If you missed it, yesterday we launched the F.A.D. daily commemoration of 16 Days of Activism! That’s an international campaign to spotlight abuses against women and girls that begins every Nov. 25, the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and concludes Dec. 10, Human Rights Day. We also met the five lead characters for season one of the K-drama It’s OK to Be Sensitive!, a web series about women’s rights issues which will spark our conversation for these 16 days.
Now, watch this new episode before continuing! It’s one of the shorter ones, timing at just under eight minutes. Final warning: SPOILERS BELOW FOR THE EPISODE ABOVE!
Our first episode (which is actually the second full episode in the series) begins with bold feminist Chae-ah confronting three fellow students, all male, in the back of a lecture hall. After a few choice words, she grabs two of them by the hair and starts pulling hard, jerking their heads back and forth. Standing next to her, Shin-hye screams and joins in, grabbing the hair of the third man. Pandemonium erupts, with the women’s friends Ji-ho, Doh-wan, and Ye-ji attempting in vain to restrain them, while the rest of the class whips out their cell phones to capture the sure-to-be-viral moment on video.
After the title screen, we return to the same classroom. But this time, the students are all quiet, with the exception of the three men we saw in the intro. They’re in the back of the room, snickering gleefully while chatting with each other on their phones, talking about how good Shin-hye must be in bed. One says that he wants to have sex with her and asks the others if they should get her drunk to make that happen.
Because the conversation is happening in a student chat room, Doh-wan (who clearly has a thing for Shin-hye) and Ji-ho also see it. Doh-wan angrily slams his fist on the table, jolting the class out of its intense concentration. Perhaps that’s when Chae-ah notices the three men laughing and typing as they sit in the row behind her, because only moments later, the class is startled by her shout, “Are you f*cking nuts???” Both students and professor turn to see her standing in front of the three men, holding one of their phones. She turns and hands it to Shin-hye, who is horrified to see what they’ve been saying about her.
After class, Chae-ah consoles Shin-hye. For a moment, Shin-hye daydreams the first scene in the episode, where she and Chae-ah grab the three creeps by their hair. It’s what she fantasizes would have happened – that she and her best friend would have decisively hit right back at them. In her imagining, she even initiates the confrontation, calling the three “ugly bastards” who dare to judge her looks. She snaps back to reality when Chae-ah asks if she’s okay.
But though Chae-ah doesn’t shrink from speaking and acting boldly in real life, Shin-hye does. When two of the three “damn f***ing a**h****” (as Chae-ah calls them in Shin-hye’s fantasy) walk past her in the hallway, she can’t bring herself to say anything, much less look them in the eye. She wonders why they’ve chosen to torment her; after all, she hasn’t done anything against them. She’s left feeling ashamed, afraid, and – to use her word – small.
Then Doh-wan and Ji-ho approach her, trying to explain that they didn’t participate in the demeaning chat. Shin-hye steels herself and, likening their passivity to criminal negligence, declares:
I have two big takeaways from this episode. The first concerns Professor Song’s comment, as restated by Chae-ah to Shin-hye near the end of the episode. Essentially, the professor is saying that boys will be boys, and that the chat room conversation is normal for men. (The phrase “locker room talk,” often heard after the Access Hollywood grab-them-by-the-pussy tape went public during the 2016 presidential campaign, leaps to mind.)
I would contest the notion that it’s normal. It’s not, if that means it’s the norm for the typical male to engage in such dialogue. If the professor is suggesting that these convos are common among males, well, that is true – for junior highers. I haven’t researched this scientifically, but I strongly suspect that most grown men recognize that crude talk about women reflects negatively on them.
There’s another insidious layer to the “boys will be boys” defense. What’s implied when people give men a pass on such language and behavior is that these words and deeds are essentially harmless, so women shouldn’t take it too seriously. But they are most definitely not harmless! On an individual level, they can make the target of such misconduct feel violated, threatened, and worthless. On a macro level, they feed into a social atmosphere where women and girls are seen as less than men and boys. Further, they fuel rape culture – the social environment that encourages men to feel entitled to women’s bodies, particularly sexually. Rape culture, in turn, becomes the fertile soil from which perpetrators of more egregious acts of sexual violence spring forth.
A second takeaway of mine has to do with men when they gather in groups. In such settings, men are typically rather insecure. They don’t want to say or do anything that makes them look weaker than anyone else, whether that’s physically weaker or emotionally more sensitive or vulnerable. They also don’t usually want to rock the boat by pushing back on what the majority of guys in the group are doing.
I have been guilty of this myself. There have been occasions I’ve heard guys that I know describe gals in a sexual way, especially in my teen years; many times, I didn’t call it out. When I’ve heard one man call another man a “pussy,” using a part of the female anatomy as an insult, or a “woman” to mock a weakness, I’ve often just kept my head down. I’ve thought to myself, there aren’t any women around to hear it, so I’ll let is slide; after all, no one’s really getting hurt.
I was wrong. Everyone was getting hurt. Women were being demeaned, strengthening male chauvinism and rape culture in our society. And the men who said these things were taking another step into a self-destructive toxic masculinity. I need to do better.
Boys indeed will continue to act like boys, especially if those of us who know better go along to get along.
It’ll be interesting to see what impact this episode’s events have on our Fab Five lead characters! (Okay, so I’ve already seen both seasons, but I’m speaking for you, now.) How will Shin-hye respond next to the harassment by the “damn f***ing a**h****” and her male friends’ betrayal? Will Doh-wan and Ji-ho continue to let misogyny in their social circles go unchallenged, or will they stand up for both their female friends and for all women? And is there any friend in the world cooler than Chae-ah?
Check out the next post in this series here!