Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar winning film Parasite? University strikes? What similarity isn’t there to draw between the two?
Despite my facetious tone and aggressive climb on to the post-Oscar’s “let’s talk about Parasite and its social commentary” bandwagon, I actually think there is some value in trying to understand a bit more about the University Strikes, in the light of the conversations about class and social structure that Bong Joon-Ho’s film has provoked.
In case you’ve missed pop media’s awards season feeding frenzy, Bong Joon-Ho’s film Parasite is the first non-English language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Understandably, this success has managed to cause quite the disturbance, as god-forbid the moguls of Hollywood decide to crown a film about anything other than Hollywood itself the best thing to come out of Hollywood for another year. To add even further insult to injury, imagine such a film creating a cutting and acerbic criticism of capitalist class structures that Hollywood exists within. Just in case you still have no idea about what I’m on about and need a quick catch up: Parasite is a film set around two families in a urban South Korea, where one family, the Kims, seek societal and monetary elevation by taking advantage of service jobs offered by the wealthy Park family.
The ambiguity of the title “Parasite” sits well with the themes of the film; there is a clear divide between the two socioecomically different families and the audience is asked who is parasitic to the other. We are asked to question whether it is the Park’s reaping reward from the labour of the Kim’s, or the Kim’s achieving success through a deceitful exploitation of the Parks. Although I wish I could, I will not attempt to answer those questions myself, especially not for the sake of spoiling the film for those yet to see it.
Something I cannot spoil however, are the ongoing UCU (University College Union) strikes taking place across 59 British universities, and although we are finally in the last week of them, the impact across all student groups has been clear. At York, the UCU have decided to strike on a number of issues including workload and wellbeing; casual staffing/employment contracts; and the gender and related pay gaps. To crudely map this scenario onto the dynamics of Parasite, the student’s are paying customers, employing our lecturers to teach them, therefore perhaps becoming Park’s, while our hard-working lecturers become the Kim’s.
Obviously this mapping has a lot of serious problems. The socioeconomic insecurity of domestic work cannot be compared to university lecturing, and the class dynamic between the two ‘families’ is no longer apt. Lecturers cannot be easily replaced in the way the Park’s housekeeper, or chauffeur could be. Indeed, to even take the decision to strike implies a certain level of financial security that a lot of minimum wage service jobs simply do not have. However, this does not mean that there is no exchange of services taking place. Just as critics and audiences were asked to think about the families of Parasite and their financial and emotional relationship to each other, we can ask the same questions about the relationship between university lecturers and their students.
But, the relationships are not quite as simple as at first glance and when we take a wider look at the strikes a new key player can be found. There is a third party involved, a broker, a middleman, the imagined staffing agency created by the Kim’s is real, and takes the form of the university itself. Perhaps it is unfair to brand the University simply a staffing agency, but in this scenario, it is the university to whom each student pays £9,250 or more each year to, and it is (in simplistic terms) from that payment our lecturers get paid. Indeed, it is the university who are employing the lecturers, not us. So perhaps it would be worth changing our metaphor: with the university becoming the Park’s, and lecturers the Kim’s, we as students become the Park children Ki-jung and Ki-woo: trapped to the whim of our parents demands and household.
Of course, it is impossible to perfectly map these scenarios onto each other, but by looking at the strikes with an eye to mutually ambiguous parasitic behavior we can understand a little more of the motive behind each player. It is clear that the university is taking advantage of their staff’s casual working hours, unfair workloads and pensions, and it is also clear that they are taking advantage of the high fees that we as student pay each year with the hope that we will send vexation towards our teacher and not them, ‘the agency’ that provides them. There is no clear and pithy ending to this piece, but hopefully I can give you one or two small takeaways: if you haven’t already, go and watch the film Parasite, and secondly don’t be passive in this strike action. Although all discussion of the matter might get washed away by deadlines, dissertations and the impending national Corona lockdown, bear in mind that students are in essence paying customers. They will always find new student’s willing to pay the money, but we cannot easily up and leave.
Support the strikes and stay safe xx