"I'm not a feminist but..."
I still remember the times in high school and university in the early to mid-2000's, most people, including my girlfriends, would unfailingly say this every time the topic of feminism came up. And it wasn't just us.
Until a few years ago, most prominent women and female celebrities in mainstream media still demurred at any mention of feminism, often choosing to say that while they did not identify with the movement, they were all for the empowerment of women (sexual and otherwise).
There were -- and are still, plenty of negative connotations associated with the term. A 2007 story in Dissent Magazine highlights the issue:
But over the past decade since the quote above has been published, the movement has transcended many of these stereotypes and is now in the mainstream in North America. Over the past few years especially, the movement has become much less stigmatized as bloodthirsty, man-hating or vengeful.
In my own circles, I've seen a tangible shift in perceptions of feminism, as people around me began to identify with it. Simply put, most of us now agree that feminism means giving the same rights to men and women.
I personally began identifying as a feminist when I was in grade 11 after taking a philosophy 101 class. It was a wonderful, mind-broadening experience where we - a bunch of suburban Canadian kids, were introduced to texts like The Female Eunuch, and The Artist Lifts The Veil (incidentally and somewhat ironically, also the same year I had a brief fixation with Ayn Rand novels).
But it's easy to take my generation's acceptance of feminism and support of the 3rd/4th wave for granted when in other parts of the world, the concept is only beginning to take seed.
These days, I've watched as South Korea's own #MeToo movement has begun to unravel; women and allies are protesting against sexual violence and gender inequality in a nation where patriarchal values and social hierarchies still dictate social norms and institutions. In spite of the censorship and victim shaming, we are also seeing landmark moments in regions like China, Japan and even Hong Kong, as more women (and men) have begun to speak up about issues of sexual violence, objectification and unfair treatment in the workplace.
However, a major observation I've made is that the movement is utterly divorced from any #MeToo movements in Asia. Feminism is considered a dirty word, a negative term that few women -- even women's studies professors in South Korea(!) dare to associate with. It also makes me wonder whether the Metoo campaigns here have been so effective due to the lack of mention and association with the untouchable F-word.
At a cafe in Seoul this week, I met a woman who had stickers on her laptop that said "Feminist", "Girl Power" and "Girls can do anything".
While last year's Dior t-shirts were a major fashion trend in Asia, I definitely think the feminist context was lost in translation. The stickers on this laptop however, were the first time I had seen anyone openly professing feminist views outside of Pride Day.
So of course I had to ask about it.
"Well, actually I'm not sure if I identify as a feminist yet," She said to me. "The meaning of feminism in Korea has't been agreed upon. People think it means you're angry and that you hate men because some women [associated with Korean feminism on sites like Megalia] say they hate men."
"My mom tells me not to leave the house with these stickers on my laptop," she added. "She worries it'll cause trouble with the older generations if they see it."
Last week, my partner and I went out for dinner with an acquaintance in her late 40's. Near the end of the conversation, all of us slightly buzzed while talking about feminism and equality, she said something I couldn't understand. I asked my boyfriend what she said. "I'll tell you later," he said smiling through his teeth and nodding. Later he explained: "You wouldn't have liked what she told you, she basically said that women ought to get behind their men and support them no matter what, and that it's better that men make more money in the end."
It's difficult for me to argue against such views when someone has lived their whole life immersed in this kind of reality. Especially with regards to the post-war tumult and dictatorships she grew up in, an era before market capitalism and the welcoming of global influences in South Korea. I also imagine no one wants to question their own past and choices.
Still, I wonder when feminism, or the concept of such a movement will come to embody a more positive thing in Asia. It is a complex issue because facets of western values, modernity and femininity are associated not only with colonialism, but also notions of promiscuousness, whether in connection with the emergence of local sex tourism industries or the inception and spread of immoral "loose" values of bygone eras (hippie culture, rocknroll).
Two weeks ago at Seoul Fashion Week, I covered a show where a major designer debut her latest collection with models in tshirts that said "#metoo", "#withyou" (another term that's been trending with metoo), "#speak" and "#trust". I sat on the front row across from a long line of well-to-do, corporate VIP-looking ajusshis in suits, some of whom looked rather uncomfortable as the show continued for a good 10-15 minutes. It was fascinating to see how the local public dealt with the movement when confronted so literally and directly by these slogans.
Personally, I am weary but also hopeful that such a gesture is about more than the commodification of a movement. And at the same time, if it helps propel #metoo and the emergence of a new culture-specific modern Korean or Asian feminism into the mainstream dialogue, then perhaps it is enough.