South Korean culture has historically been based on patriarchal, Confucian values, which place an emphasis on women serving their husbands and being “seen but not heard”. Women’s rights in South Korea have declined further in recent years. A glimpse into current South Korean culture reveals popular online games where women are intensely objectified, countless incidents of sexual harassment and assault, a growing consumer base of paedophilic porn, domestic violence and murder of women.
The need for women’s rights is all the more urgent in the face of draconian limitations to freedom of expression, including heavy-handed defamation laws and a powerful government. It is difficult to speak out against misogyny offline, as women are often ruthlessly shamed for doing so. As such, women turn to social media to express their feminist views, and those who do participate in in-person protests often wear masks to hide their identity.
Megalia is one of the most well-known, explicitly feminist websites in Korea. Individuals who support Megalia, or “Megalians”, have experienced extreme backlash ranging from “only ugly girls are Megalians” to “Megalia isn’t real feminism”. Nevertheless, the website is an example of how online culture provides a safer space for the South Korean feminist movement. The Megalian community has grown and spread onto different forms of social media, giving women space to express and protest their views – especially against well-known revenge porn sites – with the help of online anonymity.
However, this activism doesn’t come without consequences. Individuals who identify as feminist often prefer to use aliases, as Korean women who outwardly identify as feminist can receive death threats and be unfairly dismissed from their jobs. “Summer” is one such person, a well known cartoonist who includes feminist messages in her work. “Blue Moon”, “Del”, and “SWAN” run a feminist page on Facebook, and keep their identities anonymous to protect their safety. Blue Moon tells me that online feminism is definitely a starting point for the South Korean feminist movement, as the anonymity of an online persona helps people express their opinions more freely.
Within the Megalian community, there is debate over the influence of Western feminism on South Korean feminism. As feminist texts are uncommon among Korean authors, those interested in feminism often end up reading feminist texts in the North American context. The biggest difference between South Korean feminism and Western feminism, according to Del, is that Western feminism argues that “women should not be treated like dolls” while Korean feminism argues that “women should not be treated as slaves”.
Part of the online movement’s methods to engage men and a wider audience is a controversial practice called “mirroring”, where men are mistreated for their gender in the same way women are. A variety of feminist websites make fun of men for their (lack of) sexual desirability, their looks, and their shallowness. Some examples of mirroring used by these websites include posts that proclaim “men are sluts”, and “Korean men’s penises are only 6.9cm long”. Some men argue this is misandrist. Blue Moon believes that mirroring is an “effective tool, particularly as someone who believes in the importance of standing in other people’s shoes to understand them”. Del agrees, saying, “When people were engaging in “nice” feminism, no one paid attention to it”. This rings particularly true when considering that feminism has only recently been brought to the attention of most Koreans, and women’s rights are rarely addressed or handled with complacence.
The discussion of intersectional feminism is also slowly developing in South Korea, especially in relation to its notoriously queerphobic and racist history. South Korea does not have laws against discrimination based on race or sexuality, as it projects the image of being a largely monocultural state. Laws do not guarantee an end to discrimination – proposals to amend the Racial Discrimination Act in Australia illustrate this – making intersectionality in feminist activism even more important. Summer says that it would be “self-contradicting” for feminism to not include other minority rights. Blue Moon emphasises that “feminism should come before humanism” in the way that “Black Lives Matter” is more important than “all lives matter”.
Korea is not the subject of international scrutiny when it comes to women’s rights, due to its image as a ‘developed’ Asian country, but as Blue Moon says, “It is important to let people in other countries know that rights within Korea have not been promoted alongside economic development. Koreans only tell foreigners about the positive things about Korea because they are too ashamed to talk about the negatives, but this plays a huge role in hiding the reality of Korean misogyny.”
Social media may have helped spread misogynistic views; providing spaces where Korean women are slut shamed, derided, and depicted as money grabbing and shallow. However, it has also helped grow Korean feminism and spread feminist views in an unprecedented way. Social media, and in particular Megalia, has enabled people to come together in their activism, giving an anonymous and safe outlet to promote women’s rights in South Korea.