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South Korean star Jaejae on the red carpet and the radical feminist logo meaning ‘small penis’. Photo: Weibo

How South Korean YouTube star Jaejae pricked the fragile male ego

  • Amid a flare up of tensions over gender equality, thousands have demanded the entertainer be banned from TV after she made what some saw as a ‘little penis’ gesture
  • Anger and insecurity over adverts featuring Vienna sausages and chicken drumsticks – and the re-emergence of the Man of Korea group – shows how a little gesture can inflate into a big problem
South Korea
The South Korean entertainer Jaejae has long inhabited the sort of celebrity bubble her legions of fans could only dream about. The free-spirited 30-year-old with short red hair would chat with actors like Song Joong-ki, or K-pop stars like EXO, and post the results on her YouTube channel to her adoring audience of more than 1.34 million subscribers. She was a regular on mainstream television, a common sight on red carpets, a winner of awards and widely perceived as one of the country’s most popular female personalities.

Yet all it took for this bubble to burst was the tiniest of pricks.

Jaejae’s fall from grace came at what should have been one of her proudest moments, when she was being photographed on the red carpet of the prestigious Baeksang Arts Awards in May. JaeJae had been nominated as best female entertainer, but instead of leaving with a trophy she left behind a national controversy as she posed for the cameras.

With what some (mostly male) observers claimed was a knowing glint in her eye, Jaejae – whose real name is Lee Eun-jae – pinched her thumb and index finger together around a small piece of chocolate and lifted it to her lips. Cue wild ejaculations of outrage from angry men on the internet, as it was claimed that Jaejae was in fact mimicking a feminist hand signal meaning “small penis”.

Since then, more than 91,000 people have signed a petition demanding the president’s office ban Jaejae from appearing on television on the grounds that her actions and past speeches reveal her misophallist (literally: a hatred of all things with penises) nature.

South Korean celebrity Jaejae makes what some people took as an obscene gesture on the red carpet. Photo: Weibo
The controversy is the latest flare-up in long-running tension over  gender rights in South Korea that has pitted men and women’s groups against each other. 

Jaejae’s critics say her gesture was a clear reference to the symbol used by Megalia, a radical feminist website (now defunct) that was created to fight back against misogynistic male-oriented online forums.

While it remains unclear whether Jaejae was indeed trying to mimic the logo, or was simply eating a piece of chocolate as suggested by her stylist (as she has since claimed on her YouTube channel), she is not alone in having run into trouble with the gesture.

Kim Garo, director of the women’s policy division at the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, said that while the problems of misogyny and misandry (prejudice against men) were not new in South Korea, the recent targeting of companies and individuals was.

Also in May, but before Jaejae’s disgrace, the country’s most popular convenience store chain, GS25, was forced to pull an advertisement for camping equipment after people complained it featured the pinching gesture next to a picture of a Vienna sausage. Both the designer and the marketing chief responsible for the advert are understood to have faced “internal repercussions” at the company.

The camping advert and Vienna sausage, which was offensive to some.

That may sound harsh to some, but the disciplinary action was welcomed by the many South Koreans who boycotted the convenience chain after the image appeared.


Meanwhile, according to The Korea Times, two fast food restaurants also found themselves in hot water after featuring the pinching gesture next to a piece of fried chicken.

While in some quarters, the backlash against the images has been put down to hypersensitive male egos the issue of gender equality reaches deep into South Korean politics.

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When President Moon Jae-in came to power in 2017, he pledged to be a president for gender equality, vowing to do more to fix disadvantages for women.

South Korea has one of the largest wage gaps of any OECD country and low political representation for women who hold just 19 per cent of parliamentary seats. Since Moon’s coming into office, women have seen some improvement in wages and are also eligible for bigger government subsidies than men when starting a new business.

Political scientists say, however, many young men now feel their own needs and rights are not being sufficiently acknowledged, adding to widespread discontent over the lack of job opportunities for young people.

An advert for chicken drumsticks featuring the pinching gesture that some South Koreans find offensive. Photo: Internet

Lee Byung-gyu, a 27-year-old sound designer in Seongnam, felt that the controversial adverts were evidence of a deeper force at work and that some kind of reckoning was overdue.


“I have heard that many people with such feminist views work in the advertisement design industry,” he said. “I’m surprised such ads have not criticised before. The best way to drive out these radical thinkers is to make the companies aware that it’s their loss to have such employees under their wings.”

He added that it was the job of the male activism group New Man of Korea to stand against these extremists. “And I will be sure to join their cries against feminism”

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The New Man of Korea

The original Man of Korea group was founded in 2008 with aims that included abolishing the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, requiring women to carry out military service, and informing the country that feminism detracted from women’s rights rather than increased them.


It faded into obscurity after its leader Sung Jae-gi died in 2013 by jumping off a bridge over the Han River during a stunt to bring awareness to the group. 

Young men join the New Man of Korea rally in Daegu with signs saying ‘Stop brainwashing’. Photo: Elsa Kim

However a new leader, Bae In-gyu, emerged recently claiming that “after eight years, Man of Korea has been officially resurrected”. Now known as the “New Man of Korea”, the group was registered as a non-profit corporation in April and held a rally attended by 120 men and a handful of women in May, when some supporters held signs saying “feminism is a mental illness”.

It did not reply to a This Week in Asia request for an interview.

While the hardline stance of the New Man in Korea group has turned some men against it, the same is true of some hardline feminist groups. Some feminists have called for the imprisoned former president Park Geun-hye to receive clemency for her corruption and bribery convictions by claiming she was framed by corrupt male politicians who couldn’t stand a woman president. (This despite Park never having championed women’s rights and even coming in for criticism for agreeing a compensation settlement with Japan in 2015 over the “comfort women” who were used as sex slaves in Japanese wartime brothels). But such calls have alienated some women from the feminist cause.

Among the men at the New Man of Korea rally were four or five women including Elsa Kim, 19, who did not want to reveal her Korean first name fearing she would face repercussions for her views. 

Elsa Kim and Bae In-gyu, the leader of the New Man of Korea group, at the rally in Daegu. Photo: Elsa Kim

Her Instagram post with photos from the rally received mostly supportive comments from men who saw her as “brave” and “cool”. While there were also a few comments from women encouraged by Kim’s activism, the soon-to-be college student said she usually received nasty comments and personal messages from women who accused her of being a “man-pleaser” and a “fake”.

Most recently, she visited the police station in her home city of Daejeon to report a message she received from someone who asked if she would like to have sex since she was “so eager to please men”.

“I have cut ties with close friends who looked down upon my activism and changed their relationship with me because of my views,” Kim said.

“I feel privileged to live in a country that is very safe for women and where women receive the same opportunities as men. The saying ‘women are at a disadvantage’ is a myth.” 

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Still, others say any offence taken by men at what may or may not have been a gesture about their manhood pales in comparison to the issues faced by women.

The World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report ranks South Korea as 102nd in gender parity. Among the variables it uses are economic opportunities, education, health and political leadership. 

“Women are raising their voices to protect their lives, but men are merely disgruntled for seeing a hand gesture on an ad,” said the president of Dear Sisters, a student-run feminist organisation at Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul.

“The saddest part is that corporations don’t take the tiniest interest in our voices but decide to offer a formal apology when some of the men whine about getting their feelings hurt,” said the 23-year-old, who also did not want to reveal her name, in reference to the GS25 advert.

Elsa Kim holds the New Man of Korea flag with YouTuber Sidoonge, the wife of the group’s leader Bae In-gyu. Photo: Elsa Kim

Others pointed out that Jaejae, an alumnus of the Ewha Womans University in Seoul, had faced similar accusations in the past.

“Jaejae has been the target for anti-feminists ever since she said on a mainstream TV programme that she had performed a singledom ceremony back in January,” said Mia Kim, a 16-year-old student in Ansan.

A singledom ceremony is the equivalent of a wedding for people who proclaim that they are staying single for the rest of their lives.

“They were just looking for an excuse to blame Jaejae for misophally since she holds different views.” 

Kim, like Jaejae, has short hair. She has often had people remark on its shortness and ask her why she is not wearing make-up.

“I’ve heard that people at job interviews tell female applicants that it will be hard to get a job with such short hair,” Kim said.

“Some people just assume we are feminists because we don’t try to woo men with our womanly charms.”

Additional reporting by Reuters