Korea’s Gender Imbalance: The Fight for Power

[su_heading size=”19″]In countries around the globe, the issue of gender equality is front and center—and some, simply don’t like that. [/su_heading]

In May, the BBC documentary Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes investigated the rise of online misogyny in the UK. Covering everything from rape jokes and twerking, to death threats and killing prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto V, it posed the question of whether the attacks are really anything new. Or are they just an inevitable consequence of social media, which women have to get used to?

But why are the (mainly) young men responsible so full of anger, and why do young women bear the brunt of that? Interviewee Laurie Penny, a journalist and frequent target herself, felt that both came “out of a deep sense of resentment at growing female power.” Martin Daubney, former editor of Loaded, agreed that “there’s no jobs for them, there’s no traditional gender role, and they see women going by them in the fast lane. Generations of defined gender models have just been thrown to the wind. I think men are frightened by that.”

Such developments are equally true of Korean society, which has already long been at the forefront of debates surrounding netizen behavior and control. But there are a number of additional factors that magnify the potential for male resentment of women here.

First, the obvious: male conscription, ranging from a period of 21 to 24 months. As Seungsook Moon demonstrated in her book Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea (2005), it is a crucial, deeply patriarchal socialization experience, and the basis of palpable male privilege in the long-term. But in the short-term? It’s dreaded and resented by young men, forced to waste the prime of their lives guarding the DMZ, while women remain free to work or gain extra qualifications. Add Korea’s jobless recovery from the financial crisis, rapidly rising income inequality, a minimal welfare state, and a growing ‘880,000-won generation’ doomed to many years of poorly paid, irregular work, and the potential for the scapegoating of women becomes obvious.

The Korean media is only too happy to oblige.

It does so in two ways. First, with a slew of programs deliberately perpetuate negative stereotypes, most notably that of the ‘beanpastegirl,’ referring to a woman who can only afford to eat cheap, pungent beanpaste stew because she spends most of her salary on Starbucks coffee and brand name handbags; and the more recent ‘kimchee bitch,’ or a woman who reaps all the benefits of today’s supposed gender equality but refuses to accept the responsibilities. Both taking women’s financial empowerment as a given, both deeply concerned with the policing of their spending habits and behavior (often with a nationalist rationale), and both lacking any male equivalents, it is telling that they are now widely shared by male and female freshmen. Just ask them.

Second, in recent years the Korean media has widely reported on the growing employment rate of 20-something women, which has begun to surpass that of men; according to a representative Yonhap article from March, in 2013 employment was at 57.8% and 56.8% respectively. Not only did the article conclude from this trivial difference that “in every part of society, the female tornado is blowing strong even in specialized careers, and women are making considerable advances,” but also it omitted several crucial pieces of information: that the employment rate for 20-something women, while higher than that of men, is the lowest since 2000; and that there are now many more young Korean men than women out there, a consequence of Koreans’ preference for sons in the 1980s and 1990s. (Among today’s 24-year-olds, there are now 116 men for every 100 women.) This means that in absolute terms, still more men are working, rendering this supposed ‘female tornado’ little more than hot air – which makes you wonder why the Korean media is so full of it.

There is also the elephant in the room revealed by those sex ratio statistics. Today, there’s a growing number of Korean men who simply cannot find (Korean) wives, and there are even more young men who cannot find girlfriends — in both cases, most likely precisely those without good jobs, or any realistic prospects of getting one.

In China and India, with similar, ongoing demographic problems, such sexually frustrated, financially disadvantaged young men are viewed as huge sources of crime, sexual violence and political instability. Surely it is no great leap to suppose that many of their Korean counterparts may be Ilbe members for instance (Korea’s 4chan), notorious for embracing their ‘loser’ status and their vicious campaigns against women.

Finally, these attacks have historical precedents. As Laura Nelson explained in Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea (2000), while it was actually housewives’spending on imports that came under heavy criticism in the 1980s and 1990s, there were clear parallels and continuities with more recent critiques of young women:

“The importance of restraining oneself for the larger good [of the household and nation] is deeply embedded in Confucian ideas of propriety, as is the sense that men are better endowed than women with the capacity for moral restraint … This sense that the nation is made vulnerable through its women-as-consumers seems almost sexual, metaphorically related to the idea that the nation’s women need to be protected from the predations, or temptations, of foreign men.”

Ultimately, there is, of course, nothing particularly Korean about targeting young women in the age of social media. But focusing on how they spend their moneysurely is, as are Korea’s new demographic and economic realities that feed such critiques. By consistently omitting or grossly misrepresenting both, Korean media sources do readers a great disservice.

You can read more from James Turnbull at thegrandnarrative.com.

The views of the reader do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher of Haps Magazine

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