The Surprisingly Conservative Gender Politics of Parasite

by Tim Brinkhof Volume 25, Issue 2-3 / March 2021 12 minutes (2920 words)

In one of the final scenes of the film that won last year’s Oscar for Best Picture, a mother risks her life to protect her family from an unhinged killer while her husband leaves their dying daughter’s side to attack a bystander because they…insulted that killer?

This dark, confusing and astonishingly gory ending to an otherwise funny, light-hearted and fairly straightforward story is, as many critics have noted already, less of an unintellectual, Tarantino-esque overindulgence in violence for violence’s sake, and more of a complex yet convincing representation of the psychological complications that tend to accompany revolutionary strive.

Since its release, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite has received universal acclaim for its painstakingly detailed craft, monumental role in the history of international cinema, and profound message at a time when entertainment culture is more progressive than it ever was before. But while much of this praise has been well-deserved, it has also discouraged viewers from studying the film’s more questionable aspects, like how—from a feminist standpoint—it might actually be kind of archaic in its understanding of gender.

Feminist critics have argued that, for most of history, women were regarded as subjective creatures whose quote-on-quote weak mental faculties, combined with strong biological instincts, prevented them from looking at reality in an objective manner. “Women,” writes Lorraine Code in her study, The Sex of the Knower, “have been judged incapable, for many reasons, of achieving knowledge worthy of the name” (185). A quick survey of European thought confirms her suspicions.

Aristotle, for starters, compared women to slaves, and from that premise argued that only a free subject could possess genuine intellect. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, separated from the Greek philosopher by over twenty centuries, deemed the ‘fair sex’ subservient to their own sensuality, while Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche each excluded them from ‘higher’ modes of being altogether. The Prussian polymath Wilhelm von Humboldt possibly put it crudest of all when he characterized the underlying nature of women by “a lack or a failing of analytic capacity which draws a strict line of demarcation between ego and the world” (349).

The ideas of these male thinkers, once commonplace but now considered controversial and problematic, are remarkably prevalent in Parasite, whose screenplay consistently associates women with the material or concrete, and men with the abstract or ideal.

The film’s opening scene clearly sets up this dichotomy with Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), the oldest son of the Kim residence, pointing his phone up at the ceiling in search of an invisible Wi-Fi signal while his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) loafs about. Elsewhere in the semi-basement, their mother, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), ever lamenting the family’s state of abject poverty, kicks her sleeping husband—Ki-tek (Kang-ho Song)—who wakes from his dreams with an “enlightened smile” (Bong 2).

The males and females are placed in opposition to one another yet again when Ki-woo receives a viewing stone—an East Asian collector’s item whose monetary value decreases the more its natural shape is altered—from his friend Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon). Where father and son admire the object for its ‘symbolic’ quality, Ki-jung does not care much for it. Chung-sook does, but only insofar as she complains about the fact that their gift isn’t edible.

Although these little differences may seem trivial at this point, they acquire tremendous significance when Parasite starts to get political. Looking at the film through a Marxist lens, it is plain to see that, as the story progresses, Ki-tek becomes increasingly socialistic while his wife and daughter remain strictly preoccupied with the wellbeing of themselves and their family.

This development does not enter the foreground until the end of the first act, when the Kims, celebrating their successful infiltration of the Park household, are interrupted by a random drunkard that is about to piss on their porch. These sorts of disturbances are the order of the day, and in the past they’ve usually let them slide, but not this time; Ki-woo, eager to defend his new-found honor as the tutor of an upper-class student, grabs the viewing stone and heads out into the street.

Whereas Ki-jung, giggling with excitement, takes out her phone to film the ensuing fight, an alarmed Ki-tek stops his son to exchange the stone for an umbrella. Although played mostly for comic relief, this plot point is rather serious in nature. Given that Chung-sook says her son looks as though “he is trying to kill someone” (Bong 60), it’s reasonable to assume that Ki-tek has managed to forestall fate itself while the women in his life were perfectly ready to just let it happen.

The ideological friction between the male and female members of the Kim clan further intensifies during the second act, in which they start to turn on each other. Enjoying the luxuries of the Namgoong mansion while its real inhabitants are out on a camping trip, Ki-tek initiates a discussion on why the Parks are the way they are. Ki-jung, annoyed by her father’s increasing obsession with their employers, urges him to reassess his values: “Just worry about your own goddamn family!” she yells (Bong 68).

Her words quickly acquire new meaning when Mun-kwang (Lee Jeong-un), the Parks’ former housekeeper, arrives at the scene. Upon revealing the existence of an underground bunker, as well as her indebted husband—Kun-sae (Park Myung-hoon)—who has been hiding there, she begs Chung-sook to keep her secrets safe, but the latter refuses to cooperate in spite (or perhaps because) of their mutual, fraternizing poverty. “I’m not your fucking sister, bitch,” (Bong 78) the Kim matriarch angrily retorts, pledging loyalty not to their economic class, but her own flesh and blood—a pledge she will honor before the credits roll.

Up until recently, the inner motivations of revolutionaries were commonly studied with methodologies borrowed from Freudian psychoanalysis, a discipline which treats the disproportionally small number of female revolutionaries that modern history has produced pretty much like it does most other phenomena: as an outgrowth of the Oedipus complex. “Deprived of a penis,” Marie Mullaney says in her ambitious critique on the subject, Gender and the Socialist Revolutionary Role,

.…the female has no incentive to abandon the oedipal position. Passive and submissive, the ‘normal’ woman is said to have less of a superego than a normal man, to be less capable of sublimation, and to be less concerned about social issues and problems. Her overriding concerns remain on an affective level; that is, her dominant preoccupations remain the wish to be loved and the fear of loss of love (108).

The longing for a satisfying personal life was thought to prevent revolutionaries from creating a meaningful public one, not only because raising a family required tremendous time and effort, but also because they distracted people from life’s ‘true’ purpose: the implementation of socialism. It was for these reasons that Vladimir Lenin, in an essay not unrelated to this discussion, reserved his trust for those who were able to “devote the whole of their lives” to the revolution, “not only their spare evenings.”

And yet, while traditional understandings of revolutionary personality paint women in a negative light, they don’t necessarily put men in a positive one, either. So far, this essay has taken Ki-tek for a rebel on the rise, someone who learns to ‘displace’ his love for his family onto humanity as a whole. Such a conclusion is evidently supported by the film’s gruesome ending, which sees Ki-tek stand down while his wife wrestles with Kun-sae—and even wince when the latter gets impaled with a skewer—but it’s not the only one which may be drawn from it.

On the contrary, an equally viable interpretation of the themes of Parasite would hold that Ki-tek murders his employer not in an altruistic attempt to avenge the suffering of the working class, but because of his selfish desire to escape the humiliation that comes from having to live at the bottom of a social hierarchy.

Shame plays as important a role in Parasite as does class-consciousness and, interestingly, it too appears to be sensed only by men. In a previously mentioned scene, Ki-woo turns violent because he is embarrassed, while his mother and sister—though fellow victims of the drunkard’s public urination—do not feel offended in the slightest. Of course, this situation could have been avoided completely had Ki-tek not felt the need to give speech glorifying the family’s accomplishments. He had, in fact, tried to give a similar pep rally before, when his son applied for his tutoring job with the Parks, but failed because, as the script put it, he tried to sound “like a TV patriarch,” but lacked “gravitas” (Bong 6).

The description above gives the impression of Ki-tek being on a quest to master the role of paterfamilias, and in a way he is. When we first meet him, he is a target of constant abuse, especially at the hands of his wife. Initially, the bullying doesn’t seem to face him. However, as soon as he meets the confident and controlling Park patriarch Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyung), that changes. Drinking through his boss’ private liquor collection, Ki-tek imagines himself the owner of the place. When Chung-sook reminds him he is not, joking that Nathan would chase him away like a “cockroach” (Bong 70), he slams his fist on the table and grabs her by the collar while the kids look on in disbelief. Although Ki-tek later swears he was just acting, his excuse seems disingenuous.

Embarrassment regularly takes the form of emasculation, an association which, while present throughout the film, is not made explicit until the introduction of Kun-sae. This character is by far the most disturbing of the entire cast, and not just because he lives underground and kills people. Hiding inside the mansion’s basement to escape from loan sharks, he is completely dependent on his wife for food and care, and has developed an imaginary master-slave relationship with Dong-ik. Most telling (and nonsensical) of all, Mun-kwang feeds her forty-five-year-old lover with a “baby bottle” (Bong 75).

As if the notion that a malnourished adult man has to be hand-fed by his wife isn’t enfeebling as is, the discomforting phallic imagery indicates that his ‘manliness’ is consciously called into question by the filmmaker. In a way, seeing part of himself reflected in this helpless parasite may well have driven Ki-tek to take up the axe. Since the film never comments on his motives directly, that’s pure speculation; however, considering Ki-tek ends up assuming Kun-sae’s place in the basement, a symbolic connection between the characters does appear to exist within the script.

According to psychoanalysts, the typical revolutionary was driven as much by his attraction toward a particular ideal as he was by his distaste for specific figures of authority. Picking up where Freud left off, their studies suppose that many an influential historical personage transposed the hatred they harbored against their own ‘private’ parents, and transfixed such sentiments onto a ‘public’ or universal parent: the state.

While government organizations play only a small part in Parasite, the film goes to considerable lengths to compare Ki-tek’s familial frustrations to the disagreements he has with his employer. As a result, their relationship gradually morphs into the socioeconomic equivalent of father and child, with one functioning as both a financier and a teacher of the other. In his efforts to escape that relationship, however, Ki-tek—if only by accident—irreversibly robs himself of what little liberty he had to begin with.

This stroke of poetic justice (or injustice) not only sheds light on the fate of the revolutionaries themselves, but of revolutionary enterprise in general. Some filmgoers have interpreted the bunker beneath the Park house as a metaphor for North Korea which, seeing how Mun-kwang impersonates Kim Jong-un for the amusement of her ground-dwelling lover, is no unsubstantiated reading. Far from it: just as Ki-tek’s rebellion got him locked inside the Park’s basement, so too did North Korea’s socialist revolution isolate them from the rest of the world.

In 2007, Aspasia—otherwise known as The International Yearbook of Central, Eastern and Southeastern Women’s and Gender History—hosted an all-female forum on the topic of whether there was a contradiction between communism and feminism. As these two mass movements, both of which matured during the twentieth century, sought freedom from an oppression that they associated with capitalism, one would expect the consensus to have been a resounding “No.” Yet that was not the case.

Kicking off the forum was an essay tellingly titled “Communism was a State Patriarchy, not State Feminism”. Its author, Romanian political theorist Mihaela Miroiu, proposes that feminism and communism were not only incompatible in practice, but in theory. Defining the former as a crusade for autonomy, she argues that emancipation in a society in which citizens are forced to organize their lives along socialist lines—and where other ‘isms,’ especially those which champion the freedom of the individual over that of the group, were regarded as tangential at best, bourgeois at worst—was categorically impossible.

Rather than liberating the proletariat like it promised, the Soviet Union, at least in Miroiu’s words, “negatively ‘feminised’ both women and men. The purpose for their life became the self-sacrifice for the communist goal, better expressed in the obedience towards the ‘Head of the Society,’ the Communist Party” (199).

With a few minor alterations, this paragraph could easily double as a synopsis for Bong’s story, which posits emasculation as the sole outcome of revolutionary struggle: following the carnage of the climax, Ki-tek is relegated to the basement like a rebellious teenager grounded by his parents, while his son—after being carried to safety on the back of his underage girlfriend—suffers a brain injury that not only robs him of his independence, but coincidentally causes him to burst out in random fits of laughter, not unlike the previously imprisoned Kun-sae.

Although the gender politics of Parasite turn out to be somewhat conventional, they remain highly complex. The women of the film, one on hand, are selfish in the sense that they care only about themselves and their loved ones, but selfless to the extent that they are ready to lay down their lives for the sake of their family. The men, on the other, may be shallow due to the fact that they act—first and foremost—in defense of their own egos, yet they can be thought of as profound insofar as this endeavor puts them in tune with a larger, albeit invisible realm of thought.

A sympathetic director with a centrist outlook, Bong makes films that don’t necessarily fit into the clear-cut boxes set up by his competitors. When Joker was still in development, for instance, its writer-director took pride in telling journalists that his take on the comic book character had been inspired not by blockbusters such as The Dark Knight or Justice League, but cult classics like as Taxi Driver. But while the latest origin story of this supervillain does actually borrow many things from Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed psychological thriller, ambiguity is not one of them.

During that film’s final confrontation, a failed comedian shoots the charismatic and successful host of a popular late night talk show. As if the premise alone does not render the killer’s motivations obvious, the script is kind enough to spell them out in case the audience wasn’t paying attention: “What do you get,” Arthur asks, his finger wrapped around the trigger, “when you cross a mentally-ill loner with a system that abandons him and treats him like trash?” His question has but one answer—a bullet—and the story of Joker is weaker for it.

Thus, by exposing the thesis for all to see, Phillips made his superhero spoof vulnerable to such extensive criticism it’s unlikely to ever be recognized as the sort of insightful social drama he originally set out to make. The same, however, cannot be said for Parasite, whose true meaning—in spite of the film’s apparent gender bias—is sure to be debated for years to come.


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The Surprisingly Conservative Gender Politics of Parasite

Tim Brinkhof is a Dutch-born, New York-based journalist whose writing on art and culture has appeared in PopMatters, High Times, History Today and The New York Observer among others. He studied history at New York University, and currently works as an editorial assistant for Film Comment magazine. A scholar of Russian literature, he has helped stage exhibits for the State Hermitage Museum and is greatly interested in the relationship between political ideology and popular entertainment.

Volume 25, Issue 2-3 / March 2021 Essays   bong joon-ho   gender politics   korean cinema