In honor of My Girlfriend is a Gumiho
this week, we thought it would be a good time to define what a gumiho
is, and discuss this mythical creature’s cultural implications on
gender, film, and tv. This isn’t a comprehensive definition, by any
means, because there are endless number of myths, folktales, films, and
dramas that feature gumihos in them. But I’ll cover the basics and
discuss what’s interesting about this figure from a cultural point of
[구미호] is a nine-tailed fox, a legendary
creature with origins in ancient Chinese myths dating back centuries.
There are versions of the figure in Chinese and Japanese folklore,
although each differs slightly. The Chinese huli jing
and the Japanese kitsune
have more ambiguous moral compasses, in that they can be both good and
bad, and are not necessarily out to get everyone. The Korean gumiho, on
the other hand, is almost always a malignant figure, a carnivore who
feasts on human flesh.
According to legend, a fox that lives a thousand years turns into a
gumiho, a shape-shifter who can appear in the guise of a woman. A gumiho
is evil by nature, and feeds on either human hearts or livers
(different legends specify one or the other) in order to survive. The
Chinese huli jing
is said to be made up of feminine energy (yin) and needs to consume male energy (yang) to survive. The Japanese kitsune
can be either male or female, and can choose to be quite benevolent.
The Korean gumiho is traditionally female. Some can hide their gumiho
features, while other myths indicate that they can’t fully transform
(ie. a fox-like face or set of ears, or the tell-tale nine tails).
Either way there is usually at least one physical trait that will prove
their true gumiho form, or a magical way to force them to reveal this
Much like werewolves or vampires in Western lore, there are always
variations on the myth depending on the liberties that each story takes
with the legend. Some tales say that if a gumiho abstains from killing
and eating humans for a thousand days, it can become human. Others, like
the drama Gumiho: Tale of the Fox’s Child
, say that a gumiho
can become human if the man who sees her true nature keeps it a secret
for ten years. Regardless of each story’s own rules, a few things are
always consistent: a gumiho is always a fox, a woman, a shape-shifter,
and a carnivore.
Now on to the cultural meanings. A fox is a common figure in many
different cultures that represents a trickster or a smart but wicked
creature that steals or outwits others into getting what it wants.
Anyone who grew up on Aesop’s Fables knows the classic iteration of the
fox figure in folklore. And it’s not hard to see how the fox got such a
bad rap. The animal is a nocturnal hunter and a thief by nature, and is
known the world over for its cunning mind.
In Korea, the fox has a second cultural implication—that of sexual cunning. The word for fox, yeo-woo
[여우] is actually what Koreans call a woman who is, for lack of a better
translation, a vixen, a siren, or a sly man-eater. There is a similar
English equivalent in the phrase “you sly fox,” although in Korean it’s
gender-specific (only women get called yeo-woo), and has a much more
predatory “there-you-go-using-your-feminine-wiles-to-trick-me” kind of
meaning behind it. Women who use any sort of feminine charm in an overt
way, or women who are overtly sexualized (as in, asserting and
brandishing their sexuality in a bold way), get called “yeo-woo.”
Interestingly, the word for “actress” [여배우] is the same in its shortened
It is not by mistake that gumihos are only beautiful women. They are a
folkloric way to warn men of the pitfalls of letting a woman trick you
or seduce you into folly. For an example, see this translation
of a classic gumiho tale. In many stories the hero of the tale (always a
man) has to “endure” the seduction and unclothe the gumiho, thereby
revealing her true form. Thus a woman’s true nature, her hidden
sexuality = demon.
WTF, Korean folktales?
The concept of female sexuality as dangerous is nothing new to
folklore, for sure. But it’s not a stretch to say that both the gumiho
figure and the use of “yeo-woo” are quite prevalent in modern culture
and its fiction. Most people may gloss over the fact that the gumiho
myth is a story designed to uphold patriarchy. But that’s what makes
such a legend so cunning in its own right.
In film and tv, the gumiho can be both a horrific figure and a
straight-up demon, or a comically laughable one, depending on the genre.
And throughout the ages the gumiho legend has changed, as in Gumiho: Tale of the Fox’s Child
‘s take on the tortured gumiho with a kind soul who longs to be human
and spares men’s lives. She is a reluctant demon who chooses to walk the
fine line of morality in order to hold onto her human traits. This
interpretation is much closer to the vampire-with-a-soul mythology, as
one being battles the demon within.
But one interesting thing to note in that drama is that the child,
once she comes of age, transforms into a gumiho herself and struggles
with that overpowering demonic force. One can’t help but draw parallels
to a young girl’s own coming of age and sexual development, and how this
myth only serves to further demonize a woman’s sexuality as something
uncontrollable and evil that befalls even the most innocent of young
girls. In this, and other more overtly sexualized depictions, the gumiho
serves to downgrade female sexuality as demonic and directly carnivorous
All this isn’t to say that female writers couldn’t take ownership of
such a legend and reclaim it. I think that’s the only way to take it out
of this territory and blast all these old versions away with something
empowered. Do I think that’s what the Hong sisters’ goal is? Not
outright. And I’m definitely not going to be watching that rom-com for
its stellar commentary on gender politics. What I will
is looking forward to the reversal, the woman-on-top dynamic of the
beta male dating a powerful gumiho, and crossing my fingers for a step
in the right direction.