The Dollhouse and the Power Suit

Must Korean women tone down the femininity for the workplace?

SEOUL, South Korea — In Seoul, I’m staying at Ewha Womans’ University, or as some people call the area, Ewha Beauty Shop. This is in reference to the multitude of shoe shops, clothing kiosks, makeup stores and, of course, beauty shops, that hit you in a tidal wave of pink as soon as you step outside the gates. Short skirts, sky-high heels, bows, and sparkles abound. It seems strange that the college at the center of this Barbie-land has been the source of tremendous empowerment for Korean women. South Korea’s first female prime minister, its first female justice on the Constitutional Court, and the youngest international soccer referee all went to Ewha. Living in this area of mixed signals, a living representation of the dichotomy embodied by Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods, keeps issues of gender equality and femininity constantly on the mind.

Korea is certainly a conservative country in terms of gender-relations. On the whole, women are often seen as fragile, shy, and in need of protection. Korea’s hottest music group is the nine-member teen girl group “Girls’ Generation,” has rocketed to stardom with cutesy outfits and “who, me?” Lolita looks. All Korean men must serve two years in the army; Korean women have no such national service obligation. In my workplace, too, a 200-employee public research institute, the entire management corps is male. The Korean traditional clothing for women, the hanbok, has no waist—it is fitted under the shoulders to reveal no womanly shape.

To my untrained eye, I cannot see how sequestering a girl in a dollhouse like the Ewha area can possibly prepare them to be strong leaders and build a more equal society. In my mind, female CEOs, politicians, and presidents wear power suits, not frills. Perhaps this mentality—that in business and politics, women get ahead by adapting to the male status quo, at least superficially—is dated. Vogue put Michelle Obama on its March cover partly because, as its Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour commented, “She believes, as we do at Vogue, that to be an independent, working woman doesn't mean that you have to walk around with a brown paper bag on.” But, perhaps it’s not as dated as we think. A recent Ewha graduate who served as president of the Harvard College in Asia Program in Korea told me of her time at the school, “I had a hard time because I’m not the ‘typical’ Ewha girl, I’m not so interested in makeup or clothes. But I don’t think I would have had the leadership positions I had here at a [co-ed] college.” Maybe, despite the opportunities Ewha affords Korean women, the real solution is less pink.

Anita J. Joseph ’12 is a Crimson editorial writer in Leverett House.