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Performing Masquerade: The Politics of K-Beauty in South Korean Literary and Popular Culture from Colonialism to Neoliberalism


This dissertation traces the historical trajectory of selected Korean female iconographies: Modern Girl, Apr�s Girl, Factory Girl, Gangnam Beauty, and Soybean Paste Girl. These figures have functioned as avatars of the gendered history of Korea and have also had a considerable transpacific impact on the dynamics that affect gender and class structures, as well as on national beauty culture, norms of femininity, and everyday performance of masquerade. With all these embodied female icons—icons that represent male fabrications that cater to the male gaze—I focus on the tension between authenticity and imitation/copies, which patriarchal society has demanded be distinguished. Amid the oblique power relations created primarily by the conjuncture of Japanese colonialism and US imperialism, Korea has consciously strived to establish a national cultural identity as the original rather than the copy. Such transnational struggles have been projected as struggles internal to the nation—that is, between the privileged and the marginalized of society. Particularly in this Confucian and patriarchal society, such intense power dynamics have produced and maintained unequal relations between genders. In other words, having to differentiate authentic from imitative disempowers women’s performance of self and agency and their presentation of femininity in everyday life. I draw on the concept of masquerade as a way not only to resolve this tension but to narrow the gap between what is projected as authentic and what is considered imitative, or between the reality and the representation, thus traversing the boundaries of class and challenging the normativity of femininity and the ideals of beauty constructed by social intellectuals, the state, and hegemonic mores.

My object of analysis is what I call a “nexus of beauty”: I weave together a wide range of media, not only popular media such as cinema and magazines, including Sunday Seoul and in-house beauty magazines produced by Amorepacific, but government policies and propaganda in relation to women’s fashion and consumption; literature (particularly novels); social events such as beauty pageants, parades of Korean actresses, and the sociocultural trend of “dance fever”; and the everyday life performances of marginalized Korean women in a public realm. My objective, therefore, is to illuminate the relationship between each historical context and transformative and multilayered “Koreanesses,” particularly in terms of national beauty culture and women’s corporeal identity. Although many everyday beauty practices and performances of working-class Korean women have been restored through archival images and narratives, this restoration is insufficient. Drawing on a variety of discursive/archival materials and forms of popular culture—including novels, essays, advertisements, newspapers, in-house beauty/weekly magazines, and “webtoons”—I analyze how notions of K-Beauty have been promulgated and performed, beginning with Korea’s decision to participate in the Western capitalist economy at the turn of the twentieth century. By examining these various discursive sites of media, I demonstrate how K-Beauty has been developed and disseminated as once-familiar bodies become—or engage in performances of masquerades that become—visually ambiguous. In that process, the relationship between bodies and behavior becomes theatrical.

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