THE TERM “feminism” is like a magnet that attracts immense controversy in South Korea. Public figures refrain from using the word at all to avoid backlash, especially after girl group members Irene and Son Na-eun were “accused” of being feminists. The very fact that these K-pop idols were “accused”—a word used for wrongdoings—for potentially being a feminist indicates the degree to which feminism is frowned upon in Korea. Korean people are afraid to be associated with feminism, because in today’s society feminism is not simply viewed as a support of women’s rights. The Korean social definition of feminism has morphed into a man-hating ideology promoting female superiority.
By definition, feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes. But many people misunderstand what feminism aims to achieve due to the overgeneralizations of feminist ideals based on the actions of misguided activists. The result is a perpetuating cycle of misinformed movements that lead to misunderstandings of feminism, which in turn lead back to misinformed movements. With each cycle, the degree of misunderstanding intensifies. The fact that “define feminism” is one of the most highly searched keywords on Naver, the most used search engine in Korea, after a celebrity is associated with feminism demonstrates how uninformed Koreans are on the topic.
The negative connotation associated with the term feminism
Megalia, the now closed Korean online community for feminists, is largely one of the reasons why Koreans have such negative views towards feminism and feminists. Megalia is responsible for a commonly used derogatory term for feminists in Korea: Me-gal, which is a word referring to users of Megalia. Me-gal is technically a Korean equivalent for the western idea of a feminazi.”
Megalia’s motto, “we must fight misogyny with misandry,” encapsulates its dangerous belief that two negatives make a positive—a true statement in arithmetic but definitely not in this situation. The community was swept in a series of controversies when its members posted gory pictures of sliced male genitalia, hate speech against men, and generated male-offensive names, all in the name of feminism. Megalia indisputably contributed to the negative connotations associated with feminists in Korea, creating the man-hating, illogical, and aggressive image that many Koreans now think of when they encounter the term “feminist.” Incidents involving Megalia are classic examples of the aforementioned cycle; the online community’s misandristic actions redirected attention to feminism, kicking off the cycle of misinformed acts that lead to misunderstandings of feminism which in turn lead to further misinformed acts and so on.
These activists are distorting the basic principle of feminism—that its basis is on gender equality—and creating a branch of anti-male subculture. Although they are socially labeled under feminists, I personally find it difficult to regard these types of activists as anything other than misandrists. They are not feminists.
These negative connotations generated by the likes of Me-gals also inevitably lead to the larger issue of people falling into the “spiral of silence”** even though they actually do support women’s rights. For fear of being branded with a socially undesirable image, both men and women avoid becoming involved with feminism at all. With the entrance and negative adaptation of the word, feminism has in reverse turned into a tool to prevent change because now the Korean perception of women’s rights has changed from non-existent to loathed existence.
Feminism is not a synonym for anti-male
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of understanding that feminism supports gender equality, not male abhorrence. The advocacy of women’s rights does not sacrifice the rights of men in any way. In fact, men benefit from feminism as well. Since feminism aims to eradicate all forms of gender discrimination, men also gain freedom from gender oppression and labels, from phrases that stigmatize “socially feminine characteristics” such as “You throw like a girl” and “You’re acting like a girl.”
At this point, the common question that arises is if feminism advocates gender equality, then why not replace it with egalitarianism or humanism? Both egalitarianism and humanism emphasize the equal value and rights of all human beings. Since it sums up to equality for all humankind, wouldn’t this be better than feminism?
While it is true that egalitarianism encompasses feminism, it cannot be an alternative to feminism. Gender equality is a necessary step for human equality, not an alternative to it. This also relates back to the issue of celebrities denying themselves as feminists, and instead identifying as egalitarians or humanists. In normal circumstances, there is nothing wrong with identifying as an egalitarian. But when a person denies oneself of being a feminist during the process, it undercuts the purpose of feminism and equality as a whole.
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Feminism has morphed into a man-hating, cult-like ideology in today’s Korean society, when in reality it is about enhancing women’s rights in order to ultimately achieve gender equality. Misconceptions of feminism are causing Koreans to ironically agree with gender equality but deny feminism. Although aggressive, misguided misandrists are largely at fault for contributing to these misconceptions of feminism, people who latch onto these few cases and use it to explain feminism should also be held responsible. The misandrists are the exception, not the rule.
With the rise in interest towards women’s rights and gender equality, supporters of the movement should be mindful of the true meaning of feminism before calling themselves feminists. Feminism is not and definitely should not be a battle between the sexes. Now is the time when both feminists and the public need to reexamine the true purpose behind feminism. We need to break the perpetuating cycle of misconceptions to rectify feminism in Korea and change towards an equalized society.
*Feminazi: A portmanteau of the nouns “feminist” and “Nazi,” feminazi is a pejorative term for radical feminists.
**"Spiral of silence”: Proposed by political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, the spiral of silence theory postulates that individuals remain silent instead of voicing opinions based on people’s perception of a dominant idea because of fear of seclusion.