South Korean businesses are mired in the nation’s gender war


When players made their avatars laugh, talked, or gave an “OK” sign in “Lost Ark”, they clicked on an icon with a gesture that might appear benign to many: an index finger almost touching a thumb. Was.

But some users of “Lost Ark” began claiming in August that the gesture was a sensual insult against men, and they demanded its removal.

Smilegate — the creators of “Lost Ark” and one of South Korea’s biggest video game developers — quickly complied with the removal requests. The company removed the icon from the game, and vowed to be more cautious about handling “game-unrelated disputes” in its products.

The sex war has been going on in South Korea for years. raising feminists Against angry young men who feel they are being left behind as the nation seeks to address gender inequality.

Now, however, the latest development in this war is reaching a fever pitch. Since May, following mounting pressure, more than 20 brands and government organizations have removed feminist symbols from their products. At least 12 of those brands or organizations have issued apologies to placate male customers.

Anti-feminism in South Korea has a years-long history, and research suggests that such sentiments are taking hold among the country’s young men. In May, Korean marketing and research firm Hankook Research said it found that more than 77% of men in their twenties and more than 73% of men in their 30s were “rejected by feminists or feminism,” a According to the survey. (The firm surveyed 3,000 adults, half of whom were men.)

The fact that corporations are responding to pressure to modify their products shows that these anti-feminists are gaining influence in a country that is already grappling with gender issues. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says that South Korea has The biggest gender pay gap ever among OECD countries. And about 5% of board members in publicly listed companies in the country are women, compared to the OECD average of about 27%.

a suspicious sausage

The online firestorm that engulfed South Korea’s corporate landscape began in May with a simple camping ad.

GS25, one of the country’s largest convenience store chains, issued an ad that month enticing customers to order camping food on their app, promising free items as a reward. The ad featured an index finger and a thumb pinching a sausage. The finger-pinch motif is often used in advertising as a way to hold an object without obscuring the product.

However, critics saw something different in that hand gesture. She accused it of being a code for feminist sympathy, tracing the use of the finger-pinch figure to 2015, when the symbol was co-opted by the now-defunct feminist online community Megalia to ridicule the size of Korean men’s genitals. was chosen.

Megalia has since closed down, but its logo has outlived the group. Now anti-feminists are trying to eradicate South Korea from its existence.

Source: Megalia, @starbucksrtd/Instagram, @gs25_official/Instagram

The GS25 removed the hand sign from the poster. But critics were still not satisfied, and other feminists began to seek advertising for clues. One person reported that the last letter of each word featured on the poster—”Emotional Camping Must-Have Item”—is spelled “Megalia,” a shorthand for “Megalia,” when read backwards.

The GS25 removed the text from the poster, but that still wasn’t enough. People theorized that the moon in the background of the poster was also a feminist symbol, as the moon is used as the logo of a feminist scholarly organization in South Korea.

After revising the poster several times, GS finally pulled it completely the day after the campaign began. The company apologized and promised a better editorial process. It also said it reprimanded the staff responsible for the advertising and removed the marketing team leader.

The online crowd had tasted success, and wanted more.

Other companies and government organizations soon became targets. Online fashion retailer Musinsa was criticized for offering discounts for women only, as well as for using the finger-pinching motif in an ad for credit cards. The company defended the use of that motif as a neutral element regularly used in advertising, saying its discount program was to help expand its younger female customer base. Nevertheless, founder and CEO Cho Man-ho stepped down following the backlash.

Dongsuh, a Korean company that licenses a Starbucks ready-to-drink line in the country, was attacked in July after one of its Korean Instagram accounts published an image of fingers pinching a can of coffee. The company pulled the ad and apologised, saying it “considers these matters seriously.” The firm also said that the image had no hidden intentions.

Even local governments have been caught in a campaign of pressure. The Pyeongtaek city government was criticized in August after it uploaded an image to its Instagram account that warned residents of a heatwave. It depicted a farmer wiping his forehead – and critics noted that the size of the farmer’s hand resembled a pinch of a finger.

“How deeply [feminists] Intrusion?” one person wrote on MLB Park, an internet forum primarily used by men. Another person shared contact information for the city government, prompting people to flood their channels with complaints. The image was later removed from the Instagram account.

gender war

According to Professor Park Joo-yeon, Professor of Sociology at Yonsei University, at the core of the anti-feminism campaign is a widespread fear among young men that they are falling behind their female peers.

feeling increased because a Highly competitive job market and skyrocketing housing prices. The government has also initiated programs to bring more women into the workforce in recent years. Supporters of those programs have said they are necessary for closing the gender gapBut some men are concerned that they give women an unfair advantage.
The president of South Korea says he is a feminist.  Three of his associates have been charged with sex crimes
Another complicating factor: Unlike women, men in South Korea have to complete 21 months military service Before they turn 28 – a pity for some men who feel unfairly burdened.
Anti-feminism has also drawn outrage from President Moon Jae-in, who promised to be “one” if elected in 2017.feminist presidentMoon pledged to fix the systemic and cultural barriers that kept women from participating more in the workforce. He also vowed to address sex crimes in the wake of the global #MeToo movement.

This year’s corporate pressure campaign adds another complication, as brands weigh the potential repercussions.

“Young men are “big spenders,” said Professor Choi Jae-seob, marketing professor at Namseol University in Seoul. He added that many young people today are driven by personal political values ​​when buying things.

Ha, a 23-year-old university student, said he pays attention to what companies say about gender issues before making a purchase.

“Between two stores, I’ll use the store that doesn’t support [feminism],” said Ha, who declined to give his full name because he said gender is a thorny topic among his peers.

Ha said he was far from alone. For example, when his friends were discussing the GS25 camping poster, he was surprised to find that many of them felt the same way as him: “I felt a lot of men quietly getting up.”

“I felt a lot of men getting up quietly.”ha, 23 year old university student

According to Noah Yeong-woo, a consultant with public relations agency PR One, the gender war leaves companies in a tough spot.

By not responding to accusations that they are taking a stance on gender issues, which could lead to Noah creating a “constant barrage of accusations” and a stigma. It also means that companies are actively monitoring online groups and studying what their users have named as hidden codes or associations, in order to call them out.

“They are constantly checking for the next problematic symbols,” Noh said of brands in South Korea.

stigma and fighting back

However, some women say the corporate apology is also creating an environment where some are afraid to identify as feminists.

“This is the new Red Scare. Like McCarthyism,” said Park at Yonsei University, referring to the massive frenzy to root out communists in the United States in the 1950s.

College student Lee Ye-rin said she has been a feminist since middle school. But in recent years she has found it impossible to be open about her stance.

“It’s the new Red Scare. Kind of like McCarthyism.”Professor Park Joo-yeon, Professor of Sociology at Yonsei University

She recalled a high school incident when a feminist friend of hers was openly beaten up by some boys while the friend was giving a class presentation on the portrayal of women in the media. Lee and his classmates were too afraid to defend a friend.

“We all knew that a person who would step up and say that feminism is not a strange thing would also be stigmatized,” Lee said.

In response to this year’s anti-feminist pressure campaigns, however, some feminists are fighting back. For example, the apology on the GS25’s camping poster prompted feminists to call for a boycott against the company. Some shared online photos of themselves shopping at rival stores using the hashtag, urging people to avoid shopping on the GS25.

balancing act

As there isn’t much hope of finding a middle ground for those waging South Korea’s gender war, experts say companies will have to figure out ways to avoid being dragged into a brand-damaging battle.

PR One’s Noh encourages companies and organizations to educate their employees about gender sensitivity — and even reconsider the use of symbols that have become heavily politicized.

Finger-pinching motifs are “images with complex metaphors and symbols and they already carry a social stigma,” he said. “So, once you get into it, it’s hard to convince them… the issue continues to spread until they are removed on demand.”

South Korea's glass ceiling: Women struggling to get hired by companies that only want men

Professor Park from Yonsei University said part of the problem is that many South Korean companies are led by older men who do not have a firm understanding of current gender issues. According to a 2020 analysis by JobKorea, the Korean version of LinkedIn, the average age of an executive-level employee among the top 30 publicly traded companies in the country is 53.

It suggests a level of irony. Perhaps it is not that some of these companies have a specific agenda, as online critics are accusing them. Perhaps for some of them, higher levels of leadership are not in line with the debate.

To park, the vitriol directed at companies has also buried some of the underlying, systemic issues that contribute to gender inequality, along with other concerns that address the breaking of the glass ceiling or the division of labor at home. With a debate about doing.

“Some very important debates are being buried,” Park said, adding that today’s gender war is being fought on the tip of an “iceberg.” “It’s not a fight about fingers.”

– Jae Hee Jung, So-hyun An, Soo Jung Kim, and Soeong Oh contributed to this report.

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