Harisu: South Korean Cosmetic Media and the Paradox of Transgendered Neoliberal Embodiment

Harisu: South Korean Cosmetic Media and the Paradox of Transgendered Neoliberal Embodiment
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  Harisu: South Korean Cosmetic Media and the Paradox of TransgenderedNeoliberal Embodiment Patty Jeehyun Ahn Discourse, Volume 31, Number 3, Fall 2009, pp. 248-272 (Article) Published by Wayne State University PressFor additional information about this article  Access Provided by University Of Southern California at 11/09/10 2:42AM GMT http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/dis/summary/v031/31.3.ahn.html   Discourse  , 31.3, Fall 2009, pp. 248–272. Copyright © 2010 Wayne State University Press, Detroit, Michigan 48201-1309. ISSN 1522-5321. Harisu: South Korean Cosmetic Media and the Paradox of Transgendered Neoliberal Embodiment  Patty Jeehyun Ahn In 2001, the South Korean firm, Dodo cosmetics, aired a com-mercial for their Palgantong Fania   (Red Box) line of facial powder that featured Harisu, 1  a then relatively unknown male-to-female transsexual Korean model. Born in Songnam, South Korea, as Lee Kyeung-Yup, Lee moved to Japan as a teenager to study hair design for two years before undergoing sex-reassignment surgery at the age of nineteen and changing her name to the more feminine Lee Kyeung-Eun. Soon after her transition, she was discovered by Korean talent agents and chosen by Dodo cosmetics to be their new spokesmodel. Cannily exploiting the absence of explicitly queer representations on Korean television, Dodo’s 2001 advertisement hoped to capture the attention of the Korean public by reveal-ing Lee’s transsexuality in its final shots. Lee, who had adopted the stage name Harisu (a transliteration of an English term, “hot issue”), was quickly thrust to the forefront of media attention in Korea. As word about her reached mainstream U.S. and diasporic Korean American media outlets, English-language blogs and web-sites dedicated to tracking Korean popular culture began to script biographical narratives about her. A number of these narratives also assign significance to the 2001 ad, locating it as the srcin of Harisu’s subsequent transnational and transmedia stardom, since she soon afterward ventured into other entertainment projects. In  Harisu249  addition to holding leading roles in Korean films and releasing multiple Korean-language music albums, she has starred in a Tai- wanese television series, performed her music at Korean American cultural festivals in Los Angeles, and published a book of beauty tips catering to Japanese women, to name just a few of the transna-tional facets to her celebrity.Since the airing of Dodo’s ad in 2001, Harisu has also become a vocal representative of transgender rights in East Asia. In addi-tion to speaking out in interviews about prevailing queer- and trans-phobic attitudes in Korea, she famously paid for male-to-female sex-reassignment surgery for a woman living in China who could not afford the procedure. Moreover, she fought to have her name-change legally recognized in the family register by the Incheon District Court, making her allegedly the second person in Korea’s history to achieve this. This more politicized aspect of her public personae has been a persistent focal point within U.S. press reports about her: the Korean American media, and even the mainstream U.S. press, have celebrated her as a symbol of South Korea’s political and cultural progression toward becoming a fully modern nation, reflected by its more flexible cultural attitudes around nonnormative sexual identities. Thus, her appearance in Dodo’s 2001 Palgantong ad not only has served as a launching pad for her expansive career but also emerges at a complex intersec-tion of forces exerted by national, transnational, visual, and sexual economies.The figure of Harisu could be analyzed via a multitude of cul-tural, national, and political frameworks because she is a celebrity  who deftly plays with many star personae. Richard Dyer’s foun-dational Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society   offers a productive critical lens for understanding the different meanings that have circulated in Korea and the United States about Harisu. 2  Dyer begins his book with a description of a photograph of Joan Craw-ford taken by Eve Arnold at the request of Crawford, who wanted the artist to capture the intensive labor demanded by stardom. In this photo, Crawford’s image is figured from three different angles: at the center of the frame, her face is reflected in sharp focus by a small handheld mirror revealing the details and texture of her makeup; in the distance, we see a soft-focus image of her entire face reflected by a larger mirror; and, in the foreground,  we are presented a slightly obscured glimpse of the back of her upper body. Dyer uses this tripartite image as an analogue for the threefold dynamic at work between the star’s manufacture, appear-ance, and person, a construction that invites us to ask which one of these dimensions captures the “real” Joan Crawford. 3  Despite  250Patty Jeehyun Ahn  our cultural tendency to identify the manufacture (paralleled by Crawford’s reflection at the center of the photograph) and the person (captured by the obscured glimpse of Crawford’s back), Dyer asserts that no one aspect is really her. Her public and screen appearances (exemplified by the full view of Crawford’s face in the distance) make up the complex and contradictory star phenom-enon as much as her manufacture and her person do.Dyer further discusses the relationship between the manufac-ture and person of the star, and argues that they exemplify two ideas. The manufacture comes out of the labor exerted by the star herself, as well as the personnel surrounding her (makeup artists, dress designers, dieticians, etc.). How much she has a hand in her own image construction, and her publicized attitudes about how the system regards her labor, reflects how we more generally orga-nize our lives in relation to capitalist modes of production. 4  The person, on the other hand, is perceived as an irreducible, coherent entity set apart from social forces. In other words, the star shores up our ideological investments in this fictive unity of personhood and individualism promised by capitalism. We believe that behind the manufacture and appearance of the star lies a “core of being” that remains constant, no matter how much we recognize the star as manufactured, fragmented, and a product of her own and others’ labor. 5  This contradiction—we know her to be manufactured and  yet uphold the idea of her real personhood—makes the star phe-nomenon “profoundly unstable” but also tells us about how we organize ourselves in relation to the social world. 6 To be sure, Dyer speaks primarily about film stars who emerged out of the Hollywood studio system, whereas Harisu earned her fame in a South Korean television commercial. However, my read-ing of Harisu engages most substantially with Dyer’s formulation, rather than with the fields of queer theory or theories of trans-sexuality, because this essay focuses on the industrial context of her stardom and how it has shaped her image, the sexualized labor required by the production of her image, and her responses to her own media performances. Also, I focus most attentively on how her stardom was organized around the time of her media debut in Dodo’s commercial, when her image most provocatively belied a clear distinction between her person, manufacture, and image. Moreover, many English-language press reports about her often hone in on the Dodo ad rather than her numerous other media texts. While they do so because the commercial marks the srcin of her fame, what political and cultural stakes are involved when  we consistently identify her with an image that conflates Harisu  with a fantasy of Korean feminine beauty? The singling out of the  Harisu251 Palgantong commercial from the rest of Harisu’s variegated star discourse is significant inasmuch as such reports have simultane-ously interpreted her stardom as signifying a cultural shift in Korea toward more liberal sexual attitudes.My critical analysis takes the key words of this special issue’s themes translation   and embodiment   as a theoretical lens for situating the rise to fame of a transgendered Korean media figure, placing her at the junction of the Korean media industry and the Korean beauty industry, two intersecting economic arenas that have been profoundly affected by governmental policies that pushed Korea into the neoliberal marketplace in the 1990s. I argue that Harisu’s star image can be understood as the locus of two translative cul-tural and political economic processes: the recoding of her trans-gender identity into a brand iconography within Korean beauty culture, and diasporic rescriptings of her stardom across transna-tional media contexts. The first set of questions raised by this essay are as follows: What does it mean that the government’s efforts to bolster Korea’s national economy and establish itself as a major global player in such transnational sectors as the beauty and media industries are enfigured by a celebrity who has publicly declared her transgendered status in a putatively conservative national cul-ture? Moreover, as Dodo’s advertisement uses her image to equate her sexual transformation with feminine beauty, how might we understand Harisu’s transgendered performance within a neo-liberal feminist framework? In what ways does Harisu’s rise as a national celebrity both challenge and buttress prevailing models of transnational Korean femininity?The second analytic focus of this essay is the translation of Harisu’s national celebrity and her star body across cultural and national contexts. As her images have trafficked through transna-tional media networks, statements made by mainstream and dia-sporic discourses in the United States about the liberal symbology of her national fame are often characterized by neoliberal logics of choice, exception, and progress that are at once linked to West-ern configurations of queer and feminist identity, yet cannot be restricted to them. Claims about Korea’s liberalizing national cul-ture are only complicated by statements made by Harisu that she  would prefer to live as a woman and regrets the public’s confla-tion between her stardom and her narrative of sexual transition. In other words, she publicly expressed her grievance about the lim-ited say she had in the production of her image, which required a manufactured performance of gender variance that she did not always wish to engage. This essay thus hopes to employ a critical space in which we consider how neoliberalism might be embodied
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