Aegyo (Korean: 애교; Hanja: 愛嬌) in Korean refers to a cute display of affection often expressed through a cute voice, changes to speech, facial expressions, or gestures. Aegyo literally means behaving in a flirtatious, coquette-ish manner and it is commonly expected for both male and female K-pop idols. However, it is not uncommon for everyday people to behave in such a way, and is widely used as an expression of affection towards loved ones, family, and friends. Aegyo can also display closeness with others, which can possibly bring people together. The word is often translated as "cuteness" in English, and can be compared to the Chinese concept of sājiāo (撒嬌), or the Japanese concept of kawaii.
Aegyo plays a huge role in South Korean popular culture, especially in idol girl groups. The higher-registered girl voice popular in girl groups in Korea has been dominant since the first successful female k-pop group S.E.S. emerged in 1997. This style has grown in popularity since then. A famous example of that exaggerated cuteness is the Girls' Generation music video for "Gee", which features much use of hands pointing at, touching and framing the face when showing the girls in turn. One of their many song and dance videos, many of Gee's dance moves are based on aegyo. Aegyo as a personal trait of Girls' Generation member Sunny was described as "cuteness that calls for a punch", not as an actual complaint, but as a recognition of the degree to which aegyo can be taken.
Although more common among female idol groups, male groups often perform aegyo as part of their fanservice. The maknae, or youngest member of a group, is often (but not exclusively) the one encouraged to perform aegyo. Another member may get a better response from fans, or be better suited due to physical or emotional characteristics. For some performers, aegyo is merely an extension of their own normal behavior, encouraged by the groups' producers.
As performers evolve from "youth" to "young adult" images, the aegyo in their performances often evolves, becoming an almost-nostalgic homage to the performers' earlier stage image. They will "put on the character" briefly for fun and to satisfy fan expectation, in the same way they will sing their earliest hits. Some traces of aegyo will continue as persistent traits.
Puzar argues that aegyo in popular culture affects how young South Korean women act, especially in romantic relationships. Using cute hand gestures and expressions in photos, for example, are commonly seen behaviors in many young women in South Korea.
Aegyo is not limited to simply "acting cute," and includes several changes to speech, such as affrication, stopping, and /j/ insertion. Aegyo is essentially baby talk, with these changes to speech meant to mimic children. For example, replacing yo (Korean: 요) at the end of a phrase with yong (Korean: 용).
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- Jang, Hayeun (2021-01-01). "How cute do I sound to you?: gender and age effects in the use and evaluation of Korean baby-talk register, Aegyo". Language Sciences. 83: 101289. doi:10.1016/j.langsci.2020.101289. ISSN 0388-0001.
- Utz, Christian; Lau, Frederick (2013). Vocal Music and Contemporary Identities: Unlimited Voices in East Asia and the West. Routledge. p. 279. ISBN 978-0-415-50224-5.
- Puzar, Aljosa; Hong, Yewon (2018). "Korean Cuties: Understanding Performed Winsomeness (Aegyo) in South Korea". The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology. 19 (4): 333–349. doi:10.1080/14442213.2018.1477826.
- Puzar, Aljosa. "Asian Dolls and the Western Gaze: Notes on the Female Dollification in South Korea," Asian Women 27.2 (2011): 81–111.