Dragging K-POP Onto the Global Stage

Much ado has been made about K-POP. And these days, even more social attention has been placed on things such as gender and the politics of beloinging, along with the changing nature of seemingly “simple” identities. Put simply, there’s a lot of talk about shifting definitions of male and female, as well as the rights that are attendant to those identities and expressions of sexuality within them.

As a researcher and visual sociologist, I am personally quite interested in looking at what is going on in the realm of clothing amongst young Koreans struggling with the burden of finding and asserting personal identity in an age when it’s no longer handed to them, gift-wrapped and ready-to-wear as one-size-fits-all solutions, e.g. Korean, young, single woman, or whatever job one manages to find — doctor, lawyer, schoolteacher. So I have been looking at street fashion in Korea for more than a straight decade now as . metric of social changes.

In a hypermodern society in which you are what you buy, or at least you are judged by your consumptive choices and a visible display of purchased tastes and apparent refinement, identity has become fluid. But more than this, it has become more complex and hence more of a struggle to figure out. And what one displays to the outside world — clothing, hairstyles, gestures, and even general comportment — becomes a part of one’s embodied social capital. They are an important part of what Koreans call “spec” — the “specifications” that determine your place in the social hierarchy.

This visible realm where identity is defined has also become part of a new social battlefield where new identities are forged and defended, older ones seen as retrograde or in need of serious rethinking are reimagined or upgraded. The more I have studied and documented the consumer subcultures of Seoul as street fashion and more lately, the growing drag performance culture in the queer community here, the more I have been able to discern an ongoing movement of young people using their bodies and clothing to redefine gender roles and norms in the realm of where those things are defined — the literal “performance” of gender on the social stage.

Seon-gyeong, a florist and paepi fashionista at Seoul Fashion Week: “I wanted to show off my tattoo and show that it’s ok for everyday, normal women to have tattoos.”

Gender as Performance

I recently attended a panel presentation at the Academy of Korean Studies conference given by the theoretically brilliant Joanna Elfving-Hwang, entitled “Gendering the Digital Gaze: On the Aesthetics of K-pop Idol Masculinity.” It rocked my world and caused me to take a trip back to my Theory Toolshed™ to make some much-needed upgrades. Prof. Elfving-Hwang’s brief presentation hipped me to feminist performance studies theorist Elaine Aston, who critically engages with the ur-theorist Judith Butler. Aston engages with Butlerian performance theory, which says that gender (and by extension, all identities) is performed.

This is not to say gender is merely false, or a conscious ruse, but that it, like most things in a society, is a construct. Gender is not a static state that is reached-then-maintained, but rather one that is steadily maintained in its constant performance. Or, one might even say that gender isn’t a noun; it’s a verb. One does Girl (or Boy) with every flip of the hair, crossing of the legs, lilt of the voice. One wears it, walks it, sits it, smiles it, talks it in order to be a gender. Yes, the meat of our biological sex is there, but when have you ever seen your friend’s sexy meats? Or your teacher’s, co-worker’s, or the bus driver’s? How we perform gender through socially-coded individual acts — that’s where gender lives.

For many of us who have taken a film, Women’s, or Ethnic Studies, or any liberal arts class since the 1990s, this theory is pretty easy to get and quite familiar. Butlerian performance theory is taught everywhere from Gender and Ethnic and African-American Studies and is a key part of Queer Theory and a whole host of heavily theoretical fields. It’s so ubiquitous that it’s old hat to many.

Korean female drag performer Rohep Moon (Instagram @rohepmoon) puts on quite the show for the camera as well as actual audiences nearly every week at drag shows in the Haebangchon neighborhood of Seoul.

But Elaine Aston problematizes all this Butlerian theory a bit. She doesn’t say that Butler or her theory from Bodies That Matter or Gender Trouble are wrong, but she does have a bit of a problem with the widespread, pell-mell, and sometimes willy nilly application of Butlerian feminist theater studies theory to all kinds of cases that are outside of the realm of actual performance in front of actual audiences. Aston takes issue with applying a theoretical tool that was forged in the analysis of actual, performing bodies and using the tool primarily as a metaphor outside its original context. The problem is that “gender performance” is more than just a useful metaphor with which to describe social phenomenae.

Here’s the problem. Take a person who has never seen furniture built taking all furniture-making knowledge from an Ikea chair in which wooden pegs are driven into preset holes by a hammer. And since voila — it gets done — the next time our would-be furniture-builder encounters a some-assembly-required situation with lots of screws and pre-marked points on boards she pounds the screws into the holes. This also gets done — hey, it worked, right? — but it gets done poorly. The tool works because it’s right in a general and un-nuanced sense, but the application of the tool is also wrong enough to cause problems. One would probably do well to not place too much stock on the soundness of the shelf that looks generally right, yet feels rickety and was done wrong, with threaded screws pounded forcefully into their intended places in the board. The shelf looks ok, but I’d be wary of putting too much weight on it. Butler’s over-applied theory is the hammer in this case, while Aston may be an electric drill.

Elaine Aston, who is coming at this from theatre and performance theory, talks about three main ways to “alienate the representation of gender” and “dismantle the male gaze.” Put another way, this means dressing/performing with the goal of making the looker consciously think about gender. This can be accomplished by overdoing it. The performer/wearer is overdoing acts that invite the gaze or inscribe female gender roles and by so doing, makes the watcher actively think about gender roles/femininity. It does so by “the construction of the female body as a site/sight of ‘looking-at-being-looked-at-ness’ in performance, through playing with the codes of gendered costume in relation to the body. The thing that Aston doesn’t forget is that identity and/or gender “performance” is part of an embodied theory, i.e. a theory made/realized through the body.

Indeed, Aston tells us, it is only through the body that one can create a social “sphere of disturbance” from which to try and interrupt/destabilize preset societal categories. This seems natural when one thinks about saying the words “we should think outside of extremely narrow and limiting gender binaries that keep people within strict social roles that place people into a constrictingly small set of forced choices that lead to prescribed social behavior, much of which is undesired and keeps people in cages, and it is quite another to simply disturb social space in regard to said categories by simply doing it.

I do not know if the street fashion people (paepi) above think of themselves as feminists per se, but I do think some of their sartorial display as gender performance is self-consciously gender norm-transgressive and (in an Astonian sense) feminist theater practice. They embody gender performance in the most literal and non-theoretical sense because they are performers actually on a stage and with a clearly-defined audience.

“The Distancing Effect”

Aston would talk about this kind of transgressive performance of gender in terms of feminist theater practices-turned-theory, or “Performing gender (as) materialist practice.” This is done with the purpose of “alienating gender.” This comes from the tradition of Brechtian theater, which utilizes the “distancing effect” (Verfremdungseffekt) to break the suspension of disbelief to force the gazer/audience to think outside the play itself and think about the production.

This is what science fiction films don’t want to happen for the audience — the moment when the audience gets thrown out of the story and starts thinking about the film itself or even critically resists the suspension of disbelief, usually as the result of bad special effects or acting. This “distances” the audience and is usually a bad thing. The German playwright Bertold Brecht created this effect on purpose in order to make audiences think about certain things outside the story itself, on what we’d now call a “meta” level. I argue that drag performers and some street fashion folks in Seoul are doing the same thing with gender in their performative practices.

The exaggerated representations of femininity for fun and profit resemble a drag show more than reality and fit with the fantasy space in which many highly staged, overproduced operate. They help place the production into the realm of Art.

And this jarring Verfremdungseffekt (distancing effect) is what one might feel watching the average K-POP girl group that does stripper, pole-dancer moves in unison in front of “conservative, Confucian Korean” audiences that nary even bat an eye at it now. Because they’re not representing real and actual women, but a cartoonish exaggeration of women; because they’re not making a performance grounded in realism. It’s because — from BLACKPINK to Girls’ Generation, they’re actually doing drag performance. Because if these videos were ever intended to be taken as representations of desired social reality, the “Confucian, conservative Korean” public would have rioted by now. But they haven’t . And so, K-POP videos and risque group acts have managed to slide into the space of protected art, which the Korean public tends to respect and leave alone. And right under our noses (and quite unconsciously), the straight, middle-aged controllers of the Korean cultural industry have used the techniques of feminist theater performance theory and Brechtian theater to drag K-POP successfully onto the world stage.



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Michael Hurt

Michael Hurt

A visual sociologist writing, teaching, and shooting in Seoul since 2002.