On July 28, dozens of South Korean men posted hundreds of complaints on the Korean Archery Association’s online bulletin board. They were demanding that the organization revoke the two Olympic gold medals that the 20-year-old archer An San had thus far won at the Tokyo Games. Why? She allegedly looked like a feminist. As one man complained, “She has short hair and goes to a women’s only college—she reeks of feminism.”
Soon after she made her first Olympic TV appearance, young men on 4chan-esque web forums and YouTube channels launched a defamation campaign against An. Their tactics were familiar in Korea: accuse the target of “misandry,” support their claim with ludicrous evidence, and build pressure until the target apologizes. These men bombarded An’s Instagram account, insisting that she clarify whether she’s a feminist. They also claimed she employed Internet slang supposedly associated with radical feminists to ridicule men.
The two words that apparently proved her misandry—“ung aeng ung” and “5.5 trillion”—are innocuous and in wide use. The first is an onomatopoeia that describes language that is unintelligible or nonsensical, like “mumble mumble”; the second is typically used to quantify an innumerable amount for the purpose of exaggeration.
The charges were absurd, but a movement of young Korean men had invented a narrative that anyone who says or types these words must be a man-hating feminist, because some “feminazis have been caught using the terms.” These men organized online to “reverse the feminist-friendly coverage” on An. The New Men’s Solidarity Network, for instance, distributed slideshows about An and directed its 336,000 subscribers to the comment sections of articles.
The witch hunt against An is a part of a larger anti-feminist backlash. Since 2015, a new, forceful feminist movement has raised awareness about the gender-based violence that permeates Korean society. Women have brought attention to the country’s digital sex crimes industry, extraordinarily lenient punishment for sexual violations, female homicide rate, and gender pay gap, which is the highest in the OECD.
Amid this rapid social change, however, male chauvinists have sought to undermine Korean feminism. And they have unfortunately succeeded in demonizing the women’s movement with their claim that feminism is inherently misandrist and radical. The toxic countermovement has been buoyed by conservative politicians—such as Lee Jun-seok, leader of the opposition People Power Party—who have legitimized and capitalized on young Korean men’s hostility against women for their political gain. Likening radical feminists to “terrorists” who aim to destroy men and vowing to stand with young men against “reverse discrimination,” Lee has amassed significant support from men in their 20s and 30s, who have fueled his swift political rise.
The smear campaign against An is similar to previous ones, but there is a key difference: An is an Olympian—and a multiple gold medalist, at that—which turned this incident into an international scandal.
An claimed her third gold medal on July 30 as the misogynistic insults were still flooding her social networks and after the global media had started to cover the attacks. In a final shoot-off that came down to the final arrow, An stood her ground unshaken, hitting the center circle and winning the hearts of audiences across the world. It was a victory that honored her resolve: “Like the ‘San’ [mountain in Korean] in my name, I will maintain a strong mentality throughout my games,” she had shared before the Olympics started.
Her triumph along with the international attention caused many Koreans to see the sexist abuse as a “national embarrassment.” This, in turn, opened up a moment of reflection: A large segment of the Korean public is beginning to reckon with the regressive discourse on feminism. People are realizing that a few fragile Korean men are not alone in their responsibility for the attacks against An and others. The media, private companies, public institutions, and politicians all condoned, amplified, and sometimes exploited misogynistic abuse.
Allegations of An’s hatred of men, as poorly substantiated as they were, were picked up and published with irresponsible headlines like
In a July 29 statement, the Gender Equality Commission of the National Union of Media Workers condemned such journalistic practices: “Some journalists’ decision to publish articles that merely recite and propagate groundless allegations raised by online communities has instigated a vicious cycle of reproduction and proliferation of hate online. It is a serious violation of human rights and journalistic ethics to capitalize on provocative sentiments of hatred and discrimination to amass views and profit.” The commission also urged media outlets to delete articles that included baseless claims about An.
Consumers are also revisiting the responses of businesses to male chauvinist demands. On July 30, netizens started to share a list of companies that issued apologies in response to make-believe accusations of misandry. Users are now encouraging boycotts of these firms for capitulating to and emboldening misogynistic men. People are especially critical of the convenience store chain GS25, because the company was among the first to formally apologize to men claiming oppression. In May, the company released a poster advertising camping gear with an illustration of a hand about to pick up a sausage. In response, men badgered the company with boycott threats, claiming the drawing constituted an insult about the size of their genitalia. While a radical feminist group had used a pinching-hand symbol to poke fun at men and mirror men’s sexual objectification of women, this was not the intent of the ad, as the designer herself clarified. GS25’s apology sparked a chain of similar accusations about pinching hands against companies and institutions across Korea, many of which followed GS25’s example and expressed their regret.
But now it’s the feminists who are demanding that GS25 apologize. One person who goes by the handle addy**** commented beneath an article published by the news outlet MoneyS on consumer criticisms of the firm: “GS25 must recognize its grave share of responsibility for giving in to nonsense complaints from a minority of men and indulging them with a public acknowledgment that they did not deserve. Look where their misjudgment has led us, we’ve come to a point where fragile men are setting off sexist online abuse against our Olympic player. Face your responsibility and apologize.”
The public has also started to ask politicians to face up to their role in the sexist movement. Days after the first attacks against An, politicians joined in to advocate for the supposedly victimized young men. Yang Joon-woo, a spokesman for the PPP, wrote on Facebook that “the central point [of this controversy] lies in the ‘use of misandrist terms’ and radical feminism,” effectively affirming the far-fetched accusations. He added that “someone who voices ‘radical feminist’ ideas in public may understandably become the target of criticism and controversy.”
Many Korean women remain outraged at Yang for not only elevating baseless claims about An but also blaming An for inviting cyber abuse.
Jang Hye-young, a member of the left-leaning Justice Party, pointed out the similarity between the logic of McCarthyism and Yang’s suggestion that attacks on someone who supposedly exhibits radical feminist behavior is expected or even justified. The fear around the word “feminist,” she said, “signals a threat to our democracy, because we have created a hostile atmosphere that requires women to be courageous in order to openly use the words feminism and feminist, when these words have been central to describing their experiences of sexism.”
Indeed, Korean women have recently kicked off an online campaign to destigmatize those words. Amid the ongoing Internet abuse and “feminist scare” tactics, variations of the hashtag #I_Am_Feminist (#나는페미니스트다 and #내가페미다) trended on Korean Twitter, with more than 35,000 tweets being posted on July 31. The response to the attacks against An have proven one thing: Korean women will not be silenced in their pursuit of gender equality.