Bean paste battles its way to courtIt all started about four months ago with a normal guy using a normal word posted on a normal portal site. It ended up as a slur for vain girls so vicious its use was contested in court.
The word the anonymous author used was doenjang-nyeo, “soybean-paste girl.”
No one knows exactly why vain girls were all of a sudden being compared to good old bean paste, but the word quickly caught on, becoming the Internet buzzword of the summer, perhaps of the year. Girls who are smacked with the label, though, don’t find it very funny.
Earlier this month, Sisa Journal, a domestic weekly news magazine, published a full-length story on the recent doenjang-nyeo craze. In the article, titled, “What we don’t know about real doenjang-nyeo,” two young women were mentioned as examples.
A 25-year-old “Ms. Kwon” was described as a shopaholic who habitually bought foreign brand clothes and undergarments whenever she flew abroad, and a 23-year-old “Ms. Shin” was introduced as a Starbucks coffee addict.
The article identified them by their full real names, and published clear photos of them sipping coffee.
The women had little idea what would happen when the article was released on the magazine’s Internet edition. The two were bombarded with online comments about “how vain” they were and that they were good examples of how some thoughtless girls could “wring money out of their rich parents to waste it abroad.”
Internet users then got hold of more photos of the two and plastered them over the Internet bulletin boards and passed the photos around over online chat programs, denouncing them as typical doenjang-nyeo types that all men should beware of.
Shocked by the responses and frightened by threats they received, the two went to the Press Arbitration Commission to demand an official apology from the magazine, and said they were planning to file suit demanding compensation for “mental damages.”
In an interview with a Seoul newspaper, one of the girls claimed that the reporter never informed them that they would be described in the article as doenjang-nyeo.
“[The reporters from the magazine] said they were looking for a person who contrasted with the doenjang-nyeo image,” Ms. Kwon told the paper.
But in the article, she was described as a foolish girl who would “starve to save money to buy a pair of designer shoes” and who “is obsessed with manicures and pedicures.”
The court has yet to issue a ruling. The magazine quickly deleted the names of the girls on its online version and replaced their photos, but the girls have not called off the lawsuit yet.
Saying the issue is sensitive and is still in arbitration, a staffer from the Press Arbitration Commission declined to give further details on the two girls’ claim.
“The plaintiffs have specifically asked for it to be a closed case and we cannot give you further information, because the girls are hurt enough already,” the staffer said.
In one sense, the case has already succeeded: The public image of the girls has gone from one of contempt to pity.
“Doenjang-nyeo means women who are addicted to designer brands even though they are not capable of affording them,” said Oh Sang-eun, 23, a college student. Ms. Oh said she would hate being called the slur “more than anything.”
Kim Taek-jin, also a college student, said the very first image he had of doenjang-nyeo was that “they’re gold diggers.”
“They are bad women who will date any man for money,” he said.
Choi Sang-hui, 25, said anyone would try to avoid being called by the word, in part because it sounds similar to the Korean word jenjang, meaning “damn.”
“I don’t think drinking expensive coffee is bad,” he said. “But it would be very offensive to be called that name once you know what it means.”
Then suddenly a third element leapt into the fray: a group of doenjang makers, who didn’t like the name of their product being used as a slur.
One company, which had been running a campaign to “feed children doenjang, our traditional food,” was apparently angered by the fact that even children were making fun of “doenjang girls.”
“Why all of a sudden use the name of our good traditional food to describe a foul image?” asked an employee of Sempio Foods Company, a traditional paste and sauce maker, who complained the popular term has only degraded their product image and stopped children from eating the condiment.
But even though everyone in Korea is seemingly focused on the term, some say the phrase will be soon become passe.
“To me, doenjang-nyeo sounds like a woman who is genuine and natural with the palatable taste of nature, like the way our traditional food is,” said Hah Hui-gyeong, 50, a housewife. “I don’t see why young people use that word to criticize someone.”
Defining a doenjang girl
A typical doenjang-nyeo is described as a foolish female who has no time to eat kimchi for breakfast at home but drops by a brand-name doughnut shop instead to have a cup of black coffee ― in fear of gaining weight ― while still chowing down on raspberry-filled doughnuts, sitting in front of the shop window to show that she is patronizing international chains.
During the day, she carries around a designer tote bag that isn’t big enough to hold her schoolbooks ― it just looks prettier to carry thick books in one arm and the purse on the other. She sweet-talks her nerdy male classmates into buying her lavish dinners where she takes photos of herself (alone) and gleefully uploads them on her Cyworld blog at night.
She often carries around an empty Starbucks coffee cup to help her look more like a New Yorker and keeps sending text messages to her friends, asking such important questions as “Where did you buy that pair of shoes?”
by Lee Min-a
Additional reporting by Sylvia Kim