While the eyes of the world may be on Korea for an entirely different war, the current internal situation on the peninsula is boiling. It’s the guys against the girls and the girls against the guys, the gloves are off, and the F-word in this heated debate is… Feminism.
While mainly used as an empowering term with predominantly positive connotations in other spots on the globe (most men there have understood that being pro-women does not equal being anti-men), feminism is a completely differently loaded word in Korea.
Although things are certainly looking brighter than they did 50 years ago, Korea still has a long way to go in terms of gender equality. While the West has seen a significant increase in powerful women in both politics (a majority of Americans voted for a female president!), entertainment, and business, Korea still has relatively few female politicians and prominent female business personalities.
Those women who are then successful in the entertainment business are certainly talented, but most importantly – they are pretty. And they are mainly revered by the public for looking decades younger than their birth certificate states, and for having the perfect complexion, perfect hairstyle, perfect (and therefore unreal) body proportions… just being perfect. They are certainly pretty, but in my opinion, this cultivates the wrong ideas for a country not sure how to deal with this gendering. The female celebrities are inadvertently setting impossible standards for women to live up to while doing everything to look cute and sexy at the same time in order to cater to their male fans.
The Korean gender war has been going on for quite a while and hearing men calling women degrading terms like 된장녀, 김치녀, 맘충 (all degrading terms for women who just date so they can sponge off men) in public is common. Women also increasingly use the degrading term 한남충 (lit. meaning Korean man worm) toward Korean men who just fill them with disgust with their sexist and chauvinistic behavior. Korea is already a divided society with huge gaps across generations and religious beliefs. Adding a gender divide makes the country even more at odds with itself.
In the fall, I wrote a long review of the Korean novel “82년생 김지영” (Kim Jiyoung born in ’82). I grabbed it from the bestseller shelf, became completely absorbed and finished it in a matter of days. This book really resonated with me, and a lot of cultural aspects that had so far been a mystery to me suddenly made sense. In short, the book chronicles the life of Kim Jiyoung who is born in 1982, and how she’s discriminated against for being female in all aspects of her life. This book, which was published in late 2016 and became the most sold novel in 2017, has since then become a piece of heated controversy in Korean society. I’ve had a chance to discuss it with several of my female students, and many have said to me that even though they were born 12-13 years later, they have had many of the same experiences.
Here’s a short summary from The Korea Herald:
The book captures the everyday sexism Ji-young encounters from a very young age. As a child she is bullied by a male classmate, but when she complains, her teacher simply tells her, “Guys tend to bug girls they like.”
During a job interview, she is asked what she would do if she were sexually harassed at the workplace. Anxious that she might not get the position, she answers, “I would try to ‘naturally’ leave the situation by going to the bathroom.”
When Ji-young becomes pregnant, she is virtually forced to quit her job as she and her husband cannot afford child care. Hardly anyone ever offers a pregnant Ji-young a seat on public transportation.
After becoming a parent, she hears a stranger calling her a “mom-chung,” or “mom-worm,” a derogatory term to describe stay-at-home mothers who purportedly exploit their husbands’ hard-earned money. She was simply drinking coffee out in public, while her baby was asleep in a stroller.
From that day on, Ji-young develops a mental condition and eventually receives medical treatment.
The novel has been praised by progressive and left-wing politicians as a welcome feminist manifest to ignite the public gender debate while it’s been heavily criticized by more conservative groups.
Most recently, a member of the Korean girl band “Red Velvet” lost a lot of male followers on social media after having voiced praise for the book. When interviewed, some of the young men claimed that they could not endorse a celebrity who identified as “a feminist”. This in itself is extremely sexist, as no one voiced the same criticism towards the president or other male celebrities when they praised the book.
The conflict has even reached a point where young Korean men in their 20’s have started a crowdfunding campaign for a parody book titled 90년생 김지훈 (Kim Jihoon born in ’90) to show that Korean men of this generation are also victims of their gender. They point out that women are exempt from the mandatory military service, which all able-bodied Korean men spend around 2 years completing, arguing that this give the women a leg up in the job market.
While I definitely believe that Korean women experience more discrimination, I’m not deaf to the concerns expressed by the young men. Strictly speaking, they may have never felt any real male privilege (yet), and I can understand their frustrations, even if I don’t fully agree with them. They most certainly do have male privilege.
It still remains to be seen how Korea can bridge this divide between the genders. If the two parties continue to engage in cyberbullying and namecalling, I don’t see the conflict resolving anytime soon. Rather, it would be helpful if both sides tried to consider the matter in a more objective manner and have a civilized debate. In my opinion, it all starts with the un-demonizing (if it’s not a word, it is now) of the term feminism. Feminism is a movement for equal opportunities for men and women, not for making women more powerful than men. Before Korea realizes this fact, I have a hard time seeing how this conflict can be solved.