Analysis & Comment

Opinion | The Little Symbol Triggering Men in South Korea’s Gender War

SEOUL — One day, she was an ordinary working woman in South Korea, married with a son and designing ads for one of the country’s largest convenience store chains. The next day, she was branded a man-hating feminist on web forums popular with men, a “cancer-like creature” among an “anti-social group” of “feminazis.”

The hostility centered on an ad the woman had designed for camping products. It depicted a tent, a forest, a campfire and a large hand about to grasp a sausage. With its thumb and index finger pursed, the hand image is much like the pinching-hand emoji, a symbol often suggesting something is small.

Many men were furious, convinced it ridiculed the size of their genitals.

They threatened to boycott the multibillion-dollar company, called GS25. The woman, whose identity has been withheld by the company for her safety, desperately tried to defuse the situation. “I do not support any ideology,” she said in an online statement in May. She denied that her design was a veiled “expression of hate for men.”

Nonetheless, GS25 disciplined her and publicly apologized.

What happened to the woman was the latest salvo in South Korea’s war against feminists. It seems that men here need merely to express an affront to their male sensibilities, and businesses will bend over backward to soothe them. In recent months, the mob has dredged up all sorts of unrelated ads and howled “misandry!” In each instance, the ad has contained a depiction of fingers pinching some innocuous item — a credit card, a can of Starbucks espresso, even a Covid-19 vaccine. In many cases, the accused — including the national police agency and the defense ministry — removed the offending image and expressed regret for hurting men’s feelings.

There is precedent for the men’s interpretation, which they refer to in their accusations, but zero evidence of any political plot now: In 2015, a now disbanded Korean feminist group intentionally used pinching fingers as its logo. The symbol was meant, indeed mockingly, to mirror the objectification Korean women endure.

The animosity has intensified recently as Korean men grapple with a new wave of feminism that since about 2015 has achieved hard-won gains against a deeply entrenched patriarchy. The backlash, coupled with the ascension of a conservative political party angling to knock out its incumbent opponents, presents a serious danger to women’s rights and gender equality.

South Korea may be internationally regarded as an economic, technological and cultural powerhouse, but that reputation obscures what little power it cedes to women. The gender pay gap is the widest among advanced economies, at 35 percent, and sexist job recruitment abounds. More than 65 percent of companies listed on the Korean Exchange have no female executives. And the country is consistently ranked by The Economist as having the worst environment for working women among O.E.C.D. countries.

Women have pushed back, mounting what could be considered Asia’s most successful MeToo movement. But the reckoning has thrust society into a state of high tension: South Korea ranked first among 28 countries surveyed by Ipsos this year on conflict between the sexes.

Now, in the run-up to the March 2022 presidential election, the country’s conservative opposition party seems to be engineering a revival by exploiting the division. Last month, Lee Jun-seok, a men’s-rights crusader who amplified the charge of man hatred against GS25, was elected leader of the right-wing People Power Party. Arguing that today’s young men are targets of “reverse discrimination,” Mr. Lee is expected to wield considerable influence in the party and drum up huge support for its candidate. (Mr. Lee is 36; contenders must be at least 40.)

Mr. Lee has tapped a deep well of resentment among young men who say they’re victims of the zeitgeist. His signature claim is that gender disparity is exaggerated and women get too much special treatment. He has dismissed young women who’ve protested discrimination as having a “groundless victim mentality,” and he wants to abolish the gender equality ministry. The toxic political climate he has created could jeopardize many women-friendly policies, such as hiring more women to senior positions and combating gender violence, regardless of whether President Moon Jae-in’s incumbent Democratic Party is dethroned.

But Mr. Lee has reason to be confident: In the bellwether Seoul mayoral election in April, about 70 percent of men in their 20s and younger voted for the conservative candidate — almost equal to the conservative votes cast by men 60 and older.

As the anti-women pushback intensifies, the excitement felt by feminist millennials powering the recent movement has been replaced by dread and despair. Women have told me they feel suffocated, anxious not to enrage the online masses. Another commercial designer, in a tragicomic attempt to avoid the pinching gesture, told me she was considering using chopsticks to point at products. A freelance writer said she removed all work related to feminism from her portfolio.

Though many of the women I spoke to feel besieged and isolated, they’re determined to push ahead.

This month, a group of feminists denounced “the misogynists who attack innocent citizens” in a petition and drew more than 1,000 cosignatories. Their wish list includes stricter monitoring of the male-dominated online forums that are “breeding grounds” for threats of violence against feminists. They also want measures to curb misogyny on social media and YouTube.

There’s even a beleaguered bill that would outlaw discrimination based on gender, sexual identity or ethnicity, among other things, though its passage is far from ensured, given the opposition to feminist activism.

Many South Korean women refuse to return to antiquated ideals of unquestioning, uncomplaining mothers and caregivers. Our feminist awakening has given us the language to redefine our lives and name the resentment we couldn’t describe before. “We can’t go back to the past now,” said Lee Hyo-rin, who began fighting spycam-porn crimes after discovering feminism in 2016. “We will ride it out — no matter how high the tide is and no matter what these pathetic sexists say.”

Hawon Jung (@allyjung) is the author of a forthcoming book on South Korea’s MeToo movement, “Flowers of Fire,” and a former reporter for Agence France-Presse’s Seoul bureau.

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