South Korean businesses are getting caught up in the country’s gender war

When players made their avatars laugh, talk or give the “OK” sign in “Lost Ark,” they clicked an icon featuring a gesture that might have appeared benign to many: an index finger nearly touching a thumb.

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

Smilegate — the creator of “Lost Ark” and one of South Korea’s biggest video game developers — quickly complied with the requests for removal. The company removed the icon from the game, and vowed to be more vigilant about policing “game-unrelated controversies” in their products.

A gender war has been unfolding in South Korea for years, pitting feminists against angry young men who feel they’re being left behind as the country seeks to address gender inequality.

Now, though, the latest development in this war is reaching a fever pitch. Since May, more than 20 brands and government organizations have removed what some see as feminist symbols from their products, after mounting pressure. At least 12 of those brands or organizations have issued an apology to placate male customers.

Anti-feminism has a years-long history in South Korea, and research suggests that such sentiments are taking hold among the country’s young men. In May, the 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 “repulsed by feminists or feminism,” according to a survey. (The firm surveyed 3,000 adults, half of whom were men.)

The fact that corporations are responding to pressure to modify their products suggests that these anti-feminists are gaining influence in a country that is already struggling with gender issues. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says that South Korea has by far the largest gender wage gap among OECD countries. And roughly 5% of board members at publicly listed companies in the country are women compared to the OECD average of nearly 27%.

A suspicious sausage

The online firestorm that has spread across South Korea’s corporate landscape kicked off in May with a simple camping advertisement.

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

Critics, though, saw something different in that hand signal. They accused it of being a code for feminist sympathies, tracing the use of the finger-pinching motif to 2015, when the symbol was co-opted by Megalia, a now-defunct feminist online community, to ridicule the size of Korean men’s genitals.

Megalia has since shut down, but its logo has outlived the group. Now anti-feminists are trying to purge South Korea of its existence.

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

GS25 removed the hand symbol from the poster. But critics still weren’t satisfied, and began trawling the advertisement for other feminist clues. One person pointed out that the last letter of each word featured on the poster — “Emotional Camping Must-have Item” — spelled “Megal,” a shorthand for “Megalia,” when read backward.

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

After revising the poster multiple times, GS eventually pulled it entirely, just a day after the campaign launched. The company apologized and promised a better editorial process. It also said it reprimanded the staff responsible for the ad, and removed the marketing team leader.

The online mob had tasted success, and it wanted more.

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

South Korean demonstrators hold banners during a rally to mark International Women's Day as part of the country's #MeToo movement in Seoul on March 8, 2018.

Dongsuh, the 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 apologized, saying that it “considers these matters seriously.” The firm also said the image had no hidden intent.

Even local governments have been caught up in the pressure campaign. The Pyeongtaek city government was criticized in August after uploading an image to its Instagram account that warned residents of a heatwave. It used an illustration of a farmer wiping his forehead — and critics noticed that the farmer’s hand was shaped similarly to the finger pinch.

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

Gender wars

At the core of the anti-feminist campaign is a widespread fear among young men that they are falling behind their female peers, according to Professor Park Ju-yeon, professor of sociology at Yonsei University.

The sentiment has grown because of a hyper competitive job market and skyrocketing housing prices. The government has also rolled out programs in recent years to bring more women into the workforce. Proponents of those programs have said they’re necessary for closing gender gaps, but some men have worried they give women an unfair advantage.
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Another compounding factor: Unlike women, men in South Korea have to complete up to 21 months of military service before they’re 28 years old — a sore point for some men who feel unfairly burdened.
Anti-feminists have also taken umbrage with President Moon Jae-in, who, when elected in 2017, promised to be a “feminist president.” Moon pledged to fix the systemic and cultural barriers that prevented women from participating more in the workforce. He also vowed to address sexual crimes in the wake of the global #MeToo movement.

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

Young men are “big spenders,” said Professor Choi Jae-seob, a marketing professor at Namseoul University in Seoul. He added that many young people today are driven by personal political values when they buy 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 would use the one that doesn’t support [feminism],” said Ha, who declined to give his full name because he said that gender is a thorny topic among his peers.

Ha said he’s far from alone. When his friends were discussing the GS25 camping poster, for example, he was surprised to find that many of them felt the way he did: “I realized that many men were silently seething.”

“I realized that many men were silently seething.”Ha, a 23-year-old university student

The gender war leaves companies in a tough spot, according to Noh Yeong-woo, a consultant at the public relations agency PR One.

By not responding to allegations that they are taking a stance on gender issues, that could lead to what Noh called a “constant barrage of accusation” and the creation of a stigma. It also means that companies are actively monitoring online groups and studying what their users have designated as hidden codes or associations, to avoid being called out.

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

Stigmas and fighting back

Some women, though, say that the corporate apologies are also creating a climate where some people are afraid to identify as feminist.

“It’s the new Red Scare. Like McCarthyism,” said Yonsei University’s Park, referring to the mass hysteria to root out communists in the United States in the 1950s.

Lee Ye-rin, a college student, 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. Like McCarthyism.”Professor Park Ju-yeon, professor of sociology at Yonsei University

She recalled an incident in high school, when some boys openly heckled a feminist friend of hers while that friend was giving a class presentation on the depiction of women in the media. Lee and her classmates were too scared to defend the friend.

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

In response to this year’s anti-feminist pressure campaigns, though, some feminists have been fighting back. The apology over the camping poster from GS25, for example, prompted feminists to call for boycotts against the company. Some people shared images online of themselves shopping at rival stores, using hashtags that called on people to avoid shopping at GS25.

Balancing act

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

Noh, from PR One, encouraged companies and organizations to educate their employees on 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 involved in it, it’s hard to explain them away … the issue keeps spreading until they are removed as demanded.”

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Park, the Yonsei University professor, said that part of the problem is that many South Korean companies are led by older men who don’t have a firm grasp of present-day gender issues. The average age of an executive-level employee at the country’s top 30 publicly traded companies is 53, according to a 2020 analysis by JobKorea, a Korean version of LinkedIn.

That suggests a level of irony. Maybe it’s not that some of these companies have a specific agenda, as online critics are accusing them. Perhaps for some of them, high levels of leadership are just not in tune 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 debates about how best to crack the glass ceiling or address the division of labor at home, among other concerns.

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

— Jae Hee Jung, So-hyun An, So Jung Kim, and Soyeong Oh contributed to this report.

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