Not even first ladies are immune from sexism

Posted on : 2022-06-12 10:59 KST Modified on : 2022-06-12 10:59 KST
What are we really looking at when we see pictures of the first lady of Japan serving her husband and the US president tea?
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s wife Yuko Kishida serves US President Joe Biden tea during his visit to Japan on May 23. (from the website of the prime minister)
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s wife Yuko Kishida serves US President Joe Biden tea during his visit to Japan on May 23. (from the website of the prime minister)

A few years ago, I was scrolling through survey data released by a match-making agency when I came across some interesting findings. Apparently, men named meals as the “biggest waste of money” in dating costs. Not only that, but they also considered it to be “wasted money” even when women spent their own cash to buy things to snack on.

In other data shared by a different match-making agency, men were found to most prefer “cooking” as a pastime for women. In contrast, they showed a low preference for visiting different popular restaurants.

Taken together, this suggests that men consider the cost of women’s meals to be money down the drain — no matter whose it is — and that they like women who like to cook. Why should that be?

The dinner table represents the smallest sphere where the everyday caste system is in evidence. Within that sphere, women are seen as having the role of “serving.”

When US President Joe Biden visited Japan not long ago, Yuko Kishida, the wife of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, served him tea while dressed in a kimono. This was seen as the most cordial of treatment. These problematic images — two male heads of state seated at the table while a woman in traditional garb stood beside them pouring tea — were also shared in the Korean media.

But if we take away all the pleasant rhetoric about expressing Japan’s “aesthetic,” the core message is clear: the role of women is to serve. It’s a universal form of diplomacy in male-dominated politics.

Commodifying women as a show of male power

The reason we so persistently hear in the news about “first ladies” treating guests of the state with hand-dried persimmons or offering homemade sandwiches to presidential office staff is to share the message that this is the role of the woman who stands beside the most powerful man.

In some way or another, the woman must perform a serving role at the dinner table. The president’s wife is called upon to embody moments of entertaining guests in the most graceful ways.

Indeed, this society is one that effectively regards all jobs pertaining to entertaining guests as women’s work. The Food Sanitation Act defines “entertainment workers” as employees who “drink alcoholic beverages with customers” and “add to [their] pleasure with songs and dance.”

As this shows, entertainment workers are understood to be women, who are a core element of the entertainment experience. Women are required to serve, whether it involves pouring an elegant cup of tea at a formal dinner or keeping customers entertained at some dark back-alley nightlife establishment.

In her book “The Men’s Room,” anti-sex work activist Hwang Yu-na shares an analysis of the sexual politics operating in nightlife businesses. Examining the structures operating at famous clubs like Burning Sun or Arena, she identifies what the men inside are actually indulging in.

Inside the club, the tables and floor are governed by an implicit gender division. The men pay money and sit at the tables; the women are “treated” to free admission and take their spot on the floor.

It’s a structure where men “pick out” women on the floor, and the selected women go to sit at the tables. In addition, the men who spend more money may get noticed by the other men in the club.

“In the society of the attention economy, the purchasing power that draws people’s attention in the club becomes a form of ‘maleness,’ of practicing masculinity,” Hwang explains, adding that the men throw their money around “for the thrill of being a ‘powerful man,’ who is free to treat women abusively.”

It would be a mistake to think that this form of sexual politics is restricted to nightclubs and other entertainment businesses. That type of politics is simply an extreme microcosm of heterosexual power relations.

The women are granted free admission to the club because they aren’t there as people — they’re there as products to go on the tables. Kim Joo-hee, feminist scholar and author of “Lady Credit,” refers to this as the “sexual economy of tables.” In a society that practices sexual discrimination, men learn to treat women as products and to use those products to show off their masculine power.

The women who took part in interviews for “The Men’s Room” describe feeling like the “slaves” of the male customers when they work in such establishments. When men spend their money to purchase “entertainment,” this gives them the power to control those women for a specific period of time. They are “items,” bought and paid for, and for the men, the women’s consent clearly is not an issue.

To men, sexual aggressions against women are part of the entertainment experience. In a society where men are accustomed to being able to treat women as slaves in exchange for cash, they see it as a waste to spend money on food as part of an equal relationship with women, or for women to spend their own money on food as agents rather than “slaves.”

The online abuses we have heard about recently — from sexual harassment in group chat rooms to the horrific sexual exploitation that took place in the Nth Room on Telegram, with 270,000 or more men as accomplices — are merely an extension and byproduct of the hellish situation women encounter in the real world.

The documentary “Cyber Hell: Exposing an Internet Horror” focuses on the Nth Room case, showing the process of “Doctor” Cho Ju-bin and “GodGod” Moon Hyung-wook being tracked down. What stands out is how intoxicated both of them became with showing off their power and drawing attention.

Their behavior in holding women prisoner and referring to them as “slaves” in the Nth Room is merely another form of something that is already an everyday part of men’s lives: the pervasive exploitation of women in the name of “entertainment.”

In this society, “men’s rooms” come in many different forms. It’s the same kind of structure that allows for things like holding dissertation defenses in hostess restaurants.

What can be done about “men’s rooms”?

The Nth Room wasn’t something that just happened overnight. In the past, there was another establishment, which was known as the “chicken coop.”

This was a place where women lived collectively in a “camptown” next to a military base. The women who lived there were referred to by their room number.

That was the America-town district in Gunsan’s Sanbuk neighborhood, which has since been renamed “International Culture Ville.”

The camptown was created in 1969, during the Park Chung-hee presidency. It was viewed as a place that contributed to “promoting national glory” by bringing in foreign currency — an example of the state actively using women to earn money. With the US military base shrinking in size, the town too has taken on a new look.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of a fire in Gunsan’s Gaebok neighborhood that claimed the lives of 14 women. This was another sex work district. The “room” in question was frequented not by US troops, but by ordinary Korean men. How were the women there treated?

These rooms were created by men who view women in two ways: as money-making “products” to place on the table and exploit, and as self-sacrificing mothers who cook them meals. The best choice the men can make in this abusive sort of world is to step out of the “men’s rooms” and consign them to history.

By Lee Ra-young, sociologist of art

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