The End?: YouTubing A Breakdown of Western Cultural Hierarchies

KImberly James displays herself "before and after" using Korean skin-whitening products.

Kimberly James displays herself “before and after” using Korean skin-whitening products.

Throughout our recitation section, we have frequently discussed ideas of “agency” and “power” through examples of American popular culture. Recently, we spent part of our discussion extensively investigating into the popularity of YouTube amongst teenage and twenty-something American women. This trend has swept across the nation, urging young women to curate their own channels or become subscribed to those that are immensely viewed. Particularly, these young women post “haul” videos, which detail the heaps of clothing purchased on recent shopping trips, or beauty videos that provide makeup tutorials or reviews of products.

With this in mind, I began thinking about the lectures of Dr. Sharon Lee and Dr. Thuy Linh Tu. Both spoke extensively about the recent cosmetic influence that South Korea has had globally. While Dr. Sharon Lee spoke about the prevalence of South Korea’s cosmetic surgeries and the contexts by which their aesthetic has spread beyond the nation’s borders, Dr. Thuy Linh Tu articulated a similar idea. She focused on the increase in skin lightening-creams coming out of Korea and gaining international popularity in places like Vietnam. In revealing that skincare accounts for 75% of the cosmetic industry’s revenue, Dr. Tu began showing advertisements for Korean skin-whitening creams displayed in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, the city where she conducted her research. She contrasted these advertisements to a notably less popular one that features Emma Watson for a comparable Lancôme product. Despite Watson’s fame in Western nations like the United Kingdom and the United States, Dr. Tu made it clear that the Vietnamese have essentially overlooked the advertisement for the French brand. Ultimately, Dr. Tu suggested that influence of Korean popular cultural and cosmetic ideals has inspired the Vietnamese to “whiten” their skin in an effort to embody a non-Western whiteness.

The rising globalization of South Korean beauty products and standards urged me to search for ways in which the United States has factored into the spread of Korean cosmetic culture. The search pushed me to wonder whether the reign of Western cultural production was finally coming to an end. In order to begin answering this question, it is necessary to reflect on the videos posted to MakeupMaverick’s YouTube channel. According to MakeupMaverick’s, a website that allows her users to ask questions, the twenty-something black woman is also known as Kimberly James and is a resident of Los Angeles, California. As a woman living in the United States, James is a highly active participant in this American YouTube pop cultural phenomena that articulates the fashion and beauty practices of young women. Her 21,747 subscribers reveal an extreme support for her plethora of videos dedicated to her extensive knowledge and personal use of skin-whitening products. With titles like “How to Lighten Dark Lips” and “Skin Lightening Q&A pt 1 w/PICS”, a video with 14,426 views and a photomontage of her “Skin Lightening Progression”, MakeupMaverick’s channel also features “Korean Skincare Brands I Love & other things…” Throughout this video, James articulates her immense “love” for Korean skin-whitening products. In the description below the video she writes, “I think that Korean Skincare products are the ABSOLUTE BEST for your skin! They take pride in coming up with new skincare technology and are very into skincare”. In the video itself, James describes her Isa Knox “X2D2 Whitening Secret Special Set” discovered at a “Korean skincare store over on Wilshire”. That such a store exists in Los Angeles suggests an American demand for consumption of Korean culture. In addition to claiming that she has “lightened quite a bit more” and looks “glowy”, James expresses the reason for her adoration of Korean skin-whitening products. She asserts, “The thing that I like about Korean skincare products is that they are so light, you can layer it on top of one another and not get a build up feeling”. To incite consumption and the further spread of Korean cosmetic ideals, James provides links to each product.

MakeupMaverick’s videos question the continued sustainability of Western globalization. In “Karaoke Bar Hostesses and Japan-Korea Wave in Postsocialist China: Fashion, Cosmopolitanism and Globalization”, Tiantian Zheng suggests that “the centrality of the West” is fading in the face of a “multi-centered global cultural field”. (Zheng, 45, 60) To make sense of this, Zheng presents an idea that “Current popular culture, it is said, witnesses a transition from this “sole-pole” of the U.S. to multi-poles with equal status”. (Zheng, 47) Though Zheng questions how “equal” this “status” is on a “global” scale, the idea of “multi-poles” suggests that South Korea is on a comparable, if not higher level than the United States and thus worthy of global cultural production. In considering this higher level, Zheng describes “the concept of a “cultural chain” as one composed of “wealthy and powerful” nations. (Zheng, 48) “Arranged from top to bottom in order of decreasing strength”, Zheng notes that the United States “inevitably” ranks at “the pinnacle of this vertical order, followed by Japan and Korea…Hong Kong and Taiwan…and…China at the bottom”. (Zheng, 48) Though the “hierarchical schema” of this “cultural chain” initially suggests that Korean influences are unable to penetrate superior American sites, James’ practices can perhaps be attributed to Zheng’s “trickle-up” theory. (Zheng, 48) This theory, in which the “lesser” countries culturally impact those higher up, is a “movement in the opposite direction” that “exists and may even be increasing”. (Zheng, 48) With this being said, perhaps a rise in “trickle-up” cultural production is one way of understanding South Korean cultural influence on the United States.

However, this is but one way of making sense of a Los Angeles-based YouTube sensation’s use of Korean skin-whitening products. What if the “cultural chain” is changing? Perhaps the South Koreans are gaining on the United States’ “pinnacle” position. In “Neoliberalism, race, and the (geo)politics of beauty”, Dr. Sharon Lee conveys ideas similar to those expressed in her lecture. In reflecting on South Korea as a “booming capitalist country” in her lecture, Dr. Lee’s article states that the nation’s “status as an “industrial tiger” complicates the construction of South Korean women as “average third world women””. (Lee, 30) In light of the country becoming “rapidly industrialized in the 1960s and 1970s”, Lee notes South Korea’s “flourishing consumer culture”, “burgeoning middle class” and “rapid modernization”. (Lee, 30) Each of these ideas undoubtedly participates in the global spread of Korean culture to Western powerhouse nations. In addition to the popularity of Korean skin-whitening creams in the United States and Vietnam, Dr. Lee spoke about the nation’s “newfound hegemony”, evidenced by Korean actors’ and musicians’ “presence” in American media.

YouTube videos such as those posted by MakeupMaverick suggest a growing potential for a marked decline in the United States as the “pinnacle” of cultural production. Perhaps her use of Korean skin-whitening products echoes a desire to achieve the alternative “whiteness” that Dr. Thuy Linh Tu discussed. Perhaps Kimberly James does not intend to achieve the look of the American “white” woman, but rather a “whiteness” created by Korean popular culture. This non-Western “whiteness” insinuates that “American women” can no longer be “centered as the ultimate referent for others’ experiences”. (Lee, 35) That South Korea has become a “booming capitalist” nation undermines its formerly “othered” status in a Western context. With South Korea in power over its “own historical and political agency and subjectivity”, the country ascends to a “pinnacle” position, penetrating the cultures of the once-“unbreakable” West. (Lee, 34)


Discussion Question: Do you think that Western nations still serve as the primary global “manufacturers” of culture? Why or why not? Do you know of any additional “othered” countries that have perpetuated the “trickle up” theory? In what context?



Works Cited

1. “Kimberly James”.

2. “Korean Skincare Brands I Love & other things…” YouTube video, 15:17, posted by “MakeupMaverick,” February 3, 2014.

3. Lee, Sharon Heijin. Neoliberalism, race, and the (geo)politics of beauty, In Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, Volume 18, Number 1, 2008: 25-41.

4. Lee, Sharon. Parsons The New School for Design. New York, NY. 5 March 2014. Guest Lecture.

5. Linh Tu, Thuy. Parsons The New School for Design. New York, NY. 2 April 2014. Guest Lecture.

6. “Skin Lightening Candid Q&A pt 1 w/PICS.” YouTube video, 16:10, posted by “MakeupMaverick,” February 9 2014.

7. Zheng,Tiantian. Karaoke Bar Hostesses and Japan-Korea Wave in Postsocialist China: Fashion, Cosmopolitanism and Globalization, In City and Society, Volume 23, Number 1, 2011: 42-65.


2 responses to “The End?: YouTubing A Breakdown of Western Cultural Hierarchies

  1. Curren, I laughed because your discussion questions were precisely what I had noted throughout reading your post as further questions to discuss in this comment. Particularly, I wonder what other countries might challenge Western hegemony in the aesthetic economy. Japan might be considered another player that is having a notable cultural impact on the West. Drawing on Adrienne Lai’s article on Cute Culture, there is certainly cross cultural exchange coming increasingly from Asia and the East.

    One question I’m having, however, is the perception of the East’s emergence as a cultural power. Previous to Dr. Lee’s and Dr. Tu’s lectures, I was not aware of South Korea’s emerging power in cosmeceuticals and their rising position in the international aesthetics market (especially with plastic surgery). It is then quite possible that as Western viewers, we are so assured of our cultural dominance that we are unaware of the changing currents as new players enter into the market. Particularly because this is in the field of soft power, it is easier to not be aware of the potency of their influence. Having presumed that the US is a sole-pole for such a prolonged period of time, it requires something significant to force a realization of the new status quo of a multi-poled cultural system of exchange.

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