By: Meena Rakasi
There is hardly a single country left untouched by the #MeToo movement over the last year, and South Korea is certainly no exception.
The feminist movement started with stunning accusations against some of the most prominent men in power, from legendary poets and artists to presidential hopefuls. It also introduced feminism to the public forums.
In the wealthy, first-world country that consistently tops the list as the most educated in the world, it is surprising to note that “feminism” has been branded as synonymous with “female supremacy.” According to a Realmeter Survey, about 76% of Korean men in their twenties oppose the country’s feminist movement altogether. The country itself remains extremely patriarchal; in 2018, it ranked 115th out of 149 in terms of the gender gap from an analysis done by the World Economic Forum.
Yet, recently feminism has become a hot button topic in Korea. Before the #MeToo movement, the amount of disapproval any mention of the word caused silenced activists and feminists from talking for fear of personal retribution. A major turning point in the conversation was the popular girl group Apink’s Son Naeun’s post with a phone case that read “GIRLS CAN DO ANYTHING.”
After being accused of promoting feminism, her agency quickly took the post down, but unlike in the past, Korean feminists retaliated. #girlscandoanything trended on social media, and the issue was flooded with existing tension over the taboo state of Korean feminism.
Around the same time, South Korea’s National Police Agency found over 6,000 instances of illegal spy-cam filming in 2017 (a 360% increase since 2011), sparking fury in women across the country. The content of these films, or “molkas,” were usually women using public bathrooms (cameras would be hidden within the stall) or upskirt shots on the street. In almost none of the cases were the women aware of them being filmed, and the anger over lack of agency and intense violation of privacy led to the “spy-cam epidemic” movement. Over 40,000 protestors took to the streets in September 2018, making it the largest women’s protest in Korean history.
In response, the police have begun to crack down on perpetrators of this kind of sexual violence, including discovering some of the largest contributors to the spycam industry, but the only recently-consolidated Korean feminist energy hasn’t died down yet.
One of the most recent off-shoots of the Korean #MeToo movement is #escapethecorset, where Korean women question the gender-stratified need to spend countless hours in the quest to look “presentable.”
The movement found its establishing voice in Bae Eun-jeong (known online as Lina Bae), a 21-year-old beauty Youtuber. On June 4th, 2018, Bae posted a three-minute long Youtube video entitled “i am not pretty.” The video, reminiscent of My Pale Skin’s “YOU LOOK DISGUSTING” that made its rounds in 2015, shows Bae putting on makeup and taking it off, while cruel comments in the foreground disparage her for doing both.
Bae’s video quickly blew up and many followed suit by publicly trashing their makeup on social media. Comments like “I can’t believe I smeared these many chemicals on my face” typically accompanied posts of smashed lipstick and eyeshadows. Bae says in the video description, “Women are forced to wear a corset that makes one wake up an hour or two earlier to get ready. Some are even pressured to wear makeup to the supermarket because of their insecurities of their bare face.”
In South Korea, where over 22% of women undergo some form of plastic surgery and skincare is a cultural phenomenon flowing overseas as well, there is an extreme pressure for women (and men) to always appear competent, even aesthetically. This labor is known as “beauty work,” and not having the coveted style, look, or body type can label one as lazy. The #escapethecorset movement aims to alleviate the societal pressure of forced vanity, making it a choice instead of a necessity. Now, many Korean women are cutting their hair, going without makeup, or wearing glasses (contacts are the norm) in social media and in real life. Many write of experiences with backlash from those around them, but the majority speak of how liberating the change is. The hashtag was most popular in late 2018, but still has steady traction online.
The #MeToo movement has had lasting reverberations in South Korea spanning all kinds of gender-based violence and pressure. Its momentum has also galvanized the next wave of Korean feminists and activists. As Bae writes in her videos, “I wish and hope that the future generations live a better life with more freedom and better ideals.”