[image description: animated gif from kpop group SHINee’s Hello music video. Maknae Taemin holds up a white ceramic doll. On its face, he’s drawn a Keith Haring-esque picture of a blue figure reaching for a big, red heart with a yellow star by its feet. He waves the doll toward the camera and smiles, saying the word “Hello.”]
SHINee’s Hello and Girls Generation’s Gee were two of the first kpop videos I ever saw. I did not know what to do with the aegyo. Once I actually started listening to kpop on my own, I did some research to find out exactly what aegyo is and why it’s such a big thing in kpop.
I really tried to find information written by actual Koreans, but almost everything I was able to find (and trust me, I scoured the internet) was written by foreigners living in Korea. If you know of any English-language sources on aegyo written by actual Koreans, please send them my way and I’ll add them to this post!
In 2010, JoshingGnome (an American who is living and working in South Korea), wrote a five-part series called “What is Aegyo and How Can We Kill It?” This is one of the most in-depth articles I could find on the subject. While I don’t appreciate much of the language he uses to discuss aegyo (it seems very Western-centric to me, but maybe I’m reading to much into it?), if you can dig past that language it does bring up some interesting points.
In Part One, he tries to define aegyo to the best of his abilities. In Part 2, he examines the contexts in which aegyo does and doesn’t work, explains “aegyo-sal” (this article has better pictures- most of JoshingGnomes’s examples don’t work anymore), talks more about the definition of aegyo, and briefly mentions a comedienne who often subverts aegyo in her own comedy routines. In Part 3, he examines some of the potential empowering aspects of aegyo. Part 4 examines through Thorstein Veblen’s theories some of the societal and psychological elements that may perpetuate aegyo. Part 5 discusses the role that aegyo plays in society, and whether that role can or should be changed.
Kelly in Korea (as she was known when she wrote the article- her blog is now Kelly in Flux) wrote about her early experiences with aegyo, as well as the differing opinions on its effectiveness that her Korean friends provided.
This article examines the sexuality of aegyo- I’m not very comfortable with the way it’s discussed (again, seems Western-centric to me), but it is a point worth bringing up. This post from noonaneomuhomo touches on the same topic:
All of it, absolutely all of K-pop, is about sex-whether it be an innocent, aegyo (child-like, submissive, corruptible) form or in bromantic fanservice (suggestive, homoerotic, sexual tension without any culmination, tease) form-K-pop plays with sexuality in a different way and deludes many into thinking it is devoid of sex, but man, could you be any more wrong. In fact, I love k-pop for it’s clandestine yet skeezy, often sapphic/homoerotic/androgynous/queer suggestion, tease, and play. Western pop is where you go for the more obvious freak-nasty, but the subtle sensuality is something K-pop is good at and has been making a profit on for years now.
Lastly, I want to point to a post that discusses a related topic. Naesoong is not the same thing as aegyo, but the two do often go hand in hand. Kittykittykorea talks about it here (tw: rape).
In case you don’t want to read the article, it basically explains that naesoong, as described by one Korean man, is a type of behavior in which a woman says she doesn’t want to do something when she really does want it, but she wants someone- usually a man- to force her to do that thing. The first example given is that a woman might say that she wants to leave a party, at which point a man will prevent her from leaving by either begging her to stay, physically restraining her, taking her cell phone, or by some other means.
While I have definitely seen couples play these kinds of games here in the US, it seems as if this behavior is more accepted in South Korea- am I wrong? Regardless, any social code with a no-means-yes mentality comes prepackaged with a whole load of problems regarding consent and power.
Also somewhat related to the topic at hand is this article from Seoulbeats regarding the infamous wrist grab that we see in almost every Korean and Japanese drama ever made. Is the wrist grab pervasive in any other country’s media depictions of relationship power? It’s not something I’ve seen much in English-language movies and TV shows, but maybe I have seen it and just didn’t notice?