Cuteness is something valued throughout the world. For evolutionary reasons, humans are programmed to want to protect and care for cute things. Big eyes, small mouths, small noses, naivety and innocence are all traits which are universally thought to be inherently cute and they are all traits associated with those most in need of protection from humans, babies. But this attraction to cute goes deeper than just making us coo over photos of babies and kittens, it affects the way we think about many things, particularly impacting our views of beauty and femininity. This is where aegyo comes in.
So what is aegyo? Aegyo is a concept that nearly anyone with any knowledge of Korean pop culture should be familiar with. It has no direct translation into English and although it relates to the idea of cute, it places specific emphasis on the act of being or pretending to be cute. Notably, it is much more regularly used to describe teenagers and adults (specifically females) than children or animals.
Aegyo plays a huge role in Korean pop culture and girl groups in particular utilise over exaggerated cutesy hand gestures, coy facial expressions and lyrics speaking of shyness and naivety in order to become popular (the often used example being Girls’ Generation ‘Gee’). On variety shows, stars are often asked to display their best aegyo and those who can charm the audience most effectively with their high-pitched voices and affected childlike behaviours are heaped with praise and attention. It is often acknowledged that these acts are fake and unnatural and yet, they are still held in high regard. Female entertainers who are unable to convincingly perform in this way are often made to feel out of place and uncomfortable.
But pop culture and actual culture are two different things and whether or not a few performers are made to feel uncomfortable in their work is of much less importance than whether all Korean women feel pressured to behave in this way.
I came across an academic article recently that looked into the trend of ‘dollification’ of young women in South Korea and the impact that this was having on these women in their daily lives. It discussed the many aspects of how women are trying to take on a doll-like appearance, in their clothing, diet habits, obsession with appearance and trends towards plastic surgery which creates and emphasises the doll-like features of the face. However it also highlighted the behaviours associated with this, specifically focussing on aegyo. If you are interested, you can read the whole thing here.
The author, Puzar, argues that aegyo does play a large role in how young Korean women act, particularly in romantic relationships but commonly outside of this as well. Using cute hand gestures and expressions in photos, for example, and speaking in a way which implies helplessness (such as constant use of the phrase ‘eotteokhae?’ or ‘what should I do?’) are commonly seen behaviours in many young women in Korea.
So if women using aegyo in their everyday lives is common, why do they do it? The article cites many complex cultural reasons but most of them boil down to this: aegyo provides young women, or more accurately young, physically attractive women, with some kind of power. As a university student Puzar interviews says “I can fashion myself into a doll and all that, but then, after getting the guy, I can have it my way, so it is a sort of power.”
These women can use aegyo as a way to charm and sometimes even manipulate others (mostly males) into getting what they want. This can be seen in this SNL Korea sketch (via Asian Junkie) in which T-ara’s Eunjung demonstrates a ‘woman’s language translator’. The ‘translator’ translates all the various things Eunjung says including an aegyo-laden ‘Oppaaaaaa’ as the same phrase ‘sa jwo’ or ‘buy this for me’.
It is important to remember at this point that despite being one of the world’s leading economies and having just elected a female president (although she is also the daughter of the country’s former military dictator) South Korea still remains a strongly patriarchal country with a huge gender gap. It came 108th out 135 countries in the World 2012 Global Gender Gap Report and the reality for women in the country is that they have nowhere near the same opportunities in terms of career and money-making as men. Combined with the pressure to look good all the time and have expensive, luxury items, using aegyo to get what you want can sometimes be one of the only ways that young women can realistically achieve the high status that they desire and is so valued by society.
The problem with this is that it teaches young women that the only power they have in the world is in their ability to charm men into giving them what they want. It tells them that their only value lies in their appearance, youth and sexuality and not their character, hard work and intelligence. As the author says, aegyo is ‘a daily and normalized weak-tactical approach to achieving life goals － but only with uncertain, uneven, and usually questionable outcomes for overall female agency’.
And what about women that refuse to or cannot for some reason conform to these standards? Women who are perhaps overweight, older, gay or do not fit the stereotypical gender norms. Are they simply not allowed to have a successful life? Must they be forced into a low paying job and unhappy or even non-existent family life simply because they can’t act cute?
I really do understand why young women might use this mix of cuteness and subtle sexuality in order to attempt to get ahead and make a better life for themselves, especially given the pressure put on young Korean women and their lack of real career opportunities. But that doesn’t make it okay. How is anyone supposed to be truly confident in themselves when they are taught to think their whole value lies in their success in manipulating others?
So yes aegyo is a form of power but one that is effective only because it is used by those who may feel otherwise powerless. If women had more real influence in everyday life, perhaps aegyo would lose its importance. Maybe it would just become that slightly annoying thing K-pop groups do sometimes. I can’t say that would be a bad thing.