What Is Aegyo And How Can We Kill It? Part Two

In Part One I defined aegyo (애교) as ‘affected sweetness’.  Today I plan to take a look at some of the means by which one can affect sweetness, both behavioral and physical.

One of the most immediately recognizable manifestations of aegyo is in the vocal style, which can be described without reservation as childish.  In the following video, Sooyoung, of Girls’ Generation (소녀시대), is called upon to demonstrate the aegyo that all of Korea’s male entertainment journalists love her for.  What follows is such an extreme form of babytalk-meets-Tweety Bird that you don’t need to understand Korean to get the message:

The conversation goes on to discuss the application of this uber-aegyo to manipulate men.  In this respect, aegyo can be viewed as an effective means of empowering women within finite contexts.  It is also pointed out in the video above that such babytalk doesn’t work on older men, prompting Sooyoung to demonstrate her much more practical, much tougher voice for handling such unflappable ajosshi.

The following video is very illustrative of the affected nature of aegyo.  For those of you who, like me, don’t like watching embedded videos, I will describe the action: Tiffany and Jessica, two more members of the group Girls’ Generation.  I don’t know where Tiffany is from, but Jessica is from San Francisco.  The girls are being interviewed by someone they know, and there’s a heady mix of super-conscious posing aegyo versus more natural looking aegyo among friends.  The video ends with the girls ‘saying goodbye to all of their fans’ in English, and although they affect their cutesy poses, Tiffany can’t go through with the cutesy sign-off.

It’s almost as if the hyper-affected aegyo only works in Korean-language context, and when it’s three Korean-American girls the whole thing breaks down.  That’s my reading of the scene, anyway.  The shamelessness required to really slather on the aegyo seems to thrive in the Korean cultural context and wither outside of it.  My gut reading of it is that the arch-self awareness of the westerner makes it hard to pull off a maneuver like this without hanging a lampshade on it, winking all along as if to say ‘yes, I know this behavior is ridiculous.’

The physical characteristic most associated with aegyo is certainly the aegyo-sal (애교살, literally aegyo-flesh), The little protuberance of flesh under the eyes that gives a clear shadow effect:

My favorite practitioner of aegyo-sal is the Kellogg’s Special K girl, who was also in a drama I didn’t care for:

Aegyo-sal straddles the line between facial expression and facial feature.  It can occur naturally or it can be learned.  I have learned to tighten the muscles under my eyes and give a haunting, aegyo-sal tinged smile which I, recognizing its power, reserve only for situations of dire necessity.  And naturally, this being Korea, aegyo-sal can be injected into your face by your friendly neighborhood plastic surgeon.

Any general overview of aegyo would be incomplete without mentioning the plethora of poses associated with the term.  Here are just a few samples:

Anyway, what distinguishes these poses and facial expressions from things we feel we have a clearer grasp on, such as ‘cuteness’?  For one, they’re not all cute.  Being ‘cute’ usually implies doing things that are esthetically pleasing.  The dominant element of cuteness, as I see it, is looking good.  The dominant element of aegyo, it seems, is looking weak.  Not weak in the sense of physical weakness, but in the sense of general helplessness.  There’s no such thing as an big aegyo-havin’ girl’s rugby player.  You can be a fierce girl’s rugby player and occasionally  pick up the aegyo mantle, setting aside your kick-ass-ness to partake in a little affected sweetness, but you can’t be fierce and have aegyo at the same time.  In contrast, you can be cute and fierce at the same time.

I would be remiss in discussing aegyo and its manufacture without mentioning comedienne/MC Hyun Young (현영).

Most famous for popularizing the term ‘S-line’, Hyun Young’s comedic shtick has always been a knowing parody of what aegyo is all about by doing exactly what I’ve just described.  On comedy programs Hyun Young’s Marilyn Monroe-esque voice and cutesy smiles give way to the mercenary dark side of what aegyo is really a front for.  One of her trademarks is to say something light and cute and then mumble something sinister and contradictory in her squeaky voice, effectively putting on the aegyo and then dropping the veil to show it up for the mask of empowerment that it can potentially be.

Tomorrow I’ll try to wrap our heads around aegyo-as-empowerment, and then on Thursday I’ll do the opposite.  Finally on Friday we’ll prescribe the lethal cocktail that’ll kill the old girl off once and for all.

Part Three

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~ by Joshing on April 27, 2010.

3 Responses to “What Is Aegyo And How Can We Kill It? Part Two”

  1. God Arirang sucks.

  2. It’s almost as if the hyper-affected aegyo only works in Korean-language context, and when it’s three Korean-American girls the whole thing breaks down.

    I would say the exact same thing of Japanese kawaii culture and Japanese language. Aegyo and kawaii are very nearly identical in nature, and just as aegyo breaks down when not in a Korean language context, so does kawaii break down when not in a Japanese language context. It simply doesn’t work in English (doesn’t stop my students from trying, though).

    I translated aegyo for them as “cutesy whinging” on day one, and let them know just how much I hate it. They still try it on me, to no avail.

  3. “It’s almost as if the hyper-affected aegyo only works in Korean-language context, and when it’s three Korean-American girls the whole thing breaks down. ”

    I never thought about it that way, but I realize now that you are completely right. I would never attempt an aegyo tone of voice when speaking in English. Yet with my Korean friends, my aegyo comes out naturally when saying certain phrases. I used to hate aegyo too. But, it’s such an imbedded part of Korean culture, I have stopped caring.

    I also think that because Koreans are less confrontational people by nature, I feel the need to adapt a more gentle–hence, aegyo–tone when voicing a strong remark. If I don’t, then some people take what I say personally. Although to my defense, I moderate my aegyo. I do not puff out my cheeks or do the shimmy.

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