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A close reading of North Korea's sexist insults

In a statement on Wednesday, a North Korean government spokesman complained about "the venomous swish" of the skirt of South Korea's female President Park Geun-hye. North Korea seems to take a certain joy in sexist insults. The AP reports that in 2009, North Korea's Foreign Ministry  called then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "a funny lady" who sometimes "looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping," while a North Korean state radio program called then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "a hen strutting around in the White House, crowing arrogantly" and "a bitch running riot on the beach."

I don't know how it sounds in Korean, but "the venomous swish of the skirt" is an unexpectedly melodic phrase in English. "It's beautifully dense, isn't it?" said Christopher Baswell, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, who prefaced his comments with saying that the words might have a very different meaning in Korean, a language he doesn't speak. Terry Castle, a professor at Stanford and the author of "Boss Ladies, Watch Out! Essays on Women, Sex and Writing" also cautioned that she doesn't speak Korean and doesn't know the original context, but said that the phrase "brings to mind the cross-cultural association between woman and serpents.... the serpentine in a lot of mythological contexts summons up deceitful and dangerous woman."

The image of snake, with its associations of deviousness underfoot, mixes with swish, which in American English connotes homosexuality. "You have an odd combination of phallic and vaginal," he said.  That combination also appears in the insult to Rice. "Hen's don't crow or strut. It's supposed to be a rooster -- that's really playing on inappropriate gender activity." Castle notes the "Chaucerian" quality of that insult; and compares it the "cosmological infamy or calumny" often featured in Iranian propaganda. Calling someone "the Great Satan sticks in people's mind more than a hen running around," she said.

And poor Hillary, Castle added, always getting assailed with sexist comments. Castle said the schoolgirl part suggests "naivete and in over her head, while the pensioner "de-sexualizes her."

What did Baswell think? "It's very interesting the degree of sexual anxiety and sexual hostility that both those images imply."

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