Pretty boys, money & 한 (han).

by Meritxell Riera Prims


Kwon Ji Yong, a.k.a. G-Dragon, from the worlwide successful Korean band Big Bang.

I’ve recently become hooked on k-pop and k-dramas world.

Feels kinda weird for a woman of my age -37, I don’t mind saying it- to admit that I can easily fall for 20 something boys who can pull off amazing dance moves and cheesily whisper norul saranghae (I love you) in your year.

But the most unconfortable thing might actually be how these global phenomena -a mixture of a consumption item resulting from an aggressively capitalistic perfectly greased machinery, and a specific cultural manifestation- can confront yourself with your own male standard beauties through the appretiation of TV and boy band idols and the eventual normalization of their appearance, in such a way that it is no longer anything shocking to you.

As you watch a TV show or an MV, you can easily come across one or more young androginous good looking guys wearing colorful clothes -and hair-, colored contact lenses, and tones of makeup or eyeliner, who look better on them than on yourself. And who can definitely dance much better than you. I love a guy who can dance, I won’t lie.

I’ve read thousands of comments made by Westerners before -and surprised myself thinking that way, too at a certain time- about how supposedly gay that is -as if saying something is gay was an insult, by the way-. The thing is, for a Southern Korean -as much as for every other Asian, I guess- that is where true manliness lies these days. Why can’t a man or a boy be sexy or seductive in the same way a woman is -that is, exploiting vanity through the sometimes extreme alteration of their own physical appearance?

Does that mean, however, that South Korea is not a sexist country? Well… no. Their culture is well grounded on Confucianist patriarchal values mixed with Christian elements. It means that their notion of what is masculine and what is feminine is way different than ours, and questions the nature of these standards (which is quite a lot, actually).

As I pointed out before -let’s not be fooled-, this is all part of a huge marketing campaign thought to boost the Korean nation worldwide. There are lots of money invested, not only in the production of records and MVs, but in the celebrities themselves. And I also mean physically -I don’t intend to make a diggression on the popularity of plastic surgery in that Asian country in particular-.

So yes, most of it is artificious (but since when pop isn’t, in Korea or anywhere else?). The plain rejection of these cultural manifestations is actually more based on racist and classist presuppositions. You can hear the same remarks on black subculture manifestations in Western industrialised large cities, actually.

But there’s a lot more behind all this apparent simplicity and banality of beauty and fashion, and banality-. Koreans take all this very seriously, and behind those catchy melodies, cheesy lyrics and extravagant sense of fashion, there’s a committment of the totality of the Koreans to reach a particular aim: global SUCCESS. To let themselves be known and acknowledged, and prove their resiliency and resources. To give a nation -that had remained so far, somewhat of a mistery compared to its Eastern siblings China and Japan- the definitive boost after centuries of suffering and humiliations (that Koreans describe through the almost untranslatable word han (한)). And you can only reach that through hard hard work. I’m not going to go through the ins and outs of the Hallyu industry, because that was not the point of these post, but I recommend you to look up for more information, because in k-pop more than in every other thing, not all that glitters is gold (which doesn’t mean I won’t continue to being dazzled by the sparkling beams it irradiates).

Obviously, the price they’ve been paying for that is quite high: the pressure to be successful and matter.

But for this reason I hate it so much when people laugh so carelessly at these bands or actors and the Korean pop culture and  country’s modernisation as a whole.

The success of a song such as PSY’s Gangnam style helped a lot to launch an industry that had been actually going on for about 30 years (just after the end of the 1988 Olympic Games that helped reopen the nation to the world). But it also turned k-pop and k-hip hop into some kind of a laughingstock in the eyes of some ignorant and racist Westerners.

The phenomena itself has also encouraged the development of a fetish for Asian men among young -and not so young- Western women around the world, which as any other racial fetish is, let’s be honest, racist in itself (let’s not forget that plastic surgery interventions in Korea are performed precisely to diminish Eastern facial traits -eyes, nose, jaws- in most cases due to the influence of Western beauty standards imported during the American-Korean war either among women or men).

At the same time, however, the impact of Hallyu on the global market is their own way of resisting and standing out.

I’m not saying it’s good to encourage a certain way of life, that of aggressive capitalism as a form of resistance. I’m not exactly a fan of the moto If you can’t beat them join them. And I guess this whole thing will eventually prove itself an illusion (in spite of the fact that it’s been going on for more than 30 years now and will continue to be after Westerner fangirls and fanboys get tired of it), just as the American dream turned out to be.

I assume life in Korea is not easy. Yeah, well, life ain’t easy anywhere, is it?  But I admire Koreans’s determination and their wit (although I suspect that this wasn’t initially planned, and this success turned out to be a pleasant surprise to Koreans themselves) when it comes to make the whole world become interest in their small and apparently unimportant country, their history, culture, gastronomy and language.

Make no mistake: my ultimate motivation to watch k-dramas and listen to k-pop is absolutely mundane, in spite of all these deep anthropological reflections (LOL) or the actual appeal and quality of Southern Korean TV and music productions and the talent of Korean artists (a talent and a quality that ARE definitely there in most cases).

But just so you can see that even the most mundane things, can raise deeper questions, which means that everything that is apparently based on sheer human instincts is actually a construct resulting from experiences and conventions.

Behind something trivial and superficial there is a whole fascinating story worth analizing, as there is in almost every phenomena on the planet these days.