Organized Panel Session
This paper explores women’s beauty and rurality as a productive site to understand alternative modernities. Inspired by Judith Butler’s work on gender performativity, I analyze beauty as a tool for self-fashioning identities and examine how rural women’s beauty choices reflect their creative construction of a modern subject. The phrase “modern rural” seems like an oxymoron, yet in Hai Thanh, a rural Vietnamese commune with a high number of local women marrying Korean men, stylish young women are a new symbol of modernity. Identified by their Korean-styled fashion, local women resemble the Modern (and urban) Girl that emerged around the world in the early 20th century with provocative clothes and eroticism, but with a rural twist. Their seeming disregard for roles of dutiful daughter and wife is a contrast to the Vietnamese state’s rhetoric on the modern Vietnamese women that combines Confucian values of faithfulness and devotion with urban middle-class practices. But in reality, they are actively participating in the state’s project of self-governance that encourages expressions of self and pursuit of self-beautification. What is more interesting is neither the urban nor nation is the standard Hai Thanh women aspire to. They don’t necessarily follow Western beauty either, but carefully craft their appearance by appropriating Korean styles to construct themselves as desirable modern subjects. In looking to Korea as a creative solution to bypass the assumed cultural mapping of urban/Western/modern, rural women in Hai Thanh create a different translation of modernity that reflects rising Asian influences and rural’s participation in globalization.