Let the bashing beginOnstage, several women in boxing and taekwondo outfits are attacking a man dressed in an awkward costume. Fists are flying and kicks are roundhousing as the song "Eye of the Tiger" blasts. The victim, in a skin-colored phallus get-up, takes his lumps, cringes and eventually crumbles to the floor. The aggressors shake their fists triumphantly. One turns to the crowd and shouts: "Look at me, I'm not weak, even though the world stereotypes me!"
The spectators go crazy.
Welcome to the Anti-Miss Korea Pageant.
Last Saturday, a crowd of 300-plus packed a small auditorium at the Mesa shopping mall in Seoul's Namdaemun market to watch this unremittingly wacky festival. The event was first held three years ago, as a reaction to conventional beauty pageants, which the organizers of the show say are degrading to women.
Traditionally, Korean men hurry home after work to watch TV in two circumstances: when Korea plays Japan in soccer and when the Miss Korea beauty pageant is on. But times are changing. The television network that has aired the pageant for decades dropped it this year, saying that the complaints from women's activist groups were getting too much.
This year's alternative extravaganza had an active theme: "Sports Are Beautiful." Some performers stuck to it, others didn't. The organizers set up a team of "encouragers," because an anti-pageant can't have "judges," to select the winners of four prize categories: the grand prize and "Come Out and Play," "Turn It Over" and "Let's Laugh."
When the emcees began the show, they came out in gaudy garb that glittered, sparkled and slunk. There were flashy tank tops, golden fishnet stockings and cowboy hats. One emcee stepped forward and cried out, "Women, you should be proud of yourselves! It's not 'amen' anymore, it's 'a-women.' Come out and play!"
The first act of the show was a cheerleading troupe from Ewha Womans University, all model-thin and in miniskirts and flipping hip-length hair. What was this? Did they take a wrong turn on the way to the real Miss Korea pageant? They started dancing to a pop song, "Festival," but chanted "anti!" every few seconds. The crowd got up and joined them.
Next up was a man-bashing act, similar to the one already described. A group of women in martial-arts outfits took on a bunch of male scoundrels. One by one the men were defeated. Was Shakespeare off when he wrote, "Frailty, thy name is woman"? After a few more vigorous demonstrations, an emcee told the crowd, "Korea's first women's taekwondo association was started only this year....That's unbelievably and unacceptably late and a direct result of this society being controlled by men."
The next event was probably the best part of the festival: a group of blind women engaging in Latin dancing with their male partners. The women wore the trappings of their disability, such as dark-shaded glasses, but were gussied up in spectacular dresses. Some of them had trouble getting to the stage. But once the show began, they stole it, dancing to exciting jitterbug rhythms. The leader of the group, Lee Gyeong-ae, said "We wanted to turn over stereotypes and show that we can have fun just like everybody else."
A few male acts were on the bill as well. The most impressive was a group of four men in wheelchairs backed by a few singers in tight spandex exercise gear. The disabled fellows displayed some dazzling moves on their steeds, all to the pulsing beat of a lively sound track. The emcee cried out, "Gorgeous!"
A 63-year-old woman, Kim Jeom-rye, came out on a racing bicycle and spun around the stage. Turns out Ms. Kim is a triathlete. She started training for triathlons, or swim-bike-run endurance events, after her husband started calling himself "Ironman" about 10 years ago because he was training to do them. She liked the title and wanted it herself. Now she's the "Iron Grandmother." Don't believe it? She owns a small Korean restaurant in Asan, South Chungcheong province, called "Iron Grandmother."
One of the acts the crowd really liked was a parody of a TV show, "Yeoincheonha" (Women Who Rule Over the World), about women in the royal family during the Joseon Dynasty era who struggle to gain men's favor. At the anti-pageant, though, the women, all in traditional hanbok clothing, plotted to oust the "incompetent" male politicians in order to do away with all of the stigmas that went with being a woman in those days.
The festival never slowed down; guest performances, short documentaries on women's sports and offbeat dubs of TV commercials kept the audience upbeat.
Korea's first female jockeys, Lee Geum-ju and Lee Sin-young, both in their mid-20s, described the "barbaric" habits of male jockeys. A female professor at a college in New York, Jeong Hyun-gyeong, came out and talked up "indoor sports," complete with lots of props, i.e. sex toys. A female choreographer for pop groups, Hong Young-ju, danced to the song "Nan Namjaya" (I'm a Man). A self-styled feminist singer, Jihyun, sang two songs to help the crowd feel the love: "Ajeossi Sireo" ("I Hate Middle-aged Men") and "Jom Mani" ("A Bit Too Much"). And the crowd went wild.
After about three hours of alternately weird and fantastic performances, it was time for the awards. Naturally, the winners were to wear crowns made of sanitary napkins. The grand prize went to Wheelobics. The cheerleaders took "Come Out and Play," and the Joseon revolutionaries got "Turn It Over." "Let's Laugh" went to a woman, Shin Ji-hyeon, who performed an entertaining sports monodrama.
Up in the front, enjoying the spectacles, was a 22-year-old Ewha student, Oh Eun-sook. Beside her was her boyfriend, who didn't know what to make of it all. "I forced him to come here," Ms. Oh said. "Originally, he wanted to go to the real Miss Korea pageant."
Incidentally, the "real" Miss Korea beauty pageant will be held this Sunday -- on cable TV. Sorry, guys.
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