In the land of the frozen dolls: Professor Aljosa Puzar on the lives of young women in Korea
A couple of years ago I wrote an article about aegyo as a cultural phenomenon and the role it plays in giving young women (and sometimes young men) a very limited form of power in a society in which they have very little. Most of the ideas came from a piece of research by Aljosa Puzar on the coming of age of young women in Korea and particularly the intense pressure they feel to ‘dollify’ both their bodies and their behaviours. Puzar is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at the Underwood International College of Yonsei University and recently gave a fascinating in-depth interview with podcast Korea and the World about his research and ideas.
In the hour long discussion, he talks about various things including how the dollification of young women maintains the status quo and immobilises them and how romantic love forms the centre of modern Korean femininity. He also talks about the role of western ideas and the westernised gaze in influencing Korean femininity. There’s far too much in the episode to cover it all but here are a few quotes and you can find the link to the full podcast at the bottom of the article.
We like to think that we are nomadic, we like to think we are dissolving into digital clouds, we like to think that we move a lot, while in fact I’m trying to prove that dollification is about ensuring the conservation and perseverance of stasis. That dollification is rather […] being immobile than being mobile and that it is often conjoined with [a] lack of female – and occasionally male – agency rather than with enhancement of that agency.
On female K-pop idols:
“You need to see if all these women who are present in [the] public [eye]: are they really in public or are they just publicised? … Lots of K-pop idols are publicised. They are exposed. They are under light so they are not in the darkness of inner chambers. Nonetheless you cannot say that they are in the public because how they talk, what they do, who they date, even, what they eat is highly regulated. Either by a corporation or by different other elements. Sometimes familial corporation, or family, is an element of regulation. So therefore you ask yourself: The many beautiful and malleable and modern and fashionable and stylish female faces that you see on the screen, are they there as a part of the public or even the public sphere in some political or socially relevant sense? Or are they being publicised? That is of course a crucial distinction. I’m not saying that distinction works only for females and I’m not saying we don’t have new desire to be publicised even if you are nobody…. People like to be publicised… On the other hand I would like to see more power related to such exposure.”
On plastic surgery:
In almost all patriarchal cultures, they maintain something which used to be, maybe, an evolutionary element of women trying to look young and healthy and trying present or represent reproductive power… Of course, as culture develops, as capitalism develops, there are elements which are self-reproducing where some types of femininity are acting almost as a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are not directly related to anything but to capitalist operation of, basically, using very old patriarchal traditional female roles and replacing them with various consumption related desires.
Finally you don’t know if you’re changing your body to look better in the office, or to serve better to some ahjussi in the office. You don’t know if you’re doing it to marry better or if you are doing it for yourself and your own desires because these things are of course conflated and conjoined. There is no need to provide strong feminist, bombastic critique of people changing their bodies. It is just that we need to think and talk about reasons and about intensities and invested time, money and effort in comparison with some other types of efforts and financial investments. It is not very much different from studying English. But of course if you think of intellectual, political and many other ramifications of such behaviours, it is still something very different.
On love as the centre of modern Korean femininity:
If you are not in love or loved, you are not successful as a girl despite your mathematics, physics, travels abroad and many other things.
You can listen to the full podcast on the Korea and the World website.