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Subversive Feminism in Storytelling: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Julia Ducournau’s Raw

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“You are what you eat,” as the saying goes, to which I’d like to add: “or don’t.” As of recent, food has increasingly become a part of identity politics. Anybody on the internet who strongly follows a particular diet has their pitchforks ready for the ‘non-believers’. In this backdrop, Han Kang’s novel [1] about a woman who refuses to eat meat after a nightmarish dream she can’t speak of and Julia Ducournau’s film [2] about a young vegetarian woman who begins to crave meat of all kinds, including human, come across as confusing and shocking pieces of work. The former is set in South Korea and deals with mental illness whereas the latter is set in France and is a coming-of-age drama.

I’d like to argue that the themes of vegetarianism and cannibalism, albeit contradictory, are utilised to serve the same metaphor. These (fictionalised) extremities enable a self-reflection on society that is very, very real. The Vegetarian follows the story of Yeong-hye who lives a passive, domesticated life in Seoul. Her husband, Mr. Cheong works and Yeong-hye does the cooking and cleaning. The story is narrated by three characters, none of who are Yeong-hye. We do not hear her voice, except details from the dream:

“My bloody hands. My bloody mouth. In that barn, what had I done? Pushed that red raw mass into my mouth, felt it squish against my gums, the roof of my mouth, slick with crimson blood.” 

Yeong-hye swears off meat and radically alters her diet. From what I understand, Korean food culture is centred around banchan or multiple side dishes that are mostly meat-based. Yeong-hye quickly loses a lot of weight, perhaps a little too much. Along with meat she refuses to partake in activities that patriarchy dictates she do like wearing a bra, doing her makeup, and being a dutiful wife. In one brutal scene, Yeong-hye’s father forces her to eat meat which shatters every semblance of normality the family struggles to portray.

In part two, Yeong-hye is the sexual object of her brother-in-law’s gaze, an artist in search for some inspiration. He paints flowers over her naked body, has sex with her and films the process. Art. The last section is narrated by Yeong-hye’s sister. In the mental hospital, Yeong-hye strives to become a tree [3]: “Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…” She stops eating entirely.

And then there’s Raw, which is visually stunning. Justine is a strict vegetarian who enters vet school, where her sister Alexia also studies. At a hazing ritual, Justine is forcibly fed rabbit liver and thus begins her obsession for meat. Her hunger is not satiated until she tastes human meat. Justine’s newfound freedom and desires lend to her agency she never experienced before: sexually and emotionally.

Cannibalism runs in the family. Alexia indulges and encourages her sister’s cravings but Justine decides to control her hunger. This causes a rift between the sisters who literally fight tooth and nail. Justine accepts her dark animalistic side and violence within it, but suppresses her monstrous desires. This caricatures society at large, where the hunger to consume and kill entails unparalleled cruelty and brutality.

Food is a potent device in these stories. Yeong-hye’s refusal to consume meat and ultimately any food, similarly Justine’s taboo desires act as symbols of feminine power and rebellion. They dissent and deviate through their bodies. In my opinion, The Vegetarian and Raw are part of a fresh wave of feminism in art that highlights female sexuality and dynamism [4]. It is uncomfortable to watch. But necessary.

Notes:

[1] Translated from the Korean into English by Deborah Smith in 2015

[2] Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFlXVX2af_Y

[3] Interestingly, there is a Kannada folk tale called The Flowering Tree (translated by A.K. Ramanujan) where a young girl transforms into a beautiful tree when water is poured over her symbolising menstruation and fertility, the  female power of procreation and sexuality. Read here: journal.oraltradition.org/articles/download/12i?article=ramanujan

[4] Movie recommendations: The Witch, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, The Neon Demon, Lady Macbeth

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