to the remaining family. The books Thron Fish and Please Look After Mom gave warm consolation to Korean society that was hit hard by the economic crisis. Above all, they strongly touched the nostalgia for traditional familism, which calls for parental sacrifice and love between family members. The two books were of great popularity for quite a while, recording a whopping 100 prints in only a year.



『엄마를 부탁해』

Thorn Fish and Please Look After Mom



However, this “retro-boom” was struggled to last. Individual values and autonomy were shaking the foundation of the existing family structure from the inside. In particular, as women were given more educational and work opportunities, the gender norms set by the patriarchal system rose as the biggest issue. The abolishment of the patriarchal family system, regarded as the symbol of patriarchism, came to the center of public debate, and it was eventually repealed in 2005. However, deeply-rooted gender norms were still in society. Novelist Cho Nam-Joo’s Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 (Minumsa), published in 2016, drew great empathy from married women by vividly describing the life of a married woman in her 30s caught in the traditional gender norms with set roles in her family.
Among gender norms, the most “Korean” is the “role of daughter-in-law.” This forces the daughter-in-law to obey parents-in-law and sacrifice to the in-laws. So, married women, are given another role as a daughter-in-law apart from their role as a wife. What rebelled against this was I Resigned as Daughter-in-law (Sai Books). In this autobiographical essay, the writer boldly announces one day to her parents-in-law that she will “no longer serve the role as a daughter-in-law.” While Kim Jiyoung, Born in 1982 drew women frustrated before the wall of gender and I Resign as Daughter-in-law drew women resistant to it, the two books call for the same thing – dissolving the existing patriarchal gender norms.
Novels that overturn gender norms are appearing recently as well. The best example is Lee Seul-Ah’s The Age of Daughters (Storyseller). In the book, the daughter, a writer and the head of a publishing house, hires her father and mother as employees. She becomes the leader of her family with economic power. Her father is willing to follow her orders. In this process, the “competent” daughter is surprised that she herself is showing patriarchal aspects. In sum, this novel is a delightful mockery and a serious reflection on patriarchal gender norms. It is also an outrageous “reconstruction” of gender roles.


* K-Book Trends Vol. 53 – Go to the article about The Age of Daughters


『82년생 김지영』

『며느리 사표』

『가녀장의 시대』

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, I Resigned as Daughter-in-law, and The Age of Daughters



Also, in the book Peel Off the Name Family (Minumsa), a compilation of three short stories written by three female writers, writer Choi Jin-Young’s story Family has an interesting storyline. The story is about a dating couple going to see the man’s family. There, the “father” and “mother” are just called “the man” and “the woman.” Here, the female protagonist is an orphan. She has no experience of having a father, mother, or family at all. However, the male protagonist was born to a civil servant father and a stay-at-home mother. It seems like an ordinary family, but if we look deeper, the relationship between the family members is fragmented. As a result, it can be interpreted that the couple had no “family” at all from the beginning, or if they had, it was wrecked.
Some writers point out that family can be a hindrance for an individual, going beyond its absence or fragmentation. The best example is psychiatrist Lee Ho-Sun’s The Illusion of Family (UKnowBooks). The writer warns that “family” can hurt the minds of family members or traumatize them, rather than it being a protector of all troubles. Also, he advises readers to keep a certain distance in mind from their families. Another book, Disease: Family (Think Garden), written by psychiatrist Ryu Hee-Ju is also notable. She says that many mental illnesses are caused by family members. Now, the myth of “a happy family that cares for each other” is fading away.


『가족이란 이름을 한 꺼풀 벗겨 내면』

『가족이라는 착각』

『병명은 가족』

Peel Off the Name Family, The Illusion of Family, and Disease: Family



The Emergence of a New Family Type


The number of single-household families has been skyrocketing recently, causing cracks in the normative family system. Today, single households account for 33.6% of the entire population in Korea. The proportion was 15.5% in 2000, and in only 20 years, it has more than doubled. Single-household has already become the most common family type. So, it is no longer “abnormal” but a new standard. Besides, such a trend cannot be reversed. More basic guidebooks to financial management, cooking, and housework for single-households are released to the market. As such, more technical books about “living alone” are expected to dominate bookstores in various fields.


Single households in Korea have become a new standard, with their number soaring these days.


As mentioned earlier, family norms have been shaking since the 1990s. As society went through an economic crisis from the late 1990s to early 2010s, the nostalgia for the old familism re-emerged for a moment, but it wasn’t enough to stop the changing trend. In particular, social perception towards family has largely changed during the past 10 years. Today, many people perceive that a “family” is not a system that supports individuals, but a system that oppresses them. So, there have been voices that call for the reinterpretation of the existing family norm, and fundamental thoughts about what bond is truly beneficial to each individual. The book that’s at the forefront of these voices is Kim Soon-Nam’s The Right to Form a Family (May Books).
The author opposes the national ideology that regards a family consisting of married men and their children as a “normal family,” and citizens belonging to it as “normal citizens.” Such an ideology discriminates against other families or solidarity by stigmatizing them as “abnormal.” In fact, many people are stigmatized as abnormal in our society. So, it is right to “restructure” the norm of “family” by breaking the existing family norms. Here, a “family” is enough to be just a relationship between people that can form a beneficial bond, relying upon each other. The members don’t have to have blood ties or live together in the same house. It is necessary to redefine “family” flexibly, and equal legal rights should be given. The writer argues that when each individual comfortably enjoys the ‘right to form a family’ in such an environment, we can finally move toward an equal society without discrimination.
This trend is permeating into children’s books, too. For example, Seo Bo-Hyeon’s Family: If We Could Choose People to Live With (Woori School) has a fresh title. It was hard to find this kind of title 10 years ago. In fact, existing children’s books strongly tended to force morals and norms. However, the generation has changed – it encourages children to have various possibilities and bountiful imagination, rather than ordering them to follow morals and norms.


『가족을 구성할 권리』

『가족: 함께 살 사람을 고를 수 있다면』

The Right to Form a Family and Family: If We Could Choose People to Live With



In fact, there is also an active movement to “reconstruct the family” centered on young women. The best example is Kim Ha-Na and Hwang Seon-Wu’s autobiographical essay Two Girls Live Together (Wisdom House). The sub-title is “The birth of an assembled family – not alone, not married.” The book The Life of a Two-Women Family (Text Calorie) written by Tokki (pen name) and Hot Dog (pen name) is about the same topic. They decided not to get married, live together as life partners, and become grandmothers together. Also, Park Ji-Sun’s autobiographical essay I’m Not Married and I Have Children (Another Universe) is worth looking at. Just like the title, the writer is not married or has given birth, but adopts two children.
Meanwhile, homosexualism is still at the center of intense controversy. In particular, the most strongly opposed to homosexuality in Korean society are the conservative Christians. So, debates over homosexualism often turn into theological debates. Theologian Kim Jin-Ho’s The Bible and Homosexuality (May Books) argues that “The Bible does not agree nor disagree with homosexuality.” Also, theologian Heo Ho-Ik’s Is homosexuality a Sin? (Dongyeon) takes a neutral stance in analyzing homosexuality in the theological and historical context. So, attempts like these have been giving implicit support to homosexuality.


『여자 둘이 살고 있습니다』

『여자 둘이 살고 있습니다』

『비혼이고 아이를 키웁니다』

Two Girls Live Together, Life of a Two-Women Family, and I’m Not Married and I Have Children


『성서와 동성애』

『동성애는 죄인가』

The Bible and Homosexuality and Is Homosexuality a Sin?



Changes in gender norms are still stagnant amidst such a wild vortex of changes. There is still discrimination against women in society, and childcare is still regarded as something women are responsible for. In addition, the role of a “daughter-in-law” still exists. These are why women are choosing not to get married these days. Also, across society, including customs and laws, the “normal family” ideology remains strong, which argues “a family should consist of a married couple.” As such, while discussions and debates over “family” in Korea are advancing rapidly, the legal infrastructure and reality lag behind.


Korean society has been changing dynamically while the legal infrastructure
and reality have been changing slowly.


Western society has broken down the “normal family” ideology, realizing the “socially-contracted family (non-married family).” Also, it has accepted various forms of family, one after another. So today, children born to married families and children born to non-married families are similar. On the other hand, in Korean society, unmarried families are still discriminated against by customs and laws. Some people point out that this is one of the reasons for the fall in the birth rate. However, the good news is that the negative perception towards non-marriage or non-married families has decreased significantly in recent years. So, it can be seen that people having a flexible and inclusive attitude is itself a positive change.
The direction that the norm of “family” should follow in Korea is already set. It is to break the “normal family” ideology and “reconstruct” it in various forms. The problem is that these changes, which have taken a long time in the Western world, are occurring in the short-term in Korea. So, changes, delays, and conflicts are all entangled. However, Korean society has dynamic DNA – once the changes are on track, they will take place in no time. Families might be “reconstructed” faster than we expect. It is also not unusual that the number of books covering the “reconstruction of the family” has been increasing rapidly in the past one or two years.



Written by Park Chong-Sun (Humanities Columnist)



Park Chong-Sun (Humanities Columnist)

#Family#Gender Norms#Nuclear Families#Single Households#Homosexuality
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