Irreverent Dancing Bodies: K-Pop Dance Covers, Technologies of Gendered Embodiment, and Queer Space Making in Thailand

By Matthew Lim

In 2014, a Thai all-male dance cover group, Next School, took the stage on Thailand’s Got Talent with their synchronized drumming, lip-syncing, and dancing. They mimicked South Korean girl group After School’s “Bang!” The audience cheered wildly for the familiar song Next School was mirroring perfectly. Next School capitalized off of the success of the K-Pop girl idol group, reaching their own demi-idol status at that moment on national television. But what does this national recognition of a trans-gendered performance say about the role of capitalism in generating a new set of possibilities? In what sense are these dynamics in the forms of embodiment and performance the members of Next School cultivate?

According to John D’Emilio, capitalism and industrialization allow for individuals to live outside the confines of the family, providing urban centers and occupations in which queer subjects can establish new relations and desires.[i] The urban centers became the sites where gay men and lesbians invent other ways of meeting each other. In the early 20th century, gay men gathered in public bathhouses and YMCAs and large cities like New York and Chicago built lesbian bars. According to D’Emilio, these places sustained new webs of connectivity and intimacy for gays and lesbians because of the way the free labor market ushered in ways for them to find a larger community to organize and identify with.[ii]

The productive possibilities that emerge out of capitalist processes becomes a necessary framework to view Hallyu—literally translated into the “Korean Wave,” which refers to Korean popular culture’s rippling popularity. As such, I build on D’Emilio’s to argue that, paralleling the development of urban spaces during the age of American industrialization, the development of new media technologies of YouTube carves new cultural spaces within highly mediated places for new queer subjectivities and practices to develop and flourish. Looking more specifically at Next School, their dance covers highlight the ways in which Hallyu’s expansion into Thailand offers new possibilities for exploring, performing, and embodying alternative modalities of gender.

The rising tide of Hallyu in Thailand indexes the growth of Thailand’s economy, which has recently developed a larger middle-class consumer base with increased spending power.[iii] In the late 20th century into the early 21st century, Thailand’s economy expanded rapidly, resulting in the growth of the size, wealth, and influence of the Thai middle class.[iv] In the early 21st century, Thailand’s economy expanded at a constant rate of approximately five percent per year. The average income rose from 16 to 19 percent annually.[v] These economic shifts impacted the Thai genderscape, or the conceptualizing of a Thai gender system. Drawing from the work of Judith Butler, gender is an inherently unstable identity and modes of gender can shift over time. Gender is tenuously constituted in time and space and requires a “conception of constituted social temporality.”[vi] For instance, while kathoeyness—a term that encompasses all forms of transgender expression—is part of the traditional three-gender system in Thailand, the incorporation of beauty practices into the kathoey gender identity is a modern phenomenon that is produced out of the rising middle class. The cosmopolitan, younger middle-class “modern kathoeys,” as they call themselves, uphold gender through the utilization of modern medical technology, such as hormones, Botox, and surgery.[vii] These material goods and technologies made available by the circuits of global capitalism signify a nation’s shifting place in the global economy.[viii] Thailand’s booming economy and the rising middle-class base thus shape the development and consumption of these technologies that partially construct and impact contemporary gender identities.

The development of Thailand’s genderscape is also tethered to the presence of the West and the project of modernity, together illuminating the space for Hallyu to enter Thailand’s market. The rapid pulse of transformation in gender in Thailand during the post-Asian financial crisis can be seen as an extension of Thailand’s history with both the presence of the West in the social imaginary and the discourse of modernity impacting nationalist modernization projects that reformulated gender.[ix] Beginning in the early 20th century, the threat of Westernization sparked interventions in the traditional gender system. The Thai state imposed sexual dimorphism in order to create a system that would be read as legible by the West and demonstrate Thailand’s siwilai (civilized) status to prevent encroachment and colonization.[x] Later on, in the late 1970s, transgendered identities were subsumed under the discourse of modernity and associated negatively with Westernization.

As a result of these shifting discourses, the transgendered body became a site of anxiety and fears. Although it was a symbol of modernity and the rise of the middle-class, it simultaneously represented an impediment to the masculine development narrative of the nation.[xi] The press constantly depicted the transgender bodies as deviant and weak. One article in the magazine Phuen Chiwit in 1984 stated, “It is disgusting that the deterioration of morality and ethics will have a negative impact on society at large, because [the homosexual youth] will grow up to be citizens who are weak.”[xii] The press’s depictions reveal how the kathoey body is the place where the vexed relationship between the positively viewed notion of modernity and the negative perception of Westernization play out. The historical legacy of Thailand aspiring towards a project of achieving modernity shows that Western hegemony does not entirely dominate Thailand. Instead, Thailand’s sexual logics and subjectivities are responding to the West but they are also developing locally; it is not a transposition of Western genderscapes onto Thailand. This local development of modernity, particularly in relation to gender, is once again salient in the aftermath of the 1997 IMF (International Monetary Fund) crisis. After the IMF crisis, which engendered a turn away from the West as the model for economic development and a greater political, economic, and cultural association with other Southeast and East Asian nations,[xiii] the nexus of the translocal is where notions of modern (queer) subjectivities derive from.

This economic and social context provides the opportunity for South Korea and Hallyu to enter Thailand as the new social, economic, and cultural signifiers of modernity. The expansion of the new middle class in Thailand occurred in tandem with the growing cosmopolitanism of other nearby Asian nations, producing a sense of cultural proximity and affinity between Asian countries.[xiv] Cultural proximity creates an imagined community living in a shared time and common experience of postmodernity, and Thai youth are drawn to South Korea’s cultural productions because of its inherent “vision of modernization” that Western and Thai music do not possess.[xv] This vision of modernity is constructed through a skillful hybridizing of Asian and Western values that speak to the shared Asian experience that Western culture alone does not, and cannot, capture.[xvi] Hallyu thus draws its success from “soft power,” the ability to communicate through the desirable and pleasurable[xvii] and appease newly emerging capitalist desires and anxieties in Thailand.[xviii] Through soft power, South Korea sets itself as the “prominent model to follow or catch up [with], both culturally and economically.”[xix] Angel Lin and Alvin Tong have argued that consumers of Hallyu within the imagined community of a cosmopolitan Asian “us” are able to negotiate their own local values and align themselves with the desirable South Korean vision of modernity to imagine how they themselves can participate in an Asian modern identity. The identification with Korean culture becomes an allegory for Thai national aspirations for development and moves towards modernity.

For the Thai queer population, the soft power of Hallyu, and K-Pop in particular, not only allows for participation in an emergent cosmopolitan, modern Asian sphere, but it also conveys a pleasurable play with gender and gender presentation, which molds contemporary gender expressions and practices in Thailand. In 2009, the K-Pop scene saw a boom in transgender role-playing practices; girl groups imitated popular boy group songs and dances, and conversely, boy groups covered popular girl group performances, wearing wigs and mini-skirts, and thereby pushing the boundaries of femininity and masculinity.[xx] These enormously popular performances were symptomatic of a complex, multi-layered, and flexible masculinity that K-Pop boy groups embodied. They conveyed various masculine forms, such as the conventional hard-body masculinity and the cute, soft masculinity. Because a locality is historically contingent and culturally produced in dialogue with globalizing forces,[xxi] this mutable masculinity that epitomizes K-Pop has a powerful influence on Thailand’s genderscape, producing another iteration of the disjunctured process of globalization when it is reinscribed in culturally specific ways. In Megan Sinnott’s ethnographic study, many Thai women claimed that there was a loss of traditional gender/sexual categories and identities (of tom and dee specifically) due to the influx of this foreign, inter-Asian sexual style.[xxii] Though these allegedly disappearing traditional categories are still alive, this sentiment reveals that the impact of K-Pop on Thailand’s contemporary queer formations is acutely felt and very much present and real.

Central to inter-Asian cultural flow of K-Pop in Thailand and the translocal exchange of gender practices and identity formations is YouTube. The video-streaming technology of YouTube grants K-Pop mobility into new frontiers, both physical and virtual.[xxiii] YouTube ushers in K-Pop’s flexible gendered images into Thailand. For Thai youth, YouTube is important in its ability to reinforce the visuality of K-Pop.[xxiv] Because K-Pop is performance-centered, with K-Pop idols extensively trained in singing as well as dancing, YouTube centers the audio and visual simultaneously to make K-Pop circulate successfully.[xxv] The interactive capabilities of the medium of YouTube consolidate the multiple modes of cultural commodities’ circulation that John Fiske describes. Thai youth are not just placid cultural dupes to K-Pop, but they are able to use the technology of YouTube to embody the social and cultural meanings attached to what they see. They are simultaneously consuming K-Pop and its play with gender performances through the videos distributed by Korean entertainment agencies as well as producing their own dance covers to engender their own meanings, pleasures, and social identities.[xxvi] By this logic of the popular economy, the dance covers of girl group K-Pop songs produced by effeminate Thai men do not simply mimic the display of conventional femininity, but rather, showcase moves that reinscribe new gendered meanings into these dances.[xxvii]

To understand the complexities and geopolitical power embedded in YouTube cover dances, we can look specifically at a popular Thai all-male dance cover group: Next School. Founded in 2009, Next School (a play on a South Korean girl group’s name, “After School”) covers girl group dances and uploads videos of their covers onto their YouTube channel. They have performed publicly in K-Pop Cover Dance festivals in Thailand and recently, have reached demi-idol status and national fame through their participation in Thailand’s Got Talent. Next School possesses a different potential for transgressing the borderwork that draws the distinctions between men and women, which is an active process enacted on the bodies of South Korean boy groups. Though South Korean boy groups construct a versatile masculinity, they continually operate within the conventions of monitored gender norms, continually distinguishing themselves from queer men. Next School, however, locates the codes of queerness found within K-Pop performances and expounds on them, exhibiting a gender performance that does not return to a conventional masculinity often linked to male bodies.

Situated within the national economic context of a growing middle class consumer base, Next School reflects the conditions of the postmodern body, demonstrating the role of capitalist processes in constructing and promoting local queer expressions. Postmodernity transforms the body into an object of indulgence and the interest in the consumption of body-related products (fashion and beauty) are indicative of a late capitalist lifestyle.[xxviii] Because K-Pop is linked to the beauty industry, the realm of cover dancing is the conduit through which Next School is able to participate in this emergent postmodern Asia. The material goods that are part of this expanding middle-class consumerist culture become crucial to Next School’s gender performance. In these mirrored choreographies, the lipstick, makeup, and clothes Next School wears are just as important as the lip-syncing and dance moves themselves.

Next School strategically uses clothes to alter the self in order to reconstruct ideas of the Thai genderscape.[xxix] Clothes ultimately represent one dimension of what Foucault coins as “technologies of embodiment.”[xxx] Technologies of embodiment are defined as the processes through which one produces, transforms, or manipulates their body through particular kinds of body work, or “labored modifications that individuals inflict on their own bodies.”[xxxi] They draw from tools existing outside the user’s body—in this case, re-appropriated feminized clothing—to manipulate their embodied form of gender. Tiantian Zheng in “Karaoke Bar Hostesses and Japan-Korea Wave in Postsocialist China” argues that because bodies are gradually no longer marked by the imprint of field labor, clothes become the newest manifestation of engaging in body politics and the site for people to form their identity. For hostesses, clothes and fashion are “a vehicle or space to imagine global belonging and citizenship.”[xxxii] For Next School, clothes and their imaginative capacity function similarly in the Thai context, where public surfaces and “face” are highly valued in conceptualizing gender, without the need to refer to private behavior, interiority, or the discourse of truth and disclosure that are so highly focused on in the West.[xxxiii]

The refashioning of the self through the utilization of technologies of embodiment allows Next School to imagine alternative gender performances. Members of Next School wear clothes that do not emphasize the fetishized “hard body” that South Korean hard masculinity is contingent upon. Rather, their clothing, from the tight sleeveless vests and white skinny jeans in their premier audition performance for Thailand’s Got Talent to the backless black tops that wrap tightly around their bodies for their semi-finals performance, emphasize the slender body. Their accentuation of the long, non-muscular “interminable legs” and slender framework that often characterize the femininity put forth by Korean girl idol groups extend their political, bodily performance of gender.[xxxiv] The choice to appropriate Korean girl groups’ performance of femininity through their deliberate outfit choices reinscribes a local and gendered Thai meaning. This transnational translation of body politics from South Korea’s girl groups to Thailand’s all-male cover dancers exhibits “queered effeminacies”: the refusal to comply within normative gender dimorphism.[xxxv]

Next School’s participation in cover dance and presentation of queered effeminacies ultimately demarcate a new social arena for feminine Thai males to construct queer space within the different places where they perform. I adopt William Leap’s definition of place and space to distinguish between the two. Place, according to Leap, is an accessible terrain, whereas space is a constructed, situated, and claimed terrain.[xxxvi] The difference and relation between the two is apparent when looking at Next School’s YouTube channel (see figure 1). The nature of cover dances is to resituate the original movement of K-Pop groups into different places.[xxxvii] Cover dancers deviate from the K-Pop artists they emulate with their deeper sense of place and body.[xxxviii] Unlike K-Pop, their videos are not filmed in staged elaborate settings. Because of the deliberate intentions behind where Next School chooses to locate their irreverent, dancing bodies to film their dance cover, where each of their dances takes place gains symbolic traction. Within these places where Next School dances—the streets outside a mall, a dance studio, the K-Pop cover dance competition stage, or Thailand’s Got Talent’s stage— Next School claims these physical sites through these moments of radically queer gender performance. The mobility of dance makes these mobile queer spaces possible, transposed onto the otherwise heteronormative Thai geography. It is this very mobility that also makes queer space, by definition, more ephemeral and not clearly defined and visible in the geography of Thailand.[xxxix] They constitute an alternative mapping of queerness and are “created and owned by actors who transgress the heteronormative operations and functions of localities.”[xl] Out of these transgressions, made up of the technologies of embodiment and investment in body work, an aspirational world materializes, where these new forms of queer effeminacies are temporarily naturalized for the four minutes Next School is closely emulating the synchronized girl groups’ dances.

Figure 1 A snapshot of some of Next School’s YouTube channel. The practice of cover dances is mobile and can be performed in any space, public or private.

Figure 1 A snapshot of some of Next School’s YouTube channel. The practice of cover dances is mobile and can be performed in any space, public or private.

The importance of the construction of queer space is underscored by the eschewal of queerness in Thailand’s public discourse. The historical legacy of anti-colonial national projects to demonstrate a civilized status reverberates in the present day as a regulatory force of normalizing gender and prohibiting non-compliance.[xli] In Thailand’s elite commentary, queerness and “kathoeyness” are cast as “degenerate and contagious, undesirable and expanding, and thus in need of discipline.”[xlii] The gender panic and need to police the borders of gender heightened particularly after the 2006 military coup d’état, which set off national fears of being perceived as weak with a large transgender population.[xliii] Queer spaces resist the call for discipline and biopolitical intervention, and through the cover dance’s public spectacle of different visions of doing gender, cover dance groups like Next School draw attention to the inherent instability of gender and offer a more capacious way of understanding Thailand’s genderscape. Cover dance participation also subverts the ways in which nationalist discourse renders queerness as the antithesis to modernity. Whereas Thai media since the 70s have portrayed queerness in Thailand as hindrances to modernity, K-Pop cover dances critique that process of other-ing and illuminate a trans-spatial belonging to a wider cosmopolitan Asian sphere, successfully occupying a modern Asian identity that South Korea upholds.

When read as actors claiming queer space, Next School becomes the site where the multiple dimensions of consumerist desires converge to produce, promote, and elaborate queer culture. Next School embodies Korean pop culture’s multiple economies and modes of circulation that Fiske outlines: from the consumption of K-Pop through YouTube to the reproduction of K-Pop in the form of cover dances. They point to the productive possibilities of capitalist processes via their appropriation of consumer choices to inform alternative mappings of gender and queerness. Though I have highlighted their incredible potentiality, their performances seem restricted in its inherent theatricality, which allows room for the conventions of calling to the purely imaginary character of the act.[xliv] Consumers of Next School may simply claim its theatricality to draw the lines between performance and life, fantasy and reality. What are the other forms and performances of queerness then that can work in conjunction with dance covers that do not simply relegate the allowance of queerness to the stage? How can we rethink a queer terrain in Thailand in which the heterosexual subject’s culture is not simply flexible only to the extent that they only contract and expand to offer queer subjects little choice but to constantly comply to the conditions that are given? Nonetheless, Next School harnesses the power of Hallyu as a medium to push the boundaries of gender, reconstitute the meanings attached to K-Pop, and recalibrate the contours of Thailand’s social and cultural terrain. They represent one front of resistance that offers new pathways to a larger process of queer world-making in Thailand.

Notes

[i] John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Eds. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983) 471.

[ii] Ibid., 470.

[iii] Dredge Byung’chu Käng, “Idols of Development: Transnational Transgender Performance in Thai K-Pop Cover Dance,” Transgender Studies Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 4. (November 2014) 567.

[iv] Peter A. Jackson, “Bangkok’s Early Twenty-First-Century Queer Boom” in Queer Bangkok, Ed. Peter Jackson, (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011) 32.

[v] Ibid., 21.

[vi] Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4. (Dec 1988) 520.

[vii] Dredge Byung’chu Käng, “Conceptualizing Thai Genderscapes: Transformation and Continuity in the Thai Sex/Gender System” in Contemporary Socio-Cultural and Political Perspectives in Thailand, Ed. P. Liamputtong, (New York: Springer Netherlands, 2014) 425.

[viii] Kimberly K. Hoang, Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work, (Oakland, CA: UC Press, 2015) 130.

[ix] Käng, “Conceptualizing Thai Genderscapes,” 410.

[x] Ibid., 411.

[xi] Megan Sinnott, “The Semiotics of Transgendered Sexual Identity in the Thai Print Media: Imagery and Disocurse of the Sexual Other,” Culture, Health & Sexuality, Vol. 2, No. 4. (2000) 437.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Käng, “Idols of Development,” 568.

[xiv] Dooboo Shim, “Hybridity and the Rise of Korean Popular Culture in Asia,” Media, Culture & Society. Vol. 28, No. 1 (2006) 26.

[xv] Ibid., 39.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Sun Jung, “Bae Yong-Joon, Soft Masculinity, and Japanese Fans: Our Past Is in Your Present Body” in Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption: Yonsama, Rain, Oldboy, K-Pop Idols (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010) 40.

[xix] Shim, 40.

[xx] Sun Jung, “K-Pop Idol Boy Bands and Manufactured Versatile Masculinity: Making Chogukjeok Boys” in Asian Popular Culture in Transition, Ed. Lorna Fitzsimmons and John A. Lent, (New York: Routledge, 2010) 164.

[xxi] Käng, “Conceptualizing Thai Genderscapes,” 412.

[xxii] Sinnott, 458.

[xxiii] Liew Kai Khiun, “K-pop dance trackers and cover dancers: Global cosmopolitanization and local spatialization” in Internationalizing Media Studies: Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, Ed. Youna Kim, (New York: Routledge, 2013) 170.

[xxiv]Kent A. Ono and Jungmin Kwon, “Re-worlding culture?: YouTube as a K-pop interlocutor” in Internationalizing Media Studies: Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, Ed. Youna Kim, (New York: Routledge, 2013) 208.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] John Fiske, “The Popular Economy” in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader. Ed. John Storey, (New York: Pearson Longman, 2009) 541.

[xxvii] Liew, 166.

[xxviii] Jung, “Bae Yong-Joon, Soft Masculinity, and Japanese Fans,” 65.

[xxix] Käng, “Conceptualizing Thai Genderscapes,” 409.

[xxx] Hoang, 129.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Tiantian Zheng, “Karaoke Bar Hostesses and Japan-Korea Wave in Postsocialist China: Fashion, Cosmopolitanism and Globalization,” City and Society 23.1 (2011) 53.

[xxxiii] Kang, “Idols of Development,” 559.

[xxxiv] Chuyun Oh, “The Politics of the Dancing Body: Racialized and Gendered Femininity in Korean Pop” in The Korean Wave: Korean Popular Culture in Global Context, ed. Yasue Kuwahara, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) 60.

[xxxv] Käng, “Idols of Development,” 561.

[xxxvi] Nikos Dacanay, “Encounters in the Sauna: Exploring Gay Identity and Power Structures in Gay Places in Bangkok” in Queer Bangkok, Ed. Peter Jackson, (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011) 101.

[xxxvii] Käng, “Idols of Development,” 562.

[xxxviii] Liew, 173.

[xxxix] Dacannay, 101.

[xl] Ibid.

[xli] Käng, “Conceptualizing Thai Genderscapes,” 425.

[xlii] Käng, “Idols of Development,” 568.

[xliii] Kang, “Conceptualizing Thai Genderscapes,” 425.

[xliv] Butler, 527.

(Cover image courtesy of JYP entertainment)

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