Traveling Ladies: Korean Female Athletes and Global Korea
Rachael Miyung Joo (Middlebury College)
This chapter highlights the significance of female athletes in shaping ideas of global Koreanness in the 21st century. Professional female golfers in the LPGA and the KPGA, Olympian archers, and figure skater Kim Yuna have risen as powerful national symbols in the first decade of the 21st century. This chapter offers a transnational feminist critique of representations of these athletes and focuses primarily on the commodification of these athletes through discourses of patriarchal nationalism and heterosexism. Korean female athletes are interpellated by both South Korean and United States nationalist discourses, and this chapter will investigate the competing and contradictory ways in which these icons are interpreted within and between these national contexts.
The chapter begins by detailing the rise of Korean female athletes and their significance as symbols of a newly liberated female subject within neoliberal South Korea. It will highlight the ways in which these athletes exemplify the global aspirations of the state within segyehwa policies. They exist as physical embodiments of traveling Korean subjects who excel in hypercompetitive arenas of global competition. They represent the speculative pursuit of creative ways to succeed in post-IMF economic liberalization. They also mark a significant gendered shift as a class of national heroes who are women.
While these athletes are sometimes discussed as demonstrating the rising power of women in South Korea, the hypersexualization of these female athletes demonstrate the continuing strength of patriarchal nationalism within discourses of global Koreanness. The father/coach figure exists as a person of significant interest as he oversees the well-being and success of the nation's traveling daughters. The narratives of father-daughter relations in the context of Korean female athletes demonstrate an interest in maintaining male power over women through financial, physical, and sexual control. These discourses gain power within the context of Korean American nationalist discourses, and highlight the ways in which diasporic nationalisms often rely on discourses of control over the nation's women.
Within the context of U.S. nationalist discourses, Korean female athletes exist as a "yellow peril" threat to the elite white traditions of professional golf. The extraordinary growth of Korean and Korean Americans within the Ladies Professional Golf Association have produced racist responses to Korean golfers including an attempt to institute an English Only policy in the league. Nevertheless, the LPGA has grown due to the celebrity of Korean golfers, and their impact on the growth of the LPGA has translated into policies that work to get all female golfers to emphasize female charm for the pleasure of male fans. Furthermore, hypersexualized Korean female golfers work to assuage anxieties around lesbianism in professional women's sport.
Through this transnational reading of Korean female athletes, this chapter will highlight how these athletes come to symbolize competing and contradictory narratives of gender and nation. It will also highlight how the power of these representations relies on their ability to address anxieties about global uncertainties for Korean and Korean American subjects.
Rachael Miyung Joo is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at Middlebury College. She received her Ph.D. in Cultural and Social Anthropology at Stanford University. Her book, Transnational Sport: Gender, Athletes, and the Making of Global Korea (Duke 2011), highlights the significance of transnational media sport in constructing ideas of global Koreanness in 21st century South Korea and Korean America. She teaches courses in race, globalization, and Asian American Studies at Middlebury College.