By: Christina Lee
Under YouTube videos of her interviews with high-profile Korean celebrities, hundreds of comments referring to the red-haired interviewer as a “femi,” or the Korean abbreviation for the term “feminist,” paint the interviewer in a malicious light. Some comments claim that she hates all Korean men to exist, and some accuse her of aiding in the suicide of a male photographer from a 2018 sexual harassment case.
A self-proclaimed “semi-celebrity,” Lee Eunjae, or better known as JaeJae, made a name for herself in South Korea’s mainstream media with her superb interviewing skills and popular YouTube series “MMTG,” where she meets the biggest stars of the Korean entertainment industry. Her high-energy personality and witty sense of humor has attracted millions of views to her videos and launched her to star regularly on talk shows as an interviewee herself. Offscreen, she works a typical day job as a producer at one of South Korea’s largest broadcasting stations, SBS.
In a recent YouTube video titled, “How Single JaeJae Gets Her Money Back From Weddings,” JaeJae opened up about her decision not to marry. “I never thought of marriage as a requirement in my life,” she says. JaeJae mentions how generations ago, marriage was seen as a woman’s “final destination” in life.
To young South Korean women like JaeJae, marriage seems like the last thing one would ever want to do in a newly industrialized country where women finally have the opportunity to join the workforce and gain financial independence. This pattern is evident even behind the scenes of JaeJae’s YouTube series. Her production team from “MMTG” is predominantly women, something Girls’ Generation member Tiffany Young pointed out during her interview: “So many boss ladies. Working women on set. I respect you.”
For a veteran of the South Korean entertainment industry like Tiffany Young to point out and praise the presence of working women on set speaks volumes about the traditionally male-dominated workspaces, and figures like JaeJae are undoubtedly beginning to threaten this status quo.
As a result, JaeJae has become a victim to relentless misogynistic criticism that attacks her every move. Despite having received a bachelor’s degree from one of South Korea’s most prestigious schools, Ewha Womans University, JaeJae opened up about her struggles to find employment after graduation.
The internet’s response to her story was brutal. Commenters, mostly Korean men, criticized her short hair, her looks (“Physiognomy is science,” reads one Facebook comment, referring to the hackneyed Korean saying that justifies attacks toward one’s facial appearance), and her educational background from a “femi” school. “I guess I’m sorry to women, but a short haircut usually leads to disqualification,” another commenter posted in an unintentional acknowledgement of the gender biases that do indeed exist within the workplace.
The South Korean perception of a “femi” and its negative connotations arise from various factors; it is difficult to pinpoint a single reason, but much of the Korean male anxieties about working, outspoken women like JaeJae who are honest about their experiences may be reflected in the status of marriage and fertility rates in South Korea.
Currently, South Korea is facing notably low marriage rates, with a 10% decline in the number of couples getting married just last year. The country is also known for having the lowest fertility rate in the world, raising concerns about how South Koreans will be able to stabilize their population as the country’s number of deaths outweigh its number of births.
Working women ultimately become a scapegoat in this situation, as they bear much of the pressure and responsibility to maintain the South Korean population—a difficult feat especially when women are favoring professional careers over motherhood.
These challenges to traditional family dynamics that have been historically and culturally enforced by Confucian values undoubtedly destabilize an entire country. But to have one public figure—who merely uses her newfound popularity and platform to voice her opinions—take the blame for the country’s uncertainties may seem more as a demonstration of male anxiety over their potential loss of power in a traditionally patriarchal society. Meanwhile, Lee Eunjae has been grappling with what it means to be true to oneself amid misogyny.
Hate toward JaeJae was only amplified by a video from 2018 that resurfaced in which JaeJae worked as an editor and reporter for an SBS news segment. Taking place back when JaeJae did not sport bright red hair, the news clip documented an investigation of a sexual harassment case involving YouTuber Yang Yewon, who claimed that she was sexually abused while modeling for lingerie.
The controversy made national headlines during the time, and netizens who are now coming across this older video are incriminating JaeJae for her role in supporting Yang Yewon. Calling the semi-celebrity and her supporters “biased feminists,” the netizens who most likely approach this issue with the same attitude as the commenters who spout “Physiognomy is science” to any woman with an opinion began likening JaeJae to a murderer, after one of the men involved in the sexual harassment case took his life amid the investigation.
Despite the criticism, JaeJae continues to host her popular “MMTG” series, appear on talk shows, and has gained fans throughout the country. She is one of the many female public figures who face scrutiny by misogynistic netizens, and her rising fame and fanbase is a testament to the ever-evolving social expectations in South Korea. To her female fans, JaeJae is the voice for women who choose a professional life over marriage, who live alone and don’t dream of having children. The idea that women now get to make their own choices in life threatens the country’s entire power structure, but the presence of unapologetic women like JaeJae in the media is something that South Korea desperately needs.