In Defense of Feminism

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A voice actress puts on a T-shirt that reads “Girls do not need a prince” and tweets the photo. That seemingly innocuous phrase prompts widespread accusations that she is a man-hater. Angry men bombards Nexon, a game company for which she did work, with complaints. The company terminates its relationship with her.

This is only the latest chapter in what is shaping up to be a significant year for South Korea’s fledgling feminism.

If you recall, it was less than three months ago that a young woman was brutally stabbed to death in a toilet near Gangnam subway station. Her male killer confessed to hating all women. In response, some young women created memorials decrying pervasive misogyny in South Korean society. Many men, and the police, denied that misogyny was the problem and accused women of taking advantage of the occasion to foster hatred against the male gender. ‘Women have plenty of rights, so what are they complaining about now?’ was the gist of the message I heard ricocheting around the South Korean cyberscape.

The battle scars from that confrontation, between men who say women already enjoy too many privileges and women who say misogyny is everywhere, had yet to fade away when this new scandal – which NPR dubbed South Korea’s “‘gamergate’ of its own” – erupted. Now webtoon artists who pledged support for the voice actress face a boycott against them. The Justice Party, usually the most sensible group in the National Assembly, issued a statement (since pulled from the party website) that a political opinion should not be the reason for losing one’s job, only to withdraw it following a backlash from angry, presumably male, party members. It seems each morning South Korean news sites carry yet more opinion pieces for and against the voice actress and her T-shirt.

So what exactly is problematic with saying “Girls do not need a prince” in South Korea?

The T-shirt in question was sold by a Facebook community called Megalia4, which has its origin in a controversial feminist site that Korea Exposé highlighted in a recent guest post. Best known for the technique of ‘mirroring’ – deploying, to ridicule and shame men, the same kind of derogatory language some men use against women – Megalia has been celebrated and demonized in equal measure since its creation around the time of the MERS outbreak last year.

The site has successfully promoted women’s rights in some cases – including bringing attention to South Korea’s abundant misogynistic cultural contents and shutting down a nasty website that circulated revenge porn and child porn, but members of Megalia (called Megalians) have also been accused of attacking other marginalized communities such as gay men (ostensibly for marrying unwitting straight women to hide their sexual orientation) and disabled men (because men, even when disabled, harbor the same kind of fetishistic desire for the female body as when they are able-bodied). The unfortunately blunt argument made by such women is that South Korean men, no matter of what stripe, are all enemies because they are genetically wired to act against women’s interest.

Because Megalia has become such a prominent face of South Korean feminism, those blunders have exposed all defenders of women’s rights to the charge that there is something inherently wrong and insidious about the cause. Men who have been waiting for exactly this kind of opportunity have leapt to insist that all of feminism, when stripped of its noble guise, is hatred for men and should be excised from this soil.

The voice actress in question has capitulated, apologizing that she hadn’t known enough about the group before she bought and wore the T-shirt. She has also explicitly criticized ‘mirroring’ that characterizes Megalia, calling it an act of “responding to hatred with hatred, which results in backlashes.” Knowing how much pressure she must have felt – South Korean internet users can be a terrifying lot when they decide to go after someone – I do not blame her trying to manage the situation.

But I feel more than a small tinge of regret at her apology and the sheer amount of vitriol now aimed at feminism in general. As I have argued elsewhere, patriarchy lives on in South Korea, women’s standing remains deplorably low and misogyny infects the way many people speak and behave. (To see concrete examples of the casual linguistic violence South Korean women endure on a daily basis, check out Amnesty International’s collaboration with magazine IZE – in Korean only.)

Sex crime, which disproportionately affects women, is a chronic problem now on the upswing. Specific terms for denigrating women are part of the popular lexicon, such as “vagina aristocrats,” for ostensibly relying on their gender to obtain preferential treatment; and “kimchi woman,” allegedly because South Korean women are genetically wired to be shallow and selfish. One disturbing saying is “Samil han”: The only way to keep women in their place is beating them once every three days.

The K-pop industry is a pioneer in fetishizing barely legal young women as consumer products, yet women are pushed to be silent when it comes to expressing their sexuality. Being ugly is social and professional suicide. Men can still get away with their inadequacies to a degree, even though, I accept, pressures on them are growing. Men may suffer discrimination but certainly almost never because of their gender, unlike women.

While dismissive attitudes toward sexual minorities and the disabled are unforgivable, I can at least understand why some women of Megalia and similar online communities have become so militant in their judgment on South Korean men as a collective. Women should be angry and fight back against discrimination. Some of them are bound to commit blunders in the process. More errors will undoubtedly arise before the movement congeals into a coherent force with a better-articulated, more sophisticated unifying ideology.

The opponents of women’s rights in this country do not care for such a future, and that is why such men have taken to calling themselves victims in this gender war. ‘Look at how they attack us. They are a hate group and must be suppressed.’ This spin suddenly casts the morally compromised male establishment as champion of decency; it also serves to undermine the entirety of the feminist movement as consisting of hate-mongering radicals. Self-righteous men now claim victimhood and power over women alike. Forgive me for being blunt, but such unwarranted wounded feelings, stemming from a fundamentally misguided worldview, scream gaejeossi.

South Korean conservatives have long used a similar strategy to contain progressive politics. Conservative media and politicians routinely deploy the dreaded label of jongbuk – meaning to be ‘sympathizers of North Korea’ – to smear those on the other end of the political spectrum as communists and reds, even when there is no basis for the name-calling. In this climate, even genuine social progressives who harbor no love for North Korea find it difficult to advocate necessary reform for fear of being branded. Want chabol reform? You are jongbuk. Want to demand more measures for public safety? You are definitely jongbuk. This is how the worst of conservative propaganda works.

Now we have a new label, a new form of attack in keeping with the new threat. It is ‘You are Megalian.’ Even what should be an uncontroversial stance – girls do not need a prince because why should they? – is judged and assailed as anti-social, and never evaluated for its own merit. Feminism is conflated with unadulterated hatred. Men who yearn to be prince – savior, master and women’s raison d’être – are beginning a witch hunt against any woman who dare to stand against them.

One way feminists deal with the attack has been to distance themselves from Megalia and to distinguish feminism from what the site espouses. It is what the voice actress has done in her apology, to suggest that there is a clear distinction between what Megalia does and what feminism signifies, i.e. she sympathizes with the statement on the T-shirt but does not with the organization behind it. Others argue that Megalia represents a stage before the arrival of feminism but does not embody feminism in its full glory; the two should not be equated.

But in addition to explaining and defending the true nature of South Korean feminism, it is essential to expose the current strategy against women’s rights for what it is: Claiming victimhood, angry men attempt to return themselves to a position of moral superiority, from which they can once again subjugate women. That this absurd representation of men as victims enjoys currency in South Korea is depressing. It also makes it all the more critical to support feminism against the onslaught of patriarchy.

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Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among other publications.