The Latest in S. Korean Feminism: Zucchinis

Yes, zucchinis.

On Nov. 18, 3:14 p.m. KST, South Korean actor Yoo Ah-in responded to a comment about a vegetable. The instigating tweet made a jab at Yoo’s persona: “Yoo Ah-in…he seems good to look at from 20 meters away…but it may be hard to be friends with him…. Like, I feel like if he opens the fridge and if there’s one lone zucchini in the vegetable section, he’ll crinkle his nose and ask, ‘What does it mean to be alone?’”

The 31-year-old Yoo responded with, “Ever been beaten up by a zucchini? (nose crinkle)”

User ‘KonnyakuPeach’ has now deleted the original tweet.

You can stop reading right here — in truth, there is no substantive reason why this zucchini interaction should have escalated into the most trending online debate on feminism in South Korea this past weekend. But it did, so read on if you want to get a glimpse into the explosive potential that feminism has in South Korean cyberspace, and how the sensitivity of language relates to the speaker’s position. The zucchini affair ignited because it was an A-list male actor deploying the vegetable.

To start by concluding, Yoo Ah-in’s zucchini retweet had nothing to do with misogyny, in that he wasn’t specifically targeting women. It was playful, perhaps aggressive, but in no way hannam-esque, as one user interpreted — an interpretation that started catching on. Hannam is literally short for “Korean man,” but in this context the term was most likely used to mean hannam-choong, or “Korean male parasite,” which refers to entitled, misogynistic men.

“I responded to a zucchini with a zucchini, to a [user] whose gender is unknown,” Yoo tweeted. “Then I got entangled with a minor reporter,” referring to the user just above (whose identity cannot be confirmed), “and became a woman-hating hannam and a latent criminal.”

But then, Yoo continued to fight online with his commenters. This was criticized — perhaps justifiably so in some cases — as a form of cyberbullying, taking advantage of his power as a top male celebrity. He probably should have turned off his Twitter and continued reading up on white supremacist Richard Spencer getting banned from 26 European countries, which Yoo tweeted about in between rounds of his cyber warfare originally instigated by a vegetable.  

At one point, in response to misogyny-related accusations, Yoo told a critic to stop “acting like a Megalian” — a bad blunder. Megalia is widely perceived as an extremist, feminist community, which consciously mirrors the misogynistic language deployed in male-dominated forums like Ilbe. To critics, Megalians’ mirroring tactic is hateful and misandrist; to supporters, they are reclaiming a male-centered language that threatens and diminishes women.

An unintended, and most likely unwanted, ally resulting from Yoo’s comment was Ilbe — notorious for violent, hateful characterizations of South Korean women. This unholy, albeit one-sided, alliance was neither overlooked nor appreciated by many of Yoo’s followers.

“Women feel fear in the face of misogyny. Men feel offended in the face of misandry (or whatever empty, contextless thing this is). The ‘Megalian act’ of women is resistance against societal fear; the act of a man who mocks this ‘Megalian act’ is a response that assuages ‘my offended nerves,’” tweeted Park Woo-seong, a film critic, as he sneered at Yoo.

Yoo did not give up easily. “I am a feminist,” he wrote on Sunday afternoon, in a lengthy Facebook post that was full of rather dramatic flourishes like, “I give you myself, crying tears of blood,” while elaborating on the necessity of changing the way we communicate, “Online networks, connecting one another at the speed of light, are an awesome achievement of human civilization. Human beings must no longer conduct ‘war’ here…but find peace.”

To be clear, if Yoo Ah-in was a perpetrator of cyberbullying here, he certainly was its victim, too. The cyber battle originally instigated by a vegetable is not over yet. Yoo, whose new nickname seems to have become ‘zucchini,’ is still in the headlines; many are either joining or quitting his online fanclubs; Korea Exposé is dedicating an article to the story — what for?

Because it’s rather remarkable how fiercely citizens of different stripes, including an A-list actor, are engaging in debates about feminism. This is about just a zucchini, but it isn’t just about a zucchini.

It’s a sign of how the debates, often vitriolic and polarized, are becoming increasingly nuanced — it’s not just about the material inequality, the blatant violence in action and language, but the subtleties, the huge ripples a small word can create, and how closely people are paying attention to who is talking about feminism — in this case, to Yoo, a man from a conservative, conventionally gendered household in Daegu, speaking on behalf of his sisters and mother, watching them suffer discrimination while growing up, according to Yoo’s Facebook post.

It’s still up for much debate whether Yoo was abusing his power as a privileged man when firing a snarky vegetable at a likewise snarky comment, and when continuing to engage in the cyber squabble.

“Ha Yeon-soo [an actress] apologizes when she needn’t, and still gets criticized. Kim Yoon-seok [an actor] apologizes when he should, and gets praised,” tweeted film critic Park. Ha had apologized for a snarky response to a commenter, much like the one Yoo made, while Kim had made a comment about women’s skirts, potentially bordering on sexual harassment. “Yoo Ah-in is very well-aware of such extreme tendencies in South Korean society. He knows, but he doesn’t doubt them, so he remains confident. He is incredibly ordinary, which makes him violent.”

But Yoo also said, “I am a feminist,” and validity of that claim aside, the public affirmation alone is remarkable — remember the South Korea in July 2016? Kim Ja-yeon, a voice actress, was fired from her job for posting a picture of herself in a Megalia-produced T-shirt, “Girls Do Not Need a Prince.” Hundreds of people left the Justice Party, a liberal minor opposition, when some of its members stood up for Kim (the party later backtracked on this position).

The image of feminism in South Korea is still soiled by the controversies surrounding Megalia (among other feminist groups); it’s not easy for an A-list star to openly associate himself with feminism in South Korea, especially when most of his peers stick to bland, apolitical scripts in an effort to offend as little as possible.

Ironically, and tellingly, it’s probably easier for an already-outspoken, charismatic male star like Yoo to identify publicly as a feminist than a female star of similar stature, who may be received less mercifully by the public, because of prejudices about how a female star should behave.

Who knows if the zucchini battle will contribute to a more publicly nuanced discussion about feminism?

The debate goes on, until the next vegetable.

 

Cover image: Yoo Ah-in at an event with fans. (Source: kongyeosa via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA-4.0) Zucchinis, otherwise known as courgettes. (Source: Max Pixel, CC0 Public Domain) Image designed by Youngjoo Lee

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