Nami Kim is professor of religious studies and chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Spelman College in Atlanta, U.S.A. She is the author of The Gendered Politics of the Korean Protestant Right: Hegemonic Masculinity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and the coeditor of Feminist Praxis against U.S. Militarism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and Critical Theology against U. S. Militarism in Asia: Decolonization and Deimperialization (Lexington, 2020). She serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion and Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion.
“‘The Bacchus Lady’ and (Un)Holy Living: Feminist Theological Reflections and Imaginings”
The “Bacchus ladies” refer to women who sell the Bacchus, a popular energy drink, to elderly men in the public places such as a park and a plaza in South Korea. The Bacchus ladies also “sell sex” to the elderly men whom they meet in those public spaces. They are society’s “despised” women, who prostitute in their “old” age for daily survival in a society where elderly people with no resources and safety net greatly suffer. The men who buy these women’s sexual service are also considered filthy, vulgar men who shamelessly “buy sex” in their “old” age. The women who are pejoratively called the “Bacchus ladies” do not fit the image of respectable “grandmother,” who is “properly” aged, cares for their grandchildren, and does not engage in sexual acts. The Bacchus ladies perform counter normative acts as elderly women and are subject to being humiliated, scrutinized, policed, and arrested by the state if they get caught for prostituting. Their counter-normative acts and lives show that they are positioned outside of the category of normatized, decently aged cis-gender, heterosexual, monogamous women who continue to conform to socially prescribed gender roles and relations. Through the analysis of “The Bacchus Lady” (“A Killer Woman” in Korean), a film that closely follows a woman named So-young, a “Bacchus lady,” and the people who she encounters and engages, this paper attempts to think about the ways in which feminist theology can open up a counter-normative space where the normative understanding of aged women as respectable and virtuous and of the family as a heterosexual nuclear unit are contested. Drawing from Cathy Cohen, Marcella Althaus-Reid, and other queer scholars, I argue that feminist theology has paid little attention to these “indecent” women who live “(un)holy” lives as aged sex-workers. I argue that “decent” theology that conforms to the normative understanding of gender, sexuality, age, and family not only reinforces “structural and social inequalities under the guise of some normal and natural order to life,” but it also is harmful to women themselves regardless of whether they fit or not such normativity in a heteropatriarchal, classist, misogynist, transphobic, xenophobic, and ageist society.