No need to mention cheap panties or car sex: The body and smell of the underclass as upper-class fantasies fodder — Aya Ragragio

The smell of the “underclass” is one of the most prominent and much-commented motif of the multi-awarded film Parasite (Bong Joon-Ho, 2019). But hewing closely to the movie’s overt themes of class conflict, these remarks on the motif of smell more often dwell upon how it both reinforces the class divide (no matter how much money the lower-class Kim family earns, their smell still gives them away as “poor”) and violates it to the disturbance of the upper class (in rich patriarch Park Dong-ik’s words, it “crosses the line”). Here I wish to look instead at how smell functions in the realm of fantasy via a couple of specific scenes in the film.

After the rich Parks (father Dong-ik, mother Yeon-kyo, daughter Da-hye, and son Da-song) decide to come home from a camping trip earlier than expected, the poor Kims (father Ki-taek, son Ki-woo, and daughter Ki-jung) get trapped underneath the massive living room coffee table in the opulent Park family home. As they begin to settle in for the night, Da-song capriciously decides to sleep out on the lawn in his “Indian” tent under the rain. The Park parents indulge him and decide to sleep on the living room sofa to be able to keep watch, unaware that the Kims were right there. What almost gives them away was Mr. Kim’s smell, which Dong-ik senses and perturbs him.

Dong-ik’s disturbance at catching a whiff of Ki-taek (which he must think impossible as he knows that Ki-taek isn’t there) punctures his sense of home and comfort. He tries to talk to his wife about it and draw some sense of recognition and commiseration from her, but she doesn’t seem to understand his unease. Having failed here, Dong-ik then tries to resolve this opened gap by being amorous to Yeon-kyo. As they start to engage in foreplay, Dong-ik (in order to heighten the experience further) conjures the idea of sex in the backseat of a car.

Earlier in the film, the Kims had eased out Yoon, the family driver, via sexual innuendo—i.e., that Yoon had been having sex with disreputable women in the backseat of the Park luxury car. Ki-jung had left a pair of used panties in the car a few days before in a spot where Dong-ik was sure to spot them. The Park couple’s “discovery” and discussion of Yoon’s supposed exploits is a study in disgust and disavowed fascination. When Dong-ik finds Ki-jung’s panties caught in between the car upholstery, he fishes them out with a pen and sniffs at them. Coming home he shows the panties to Yeon-kyo, who exclaims, “He must be a pervert. He likes it in the car. Oh that’s gross! In his boss’ car!”

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In what perhaps was an effort to appear liberal, Dong-ik avers that other people’s sex lives is none of his business. But he very quickly asks, “But why in my car? … Does dripping his sperm on my seat turn him on?” As they reach the conclusion that Yoon must go, appearances win out as the couple agrees: “No need to mention panties or car sex. We don’t need to stoop to that level, do we?”

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However, returning to the Parks about to have sex on their living room sofa, not only does Dong-ik evoke the very same “transgression” Yoon was supposedly guilty of (and for which he was dismissed), he moreover looks for the very same “cheap panties” they believe to have belonged to Yoon’s sexual partner. He tells his wife: “If you wear those, I’ll get really fucking hard.”

What I want to point out here is twofold. First, this sexual act ensued out of the deadlock of the visceral problem about the “smell” of the “other”. As a Lacanian objet in this scene, the cheap panties and its smell acts as a screen/fantasy window of desire to heighten the “thick” workings of libidinal enjoyment that is also working at the unconscious, fantasmatic level—even if Dong-ik is conscious of its mediative role.

Second, the fantasy that the Park couple mobilizes for their own sexual pleasure is one that they had appropriated from the lower class—the car sex and cheap panties that they had only recently treated with such repugnance when they thought it was a lowly employee who had been engaging in it. It is not enough to have an “other” as fantasy: the “other” has a class structure. In a way this is akin to Žižek’s analysis of Titanic. Like Rose appropriating Jack’s “lower class vitality” in order to overcome her own crises, the Park couple likewise fall back on (what they thought were) poor Yoon’s exploits in the most vitality-affirming activity of sex.

What analyses of Parasite that dwell on material and structural concerns crucially miss is that not only do the rich parasitize the poor by expropriating their labor and other material dimensions of lived experience, but that they also parasitize their fantasies (sexual or otherwise), these visceral scenarios which in the world of (upper-class) appearances are deemed uncouth and elicit revulsion.

Aya Ragragio is an anthropologist and archaeologist. She is also married to someone who fancies himself to be Lacanian.

 

One comment

  1. What you have written explains well what I sensed when watching that part of the film. Apart from what bourgeois men have got up to since time immemorial, there is the traditional attraction of the bourgeois woman to “a bit of rough”, for example in ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, and also the role of the carpenter, milkman and plumber in urban legend.

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