The Case of Kim Yo Jong
In April, Kim Yo Jong was thrust into the spotlight after the hospitalisation of North Korean dictator, Kim Jung Un. The propaganda in chief and “most powerful woman in North Korea” was given quite the welcome on all social media platforms, becoming subject to ‘stan’, anime and meme culture all at once. The internet paid homage to all the defining traits of female leadership, from wide-eyed innocence to sexy powerfulness, and Jong quickly became the next highly anticipated “Girlboss”, “pin-up doll’ and even “dictator Queen”.
Amongst all the laughter and “adoration”, an US politics student (Jay Xiao) brought up a key point which everyone had conveniently forgotten about – Kim Yo Jong is the heir to a regime which consistently breaches basic human rights standards and has, herself, been blacklisted for multiple severe human rights abuses. While Xiao’s stance was countered with assertions that the memes were simply for fun and not to be taken seriously, the sexualisation of Jong’s appearance reflects a deeper societal problem.
Reducing Jong’s position to that of a ‘beautiful Asian woman’ is not only an issue of concern to the citizens under her power but it also reduces female leaders to their ‘looks’. It is a reminder that performance in female leadership is assessed by appearance or how much they can appeal to the masculine gaze.
Female leaders have always been defined by not just by their politics or their actions but also by their appearances. Julia Gillard was frequently subject to comments about her hair, body and clothing. The new Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin, who at 34, is the youngest in the world, has been praised globally not just for her position, but also for her beauty. Furthermore, in 2008, Angela Merkel’s cleavage was published as holding “weapons of mass distraction”. The list goes on and on. Female leaders are judged disproportionately by their appearance, critiqued if their hair is less than pleasing, their clothing isn’t the right colour or if a part of their body is too ‘womanly’. This scrutiny distracts from the important work they do and more critically, undermines their authority. Case in point, during her term as Prime Minister, I read more about Julia Gillard’s hair in the media than her actual political achievements.
While traditionally it has been just the media who have alerted the awaiting public to a politician’s new hairstyle or shoe brand, these critiques have recently moved into the online arena. Unsurprisingly, the comment sections of female politicians have become increasingly polluted with sexist remarks, often by the hands of disgruntled lobbyists or middle-aged men.
However, the fancams and memes swirling around Kim Yo Jong are undeniably the trademarks of a much younger age-group, Gen Z. How can a generation where 60% of us believe that there should be more females holding political office be so swift in objectifying a female leader?
We like to paint our generation as socially conscious, “woke” and inclusive. Sexualising Kim Yo Jong, turning her into a pin-up doll and mocking her power is not reflective of those values. Even more, it perpetuates a standard that women should be judged superficially, not on our merits but by how we look. This mistaken belief trickles down into everyday leadership – to every young woman who owns a business, is a manager at a firm or acts as a project leader. We’re telling them that their biggest asset is their appearance.
In the case of Kim Yo Jong, there is a further danger to only celebrating her physical achievements. If we’re so quick to see the innocence in her smile or perceive her austerity as elegance, when will we realise that her political acumen is strong and her power is extensive? When will we seek to hold her accountable for her role in the abuse of her citizens or for heightening tensions with South Korea?
Meme culture has always been fun, pushing at the boundaries and tearing down social barriers. While that should continue, what the case of Kim Yo Jong shows, is that we need to look a little more closely at what we post, praise and participate in.