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

In Part Four I developed the idea that women in Korean society practice aegyo in order to demonstrate their ‘incapability of useful effort’.  This incapacity for useful effort is in turn used to demonstrate the ability of someone (whether parents, husband or potential husband or they themselves) to practice conspicuous waste.  Aegyo and productive work are mutually exclusive to a degree that cuteness is not.  Again, one can weave cuteness into the fabric of their productive life, but to do so with aegyo will have the chilling effect of undermining the individual’s professional standing.

Here is another quote from Thorstein Veblen:

[T]he high heel, the skirt, the impracticable bonnet, the corset, and the general disregard of the wearer’s comfort which is an obvious feature of all civilized women’s apparel, are so many items of evidence to the effect that in the modern civilized scheme of life the woman is still, in theory, the economic dependent of the man–that, perhaps in a highly idealized sense, she still is the man’s chattel. The homely reason for all this conspicuous leisure and attire on the part of women lies in the fact that they are servants to whom, in the differentiation of economic functions, has been delegated the office of putting in evidence their master’s ability to pay.

Here’s a quote from rapper T.I.

Any time you want to pick up the telephone, you know it ain’t nothing to drop a couple stacks on you.

I can’t emphasize enough here the role the power dynamic between men and women in Korea plays in the prevalence of aegyo.  Korea does have the highest gender wage gap among OECD countries.  Workplaces are typically structured with the assumption that most of the women will not stay in the company long past maternity leave, and this assumption shapes a range of conditions, from wages to the types of opportunities available to women.  Thus if we return to our semi-rational Korean woman from Part Three we see her faced with circumstances in which landing a man and becoming his primary delegate in reputably wasting his surplus resources makes sense.

It’s very important to keep in mind that this system has two halves to it.  For every man looking for a woman to become what Thorstein Veblen calls his ‘chief menial’ there is a woman looking for a man who will allow her to engage in a socially acceptable amount of conspicuous waste.  Korean men and women are teammates in this process, in the sense that they as individuals all want to waste in the best way possible, and that by delegating resource acquisition to one partner and the process of converting resources into waste to another they are able to most effectively do that.

Thus aegyo is a natural outgrowth of Korean gender inequality and the modes of conspicuous waste that hold sway in modern Korea, i.e. conspicuous leisure of a form that demonstrates the incapacity for useful effort, which has not only a physical dimension (evidenced by the predominance of short skirts and high heels), but also a social dimension (evidenced by unproductive, unprofessional behavior).

How can we kill aegyo?  The answer, at this point, should be abundantly clear.  In order to kill aegyo we would have to take society-changing steps to close the gender gap in Korea.  Laws would need to be passed, attitudes would need adjustment, the wages, options and social mobility of men and women would need to be equalized, and an entire social infrastructure would need to be constructed. 

But would the costs outweigh the benefits?

Keep in mind Veblen’s key conceit, that the human desire to accumulate more than one needs and then conspicuously waste it cannot be stopped, it can only be channeled in one direction or the other.  Veblen envisions this as a sort of environmental constraint on human aspirations.  To deprive people of one means of wasting requires the appearance of a substitute status symbol (e.g. Jay-Z’s simultaneoud rejection of throwback jerseys and adoption of cashmere sweatpants as a new object of conspicuous consumption).  If we deprive Korea of its gender inequality and the attendant vicarious consumption that it brings, we may not like what comes to supplant it.

At the moment Korea channels most of its waste in two main directions: conspicuous consumption and vicarious leisure.  Conspicuous consumption here typically takes the form of cars, homes, clothing and accessories, electronic goods, etc.  Nothing special in terms of form, but distinguished nonetheless by its prevalence.  Many an American in Korea has commented on how well dressed the average Korean on the street typically is, and that is not surprising, for we typically dress relatively casually (read: sloppily), as Americans are much geared towards conspicuous leisure than conspicuous consumption.  That said, conspicuous consumption in Korea is an action that the whole family can enjoy.  I say that Korea stresses vicarious leisure over conspicuous leisure because in Korea there is an interesting tendency for an income earner’s incredible amount of time spent at work to serve as a sort of status symbol.  Thus the situation here closely mirrors what Veblen saw in his time: a full delegation of conspicuous leisure to the non-income earning elements of the family, i.e. the wife and kids.

So we are talking about aegyo as a type of conspicuous leisure that a woman can engage in to provide evidence of the earning power (actually wasting power) of the man that supports her financially.  In fact what we’re seeing is only one side of the story of this waste.  A recent survey found that Korean families with young children spend 12.9% of family income on childcare, close to what has been found in the past overall.  It is well known that the Korean education system, like the rest of Korean society, is highly competitive.  Veblen’s framework implies that this is because Koreans have achieved an incredible degree of standardization in terms of the status symbols that they hold dear.  In modern Korea, as in earlier periods in the country’s history, education is the primary status symbol in its capacity as a signifier of conspicuous waste of both time and money.  It is the lingua franca of Korean status symbols, and while the object of study may change, becoming more or less practical on our eyes, it remains the go-to means of demonstrating value for Koreans.

My fear is that if we are to remove women as canvases for the expression of conspicuous waste, Korean children will bear the full burden of signifying their parent’s vicarious leisure.  Korean children already appear to be trapped in a downward spiral of signification in which they are forced to vicariously endure ever increasing amounts of leisure (here, grueling education qualifies as leisure in that, though it has an ostensible purpose of preparing children for future work, its dominant feature is its symbolism as conspicuous expenditure).  We have a paradoxical situation where the father, who is working late nights to put his child through school, is actually not working as hard as the child is in providing evidence of the father’s income.

With women out of the equation as servants in conspicuous waste and fully integrated into the workforce as equals, Korean children will crumble under the pressure of single-handedly performing all the vicarious leisure for both parents on a dual income.  For this reason, it is clearly in the best interest of Korea for the gender imbalance to continue unabated, with all that that implies, including aegyo.



Return to Part One

~ by Joshing on April 30, 2010.

16 Responses to “What Is Aegyo And How Can We Kill It? Part Five”

  1. Bravo, sir. Bravo.

  2. But what about the women who want to be taken seriously, who want to be considered full-fledged human beings and not simply channels through which men can display weatlh? And who are punished socially or economically for wanting that? They have to take one for the team? That doesn’t sit well with me.

  3. Marylin,

    They can and do do that, I see them all the time in my line of work. My experience is that they are punished socially for that only slightly more than they may be in any other modern society. Nobody said that Korean society can’t accommodate that, though. Aegyo is not mandatory, but in Korean society as it stands now it is a viable strategy for those who feel like it’s the way to go. I’m just explaining how to completely eradicate aegyo, and then I came to the conclusion that to do so may be even worse then perpetuating it.

  4. Can we agree it should be minimized? =)

  5. Joe,

    I think I know now what would happen if we took a film by M. Night Shyamalan (say, “The Village”), lopped off the ending, and then transported D.W. Griffith to the present to direct his own “Hitckcockian twist ending” for the film.

    If your best argument against any change is, “But what about the children?” I think you haven’t thought broadly enough about the big picture in which this kind of change happens.

    I had some ideas I was going to type up in some detail, but I’m not sure you’d be particularly interested, and I’m very short on time at the moment.

  6. Gord,

    Of course I’m quite interested in your ideas.

    In actuality I believe that aegyo is going to go the way of the dodo for the simple reason that Korean families are on the one-way road to being totally dependent on dual income, which means both men and women will have a stake in women getting the same opportunities as men, which will end up killing off aegyo anyway, whether we like it or not. I was just going for a Shyamalan-by-way-of-Jonathan-Swift thing, as you correctly point out.

  7. I don’t entirely follow that the consequence of killing aegyo is intensification of child education.

    How do similarly ethnically homogenous but far more economically equitable nations survive, then? If not America, then one of the Scandinavian countries, or perhaps Japan.

  8. Excellent piece which tries to understand a Korean phenomenon by seeing it as a result of the broader socio-cultural context.

    As it was a five-part series, I can’t go into details, but I most liked the part where “affected sweetness” is seen as a (semi-)rational strategy of empowerment, and I was least convinced by the part which sees it as a symbol of the ability to waste one’s intellectual potential (the “acting like a moron” theory).

    I do agree that affected sweetness is a strategy to interact with more powerful members of society as it is the result of the concern to act in a way that will not be perceived as aggressive. Aggression challenges power, submission confirms it and may in many situations be the more efficient way to obtain a favour or the acceptance of more powerful people.

    This submission symbolizes the effort to avoid face-threatening acts (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politeness_theory). As a culture-specific form of politeness, aegyo is not waste, but negotiation. The person displaying affected sweetness is not acting like a moron, but as a person who knows their place and their goal in that negotiation. Affected sweetness is, like other displays of politeness, a strategy used in establishing a harmonious relationship. Rather than a display of wealth, it is comparable to a ritual gift.

    Whether this form of politeness comes to be considered as archaic is a different matter. You’re obviously right that there’ll be less need to display it once women have the same power and status as men. There’s less need to display politeness towards less or equally powerful interlocutors. Powerful people can afford to be rude, so politeness is rarely symmetrical.

  9. Seems like a lot of work to kill something off. Might be easier to simply live with it and chalk it up to one of those things you hear when living in Korea.

    I’d rather people invest their time and energy in killing off Arirang TV.

  10. This was well worth my time. I am now looking into that book by Veblen. Please keep writing, you are an inspiration.

  11. >Return to Part One

    You are damnedright I will.

    This is really interesting Joe.
    Thanks for following me on Twitter. I just now found your blog thanks to digging around in the followers list.

  12. I wanted to sincerely thank you for this thought provoking trip. I’m a kpop fan and have wondered about the causes and uses of “aegyo” – and reading your commentary has caused me to rethink quite a bit about korean society, and enforce the ideas and conclusions I have already come to. Thank you for taking the time to write this- it was definitely worth the time it took to read.

    @Brian kill off Arirang TV? fine by me. but leave “Pops In Seoul: I Feel Like” with UKiss – it gives a lot of people a half an hour of pure laughter!

  13. Like Sevy I’m discovering more of Korean culture through my interest in kpop, and this post gave me a clearer idea about what aegyo is and where it came from.

    You mentioned that the two partly-Korean girls in the video had a hard time to perform their aegyo because of their more Western mindset, but I’ve seen in Youtube clips that all-Korean boys and girls seem to find it embarassing as well.

    For example http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLHXmOjjXCo (starts at 5:35)

    Is aegyo losing social acceptability and use with younger generations?

  14. […] or the revealing clothing that has become common among K-pop girl groups.[3], [4], [5] Also absent was the misuse and mispronunciations of English that is common in K-pop. It’s not […]

  15. Really well-written and thoughtful blog post. It was worth the read. I first learned the term “aegyo” from my mother who always wished I was more feminine and vulnerable looking instead of a tattooed tomboy who likes power tools. As a sociology major in college, I became very interested in Korean gender culture and this entry really resonated with me and my experience when I lived overseas. Nicely done.

  16. I just found this site accidentally, and I’m writing from Melbourne, Australia. You are a brilliant writer. I found the analysis through Veblen’s prism, coupled with choice quotes from rappers, just irresistable. Rizpek, bro.

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