Text by Corrine Diserens

Stretching the hymen

Those not impacted can fail to see or feel the impact of segregation or police brutality or domestic violence: stories bring home the trouble and make it unavoidable. Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions


For Jessica, the vampire in the television series True Blood, every sex act is her first and she has to bleed time after time. Virgin Mary was said to have undergone a test of virginity, as did Joan of Arc (also called The Maid of Orléans) who was later accused of travestying herself, a crime for the Inquisition. Today we know that virginity tests are meaningless and deemed irrelevant by forensic medicine, as there is no fully closed membrane but rather a ring- or crescent-shaped fold of mucous membrane encircling the vagina wall, its presence and appearance varying with the individual, and which, depending on its elasticity, may bleed or not when having sex for the first time.

Traditionally presented as a kind of seal of chastity which, as legend has it, will be broken and bleed when the woman first has sexual intercourse, and only then, this mythical structure in the vaginal opening still costs women world over their honour and even their lives based solely on antiquated traditions and misinformation. The idea that a woman is an innocent flower, and that taking her virginity is the same as ripping the head off a flower is even encoded in medical language. The bleeding that is supposed to occur when a woman has sex for the first time is called ‘deflowering’.i

“In a global call to eliminate violence against women and girls everywhere”, it was only last month, in October 2018, that UN Human Rights, UN Women and the World Health Organization declared that “this medically unnecessary, and often times painful, humiliating and traumatic practice must end. [...] The term ‘virginity’ is not a medical or scientific term. Rather, the concept of ‘virginity’ is a social, cultural and religious construct – one that reflects gender discrimination against women and girls.”

Gender is a shifting, contextual phenomenon rather than an essential condition of being. It is at “a relative point of convergence among culturally and historically specific sets of relations” (Judith Butler). It is not manifested through one’s “natural” body, but is constituted instead through a repetition of acts based on gender norms imposed by society.

Che Go Eun explores the representation of women in Korean culture and the everyday stereotypes in the news, mass and social media, male- dominated social order and norms, historical patriarchal and nationalist discourses, and Confucianism. She reflects on concepts such as virginity and chastity in Korean society and in the principles of the Unification Church (founded in South Korea in 1954) and investigates the manifestation of sexual crime and the depiction of violence in the South Korean internet sub-culture and on revenge
porn sites ( had more than a million users and hosted thousands of videos taken and shared without the knowledge or consent of the women featuredii). As a feminist, she participates in the politicization of the question of gender identity as something that constantly shifts (Chego worked as a counselor in a youth center in Seoul, active with runaway teenagers, LGBT rights, and feminist issues).

Anchored in Korean painting techniques and history, Chego’s artistic practice is influenced by genre paintings, such as the album Pungsokhwa by the painter Shin Yunbok, Japanese animation, manga (Riichi Ueshiba, Q Hayashida, Shintaro Kago, Kazuo Umezu), and sex toys, while her characters and narratives draw on South Korean literature, cinema, and pop and folk culture. She appropriates liturgical terms, based on her studies of religious painting and sculpture in cathedrals (particularly images of the Virgin Mary), palaces and temples, as well as of Early Netherlandish painting. For her elaborate paintings on paper (Korean Mulberry paper), the artist mainly uses Asian black ink with color mineral pigments, calcite powder, and bone glue, for she finds these traditional Korean painting techniques less constraining than tubes of oil paint (which dry up and get old over time) and more eco-friendly. “This unpractical technique became part of my comfort practice,” she comments. Chego usually works simultaneously on three or four paintings, and started a comics diary in 2010. “I write, draw and jot down very precise impressions of loneliness, sexuality, curiosity, anger, sadness, happiness. After I started living in Ghent in 2017, the main story became about racism. I had not really thought of myself as an Asian or Korean woman before.” The diary is one of the main sources for her drawings, paintings, collages, prints, and altar-like artefacts.


Park Chan-wook's film The Handmaiden is an erotic-feminist epic in three acts, set in 1930s Korea under Japanese rule; Park’s maid is Korean and the lady Japanese. Based on the novel Fingersmith by British writer Sarah Waters, it is a story of manipulation and revenge against a backdrop of gender war and class struggle centered on four characters trapped in a gigantic mansion: the beautiful heiress

and the Korean orphan girl who serves as her maid, the erotomaniac bibliophile who keeps her in captivity, and the con man who is out to make a fortune.

Park was drawn to Waters’ book because she seems to share his fascination with the flesh. Flirting with cartoons and comics, fetishizing the props, sets, faces and bodies of the two sublime actresses, the film’s mise-en-scène culminates in two intense and graphic lesbian love scenes, evoking the erotic prints and pornographic literature that abound in the library of the dreadful ‘jailer’ — an upper-class Korean intellectual obsessed with Japanese culture and the “ero-gro- nonsense” movement led by the mass mediaiii in a society that condemned women’s deviance while at the same time sexualizing and objectifying them (by the 1920s-1930s, the Japanese colonial regime was deeply entrenched in the governance of Joseon and its everyday life, which had become a contested site of new forms of desires). Constructed half in Victorian and half in Japanese style, the split of the dwelling reveals the character’s allegiances to Japan and the West, but not to Korea. Park underscores that intellectuals at the time admired western culture through the Japanese, and believed that Japanese rule would last forever. To him, those people are frightening. As per the elaborate sexual scenes, the filmmaker does not get immersed in them, but rather keeps a certain distance and infuses them with elements of humour. “I believe that’s a more adult way to handle sexual or violent situations. The humour that derives from these situations is not simply funny. There’s a bitter aftertaste to it.”iv

Hoping to contribute with his film to the acceptance of homosexuality in mainstream Korean culture, Park maintains that “it’s because of the continuous efforts of indie film-makers and other campaigners that the subject of homosexuality is no longer a taboo. It’s just that it’s been waiting to receive the big-budget treatment and to have large-scale distribution. In that sense The Handmaiden is like avant-garde cinema, paving the way for the mainstream to follow.”

In answer to criticism of his older male gaze directing young female actors through sex scenes, Park says, “Ever since Thirst [2009] actresses I’ve worked with have called me ‘Unnie’, which is the Korean word women use when addressing an older woman. There’s some sort of sisterhood between us.”


Look sister, I am doing a handstand, leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands... they delve down into the earth. Endlessly,

endlessly... yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch, I spread them wide...

Sisterhood is undermined in Han Kang’s powerful novel The Vegetarian,v set in modern-day South Korea, about power, obsession, desire, the attempt to understand others, the body imprisoned by another, and a woman’s struggle to break free from violence.

The main character Yeong-hye is a dutiful wife married to an office worker of moderate ambitions. Their ordinary controlled life is interrupted when she, seeking a more 'plant-like' existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by recurring nightmares made of invasive images of blood and brutality. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye's decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre forms, leading her bland husband and her father to acts of violence, and her sister to fight to reassert her control. “She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.”vi

Driven to attempted suicides and hospitalization, Yeong-hye’s mind and body is subject to ever more intrusive and perverse violations. She becomes the focus of her brother-in-law’s increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks (he paints on her naked body colorful flowers before filming her lying down on a white sheet and then both of their entwined bodies in a sexual scene) while spiraling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming - impossibly, ecstatically - a tree.


At the dinner following the annual Gates Lecture of Appleton College delivered by the novelist Elisabeth Costello – the main character of South African author J.M. Coetzee’s eponymous novel – her son John, who is assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the university, is described as pondering:

“The menu is, fortunately, not his responsibility. What he dreads is that, during a lull in the conversation, someone will come up with what he calls The Question - ‘What led you, Mrs Costello, to become a vegetarian?’- and that she will then get on her high horse and produce what he and Norma call the Plutarch Response.

After that it will be up to him and him alone to repair the damage. The response in question comes from Plutarch’s moral essays. His mother has it by heart; he can reproduce it only imperfectly. ‘You ask me why I refuse to eat flesh. I, for my part, am astonished that you can put in your mouth the corpse of a dead animal, astonished that you do not find it nasty to chew hacked flesh and swallow the juices of death wounds.’ Plutarch is a real conversation-stopper: it is the word juices that does it. Producing Plutarch is like throwing down a gauntlet; after that, there is no knowing what will happen.”vii

After mentioning that she feels kind of like Red Peter in Franz Kafka’s “Report to an Academy,” an educated ape who stands before the members of a learned society telling the story of his life, his ascent from beast to something approaching man (she will come back to the report written in 1917), Elizabeth Costello starts her lecture addressing her audience on the subject of animals. “I will pay you the honour of skipping a recital of the horrors of their lives and deaths. Though I have no reason to believe that you have at the forefront of your minds what is being done to animals at this moment in production facilities (I hesitate to call them farms any longer), in abattoirs, in trawlers, in laboratories, all over the world, I will take it that you concede me the rhetorical power to evoke these horrors and bring them home to you with adequate force, and leave it at that, reminding you only that the horrors I here omit are nevertheless at the centre of this lecture.”viii

It is a question of the philosophical positioning of Costello and Coetzee in relation to the animal rights debate, of demonstrating, notwithstanding her inconsistencies, the closeness of Costello’s views with various philosophers in this respect. Scholar Richard Alan Northover’s argues that Costello is a Socratic, that she “represents a fallible Socratic figure who critiques not reason per se but an unqualified rationalism. This characterization of Costello explains her preoccupation with raising the ethical awareness of her audience, as midwife to the birth of ideas, and perceptions of her as a wise fool, a characterization that is confirmed by the use of Bakhtin’s notion of the Socratic dialogue as one of the precursors of the modern novel.”ix “Furthermore, aware of the limitations of anthropocentricism in taking animal interests seriously, Costello is also concerned with the impact on our humanity, our humaneness, of our treatment of animals.”x As Northover underlines, Coetzee describes the constantly tired Costello heavily embodied throughout The Lives of Animals, often using complex dialogues in the form of irony. A sense of her own mortality “alongside a declining sense of desire, accompanies all of Coetzee’s works in which she appears,”xi as if she is dying for her beliefs.

Back to Korea...

My artistic practice is merely an active position that focuses on a certain affective performance and the political dynamics underlying the reasons why it existed, disappeared, and continued on. Yeoseong gukgeuk appeared historically in the radical form of a women’s performance by women who felt the need to do so, but at the same time, it was disparaged and then vanished because it was “only women’s”. siren eun young jungxii

Yeoseong gukgeuk, Korean opera and musical theatre performed exclusively by women, is a form of changmugeuk, music and dance theatre that garnered exceptional popularity in the 1950s pre- and post-Korean War era. In terms of its format, it takes the shape of a modernized and “westernized” version of gugak yonhee, or traditional musical theatre, and this aspect is similar to changgeuk, a concert theatre version of pansori, musical performance that incorporates epic storytelling, featuring a vocalist and a percussionist that accompanies the main vocalist, and that is divided into small repertoires of major songs and scenes. The earliest production of yeosong gukgeuk was a changmugeuk piece titled Okjunghwa (Flowers in the Cell) staged at Shigonggwan (the present-day Myeongdong Theater in Seoul), produced by “Yeoseong Gugak Donhohoe” (Women’s Gugak Association) in 1948. The prevailing view is that the production was born out of women’s desire to stage a piece exclusively for women, breaking away from the existing field of gugak, national music or national traditional Korean music, dominated by male artists whose authoritative and aggressive presence antagonized female artists.

1948 was the year that marked the three-year anniversary of Joseon’s independence from Japan. That year saw a rapid increase in the number of professional female gugak artists due to the disbandment of gwonbeon, the colonial institution that had trained gisaeng, or “female entertainers”, following the demise of the Japanese general government. One year before, the public prostitution law was abolished, which led to the closing of all gwonbeon offices. As a result, female entertainers who had previously been registered as gisaeng no longer had to identify themselves as such and could therefore work as professional entertainers/artists or yehin, leading to a great increase in the number of new professional female singers.

The conventional pedagogical methods of gugak recognized knowledge transmission through oral tradition as the only legitimate way of teaching and

learning, hence creating strict hierarchies between mentors and students that often led to the sexual and financial exploitation of female students. Rising against this mistreatment, the birth in 1948 of the Women’s Gugak Association signaled a conscious “act” of emerging modern female subjects who had to transgress obsolete social norms in order to survive. Following the ceasefire that was declared in 1953 after the Korean War, yeoseong gukgeuk emerged as one of the most iconic forms of performance in popular culture of the 1950s, and its major performers were idolized by the public as they sought comfort and relief to cope with wartime trauma.

Against gender norms in early modern East Asia that saw women outside the home as potential threats to public morals, yeoseong gukgenk showed that it was possible for women to perform activities on their own and to create a same-sex community that produced a sense of belonging and commitment for women. In her study on the uniqueness of yeoseong gukgenk and the cultural context of Korean society in the 1950s, scholar Jihye Kim introduces the concept of “same- sex intimacy” that points to a wide range of affective engagement in passion, lust, solidarity, friendship, and emotional attachment. The number of talented female performers who would perform male characters grew exponentially, as did the number of professionals who had gained experience in other areas such as directing, script-writing, stage management, and curation. This evidences the fact that yeoseong gukgeuk was developed both with regard to its quality internally, and as an infrastructural platform for the performing arts as a whole externally, providing women with opportunities to experience a shifting socio-cultural structure that strengthened women’s subjectivity and subverted the censorial experiences and the sexualization of women’s bodies in the public realm. Since the late 1960s, however, its popularity began to sharply decline.

Yoeseong gukgeuk originated from traditional pansori (with its solo vocalist performing multiple characters, dispositions, gender, and other states of being) but it has also evolved as a new performance genre that embraces public demands in the process of modernization, proactively hybridizing traditional Korean performance elements, the cultures of Asia and the West on the stage. What is more subversive is the issue of gender that emerges at the core of this transition, with yeoseong gukgeuk presenting a unique performance structure and formalist attitude fostering the intervention of gender politics. It is noteworthy that radical experiments in the field of western theatre within the shifting paradigm of the 1960s could be likened to the experimentation with the structural format of traditional Korean performance arts such as pansori. However, this is also the very point at which “the maximization of the potentiality of the human presence” (Ik-

doo Kim) materializes through the singular body of a solo performer. In other words, this is the point at which “a human being incorporates the being of various Others into his/her corporeal conditions”, a point that pansori failed to successfully reach in its modernization process at a moment when audiences sought “Western” values as their ideal.

Yeoseong gukgeuk performance exists to bring to the fore the moment at which the embodiment of masculinity materializes, following the bodily transformation of the female performer, her experience of bodily transformation, and the repeated processes of training and disciplining. These non-normative attitudes render the conventional categories shaped by the dichotomization of gender and sexual orientation ineffective, and transform yeoseong gukgeuk’s performative space into an overtly homoerotic site of desire. Furthermore its temporal and spatial contexts affected the experiences of female subjectivity constituted in post- colonial modernity, considering that the colonial situation was bleak for women and caused negative emotional tensions for those who attempted to perceive themselves as “independent subjects.”

Yeoseong Gukgeuk Project, directed by the South Korean artist siren eun young jung, relies on the issues of presence embedded in performance as an important praxis and theoretical foundation. Several operative logics of yeoseong gukgeuk move into and become absorbed and reconstructed by the contemporary arts scene, and expand the White Cube in futurity. The “performative” that has been introduced into the field of art goes beyond its possible convergence into “the body” on stage, but allows a relationality between the body and the world outside the body to emerge and at the same time stands against the assumption that the performer’s body forces public and political contexts external to the body to disappear. For a number of years, the project has worked towards thinking about yeoseong gukgeuk as an affective performativity that has achieved politicization of the dim yet radical potentiality remaining in yeoseong gukgeuk as an artistic form and historical event.

  1. Dr Nina Brochman, Ellen Stokken Dahl, The Wonder Down Under: A User’s Guide to the Vagina (Yellow Kite, 2018).

  2. See

  3. “Ero-gro-nonsense” was a neologism coined in Japan in the 1930s to illustrate the emerging forms of popular culture at the time. Based on the abbreviation of “erotic”, “grotesque”, and “nonsense,” the Japanese news media announced the arrival of the new “ero-gro-nonsense” era. This term has come to represent the period during which, amid the steady rise of political tension and the threat of war in Japan, a culture of hedonism and decadence was nevertheless rampant. However, historian Miriam Rom Silverberg argues otherwise. She suggests that this expression makes legible the active cultural life of Japan during its modern times, and that it was a political term, in that it resisted and rendered visible the look of the Japanese colonial hegemony that had been actively building its colonies. See Miriam Rom Silverberg, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times (Hyeonshilmunhwa, Seoul, 2014). In Obscenity and Revolution (Chaeksesang, Seoul, 2013), literary theorist Myoung A Kwon discusses the revolutionary potentiality of social demoralization and obscenity against which the project of modernity guarded itself to control passions and mobilize healthy bodies in the process of rebuilding a nation-state. According to Kwon, the Japanese colonial code of conduct that thought to police public demoralization, “assembled and rearranged certain tastes, cultures, likings, and behaviors into the ones that are good and the others that are bad or problematic, and the measures to differentiate between the good and the bad were institutionalized by law”. Women’s social participation in colonial Joseon under the modernizing influence of Japan during the 1920s-1930s rendered (new) women visible as modern subjects despite the oppositional binary of the Madonna/Whore complex. The more they struggled with social stereotypes, the more they found themselves participating in public. Women’s social participation made it possible to reconfigure the gendered division of labor. However, the weakening of masculinity that resulted from the devastation of colonialism and the war led to the strong desires of men to secure hegemony and restore a patriarchal order in the new nation-state. See siren eun young jung Yeoseong Gukgeuk Project (Trans-Theatre, Seoul, 2016).

  4. See the interview of Park Chan-wook by Henry Barnes, in The Guardian, International edition, 17 May 2016. Idem for subsequent quotes.

  5. Originally published in Korean as three novellas and then compiled into a novel published in 2007, the prize- winning English translation by Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian, was published in 2015 (Portobello Books, London) and 2016 (Hogarth, New York).

  6. Idem, Hogarth, New York, 2016, p. 148

  7. J.M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals (first published by Princeton University Press, 1999), in Elizabeth Costello (Vintage, London, 2004), p. 83

  8. Idem, p. 63

  9. Richard Alan Northover, J.M. Coetzee and animal rights: Elizabeth Costello’s challenge to philosophy, University of Pretoria, 2009, p. i.
    Idem, p. 35
    Idem, p. 74

  10. 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 siren eun young jung Yeoseong Gukgeuk Project (Trans-Theatre, Seoul, 2016). This quote and all following and subsequent note reflections are drawn in a synthetic mode from the texts “A Brief History of Yeoseong Gukgeuk: Birth and Decline”, “Yeoseong Gukgeuk and Performance Theory”, and “Yeoseong Gukgeuk and Gender Politics” by siren eun young jung.