"My life is not your porn"
Women in South Korea Are Rising Up Against Sexism
By Georgina Guthrie
February 23, 2019
A 23-YEAR OLD woman steps inside a public restroom in a well-heeled district of Seoul. Minutes later, she’s bleeding to death on the bathroom floor.
Outside, skyscrapers loom over the neon-lit street. Waves of pedestrians surge through the cold night air before disappearing into the cut glass dome that marks the entrance to Exit 10 of Gangnam Station.
Moments before her death, a 34-year-old man, identified only as “Kim”, waited in the nearby unisex toilet with a sushi knife. He hid there for nearly an hour, letting six men go by unscathed. When a woman finally entered, he pounced and fatally stabbed her. He was unknown to her, and she to him.
The following day, the glass dome of Exit 10 was swathed in pastel-coloured notes. Hundreds of plastic-wrapped Chrysanthemums rose from the pavement and pressed up against the glass, their scent mingling with exhaust fumes from the nearby road. Some of the messages were visible: “Your luck was bad, mine was good. I’m angry at this reality.” “I know I could’ve been you, you could’ve been me,” says another.
The killer was later arrested and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He claimed his reason for murdering the 23-year-old was that he had been repeatedly mistreated by women, though authorities were reluctant to call the act a hate crime due to his history of mental illness and schizophrenia.
Fast forward two years to the day and Exit 10 is once again covered in pastel-coloured notes. At seven in the evening, on the 17 May 2018, crowds of women and men wearing surgical masks gather together. They slowly march towards the station exit, then symbolically remove the masks indicating their refusal to be silenced. They are part of a growing number of people protesting misogyny and gender violence in South Korea.
Fourth wave feminism—which began in the West in around 2012—emerged in South Korea in 2015 when Megalia, one of South Korea’s biggest radical feminist online forums, initiated a movement to stop the privacy-violating porn-sharing site SoraNet. Founded in 2015, Megalia’s goal was to “promote women’s rights and remove misogyny widespread in the Korean society.” But its reputation was tarnished by its users’ tendency to share misandrist views and practice TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism)—which limits those who are able to join in the movement to biological women.
WOMAD, another radical feminist site, emerged after Megalia banned its forum users for engaging in hate speech. It’s misandry is more extreme: one woman reported to have bragged she aborted her baby because it was a “boy.” Another reportedly shared an image of a strangled cat, saying it deserved the treatment “because it was male”. Unsurprisingly, both sites’ polarizing rhetoric fuelled misunderstanding and failed to capture the attention of a wider audience.
The 2016 Gangnam murder case sent ripples through the region and sparked a wider debate about sexism in what has been a traditionally patriarchal society. This wasn’t the first voice protesting against what women in Korea see as an array of restrictions affecting their lives, but it was the loudest: both the murder case and the ensuing protests have gone on to receive global media attention.
South Korea is now embroiled in one of the most vicious fights for gender rights happening in Asia. The explosion of feminism coincides with the #MeToo movement, which fuelled a string of sexual harassment allegations in the country beginning with one woman’s public testimony against a government official.
Protests are becoming more regular, and last June, over 40,000 women gathered in central Seoul holding picket signs saying, “My life is not your porn” in response to the country’s ‘spycam epidemic’. Spycam porn, or molka as it’s known in South Korea, involves small hidden cameras capturing women—and sometimes men—going to the toilet or undressing in public changing rooms.
The number of cases reportedly jumped to nearly 6,500 in 2017, from around 1,100 in 2010, and though police arrest thousands, the perpetrators are rarely punished. Women using public restrooms still routinely check for cameras, and it’s common to see tiny wads of toilet roll squashed into holes, the ends of screws and anywhere else that could potentially conceal a small hidden device.
Some experts blame Korea’s spycam porn on the country’s decision to ban the production of pornography in what is otherwise a developed, technologically-advanced country. Others believe it’s a problem of male entitlement: South Korea holds deeply conservative Confucian values, which place women as inferior to men. The country ranked 118th out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2018 measure of gender equality. Many women are excluded from the workforce for having children after companies refuse to take them back or provide adequate childcare options, and women earn, on average, two thirds of what the average man makes.
In terms of behaviour and appearances, men and women are also held to vastly different standards. Last April, a news anchor caused a scandal when she chose to wear glasses on-air, despite her male counterparts doing so for years. Women are also expected to wear a full face of makeup to work, and neglecting to do so is seen as unprofessional.
Recently, women have begun seeking freedom from this obligation. In June last year, YouTube star Lina Bae received both messages of encouragement and death threats after posting a video of herself removing her makeup. The video, which over six million people have viewed, sees her applying foundation, false eyelashes, lipstick and eyeshadow, before wiping the whole lot off and saying “Don’t exploit yourself because of who others think you are.”
“I think a lot of Korean women are wearing an ‘appearance-corset’,” she later told the BBC. “They have this immense fear of the face they show to others. I heard that women feel especially shameful when they hear that they are ugly. I was like that as well.”
Inspired by the #MeToo movement, Korean protesters calling themselves “beauty resistors” are removing their makeup, smashing cosmetics and shaving their heads, then posting the results online with the hashtag #feminist (#페미니스트). They are part of a growing number of women rejecting demanding beauty regimes and societal pressures piled upon them.
Dubbed “Escape Corset” (탈코르셋), the movement’s name references the harmful garment designed to restrict and contort a woman’s natural shape. The protesters aren’t literally removing corsets, they’re publicly renouncing anything that forces them to conform at the expense of their own comfort or ambition. This includes time-consuming makeup regimes, uncomfortable clothes and contact lenses.
One woman tells the UK Guardian about her experience destroying her cosmetics: “I felt as if I had been born again. There’s only so much mental energy a person has each day, and I used to spend so much of it worrying about being ‘pretty’. Now I use that time to read books and exercise.”
While every country has its own ideal, South Korea’s version of beauty comes with a very narrow set of features: large doll-like eyes, a sharp V-shaped chin and pale, porcelain skin. Korea has now become the new plastic surgery capital of the world, and one poll revealed as many as 50 per cent of women in their 20s have gone under the knife. The most popular procedures are skin lightening, nose jobs, and double-eyelid surgery, where surgeons insert a crease in the eyelid to make the eye look bigger—though it would be a mistake to think their beauty ideal is Western: South Korean beauty has its own unique aesthetic.
Success is often synonymous with looks, and loving parents put money aside not for university or college, but for their children’s cosmetic procedures. Plastic surgery is viewed as a positive way to achieve one’s goals and in the country’s hyper-competitive job market, it pays to be attractive. Meanwhile, shrewd surgeons reportedly hand pamphlets to young girls after school: they know where their future profits lie.
“I watched my 28-year-old co-teacher (who is already smaller than I’ll ever be) starve herself every day on a diet of black beans, grapes, and weight-loss shakes. And I saw high school students get handed pamphlets on plastic surgery as they left school” Buzzfeed journalist Ashly Perez writes.
In 2017, the K-beauty market was valued at $13 billion, close to outstripping the region’s vast tech export industry. It has enjoyed massive success in both the East and the West, with many American and British beauty companies dedicating portions of their site to promoting the region’s sought-after products. South Korea pioneered the dewy skin look and a notorious ten-step care regime for perfect skin that includes the use of multiple products per day, each designed to cleanse, tone, scrub, buff, moisturize, nourish and protect. Though the benefits of such an onslaught of chemicals are negligible, specific beauty ideals displayed through pervasive advertising convince many that ‘perfection’ is possible, achievable, necessary.
Plastic surgery and the universal use of makeup are deeply entrenched in Korean culture, buoyed by advert-lined subways, reality TV shows and another of South Korea’s biggest exports, K-pop. It’s an industry that peddles synth-drenched plastic-perfect dance routines and entertaining, but often incredibly sexist imagery in which women are all too often infantilized and objectified. Despite the glitter and glamour, multibillion-dollar corporations extort enormous profits from their stars’ performances while handing over minimum pay and tying them to grueling work regimes and 10-year contracts. Women in K-pop are subject to some of the nation’s most extreme double-standards.
There have been at least three high-profile instances of stars being publically vilified for conducting discreet relationships, while their male counterparts enjoy the freedom to conduct themselves as they see fit. The female stars are seen as more marketable when they’re unattached romantically, and rumours claiming the contrary often mark the end of a career: fans expect their idols to be youthful and available.
Associating with feminism is another reason fans disown a performer. Red Velvet’s lead singer, Irene, received criticism from male audiences after revealing she’d just finished reading Kim Ji-young, Born in 1982, an iconic feminist novel in South Korea. And when APink’s Naeun posted a photo of herself on Instagram clutching a Zadig & Voltaire phone case bearing the slogan ‘girls can do anything’, male fans were quick to heap abuse onto her.
Though sexist imagery in the music industry certainly isn’t unique to South Korea, the country’s standards are particularly restrictive. Many performers—male and female—are pressured to undergo plastic surgery prior to their public debut, and adult female stars are denied personal lives.
Inspired by burgeoning feminist protests and emboldened by the #MeToo movement, some performers are beginning to push back against double standards. Miss A’s I Don’t Need a Man opens with the line ‘This is for all the independent ladies”, before parodying a pervasive misogynistic South Korean stereotype known as the Kimchi Girl—a materialistic woman who demands money and respect from men without reciprocation.
Outside the bubblegum world of K-pop, Korean female performers are even more outspoken. Solo artist Sleeq raps “What you want is for women to serve in the military / What I want is for men not to kill women”, while singer Yezi attacks sexist double standards, rapping “You think I would stay being an idol if the pay is shit? / Motherfuckers who diss me because of my reason to rap / Jacking off while watching my breast shot gifs”.
Nevertheless, feminism is still considered a dirty word. Though many men are in favour of gender equality, there is disagreement and miseducation surrounding the term, and some believe Korea’s current articulation of feminism stands for superiority and personal gain rather than equal rights.
The #MeToo movement has also struggled, with prominent figures facing backlash for voicing their support. Many were left angry after the first big sexual assault case was closed with a ‘not guilty’ verdict. Women often hide their faces when taking part in protests for fear of losing their jobs. 2016’s murder case protests were tinged with misogyny, as counter-protesters added their own responses to the messages stuck to Exit 10. “Ugly Korean women can relax,” said one. “No one’s going to touch you so stop worrying and use the public bathrooms as much as you need.”
The “Escape Corset” movement has its own critics as well. One woman told the BBC “Some are saying that if you wear makeup, you are not a feminist. Even though you might like makeup, you might feel the need to conform. In some cases, it feels like the free corset movement is becoming the new corset.”
Cultural prejudices may also impede protests from garnering wider support from other liberal groups, such as gay rights activists and feminist men. Organizers of the recent spycam protests received criticism after blocking the participation of those who weren’t ‘biological women’, a choice that will limit support on a global scale. However, the spycam protests are just one articulation of feminism and a small part of the wider campaign, and women are pushing back in more ways than one.
Change is inevitable. As one of the protest organizers told the Agence France-Presse news agency: “The pent-up anger among women has finally reached a boiling point.” 2016’s Gangnam murder protests were just the beginning of what has exploded into a globally-recognized campaign for equality. Grassroots protests, such as the Escape Corset movement, have whipped up global support online because they are easy to join, and they speak directly to women’s’ daily experiences.
This May, crowds gathered at Gangnam train station for the third time to leave messages and defiantly march towards Exit 10. Those brave enough to take a stand have an enormous fight ahead, but much to gain. As Lee Na-Young, a women’s studies professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul told the UK Guardian. “These women are experiencing liberation, and once they experience that, there’s no going back.” ❖