When archer An San created history at the Tokyo Olympics 2020, it was undoubtedly a landmark moment. However, soon after, there was a flood of comments on South Korean online community forums claiming that she was a feminist and so, must be condemned. It was even suggested that her medals be taken away.
What launched all of the tirade you may ask? Her haircut. Her closely cropped, short hair, apparently a symbol of her being feminist, overshadowed all her achievements and launched an online hate campaign. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon in South Korea, thanks to its growing and well-established anti-feminist movement.
Origins of the Movement
The anti-feminist movement in South Korea rose almost simultaneously with its #MeToo and #mylifeisnotyourporn movements around 2018. The latter was primarily in response to the skyrocketing number of spy cam sexual harassment cases where unsuspecting women were filmed secretly, from public bathrooms to public transports, hotel and motel rooms, and even schools and later, often threatened with these videos.
There are several reasons that have been stated for this disturbing emphasis of beliefs. In 2017, former President Park Geun-hye was impeached. One of the most prominent cases which led to this was her severe mishandling of the Sewol Ferry Incident where over 300 passengers died, most of whom were students on a field trip. Park was a woman, a fact that many young men of the country do not fail to emphasise every time.
Young Korean men, faced with a severely competitive job market seem to view the feminist movement as a force that is actively against them and is providing unfair benefits to women. All this while, South Korea ranked at rock bottom on The Economist’s glass-ceiling index for the tenth consecutive year since the index’s inception in 2013. According to the annual index, South Korea’s score hovered around 20 out of 100, ranking the lowest among 29 OECD member nations. South Korea has the highest gender wage gap among the wealthy countries. Less than one-fifth of its national lawmakers are women and they make up only 5.2 percent of the board members of publicly listed businesses, compared with 28 percent in the United States.
“Young South Koreans, born in the late 1990s when South Korea was well into being a prosperous liberal democracy, have little sense of the historical struggles that defined the older generations, such as the Korean War or the fight against military dictators for democracy. Instead, their struggle is with a series of examinations: entrance exams for high schools, entrance exams for colleges, and entrance exams for high paying, secure jobs,” observes S. Nathan Park in Foreign Policy. Obsessed with meritocracy, this generation of angry, young South Korean men have developed a “distorted moral sensibility, where the poor are to blame for their own suffering.”
“Inequality is one of the most delicate issues in South Korea, a nation with deepening economic uncertainty, fed by runaway housing prices, a lack of jobs and a widening income gap,” says Choe Sang-hun in New York Times. However, the men in the country are of the impression that they are the ones who are being discriminated against, especially stating that the compulsory military conscription (for about two years) of the country puts the men at a disadvantage in the job market. Choe mentions San E’s 2018 song, “Feminist” which has lyrics like, “What more do you want? We gave you your own space in the subway, bus, parking lot” and “Oh girls don’t need a prince! Then pay half for the house when we marry.”
Overwhelming Online Presence
Anti-feminist forums and communities online are huge. Feminists are often publicly targeted and hated on for a variety of things like cutting their hair short or reading feminist authors. They have targeted advertisements, women’s universities, and even the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, calling for its abolishment, stating it is a “waste” of taxpayers’ money. Celebrities seen to be reading feminist authors or showing support, have been the subject of netizen backlash. An anti-feminist website Check Femi categorised celebrities as “suspects”, “verified” and “cutting edge” feminists. The site administrator said the categorisation system was created to help people “pick feminists from the general public” and decide which celebrities to follow or not.
The digital violence and online hatred perpetrated through these forums is tremendous. The movement was always simmering but it reached concerning levels in the last couple of years, most notably when a camping product advertisement featuring a pinching gesture (with the thumb and index finger) from the company GS25 received enormous backlash. Anti-feminists claimed it was mocking men for being “small”. The person behind the advertisement, a woman, had to ultimately publicly “apologise”.
And sometimes, and now, increasingly often, the hate and harassment are not limited to the digital verse. According to New York Times, anti-feminist group New Man on Solidarity’s leader Bae In-kyu attended a recent feminist rally dressed as the Joker from “Batman”, armed with a toy water gun. He followed female protesters around, pretending to, as he put it, “kill flies.” Tens of thousands of fans have watched his stunts livestreamed online, sending in cash donations. During one online talk-fest in August, Bae raised nine million won ($7,580) in three minutes. Such theatrical show of the movement not only pose danger to women in real life, but also incite further violence.
The anti-feminist movement is at the forefront of the country’s 2022 Presidential elections. Young anti-feminist men are driving the elections and have become the targeted audience to gather precious winning votes. Promising to cater to their demands is conservative representative Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party. Some of the things that Yoon’s campaign is promising are the abolishment of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and increased penalties for people found to be false accusers of sex crimes.
Yoon’s major opponent is Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party. Both candidates had been accused of catering to anti-feminist sentiments and have recently, tried to reassure female voters. In a recent video, Park Ji-hyun, who had exposed the nth room scandal pleaded to the public to vote for Lee, stating that the opposition conservative party is running the most misogynistic candidacy in the history of South Korean Presidential elections.
This comes as a stark difference from the last elections in 2017 where current President Moon Jae-in was hailed as a “feminist President”. However, since then, there have been several high-profile sexual harassment cases involving celebrities, politicians and high-ranking officials, giving rise to men feeling extremely threatened by their so-called “vulnerability.” With young men outvoting women, there has been rising concerns, especially regarding Yoon’s campaign.
“The anti-feminists would definitely welcome a Yoon victory… But even if he becomes president, it is by no means a defeat for feminism in South Korea,” spokeswoman Shim from the feminist group Haeil said to VICE World News. “Gender equality and discrimination have risen to the forefront of public debate, demonstrating that feminism is still required for Korean society and also how much it is feared by male politicians in Korea.”
The Greater Implications
Although the anti-feminist movement in South Korea can be seen as an isolated and regional issue, especially given its growing political involvement, it is certainly not so. It is concerning how well established the movement in the country is and how it is growing to the point of gender equality government policies being threatened.
Not only is this deeply distressing for South Korean women, it undermines all the efforts and progress that have been made towards gender equality in the country till now and compromises the larger feminist movement. It is inciting and feeding the flames of increasingly polarised notions seen in the world at large currently. It is of utmost importance, therefore, that the voices of South Korean women be taken into stronger consideration, more efforts be made for their inclusion and the disillusionment by anti-feminist supporters be broken, before the roots of anti-feminism get an even firmer grip.
Editor’s Note: This article was published prior the latest election results.
Featured image source: The Diplomat