What's with all these 'Ladygates?'
Last week, a photo of some girls not giving up their seats to elderly commuters on the Seoul subway caused such a stir on the Internet that it became one of the most talked about stories of the month. Instantly dubbed “bean paste (doenjang) girls” ― a term reserved for girls who live frugally (on bean paste stew) so they can save up for designer handbags and shoes ― netizens were quick to demonize these probably pretty leg-tired ladies for not respecting their elders. Bean paste girl is hardly a flattering term, yet quite in keeping with the amount of fire Korean women have found themselves under from the online community this year.
Every week it seems Seoul’s giant octopus of a subway system gives us a new celebrity. Thus far on koreaBANG, we’ve seen it all:
But it doesn’t stop there. We’ve also been inundated with stories of “hot soup lady,” “bikini girl” and even “pregnant adultery girl,” all of whom, for one reason or another, have been given the something-something-girl title by Korean netizens and citizens alike. In trying to create some order from this chaos, we at koreaBANG have had to coin our own phrase, christening each new article as just another episode in a long line of what we reluctantly call “Ladygates.”
The apparently limitless supply of allegedly badly behaved women about these days, combined with the one-two sucker punch of the iPhone and YouTube, has made underground scandal-hunting a booming cottage industry of sorts. From local blogs to our own, we’ve all been inundated with stories that the likes of “horny bus couple,” “poo girl” and “sexual harassment granddad” so reliably generate.
But why have we now reached the “golden age” of the subway scandal? In Internet years, the “dog poo girl” (that saw a young girl fail to clean up after her dog on the Seoul metro) incident happened a lifetime ago in 2005. Since then, we’ve seen sporadic netizen outrage, but in the past few months there has been a noticeable uptick in the number of people gaining notoriety through some kind of subway scandal.
We don’t think Seoulites are getting especially crazier. For example, the United Kingdom, our beloved mad motherland, has a significantly higher amount of oddness per capita than South Korea ― it’s just that British people don’t yet tend to video all the strange things they see, presumably because they’ve become desensitized to the outbursts of tram racism, tipsy tube-bound dinner parties or, our personal favorite, the completely spontaneous booze-ups that happened when the mayor of London tried to ban drinking on the London Underground.
Perhaps smartphone recording in Seoul has reached a kind of tipping point. When people see something unusual these days, their uniform response is to whip out the handset and record. Each additional viral sensation reinforces the process and these things only seem to grow exponentially. With almost every Seoul commuter buried deep in Kakao Talk on their smartphones, the majority are only one click away from snapping or videoing whatever madness suddenly happens in the next carriage.
But why ― with the exception of “sexual harassment granddad” ― do these recent cases center on women? Nobody would deny that a woman who runs around naked as a jaybird and swearing at people is in need of help, or at least, a new hobby. But it does seem as though the videos of odd behavior that generate all the attention are the ones that feature women. Regular commuters on the Seoul subway will note that most of the obnoxious behavior comes from old blokes yelling into their mobile phones, staggering around drunk or giving very much unwanted Bible readings.
Maybe netizens have their reasons. The typical (or maybe stereotypical) angry netizen is an unemployed young man. He is afforded little respect by society and does his best to satisfy his need to be heard by making aggressive comments about those he does not like. His prime targets are those he is jealous of ― i.e. successful men, hence the insane Tablo witch hunt, and women, who show little interest in him. The fact that young Korean women are now generally well-educated and finally able to get good jobs makes his life even harder, since it gives him extra competition, and means they don’t have to tolerate any of his prejudiced nonsense either.
Or maybe not. Who knows? There are some who claim that all these Ladygate stories are deliberately catapulted to the front pages by the government merely as a distraction from more sour news. This may be the case, but it doesn’t stop the fact that, when the whole world was talking about the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul back in March, Koreans were all debating whether or not “beer girl,” “soju girl” and “cigarette girl” were in fact just the same woman, running rampage on the subway.
We published a series of translated netizen comments in response to the bean paste girl incident last week. Is the relative hostility toward them a passive aggressive reaction to the rising empowerment of women in Korea? Maybe. But it’s probably more likely to be a bunch of bitter netizens, hiding away from natural sunlight and angrily shouting at the world outside.
James Pearson and Raphael Rashid are studying for a master’s degree in Korean studies at Cambridge University and at Korea University, respectively. They are co-editors of the website koreaBANG. They can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.