We’ve all been there: Someone in a public space makes a nuisance of themselves. And sometimes it’s nice to see them get their comeuppance.
But what exactly constitutes rude behavior? Verbal and physical assaults? Public nudity? Definitely. Refusal to give up your seat to an older passenger? Perhaps. What about drinking and smoking on the subway? Or eating soup? What if, once off the metro, someone refuses to pay for coffee on a date?
The answer, for an increasing number of Korean women who’ve been publicly ‘Net-shamed for their shocking public behavior in a series of events dubbed “Ladygate,” seems to be all of the above—and much, much more.
With the advancement of Internet culture in Korean society, more and more snapshots of public life are finding their way to the web, becoming part of everyday discussions on portal websites like Nate and Daum. But with increased public exposure has come an increased policing and shaming of the behavior of other Koreans—especially women.
In 2005, in an incident that made international headlines, a woman nicknamed “Dog Poop Girl” was shamed and ridiculed within Korean culture after refusing to clean up after her dog on the subway. Koreans outraged by her bad behavior revealed her real name and identifying information, and rumors suggested that the resulting harassment eventually drove her out of school.
Since then, similar incidents have only increased; this year in particular has seen a sharp uptick in the number of times Korean netizens have spoken out against women they feel are demonstrating shocking, unladylike, or otherwise unconventional behavior.
As the Korean culture and news website koreaBANG reported more and more of these incidents, they created the term “Ladygate” to describe the pattern they were seeing of women being raked over the coals after being filmed in public doing something supposedly objectionable.
Often the outrage is warranted, such as when two women were filmed attacking a third, one beating her viciously with the heel of her shoe. Occasionally public scorn turns against men who behave in offensive ways, such as one man deemed “Sexual Harassment Grandpa” after a girl photographed him attempting to proposition her and then posted the event to the Internet.
But most of the time, the indignation seems to come at the expense of women who are simply operating outside of Korea’s firmly gendered behavioral codes. Girls who protested the arrest of a prominent political podcaster by writing protest messages on their breasts received mixed reviews for taking such a “provocative” step; others simply got lambasted for eating and drinking on subways, for defying parts of the dating code, or for—alert the authorities!—sleeping with their feet up on the subway.
While the sense that such minor public incidents can turn into defining cultural moments is a bit dystopic, far more alarming is the general expectation that Korean men have the right to publicly shame women for their bad behavior in private matters.
After “Date Girl,” whose angry date took to the Internet after she refused to pick up the coffee tab, came “Adultery Girl,” who cheated on her husband while pregnant with an ex who spilled all the details—including screencaps of private conversations, as well as her identifying information—to Nate.com.
KoreaBANG’s James Pearson notes that the “Ladygate” trend comes with various sexist terms used to highlight and shame not just the individual women who come under public scrutiny, but all Korean women:
[T]hese incidents become a platform to vent against Korean women, to the extent that online slang has evolved to accommodate the trend.
"Beanpaste Girls," first popularized on the Korean Internet in the early 2000s, refers to young Korean women who live frugally on cheap food, like beanpaste stew, to save money to buy luxury brand clothes and accessories.
"Boseulachi," a term combining the Korean words for a body part and an ancient government official, is used specifically for women deemed to be acting with a degree of undeserved self-importance [who] try to rebut online misogynists. …
A newer term is "Kimchi Girls," which describes women who allegedly reject a Korean way of life in favor of a more Westernized lifestyle, yet cannot rid of the smell of kimchi.
As a culture, Korea’s astronomical economic boom over the last two decades has brought with it increased tension between men and women who are struggling to compete for jobs within the global recession. Korea scored 108th out of 135 countries on the World Economic Forum’s annual gender equality study.
The sexualization and objectification of K-pop female idol groups heavily promotes both unattainable standards of beauty and traditionalist behavior in women that has little counterpart even within more progressive parts of Korean pop culture.
Recently, after Korean presidential candidate Park Geun-hye commented that her election as a female candidate would be “innovative,” Yongsei University professor Hwang Sang-min retorted, “Park may have the genitals of a woman but has never performed her (social) role as a woman.”
Rep. Jung Sung-ho clarified what Sang-min meant: “Park has never lived the life of an ordinary woman who would worry about childbirth, childcare, education and grocery prices. Few will see her as a female presidential candidate.”
As more and more women break out of those old social roles, resentment manifests itself more and more through Ladygate.
In addition to highlighting gender inequality, Ladygate also highlights another troubling factor of Korean life: stress. Expedia recently released a survey showing that Korea ranks last out of 22 countries in awarding paid vacation and holiday time to overworked citizens. Sites like Blackout Korea have arisen in recent years purely to showcase the bizarrely high number of residents of Seoul and other areas who pass out in public places.
This alone might be enough to excuse the occasional Hyundai-bashing road rage; but it is enough to explain the increasing number of female citizens who get caught exploding into hair-ripping, punching, and slapping men who cross their paths?
Perhaps the question we should be asking is not how to curtail the Ladygate backlash, but rather, how to release the pressure valve for Korean women before Ladygate happens at all.
Photo via R. Elgin / rjkoehler.com