“We’re Not Going to Disappear Quietly Because We’ve Gone Bankrupt”
Meeting the “Three Broke Women” of Cultural Content Production Group ‘Small Letter f’
“My bank account balance is in the negative now. What should I do?”
“There’s a way out. We could use our company funds to balance the costs and go out of business.”
“(Wry laughter) Oh, right…”
When Broke Woman 1, Misajang, announces that her account balance has reached zero, Broke Woman 3, Mandoo, says, “It’s time for us to decide whether we’ll continue or go out of business.” Broke Woman 2, Yosei, adds, “Our monthly income isn’t even worth disclosing.” The three women eventually declare that they will hold a viewer vote on whether they should maintain or shut down their company.
Actually, I’d seen some videos before of Misajang, Broke Woman 1, as well as videos of “One, Two, Queer and Four!”, a previous Small Letter f project on queer people taking dance sports lessons. I’d heard that the dancers had even given a performance that had gone well too, so it came as a surprise that they’d returned as “broke women”. To hear that they were now bankrupt despite their consistent activities was shocking and saddening.
But the fact that they were now talking about their financial state on YouTube in the form of online entertainment was fascinating. I became curious about these women who boldly announced their bankruptcy, which is considered a business failure, in this post-“Girls can do anything” moment when women’s success and empowerment are emphasized more than ever.
The Bold Moves of Cultural Contents Production Company “Small Letter f”
The creators of the YouTube web entertainment series “Three Broke Women” are Misajang, Mandoo, and Yosei, of the cultural contents creator group called “Small Letter f”. Misajang and Mandoo, who majored in design at the same college, developed the idea for a feminist visual arts magazine in the winter of 2015 after the emergence of Megalia, as a “way to make visible those who are marginalized in media”. This was the beginning of Small Letter f.
At the time, there weren’t very many publications on feminism, gender, and queer issues. Though their fundraising goal was quite high, at 10,000,000 KRW [about 8,800 USD], Small Letter f was able to meet its goal for publication. The group went on to publish two issues of the eponymous feminist visual arts magazine.
Since 2016, Small Letter f has organized and hosted a feminist goods pop-up store called Fropaganda and the feminist festival Femeet to facilitate offline encounters between queer/feminist creators’ contents and their audience.
Though one might think that focusing on one medium would be difficult enough, Small Letter f has developed and continued through a variety of projects—from publishing a magazine and gathering creators for a festival to producing YouTube content. When asked how they came to create such a diverse array of projects, the group’s answer was surprisingly articulate. “We wanted to create a platform for queer/feminist creators and consumers, and this was the result of searching for a way to communicate the minorities’ stories to a greater number of people.”
“What we want to do and our goal hasn’t changed,” the group added. “We’ve been expanding our platform to reach a wider audience.” This is how the business has continued, and those who were undergraduates in the beginning plunged into the work in earnest after graduating. From successfully raising funds for the feminist visual arts magazine to the achievement of Femeet, which attracted 5,000 visitors over two days, Small Letter f was steadily making progress one step at a time.
What Remains is a Negative Account Balance and Burnout
“We’ve been in business for about three years, and all our projects have gone quite well. We’d never had difficulties with operating the company, and were confident when we started ‘One, Two, Queer and Four!’. But producing videos requires a lot of time and money without bringing much in return for the creator.” (Misajang)
The audaciously launched “One, Two, Queer and Four!” project came to a seemingly successful close. A total of eight episodes encompassing the process of recruiting team members for the dance class, holding auditions, the performance, and members’ commentary after the show were uploaded, as well as a few other short clips. From the perspective of the viewer, it was a neat conclusion.
But on the other side of this “successful project” were expenditures that cut into Small Letter f members’ savings, and long working hours that spilled into weekends. At the end of the project, the Small Letter f members were left with burnout and a negative account balance.
“It looked like a success from the outside, but I think we finished the project by making personal sacrifices. The response to the content was favorable, too, but not all of that led to income. I think it wasn’t a failure in terms of content, but a structural problem.” (Misajang)
Misajang, who has also produced content on makeup tips as a beauty YouTuber, says she is “aware of what kind of content is profitable”. But since “escaping the corset” became an important issue in Korea, she stopped producing beauty-related content. It was a decision she was able to make because she is “not just working to make money”. Even so, she wasn’t planning to create content that did not bring profits.
“I thought we would make returns if the content was good,” says Mandoo, expressing her disappointment. She says this experience has taught her to take practical aspects into more serious consideration.
Bankruptcy Isn’t the End of Our Story—It’s the Beginning!
After their consistent work led to a series of successes without much difficulty, Small Letter f had to face an unexpected “failure”. As they hadn’t experienced a rupture of this kind before, the group was gripped by fear. Exhausted in both mind and body, they couldn’t think of creating anything new. At this point, they decided to disclose their current situation as is.
“We didn’t want to be in our own videos… but neither did we have money to pay someone else (laughter). That’s how we thought of this project.” (Mandoo)
Hence, the Three Broke Women series was born. There are some fictionalized aspects as is usually the case for content in the web entertainment genre, but each member of the group appears as themselves and more or less tells their own stories. Remarkably, they open up on topics that many want to avoid: business failure, and running out of money.
The launch of Three Broke Women came as a surprise to those who had been supporters of Small Letter f. “We felt some pressure since we knew some people would be disappointed and say things like ‘They were our role models… We wanted to be like them…’” Although the thought of betraying expectations weighed heavy on their minds, the group members say it also made them more determined to communicate this type of story.
“Since there aren’t many cases of success, a small number of people [known to the public] have to work hard to prove that they are successful. But I started to think, ‘Why aren’t women even given the opportunity to fail?’” (Misajang)
“I thought, isn’t it okay to share a different story (other than one about success)? Instead of fading into the background because we failed, we decided to do what we can, and to share that with people.” (Yosei)
“We Need Laughter, Too”
Wouldn’t portraying oneself as a “broke woman” slip into self-degradation? When asked if they felt any hesitation in this regard, the three broke women emphasized, “We don’t think we’ve abandoned our dignity in this current state.” “Though we don’t have money, we haven’t given up on leading lives that fulfills us as humans.”
In the “Three Broke Women” videos, the group members buy tickets to a pop idol’s concert or enjoy delicious meals out despite their near-zero account balance. Such scenes show each person’s efforts to find and cherish small joys in life.
“In the film Microhabitat (directed by Go-woon Jeon, 2018), the protagonist who doesn’t have enough money to pay rent gives up on having a place to live in and chooses to buy cigarettes and whiskey instead. Each person has different values about what is important in their lives. As a self-employed freelancer, I think my mental and physical state is linked to profit, and so taking care of myself is important to me. That’s why I also keep exercising regularly, though some people might see that as being indulgent. For me it’s as necessary as the water we need to live as humans.” (Misajang)
The members of Small Letter f alluded to the precariousness of their lives by saying that life as poor, young, self-employed/freelancer women means “being unable to predict what will happen even in the next month”. But they also harbor dreams of “creating more, and making bigger projects” as they continue to show up to work five days a week at the café which is their workspace.
“It might be odd to say this since we’re not even making enough to pay ourselves (laughing), but I want to work with more women. I want to give, and receive, fair wages.” (Mandoo)
Hearing that they hope to work with more women on bigger projects despite the difficult situation they are in made me wonder what kind of work they are dreaming of. What keeps these women going? Mandoo said, “There’s a lot of content out there, but I don’t think there’s much that (queers/feminists) can enjoy. I want to make content that we can enjoy.”
“We need laughter, too. I want to make content that doesn’t make the viewers uncomfortable, to show people that you can be funny without being insensitive. I want to challenge the stereotype that politically correct content is not fun.”
Dreams aren’t the only thing that keeps the Small Letter f members going. The members also have great faith in each other. “If I failed in a project of my own, I’d have stopped. But since we’re a team of three, we can trust and rely on each other and keep going.” The three members’ relationship is another piece of evidence that disproves the popular idea that solidarity between women as colleagues doesn’t exist.
Every day, there are reports about the rising number of self-employed business owners, their bankruptcies and failures, and how this affects the economy. Though not visible in such news reports, young women who are queer/feminist self-employed business owners also exist, and they too are working hard to keep going.
Small Letter f say that they want to “persist” in 2019. They say they are “continuously experimenting” to avoid quietly disappearing, to preserve their dignity and protect the values they believe in. “We’re continuing to work on it, so we hope viewers will keep watching even if some things make them wonder, ‘Why are they doing that?’”
As I listened to these words, I thought that the Small Letter f members should be included in the ‘we’ of “we need laughter, too”. When the Small Letter f members are able to laugh, the people watching them will also be able to. I hope that Small Letter f will continue to be who they are, and face challenges without sacrificing their own capacity for laughter. In the new year, I hope many more diverse stories about women’s successes and failures will come to be shared in our society.
Published Dec. 14, 2018
Translated by Hoyoung Moon
Original article: http://ildaro.com/8367
◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).
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