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The Threat of Working Women in South Korea

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.

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Addressing the Unspoken: Pressing Concerns with the Social Media Feminist Movement

By: Alisha Saxena

Let me start by saying I respect the feminist movement. Even though I didn’t like to call myself a feminist before, mainly because I had issues with how exclusionary and uneducated some self-proclaimed “feminists” were, I realized that I couldn’t exclude myself from the label just because of the few bad cherries in the pack. There was no denying that I resonated with the ideas put forth by postmodern feminism, such as womxn empowerment and the inclusivity of all genders, rather than glorifying gender binarism. Yet, I still feel disconnected with the movement, particularly because there are some glaring, unspoken issues within the social-media driven movement which are not being addressed. Let’s talk about them. 

On the social media front, many of the feminists leading the movement, particularly the youth leaders, openly display their self-confidence and assertiveness. That’s great- more power to them. Though I commend them, and would love to emulate similar levels of self-assuredness and confidence, they often lose me in the way they convey their message. They constantly discuss their work and their accomplishments, but they severely skimp on discussing their vulnerabilities and failures. Now, I don’t want to put all of the feminist leaders in a box- I have obviously not seen EVERY feminist on social media, and I’m sure many of them are amazingly self-aware and share their realities openly with their following. Yet, there are many, including those with large followings, who often make their troubles sound forced, fake, and false. And it’s created a major trend which is proving to be, dare I say, toxic. 

A mentality has spread that these leaders need to “cure” us of our vulnerable moments and the issues which plague us- as a result, there has been an outpour of advice content flooding our feeds on taking care of our mental health, staying interconnected with our communities, and on finding our inner power (like, what does that even mean?). Yet hardly do I ever see them point the camera at themselves and actually discuss THEIR OWN roadblocks, failures, and doubts that come in the process of completing all their productive work. They share the idea when they think of it, and show the result when it’s finished, polished, and perfected- the gritty process is almost always excluded from the conversation. You may disagree with me on this, but I personally feel that this is a caveat of having a social media movement. Emotional intelligence, through introspection and vulnerability, is crucial to building community; many leaders are completely overlooking it, and are instead falling into the traps which social media presents. Now, I understand that some may be purposefully avoiding it, because emotions are difficult, and even triggering, to discuss, and that’s okay- I am not demanding every activist to ignore their discomfort and open up to their following, and I am not demanding that leaders do this 24/7. What I am asking, however, is for these prominent voices to start considering the fact that maybe we don’t want advice on how to be fixed- maybe we just want to see a day in their life, hear some stories about their failures, and listen to their doubts and concerns that they have when creating some fantastic projects for the movement. For people like me, who have never been surrounded by activists or community leaders, it is important to see what these projects look like from an intimate lens- often, I belittle my own intelligence because, when I try to brainstorm ideas, the process is messy and seems to be the exact opposite of the seamless process that these social media leaders have in generating and executing their ideas. When I was younger, this stark contrast made me think that I wasn’t built to serve our community through activism- I needed to have some gene in me, something different in the way my life was structured, or some sort of “smarts” that I seemed to lack. Now that I’m older, and hopefully wiser, I’ve come to rise from those deep insecurities,, but it is disheartening to see that the movement has still not evolved much since then. We DESPERATELY need intimate conversations, not only to build stronger communities during quarantine, but to also better prepare eager activists on what mobilizing looks like and to make our fellow feminists feel more connected to the movement. It’s okay if, right now, we don’t feel empowered, confident, and creative- it’s not magic, it’s not an on-off switch, and that’s important to convey.

I will make one more quick point before I say my final words. For someone like me, who lived in a strangely driven, yet apathetic, youth environment where feminist rhetoric was not prominent, there is a lot I don’t know- and I have always been eager to learn through books, articles, magazines, and conversations. But we have to recognize that not everyone has the time to self-educate. Not everyone is keen on doing it either, whether because they are lazy or because reading is not their cup of tea. Whatever the reason, we have to be inclusive and we have to get the message across. Because when we don’t, we then see what turned me away from the movement in the first place- ignorant people blasting their deeply misconstrued ideas of feminism on videos and posts which end up going viral and taint the image of the movement. There is a dangerous assumption that every follower of feminism “gets” the message, and as we should have learned by now, this takes a toll on the legitimacy and power of the movement- this situation can change, but only if we stop spreading advice and start spreading FACTS. 

Many women have been in the movement for so long that they have been numbed to many of these issues- as a relative newcomer, I held that “outside” perspective on why feminism has gained traction, but not overwhelming support. The ideas of this movement have the potential to be long-lasting and an emblem of the progressive movement. We just have to recognize the importance of achieving the goals of being all-embracing, educated, empowered, and most importantly, emotionally intelligent- it just takes a little bit of authenticity.

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The Societal Pressure to Look Young and Negate Age

By: Ritobrita Mishra

For so long there has been a societal pressure on women to aspire to have a more youthful appearance, claiming beauty to be one-dimensional and superficial. This message is enforced by so many platforms such as magazines and skin care lines with anti-aging products, both profiting off of having women trying to retain a younger, youthful appearance. It’s become a taboo for women to even hint at the fact that they are aging, and if it shows then it needs to be covered up as society will otherwise deem you unattractive. This has inspired a fear of getting older and thus has created a harmful mindset in women that looking youthful gives us worth and meaning and aging essentially diminishes our significance. 

When seeing how often women are congratulated on retaining a youthful look, one starts to question where this mindset came from and why is it that for women, looking young is more celebrated than age itself? Why are these pressures only enforced upon women? And why do men get a pass to look and celebrate their age when the same right is not given to women? Who essentially perpetuates this narrative of looking youthful being the ultimate end goal? 

One huge influence that is responsible for this narrative are fashion magazines. The way Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, and so many others all display and enforce a certain youthful appearance with the celebrities, especially the older ones that grace their covers. With the use of photoshop and filters there has been this harmful repetitive narrative being constantly recycled that looking young equates to being beautiful. This awareness starts to seep in for girls at a very young age and follows them throughout the rest of their lives with the media constantly displaying this kind of imagery. The message this sends is that despite all they have achieved and the journeys they have all taken, they still have to maintain this appearance of looking young as that is something that ultimately determines their external significance and their age needs to be hidden from society.   

Social Media is another huge preparator that prioritizes the youthful look through filters, and as mentioned before, photoshop that has helped establish this mindset to the youth that looking young should be the ultimate goal. Girls from their highschool years feel pressured to use certain anti-aging products (when they clearly don’t need it) to aspire to look more youthful then they already are as they are following what has been communicated to them which is that they will achieve true beauty by looking young forever. This harmful mindset is taken further with plastic surgery such as botox, and certain beauty rituals, that help girls conform to this feminine beauty ideal which has become so heavily ingrained in our society. 

Men, though have their own pressures enforced upon them by society, do not need to care as much about their appearances as women do, as they are more recognized for their success than anything else and thus them looking their age does not hinder them in the long run. Whereas women from a very young age need to maintain an appearance that is almost impossible to manage. We have been programmed to believe that looking our own age is ugly and unacceptable to society. Thus we continue to reach the goal of looking ever youthful despite the harmful mindset and consequences that might come with it.

Age should be celebrated and not something that we should be fearful of. Women should be able to embrace the years they have spent on Earth and not have it be something they hide due to external pressures. Our bodies are constantly changing and accepting the years that our bodies have gone through should not be frowned upon but welcomed. Looking healthy does not need to be exclusive from embracing age yet for the most part it is. There isn’t anything wrong with taking care of yourself but the mindset and goal of trying to look healthy and trying to look young often blurs together and looking healthy becomes lost in the fray and the common factor in all of this is the fear of growing older.