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