‘Aegyo’ is something that might be seen as quite strange by us British viewers. I remember trying to explain it to my Mother once and then realising how very unusual a concept it is. For those that are not familiar, ‘Aeygo’ is the Korean name for acting cute. Many K-Pop fans will be familiar with it as South Korean celebrities are often expected to partake in the act on variety shows and are either praised if they can do it, or berated if they cannot.
Of course, Eastern Asian cultures are known that these countries are still working on quite, generally and stereotypically-speaking, patriarchal frameworks. Women are often expected to be quiet, demure, traditionally ladylike and ‘proper’ by nature. Marriage is still held in high regard and, women especially, tend to be on the lookout for their perfect other half around the age of 30 at the latest. It is also not surprising that the women of East Asia (as in many other countries all over the world) are under tremendous pressure to adhere to certain beauty specifications. Something that is very popular in Japan and South Korea is showing a feminine youth and naivety through big eyes plump cheeks and a milky complexion. The act of ‘aegyo’ extends this sense of infantile innocence, so it is unsurprising that female celebrities are often expected to be able to execute a great ‘aegyo’.
In this editorial particularly though, I want to focus on the slightly more abnormal area of aegyo – male aegyo. It is not just female celebrities that are expected to have aegyo skills, the men are too. On variety programmes, aegyo is not approached with any level of seriousness and the MCs and celebs are all encouraged to laugh along and have fun with it, especially where the guys are concerned, however I cannot help but wonder that there is an underlying level of pressure on each gender in the area.
I recall an essay I wrote during my undergraduate degree, where I discussed the conflicting messages communicated in a single issue of ‘Men’s Health’ magazine to its male readership. Most know that women’s magazines have been well documented in pressuring women to change their figures according to the latest trend – one week slim is in and the next, curvy is what it’s all about. However, I found that a similar contradiction is often communicated in modern men’s magazines. They are confronted with muscular and bulky on one page, and then slim and fashionable on the next. I feel that aegyo plays into this field for South Korean men too. They seem to be expected to be muscly and able to protect the women of the world, but to then be fashionable, cute and altogether more stereotypically feminine in their ways. Surely, these men feel the same pressure more commonly associated with the female here? Having also learnt about a rise in the cases of males’ ‘muscle dysmorphia’ (where men feel like they constantly need to build more muscle than they already have) whilst writing this previous essay, I am inclined to believe that the pressure is indeed felt by both sexes.
However, it seems more commonplace with male K-celebrities to have a bit more versatility with aegyo than their female counterparts, you can be good at it and be praised for your cuteness or you can be bad at it and be praised for how entertaining you are.
We see here that Super Junior Sungmin is praised for his baby-like behaviour; he presents vulnerability in telling his ‘Noona’ that is hungry, prompting her to tell him that she will buy him food. Sungmin even introduces himself as ‘Cuteness Sungmin’ which suggests that his aegyo has played a big part in moulding his idol image.
The creator of this video dubs Yang Yoseob as ‘B2ST’s King of Aegyo’ and we are treated to many different occasions when Yoseob has shown off his aegyo talent. To him, aegyo is like second nature the females coo and squeal whilst fellow member Doojoon is shown laughing at his member’s actions, thoroughly entertained.
BTOB’s Ilhoon adopted the famous ‘Gwyomi/Kwyomi’ song as his own when it was taking South Korea by storm a while ago. He even added a few of his own moves to it, showing off his creative flair and talent in cuteness exposition. All the members of Miss A seem to be enjoying his show.
As Shinhwa leader Eric seems uncomfortable with the act of aegyo, he chooses to add an air of masculinity in performing a very aggressive version. Everyone finds him fairly humorous until SHINee’s MinHo steps in with his adorable aegyo power and Eric is left somewhat disappointed, but still a winner in the entertainment stakes.
Everyone is left unfulfilled by B.A.P leader Yong Guk’s attempt at aegyo, so it’s left to Himchan to save the day…well, maybe not, but it’s still very funny.
Perhaps I am looking to deeply into this whole subject, no one in the K-entertainment industry seems to take aegyo incredibly seriously, so why should the South Korean public? Nevertheless, I feel it is important to think about how these seemingly harmless actions may or may not influence wider society. It could be that, regardless of whether a K-celebrity is good or bad at aegyo, the act serves as a form of power for them to be either cute or entertaining. This could also stand for the females of the industry even though I have focused on the males here.
Personally though, I feel that the connotations of aegyo make it something a lot more complex than a little bit of fun and silliness, it is a process that holds much cultural significance and it would be interesting to know how its perpetuation through popular culture has influenced its effects on South Korean society as a whole.
What are your opinions on this topic?
Is aegyo a form of power or pressure? And is it moreso for males or females?
Any male readers feel pressured to look or act certain ways because of the media?
Let us know in the comment section below!
[This editorial was actually inspired by this piece on female aegyo from the Beyond Hallyu website, it is definitely worth a read!]