Memosphere2009.04.22 12:10



May 2 marks the one-year anniversary of the massive candlelight vigils that swept through the streets of Seoul last spring. 

The political ramifications of the popular protest across online and offline space are still felt acutely up until today in the arrest and acquittal of Park Dae-sung, a.k.a. "Minerva," his web handle. Park earned his quick reputation after predicting the demise of Lehman Brothers last year and has since enjoyed a phenomenal influence on the Net as a prophet of doom. 

Alarmed at the unprecedented scale and speed of online buzz quickly developing into mass street protests, the Lee administration oscillated wildly in its reaction throughout the first year in its incumbency, condemning sometimes the candlelight vigils as symptoms of an "infodemic" or promising a more conciliatory approach to online voices. 

It was basically an angry protest against the hasty decision made by the conservative government to import American beef to Korea, potentially infected with mad cow disease, without a proper consultation with the public, that drove the mass protest, though it still remains a mystery among local analysts how it actually came about. Political pundits agree, however, that the candlelight vigil was first triggered by teenage girls, and by lots of them. 

Some noted that those teenage girls -- and boys -- are the kids of "386 generation." Largely liberal in their political leaning, they are the Korea's baby boomers and warriors of the democracy that led the nation out of the iron grip of military dictators back in 1980s. It is probable that their political DNA has been inherited to their children.

"Candle girls" themselves, however, said time and again that they took to the street out of an urgent fear that they would become the first consumers of the imported American beef. Obviously, the meat importers would supply the cheap American beef to the school cafeterias first, which are unable to afford more expensive homegrown beef due to their limited budget. 


Plausible scenarios indeed, but they still do not give us a sufficient account about how teenage girls were actually able to communicate with each other and organize themselves for a mass protest with such an ease and speed. 

Being an analyst keenly interested in the evolution of technology as a social medium, I cannot help but focus on their use of mobile phones, the most preferred communication device of teenage girls and boys. 

They mostly rely on mobile phones for the daily exchanges with their friends during school hours, though they also use computers and the Internet heavily. It would be critical for this reason to understand how deeply they are interconnected with each other via mobile phones. 

It is a well-established fact now that the net age teens mostly suffer from a short-term memory disorder, to a degree. It is happening due in large part to their almost permanent connection to the Internet, which teens use as their collective brain de rigueur. When the world of information is within just a few key strokes away, readily available from your friends, you would find no compelling reason to spend your time on rote learning and memory build-up. 

Another prominent trait of the net age teens discovered from surveys conducted in both sides of the Pacific is that they are more empathetic and well connected to their peers as compared to other older age groups. 

Well before the mass candlelight vigils last year, Korean teens have been connected with each other via mobile phones during school days and via the Internet on nights, hence forming an interdependent and symbiotic relationship for their daily information queries. To quote the remarks of Richard Dawkins, it was an intelligent variant of "extended phenotypic effect," realized in the form of a mobile networked brain of boys and girls. 

When a couple of scary stories about mad cow disease slipped into this viral network, they quickly permeated into every juvenile brain at the speed of key strokes. Naturally, the rapid dissemination of some unnerving news boosted by the trust and confidence of your peers was unparalleled in its viral infectious power and the governmental counter media campaign has only exacerbated their skepticism. 

This is the brief account of how "candle girls" rose as a symbol of mass protest last spring in Seoul. 




My Sassy Protester: Korean Candle Girl Power

 

By John Eperjesi 



There is a wonderful scene in the documentary "Berkeley in the Sixties" when a policeman asks a female student protester illegally occupying Sproul Hall at the University of California at Berkeley if she wanted to walk out like a lady or be dragged out.  The young student calmly responds, "I want to be dragged out like a lady."

 

Protest movements are often represented by very masculine symbols – hammer and sickle, black power fist – mainly because the leadership, if not the rank and file, is composed of men, and because smashing the state requires heavy tools (Rosie the Riveter being a memorable exception).  Now there has never been a shortage of machismo at Korean protests, so it was interesting to observe that some of the loudest voices during the first days of the candlelight protests were those of young women.  The universal symbol of the protests at City Hall is Candle Girl, a uniform-clad school girl with a pissed-off look on her face defiantly holding a candle.  The gender dynamic of the protests threatened many conservative male commentators, both American and Korean, who dealt with the threat the way they always do, by calling the girls, and the protests in general, hysterical. I believe Candle Girl symbolizes a (re)surfacing of Korean-style girl power.

                                                                                              

The protests were about much more than beef.  They were about food safety, environmentalism, neoliberalism, elitism, and about gender.  Mass culture often functions as a kind of a prison for young women that trains them to discipline and punish their bodies through dieting and plastic surgery so they can achieve an "S-line" body or "V-line" face, and teaches them that that shopping and having a boyfriend are the most important things in life.  The really strong, fiercely independent women in Korea are the ajumma, the women who hold the family together while running the local restaurants and markets.  But ajumma are too often made fun of in the media, portrayed as bossy and un-feminine.  

 

One of the most powerful narratives of girl power in Korean cinema is Jeong Jae-eun's debut film, "Take Care of My Cat" (2001), a coming-of-age story about a group of five young women negotiating economic and gender hierarchies in post IMF-crisis Korea.  Kwon Chil-in's recent film "Hellcats," like "Take Care of My Cat," explores the radical idea that women do not have to be defined by their male counterparts.  Unfortunately, this is an idea that appears to be going out of style in America, as witnessed by that vulgar celebration of narcissism and luxury brand addiction, "Sex and the City."  I believe this television show poses a much bigger health threat to Korea than mad cow disease.  

 

Fortunately, the America mediascape is still fairly well populated with images of girl power.  Perhaps the best example of girl power in American culture, though now retired, is Sarah Michelle Gellar's character Buffy on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."  Buffy, who routinely put the interests of the community before her own personal desires, taught girls that they could be sexy and still kick butt.  And then there's that pint-sized feminist, Lisa Simpson, who always lifts her voice in opposition when she encounters injustice.  I think Lisa would have definately been a candle girl if she visited Korea this past summer.  Who knows, maybe a few candle girls will grow up to be riot grrls (punk rock feminist activists) when they get a little older.



*I would like to thank Prof. John Eperjesi for kindly allowing me to republish his story about Korean 'candle girls' in Planet Size Brain. 
He is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Kyung Hee University and the author of a book entitled, "The Imperialist Imaginary: Visions of Asia and the Pacific in American Culture" (UP of New England, 2004). 
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