Between Freedom and Death: Female Taxi Drivers as Cross-Gender Labor in Authoritarian South Korea


Thursday, December 6, 2018, 4:30pm to 6:00pm


Porte Seminar Room (S250), 2nd Floor, CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street

Korea Colloquium
12/6 KC Poster  

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Todd Henry
Associate Professor, Department of History, University of California at San Diego

Todd Henry (Ph.D., UCLA, 2006; Associate Professor) is a specialist of modern Korea with a focus on the period of Japanese rule (1905-1945) and its postcolonial afterlives. A social and cultural historian interested in global forces that (re)produce lived spaces, he examines cross-border processes that link South Korea, North Korea, Japan, and the US in the creation of “Hot War” militarisms, the transpacific practice of medical science, and the embodied experiences of hetero-patriarchal capitalism. Dr. Henry’s first book, Assimilating Seoul (UC Press, 2014), addressed the violent but contested role of public spaces in colonial Korea. He has also written several related articles on questions of place, race, and nation in colonizing and decolonizing movements on the peninsula. Currently, Dr. Henry is completing his second book, entitled The Profit of Queerness. This study of authoritarian development in Cold War South Korea (1948-1993) examines the ideological functions and subcultural dynamics of queerness as they relate to middlebrow journalism and sexual science, anti-communist modes of kinship and citizenship, and globalized discourses and practices of the “sexual revolution.” A sample of this new work appears in his edited volume, Queer Korea (Duke UP, 2019). A third book will explore how the pre-WWII history of imperialism and militarism in the Asia-Pacific region informed articulations of virile masculinity and practices of gay sex tourism in postwar Japan and across its former empire. Dr. Henry has received two Fulbright grants (Kyoto University, 2004-2005; Hanyang and Ewha Womans Universities, 2013), two fellowships from the Korea Foundation (Seoul National University, 2003-2004; Harvard University, 2008-2009), and one fellowship from the Kyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies (Seoul National University, 2019). At UCSD, he is an affiliate faculty member of Critical Gender Studies and Science Studies. From 2013 until 2018, Dr. Henry served as the inaugural director of Transnational Korean Studies, the recipient of a $600,000 grant from the Academy of Korean Studies as a Core University Program for Korean Studies.

Chaired by Carter Eckert, Yoon Se Young Professor of Korean History, Harvard University

This paper analyzes media representations of cross-gender labor with a focus on female taxi drivers. Through the everyday lives of these women, I examine what such non-normative working practices reveal about the gendered and sexualized dynamics of South Korea’s authoritarian development, a topic yet to receive adequate attention. I propose that city streets functioned as an empowering but dangerous stage where female taxi drivers explored new forms of wage labor and human intimacies. Because these practices challenged hetero-patriarchal and bourgeois prescriptions of reproduction and housewifery, state-censored publications decried them as “eccentric,” while media entrepreneurs sought to profit from their sensationalization. In highlighting urban space as an eroticized contact zone, the paper brings into a dialogue two fields that rarely speak to one another: Korean Studies and Queer Studies. In terms of the former, female taxi drivers demonstrate that gender variance and non-normative sexuality were generative products of rapid industrialization. I argue that this occupation offered working-class women a limited degree of freedom from hetero-patriarchal pressures. Even as their journeys into public space empowered them, repeated exposure – accentuated by alarming reports alleging infringement on male privilege – subjected them to violent assault and even death. Finally, I connect the necropolitical underside of female taxi driving to the everyday struggles of queer and migrant people of color, whose precarious lives ethnic studies scholars have deployed as a critique of liberal humanism and multi-cultural assimilation. Through these comparative insights, I emphasize the informal bonds that Korean cabwomen formed in response to popular scrutiny and misogynistic harassment. I suggest how their gynocentric associations aimed to protect themselves from a male-dominated state and society upon which they could not rely for sustenance nor survival.

Generously supported by the Min Young-Chul Memorial Fund at the Korea Institute.