Unlikely Debate: Olympics ‘Garlic Girls’ and Japanese Porn

Identity

A few hours before the Olympics closing ceremony, the South Korean women’s curling team finally got their cellphones back. The country’s most popular Olympics stars, who won a historic silver on Sunday, didn’t have access to the internet or TV throughout the games.

Unbeknownst to the ‘Garlic Girls,’ they had become national stars of an epic proportion, with countless memes and parodies dedicated to them. (For the record, they have been called ‘Garlic Girls’ because they come from a town famous for garlic production; and it’s been reported that they do not wish to be called by this name.)

The Olympics has been over for nearly a week, to be succeeded by the Paralympics on Mar. 9. But the curling fever is far from finished: FILA Korea has promised to award the team 120 million won (some $110,000) to thank them for “delivering great happiness to the Korean people” (Fila sponsored the team’s uniforms); “Yeong-mi” marketing is everywhere in South Korea, including in the team’s hometown Uiseong.

But troublingly, the athletes have unwittingly been embroiled in a debate involving Japanese porn. On Feb. 21, online media Wikitree shared a campaign to give a new nickname to ‘Team Kim’ (all the players coincidentally have the same last name). In response, a Facebook user commented, “Ang-Kim-oddi,” a clever spin on a very well-known Japanese phrase ang-kimochi, which effectively means, “Mmm, it feels good.” That suggestion got nearly 10,000 likes; thousands of commenters (virtually) doubled over in laughter.

This brief, even negligible, moment in South Korean cyberspace illustrated how humor could collide with what’s often snidely called political correctness.

The problem is, people weren’t laughing just because it’s a Japanese phrase. It’s a phrase most commonly consumed in South Korea through pornography (and South Korea is known for its voracious porn consumption). The national sports heroes were linked to a particular Korean take on a Japanese phrase from porn in an unlikely — and, admittedly, highly witty — moment, and there you have it, temporary virality and a lot of ha ha ha.

And of course, criticism ensued.

“Everyone is having fun at this huge party of comments amounting to sexual harassment,” wrote Lee Joo-seok, a contributor to Slow News, a well-known online media outlet.

According to Eureka Magazine, ang kimochi (as well as ang gimoddi) was popularized in South Korea by a broadcasting jockey (BJ) on Afreeca TV, a prominent streaming platform. That BJ is notorious for his misogynistic comments and sexual objectification of women. In one broadcast, he made his four-year-old daughter repeat ang gimoddi as a joke.

Lee was the only writer to cover this ‘incident’ surrounding the Garlic Girls. The tricky thing about this incident was the question of whether it even qualified as an incident. The controversy wasn’t about crude images or (explicit) sexual objectification. No push-up bras, no lesbian sex. No obvious disrespect to the women. The problem of misogyny was much more subtle, and difficult to spot.

The misogyny centered on the subtle, seemingly inconsequential use of language, and raised those familiar, even exhausting questions of political correctness. To what extent should we develop critical sensitivity to the cultural context surrounding a phrase? When should we lighten up and just enjoy a good laugh?

“If listeners of an expression show discomfort, we should try to understand the other person’s discomfort and facilitate conversation,” Lee told Korea Exposé, “rather than react with ‘This phrase wasn’t meant to cause discomfort; this is the listener’s problem.’”

Only a few commenters on the original Wikitree Facebook post echoed Lee’s criticisms, only to be met with counter-attacks about being too sensitive. “Look at that article LOL,” a user pointed to Lee’s Slow News article. “Who interprets things like that? Why can’t we just accept it as fun? LOL. I was tired, now I’m even more tired.”  

It’s easy to find these reactions, even from comedians, who have criticized that political correctness is killing comedy. (Of course, there are plenty of counter-arguments, like the New York Times article “Political Correctness Isn’t Ruining Comedy. It’s Helping.”)

“I don’t think there are any subjects you can’t joke about because human beings are forgiving of subject matter when we find things funny,” said Sara Pascoe, a British stand-up comedian.

“So you can joke about rape. But I’d like the comedian in question to first consider how it might feel if you have been a victim of it, because hearing certain language can provoke a physiological reaction. And if you still feel that it’s a joke worth telling, then great. That means you have total confidence in your material.”

To what extent should we develop critical sensitivity to the cultural context surrounding a phrase? When should we lighten up and just enjoy a good laugh?

Rape jokes are certainly hard to find in South Korean comedy — but it’s not hard to find plenty of other insulting lines. In fact, ‘insult’ is a normalized trope in South Korean humor. The problem is, objects of derision aren’t always able to talk back.

“Too much of South Korean humor comes at the expense of minorities,” said Hong Seong-soo, author of a recently published book on hateful speech, When Words Hurt. “The basics of jokes and ridicule should be about creating a caricature out of the powerful and mighty. But in South Korea, so many humor codes are about insulting people in minority groups, like foreigners, other races, the disabled and women.”

Read “More than Fat,” about fat-shaming in comedy, a popular trope in South Korea.  

But critical voices against common comedy repertoires also seem to be rising. Misogyny, hate speech and feminism are becoming much more visible, popular topics of debate. Critics of political correctness call its proponents “pro-bulpyeon-reo” — literally professional discomfort instigators. Counter-critics, the ones who say we cannot ‘just wanna have fun,’ respond with the label pro-dungam-reo or professional insensitivity instigators to slam opponents.

“It’s hard to say if the South Korean public’s awareness of hate speech has improved or worsened,” said Hong. “Minorities do have more power to raise questions. For example, now that more women are in the workplace, more women are becoming conscious of discrimination. In the past, when most of them remained at home, they had no reason, nor the tools, to raise issues.”

But Hong says the future is not so rosy yet. “As the growth of our economy slows down, more people feel left behind. Compared to the past, there is a rising trend of blaming societal problems on minorities. This is a global phenomenon: People take their frustrations out on social minorities and the weak.”

In the case of Ang-Kim-oddi, the ‘funny’ nickname for the curling athletes, humor seemed to trump cultural sensitivity about a problematic phrase. An overwhelming majority of both male and female commenters on Facebook, which is used by over 14 million South Koreans, loved the nickname, despite its connotations.

Still, Lee who criticized Ang-Kim-oddi on Slow News said his personal experience of the reaction to his Slow News article was largely positive. “I didn’t expect such a huge response from readers.”

To state the obvious, the winner of MBC’s nickname campaign for the curling team did not go to Ang Kim-oddi. It went to ‘Curlvengers.’

 

Cover image: A group of fans at the women’s curling semifinals during the Olympics. (Raphael Rashid/Korea Exposé) 

Haeryun Kang is Korea Exposé's managing editor.