I have always wondered why is the concept of “being cute” (aegyo) is particularly popular in South Korea. When I first arrived in Korea in 2014, a lot of people here seemed obsessed with the “cuteness” of certain objects, dance moves, behavior. So I decided to research this concept and share it in my post.
So, what is the actual meaning of Korean aegyo (애교)? From English it is often translated as “cuteness” and is compared to a Japanese concept of kawaii . It refers to someone who expresses his/hers affection through acting in a childish way making cute baby voice, facial expression, dressing… even how people decorate their room. Puzar (2011) thinks that aegyo mostly depicts a feminine trait of adolescents and pre-adults to benefit men they are in a relationship with. However, in K-Pop industry both female and male use aegyo aesthetic to show a transformation from being a childlike and innocent to mature and sexually attractive.
Entertainment K-Pop companies organize special trainings for their trainees adopt the aegyo aesthetic and make it a part of their behavior and attitude. The K-Pop stars deliberately learn how to do special cute hand gestures, body postures, facial expressions and manners according to their individuality. So, every detail of their aegyo style is personalized for each of the trainees. With time, this concept has been developed in K-Pop industry and became of the most popular aesthetics in South Korea.
Han (2011) in her thesis argues that aegyo became an important aesthetic in K-Pop because initially has its roots in Korean culture itself, emerging from a kisaeng figures. Kisaeng, also called ginyeo were the government’s legal entertainers who first emerged in Goryeo dynasty in 918 by King Taejo. They were spread throughout the country and were trained to be artists, poets, nurses and needleworkers. The most famous of the kisaengs was Hwang Jini lived in the 16th-century.
There is even a song that was inspired by a member of the K-Pop idol group BtoB Hoon Jung. He first performed the song counting numbers and moving his hands in a cute way in a reality TV program in 2012. Thereafter, he was invited by different other shows to perform his song.
In terms of gender issues, K-Pop is often criticized for promoting overly serialized femininity through demonstration of de-humanised girl’s bodies (Kim, 2011), for stereotyping Asian women as sexually passive to Western society (Jung, 2011). Also, young celebrity idols by acting cute in the TV shows are objectified by audiences in fetishistic ways (Kim, 2010 and 2011; Lee, 2011). However Turnbull and Epstein in their work argue that “cute” physical actions of K-Pop idols are done as a way to appeal to the tastes of their target audiences and compete in the K-Pop industry.
Puzar, A. (2011). Asian Dolls and the Westernized Gaze. Asian Women, 27(2), 81-111.
Kim, G. (2017). Korean Wave| Between Hybridity and Hegemony in K-Pop’s Global Popularity: A Case of” Girls’ Generation’s” American Debut. International Journal of Communication, 11, 20.
Han, A. J. (2016). The aesthetics of cuteness in Korean pop music (Doctoral dissertation, University of Sussex).