On May 17th, 2016, near Exit 10 of Gangnam Station, one of the busiest subway stations in Seoul, South Korea, a young woman in her 20s walked down to a unisex public toilet. There, a 34-year old man, who had already watched six other men use the toilet, attacked the woman with a knife and left her to die. Once captured by the police and asked about the motivations for his crime, the man said he simply wanted to kill the first woman he met, revenge for the years he had endured of being belittled and ignored by women.
Reactions to the case spread like wildfire across the nation as women expressed their fear: many, recalling how often they too walk through the busy Exit 10 at Gangnam Station every day, shared the realization that the victim of such a murder might have been them – the perpetrator was looking for a woman, any woman, to kill. Despite this, the police concluded that the murder should not be classified as a hate crime of misogyny, but simply as a random act of violence from a schizophrenic criminal.
The incident catalyzed women to organize a response to what they soon realized was a clear act of misogyny. They proposed to use the glass structure of Exit 10 as a memorial for the victim, covering it with post-it notes written by the women who attended. The post-it notes expressed messages of solidarity for the victim and anger for the perpetual danger Korean women endure.
This particular incident is generally referenced as the first of a series of anti-misogyny demonstrations in South Korea that eventually expanded to create a new wave of feminism in the country. The motivation of the murder, to kill a woman, any woman, generated an immediate feeling of unity among female internet users. Starting online, the movement expanded to the streets once demonstrations were organized. As women took notice of the power of their numbers, it became clear that if women were to face misogyny head-on, they could produce critical changes in Korean society.
In 2018, the combined issues of public toilets, misogyny, and a biased police force again pushed women to the streets. This time, the controversy centered around the illegal filming and distribution of pornographic videos taken of women captured by hidden cameras in public toilets across the country. This was not a new issue, and the government had been prompted in the past to require that all mobile phones produce a sound when taking pictures or videos. But the last straw was the heavily publicized arrest of a woman, on that same year, who had released images of a naked male model on the internet without his authorization.
The double standard set in motion a new round of reactions online as women again pointed out the obvious misogyny at play: Why had one woman’s arrest for exposing one man getting so much coverage in the media, while the multiple cases of men exposing thousands of result in no substantive arrests or media coverage?
The contradiction resulted in a series of demonstrations organized by women online against the spy-cam epidemic, using slogans such as “my life is not your porn,” which at times brought more than 40,000 women to the streets. These actions eventually prompted Korean president Moon Jae-In to take measures against the spy-cam epidemic.
By this point, one of the main sources of mobilization online for these protests had been websites like Megalia and Womad. These sites emerged as women’s response to online misogyny in popular Korean forums such as the Ilbo. These websites were formed by women who had met online after leaving trenchant critiques to misogynist posts made by men. Each new comment in turn encouraged other women to participate, eventually leaving those misogynist men who had started the forums to become the butt of their own jokes. After noticing the number of women using this tactic of “mirroring”, a webpage called Megalia (based on the novel Egalia’s Daughters, in which the author uses mirroring as a satirical device to depict a society in which men are subordinate to women) was created, which later generated a split called “Womad.” Both sites became frequent features in Korean tabloid media and soon entered the Korean lexicon.
However, Megalia and Womad went beyond online activism. Not only did they work to empower women by giving them the freedom to mock men back, they also took actions to support organizations fighting for abortion rights and circulated successful petitions to take down Korea’s main illegal porn website (where much of the spy-cam porn was distributed), among many other laudable deeds.
In light of the huge strides in advancing feminist consciousness, women’s empowerment, and expanded rights that were generated through activism in the last several years, the wave of feminist demonstrations in Korea have not subsided. Movements like the B-WAVE protests were successful not only because they brought so many women to protest the obscene restrictions of abortion rights in Korea; it was also successful pressuring the government to declare the abortion ban unconstitutional.
The Escape the Corset movement went viral after Korean women filmed themselves wiping off make-up (a play on anti-make-up tutorial videos), destroying cosmetic products, and cutting their hair short to protest against the unrealistic beauty standards held for South Korean women – also one of the leading countries for plastic surgeries. The pervasiveness of plastic surgery in South Korean culture is so acute that a recent video for the KORADFEM channel on YouTube – a channel made to share radfem videos with Korean activists – one member describes her parents’ promise of plastic surgery as a graduation gift.
By now, reader, I assume you are wondering if chose the wrong title in this article. What does this have to do with Korean rap music?
Well, now that you understand just how successful, powerful, and engaged the contemporary feminist movement in Korea has become (with issues that cover the spectrum, from reproductive rights to safety to self-love and autonomy), we can talk about the reaction: misogyny strikes back.
As young women in South Korea used feminism to forge a new movement, the cultural landscape of the country began to change in reaction. The feminist novel Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, by Nam-Joo Cho, published in 2016, started to gain attention online in 2017. By 2018, president Moon Jae-In received the book from a progressive member of Congress, thereby catapulting the book to the best-seller list, with plans for a movie version this year. But at the same time, K-pop star Irene, from the group Red Velvet, was severely criticized by male fans after she declared to have read the book. Critics burned her pictures, spouting diatribes about how feminists don’t belong in K-pop.
Perhaps it is worth mentioning that Red Velvet made it into the top three most popular groups among men in the army. Maybe their high profile in the military explains why Irene received such violent criticism, while RM, member of global sensation boy-band BTS, did not after telling fans he had read the book. But Irene was not the only female pop star to suffer backlash for espousing feminist views. Naeun, a member of the group APink, was bashed for sharing a picture on Instagram with a caption that read, “Girls can do anything.” And then there was the case of voice actress Jayeon Kim, who lost her job doing voice work for an online game company in South Korea after tweeting a picture of her in a T-shirt that read, “Girls do not need a prince.”
So, where does rap music enter into this? Well, late last year, on November 16, Korea-born, Atlanta-raised rapper San-E released a song titled “Feminist.” The title quickly gathered attention, given the recent prominence of feminism in Korean culture. Yet, the lyrics of the song contradicted expectations that the rapper had joined the feminist movement.
In fact, San-E’s piece was a reaction to the cultural moment of feminism in the country. The rapper starts with a series of ironic statements in his lyrics: “I am feminist I believe women and men are equal. See I said women first. Like how mom comes first in mom and dad. I read that book. What’s personal is political. Such touching words.”
Jessi, Yezi, and NaDa, finalists of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd season respectively – source: MNET
His typically sarcastic style is replaced by a more direct delivery: “Women have always been oppressed. Us men have always oppressed them historically. But I don’t understand those who say women and men aren’t equal right now. If my grandma says it I might. But what inequality have you faced in your life? You’ll probably say among OECD countries Korea has the biggest gender pay gap and blah blah blah… Fucking fake fact.” San-E admits the historic oppression of women, but he mocks and doubts those who claim that such oppression continues, implying that women today haven’t faced real discrimination. He ends his verse repeating a common talking point among Korean Men’s Rights Activists: that the statistics from the OECD showing that South Korea has the largest pay gap between men and women are actually false.
Speaking of Men’s Rights Activists, allow me a quick side note: In a desperate stunt for attention, a famous anti-feminist figure of the Men’s Rights movement, Jae-gi Kim, jumped off a bridge to raise 100 million Wons for his organization, Man of Korea, to pay its debts. Although Kim intended to survive the stunt, he ended up killing himself in the process. Since then, activists from groups like Womad have incorporated the verb “To Jaegi” to its list of neologisms, meaning “to go kill yourself.”
San-E’s next move was to claim that today’s women are in fact privileged, not oppressed. “Hey, if you want those rights so bad why aren’t you going to the military? What do you want more, we gave you your own space in the subway, bus, the parking lots. Oh, girls don’t need a prince. Then pay half for the house when we marry. I’m no fucking prince,” goes San-E’s lyrics, in reference to the T-shirt that cost Jayeon Kim her job.
The next step of his strategy was to foster division. He started by dividing “bad men” from “good men,” saying, “l am feminist. I support the #MeToo, you know that right? Director, Kim, his actors, etc. They make all men get the hate. But, honestly, take out those extreme cases. You do everything under consent then why do you #MeToo? Are you a gold digger? They must be happy selling their bodies and getting money. Men become criminals under this fucked up law. We withstand reverse discrimination without saying a word.”
San-E proceeded to divide feminist into “good” feminists and extremist feminists: “Ministry of Gender Equality stop doing stupid shit. For healthy feminists. We first need to get rid of misandry, Womad. Now, the Corset Free movement – l won’t stop them, but they all blame the men for it. When did we ever say, ‘You needed to be pretty?’ You did plastic surgery for your own satisfaction. Now you’re being childish going no bra and not shaving your armpits. Cutting your hair short and now you think that makes you a woke progressive woman? Equality sex? Nah, that’s your inferiority complex, man… I like long hair, don’t change, and I am feminist.”
After addressing Womad as the “bad feminists” and misandrists and ridiculing the corset-free movement as childish, San-E concludes his song by claiming that he is just the right dose of Feminist: “I’m on the women’s side; don’t hate women. Actually I love them too much, that’s the issue. You and my mom, my sisters, I respect them as they are. I’m not one of those losers that you see in news articles. I don’t scream, swear, or do date violence. I totally admit the fault of men. Now – for the day when you can freely roam at night in Gangnam., let’s cheers! See, I’m different? It’s okay, I’m not dangerous. I’m different, trust me.”
San-E’s anti-feminist anthem generated quite the uproar. Yet, as may have become clear in his lyrics, his arguments were not very different from most contemporary anti-feminism around the world. The idea that reverse sexism is the true problem; that women now have more privileges than men; and that although some ideas of feminism are fine, but some go too far into men-hating territory, are ubiquitous dilemmas. The classic man-sanctioned feminism of San-E is not where I plan to focus here. Instead, as the title suggests, I want to focus on the parts of San-E’s lyrics that are about the body, specifically the contemporary politics of the body that are emerging out of Korean feminism.
Now, San-E may not be the most respected rapper in the Korean rap scene, but his popularity in K-pop is undeniable. Besides being a mediocre rapper, San-E is also a TV show host: a judge on the rap-themed reality show Unpretty Rapstar, where female rappers compete with each other in a series of activities, as are gradually eliminated until the winner claims the title of best female rapper in the country.
While the show isactually a great space for female rappers to have space on television, and despite the fact that most K-pop girl groups have an obligatory rapper among them and that female rappers in Korea are more common than in other countries, it’s nice to have a show dedicated to showcasing female rapper excellence. But San-E’s fingerprints are visible throughout the show. Take for instance how one of the competitions has contestants write their own bars to perform in one of the judges’ (or producers’, as they are called in the show) own songs. In the first season, contestant Yezi had riff on San-E’s song, whose verses were: “I don’t usually curse at women but this is a crazy bitch. Don’t call me out for gender inequality, I got permission to diss her. I don’t hate women at all. Now Yezi, I heard you really wanted to do it with big bro, so now that you are doing it, does it taste as good as they say? I wanted to do it while looking at your big chest.”
Surprising? No. Disgusting? Sure. But here’s the thing. San-E’s vision has of women’s place in the rap world is highly specific and contradicts his “feminist” lyrics. He has a clear role for women, which is to embody the over-sexualized hot girl trope.
But what’s wrong with sexuality? Yezi’s verses in the song are excellent and use with her sexuality for power, not to submit to the male gaze. Other contestants of the show rap openly, celebrating their sexuality, and went on to become a symbol of female empowerment for fans. So sexuality is not the problem. It’s also not that San-E’s place for women only allows for the submissive, male-serving performance of sexuality. Sure, he always plays the macho-player getting all the girls, but he also seems to have no problem with female rappers utilizing their own sexuality in creative and powerful ways. If anything, the finalists of the three seasons of the show all had extremely powerful lyrics in their repertoires. So no, the problem is not that San-E’s politics of the female body in rap is one of submissive sexuality rather than independent sexuality. The problem with his politics of the female body is that such bodies MUST be sexualized. There is no place in his rap imaginary for female rappers who refuse to sexualize their performances and lyrics. Cutting your hair short, not shaving your armpits, not using a bra – these are the points he highlights in body-related aspects of his anti-feminist song. Who better, then, to respond to San-E’s song with a diss than feminist rapper icon Sleeq?
Sleeq is a young female rapper that has always been very vocal about her politics, from LGBT+ advocacy to feminism to animal rights. Sleeq’s aesthetics as a female rapper have also garnered a huge following among young feminists trying to cultivate a new, less patriarchal cultural scene in Korea.
In response to the sarcastically titled “Feminist Song” by San-E, Sleeq coyly titled her song “Equalist”. Sleeq addresses the initial reaction of many after seeing the San-E song title, saying, “Wow, when I heard that someone was saying ‘feminism rap coming soon,’ I said, ‘Oh yes, that’s right, the year’s almost over.’ Till when am I going to be the only one here? Yes, it’s about time everyone knew. Actually, it’s long overdue but still…” Here, Sleeq expresses her enthusiasm for more rap songs about feminism, as she is one of few addressing it directly. But after realizing San-E’s true intentions, she quickly jumps into attack mode: “You’re so shameless, typical baseless confidence of Korean men. You act out trusting in your power just because you were born with a dick, and the size shows…”
Sleeq then addresses the topic of how San-E’s quibbles are nothing new to women in Korea: “But I saw that you were saying things from like 500 years ago. You’re saying things your grandma probably used to hear. I’m hearing things from you I don’t even hear from the old grandpas on Line 1 anymore.”
By the end of her song, Sleeq clarifies the difference between San-E’s vision for the future and her own. She first addresses his: “The things you want: For women to also go to the army; for women to split the bill on dates; to get rid of women-only parking lots and seats designated for pregnant women; to split the costs equally in half when a couple gets married; for misandry to stop; for reverse discrimination to stop; get rid of WOMAD; get rid of Megal; to trust you, because you’re different from other men…”
Then, while increasing the gap between each bar, the beat sobers, her tone darkens, and she outlines her vision: “The things I want: For you to not kill me; for you to not rape me; for you to not beat me; for you to not blame the victim after killing, raping, and beating them; for you to not push me out of the system while telling me to blame the system instead of men…”
The brilliant juxtaposition of lyrics and tone, a battle between San-E’s whining and the fight against misogyny, speaks for itself, but the thematic of the body resurfaces in a significant way. When Sleeq says “You act out trusting in your power just because you were born with a dick, and the size shows,” it means more than a dirty joke.
Prior to Sleeq’s response, San-E released another song called “6.9cm.” The title is a reference to Megal and Womad vocabulary used to mock misogynists online. If you ever decide to venture into some threads in the Womad forum, one thing may stick out: rather than using quotation marks, women in the forum often uses the numbers six and nine before and after a quote, such as “6quote9.” The number is a sly reference to an online a study that ranks Korean mens’ penises as the shortest on average in the world, at 6.9 cm.
Before releasing the song “6.9cm,” San-E shared with his followers a video of a bar fight involving two feminist women who were severely beaten by a group of men. The men shouted at them during the fight, saying that Megalian bitches like them deserved it. A separate post by the two Korean feminists in question went viral after they shared pictures of their bloodied heads and explained what had just happened to them. The women said that they were at a bar near Isu station and noticed a couple across them kept looking at them and laughing, making jokes about their appearances. The women, activists of the “Escape the Corset” movement, had short hair, wore no make-up, and were thus the targets of ridicule. Later that evening, a group of men assaulted them until both were bleeding and one woman lost consciousness. Afterwards, while reporting the incident to the police, the men told the officers that the women were lying and discredited their version of the story.
The video San-E shared, however, was an attempt to defend the men, to show that the women had initiated the fight. The video starts with the first dispute already underway, and shows the women, already angry at the couple, mocking the man for having a small penis and not knowing how to please women. The reaction to the video in Korea was fierce, and many men signed a petition on the president’s page to punish the women instead of the men, which added to the several existing petitions on the website to close down feminist pages like Womad. Apparently, three guys beating two women until they are covered in blood were considered a totally legitimate response to telling a guy who was mocking you that he is tiny down there.
San-E’s first song, “Feminist,” was released just one day after the Isu Station incident occurred. The video clearly tried to legitimate the assault and also served as the prelude to his second song. I won’t relay the lyrics of “6.9 cm” because I don’t hate you, reader. If you’re curious, you can find them online. Not much else was new, but in this song he expends more energy differentiating “real women” from “radical Womad feminists.” But San-E’s obsession with genital size and the number of Korean men who signed the petition to classify Womad as a terrorist group (for making dick jokes), shows that Sleeq and the contemporary feminist movement in Korea know how to hit where it hurts – both figuratively and literally. The Womad forum shares self-defense tutorials among members, and their politics of the body develop in two directions. One, as a way to re-signify womens’ bodies away from the K-beauty industrial complex of South Korea’s patriarchal-capitalism; and the other as a way to deflate the myth of the powerful male body so influenced by the obligatory military service that every men in Korea must serve – on that note, women in the military who have publically declared sympathy to the Megalian movement have suffered a lot of bullying and forced to quite the army regardless of ranking.
The struggle over the politics of the body in Korea will likely continue for years to come, but for now, womens’ two-prong strategy has made a significant dent in the patriarchy, an impact that has left many men scared and fighting to criminalize feminism. The women who opened this article, sharing their fears, are now more empowered to fight against patriarchal oppression.
San-E will continue releasing mediocre music. So will other notoriously misogynist Korean rappers, like blacknut or Zico. But they are no longer the only voices around and will have to answer for their lyrics. This task has become much more common as a new generation of feminist rappers, such as Choi Sam and Jvcki Wai, who are so far superior lyrically, have emerged.
Meanwhile, verses from Sleeq’s songs are frequently used as slogans by feminist in Korea and can be seen on many posters in feminist protests around the country. She is carving out her place in history as Korean feminism begins to produce a new culture and society for women.
But patriarchy will not go out silently. The online polarization between feminists and misogynists has been increasing and has also materialized on the streets. The media now talk about the “Gender Wars” in Korea. Men Right’s activist groups are organizing. But feminists are also mobilizing new strategies to maintain their progress. New battlefields are emerging and recently, the multi-millionaire industry of K-Pop has made big moves. We’ll leave that story for our next issue.