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Romeo at the Girls’ School: Fantasy of the Girls’ Queer Teen Adaptation of Shakespeare

Romeo at the Girls’ School: Fantasy of the Girls’ Queer Teen Adaptation of Shakespeare Abstract This article adopts a transnational approach to the practice of cross-gender casting and the queer fascination with women playing Shakespeare’s male roles. It offers a case study of the South Korean film Fantasy of the Girls (Jungmin Ahn, 2018), exploring the film’s both strategic transgression of gender norms and boundary-crossing adaptation in the transnational context. Fantasy of the Girls features an all-women school theatre group staging Romeo and Juliet and joins similar cross-cast Shakespeare productions in exploring the interaction between the narrative text and the actor’s gendered embodiment, including in terms of the potent effect of gender-transgressive casting on audiences. To trace the ways in which the film uses the device of cross-cast Shakespearean performance to consider young South Korean women’s queer desires, and to examine the special geo-cultural contexts at play, I turn to a distinctive form of queer youth culture which emerged in 1990s South Korea: iban. In this cultural practice, cross-dressing functions as a crucial means of identity production, as another, albeit implicit, reference underpinning the gender-nonconforming Hanam’s performance of Romeo. The coming-of-age film offers a reflection on the connection between the iban fantasy and Shakespeare’s text, which, in turn, provides a model for identity construction, through which the queer teen girls can voice and explore desires that are otherwise inexpressible. Ultimately, Fantasy of the Girls leverages Shakespeare to foreground the unique experiences of queer teen girls in twenty-first century South Korea. Fantasy of the Girls (2018), cross-gender casting, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare adaptations, Shakespeare in Asia, queer youth culture In an empty classroom, a girl lies on her back, stretched out over several desks, with her eyes peacefully closed. The camera moves slowly to the left, showing another girl who has been sleeping while sitting against the wall. Almost immediately, the camera cuts to a new shot and pans into the latter’s hand that nervously gropes for her glasses. She then puts them on, only to find out that a stream of blood gushing from her friend’s wrist, dripping down to her fingers. She approaches in haste the presumably dying girl, with her movements suggesting that she has no clue about how to save her. She begins to speak, and, in a flash, the audience understands the narrative truth of what they are witnessing. This is not a ‘real’ death scene; the two girls have actually been rehearsing a scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The girl wearing glasses, Jieun, plays Juliet, whilst the girl’s classmate, Seonwha, plays her dead lover, Romeo. Jieun’s Juliet cries out: ‘O Romeo! Romeo--Haply some poison yet doth hang on them, to make me die with a restorative. I will kiss thy lips and so leave this world, to follow thee’.1 She stoops down to kiss Seonwha’s Romeo, who remains in deathlike repose. Though Jieun follows the script faithfully, the movement fractures the scene by causing Seonwha to abruptly break character. She sits up straight to block her friend’s kiss, declaring that ‘this is not happening’. This is the opening scene of Fantasy of the Girls (<소녀의 세계>) (Jungmin Ahn, 2018), a coming-of-age film in which the staging of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in a girls’ school functions as a crucial means to explore the construction of queer teen identity in contemporary South Korea. The prospect of women playing one of Shakespeare’s most iconic male roles elicits mixed responses from the student body. Whilst Jieun is shown to be enthusiastic from the beginning, Seonwha expresses little interest in the famous story of the star-crossed young lovers. The role of Juliet will be assigned through an open casting call. Jieun’s assiduous preparation for the audition is motivated not just by her desire to play the coveted role, but her desire to become closer to Hanam, the most popular girl in school, who has been selected to play Romeo. Although Seonwha acknowledges her friend’s crush on Hanam, she is sceptical that Jieun’s strategy will pay off. Whilst Romeo and Juliet are the theatre’s most iconic lovers, the issue remains: they are a heterosexual couple. For Seonwha, an all-woman cast cannot but fail in replicating the text’s romantic dynamics, both on stage and off. ‘But Hanam is a girl!’, she proclaims, as if to provide her definitive judgement on the matter. Yet Jieun rejects her friend’s assertion, retorting: ‘No—Hanam is… just Hanam’. Not content to let the matter lie, Seonwha again voices her disapproval for a girl Romeo: ‘You can’t realistically perform Juliet’s emotion when Romeo is a girl!’2 It is a man, not a woman, whom Juliet loves in the story known to us, so an all-woman Romeo and Juliet cannot be adequately staged if Romeo is played by a girl. It’s not worth practising as hard for the audition as Jieun has been doing, Seonwha argues. The whole thing is a waste of time. This conversation is crucial in terms of introducing, and elucidating, the film’s strategic exploration of cross-gender casting, with female actors playing male characters. Hanam is the school heartthrob, an object of adoration and fascination to her teen schoolmates in the girls’ high school. It follows, then, she will take the romantic male lead. Jieun’s description of Hanam’s identity as ‘just Hanam’ responds to the film’s ideas about a disorienting mingling of female and male properties. Produced by the intimate conjunction of the female body and Shakespeare’s romantic hero, Hanam’s Romeo inhabits and alters the role. Hanam is frequently identified with Romeo, an identification which could make Jieun embrace more readily her offstage gender-nonconforming performance in a way Seonwha clearly is not in this moment.3 Yet describing her as ‘just Hanam’ beyond the ideas of the man/woman binary paradigm shows that Hanam’s gender expression and identity are defined not simply through her assumption of the male protagonist, but rather through her refusal of the confines of the dualistic categorization. Seonwha, however, maintains that an actor assigned female at birth cannot embody Romeo. When she insists that Hanam’s Romeo continues to be seen as taking on female guise (‘when Romeo is a girl’), her response illuminates a supposedly unattainable association between masculinity and its theatrical presentation coming from a woman actor’s body. Hanam could play the role of Romeo with relative aplomb, but her performance will always, ultimately, be a failure: she will always be a schoolgirl, and Romeo should be a boy. The two girl’s clashing responses to Hanam’s Romeo demonstrate the audience’s crucial role in constructing the actor’s performed gender. Whilst some playgoers, like Jieun, accept and even delight in female-to-male cross-casting pushing the bounds of respective gender, the casting choice also challenges other sectors of the audience who tend to uphold the stable continuity between the gender of an actor and that of a character. This essay explores the slippage between Hanam’s female body and her disorienting embodiment of Romeo’s masculinity, with a particular focus on her cross-gender performance of Romeo in the play-within-the-play. Set in a girl’s high school, Fantasy of the Girls depicts the blossoming erotic feelings between Hanam and Seonwha as a parallel to those of Romeo and Juliet. To trace the ways in which the film uses the device of cross-cast Shakespearean performance to consider young South Korean women’s queer desires, and to examine the special geo-cultural contexts at play, I turn to a distinctive form of queer youth culture which emerged in 1990s South Korea: iban. Derived from the Chinese characters i (a prefix, meaning non- or ab-) and ban (a class or group), the word ‘iban’ translates literally to an irregular group of people. The term gained currency in queer culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s, used as a means to refer to, and link, women’s cross-gender performance and queer desires. For some teenage girls, the imitation of male stars was—and is—crucial not only for navigating uncharted queer identities, but also for discovering their attraction to gender-expansive individuals.4 I argue that Hanam’s gender-nonconforming presentation as Romeo, an authentically masculine role given life through and in a female body, is intimately linked to iban. Recognizing the powers of cross-gender performance in shaping queer identity and fostering queer intimacy illuminates Romeo and Juliet’s queer and transcultural possibilities previously unexplored in the broader tradition of Shakespearean adaptation. Ultimately, Fantasy of the Girls leverages Shakespeare to foreground the unique experiences of queer teen girls in twenty-first century South Korea. NEGOTIATING THE BODIES OF SHAKESPEARE’S HERO(IN)ES Over the last two decades, casting women in Shakespeare’s male roles has become an increasingly visible practice. There have been a flurry of cross-gender productions, perhaps in response to growing feminist demands to increase women’s visibility on the stage.5 With women actors eager to play a wider range of roles, and audience members clamouring for more complex female figures, giving women male roles from the works of famous playwrights such as Shakespeare offers new enticements for theatregoers. The theatrical allure of women players taking male roles partly grows out of a dissonance between the actor’s body and the male character she plays. In the practice of gender-conscious casting, the actor’s gender is not a criterion in the assignment of roles. Gender-conscious productions typically retain characters’ names, pronouns, and gendered forms of presentation, such as costuming, with the actor playing the gender that does not match their own. Female actors’ breasts are not bound, and other bodily markers of femininity remain clearly visible, for example. The marked contrast between the gendered physicality ascribed to a character and the gendered appearance of the actor’s own body raises a crucial question: in such cases, do audiences ‘stop seeing the female body and see only the male role’ (Klett 2008: 169) instead? Some critics and reviewers believe so. Lyn Gardner, for example, comments on Kathryn Hunter’s Richard III that ‘you entirely forget that she is a woman playing a man’ (qtd. in Klett 2008: 169). For Gardner, the actor’s female body effectively dissolves into the male dramatic role that she persuasively performs and the male body that she inhabits on stage. They turn a ‘blind’ eye to the actor’s body, and thus perceive the character with a singular focus. Other spectators, like Seonwha, are unable to perceive anything other than a double vision: they cannot forget, or elide, the actor’s female body, and, as such, are constantly reminded of the gendered gap between the actor and her role. It is in keeping with this recognition of the tension that Elizabeth Klett rejects Gardner’s judgement, describing Hunter’s portrayal of Richard III as intimately linked to the actor’s gendered body. ‘It is […] impossible to completely erase the gendered body from representation’ (Klett 2008: 169), she contends. Playing a role on stage, then, involves not just acting the character out mechanically, but interpreting it, moving it from the realm of the actor into the domain of the audience. Klett finds the participatory role of the audience crucial to analysing the performance of gender in cross-cast Shakespeare. As boundary-crossing performers, women playing men in theatre productions conjure ‘not one, but many bodies’ (Klett 2009: 4). This is exemplified by the diverse range of responses to Fiona Shaw’s performance of the eponymous hero in a production of Richard II, which emphasized to Klett that Shaw’s Richard was at once ‘a dyke’, ‘an adolescent boy’, and ‘a woman’ (Klett 2009: 4). Different audiences discovered differently gendered versions of Richard from Shaw’s acting—he/she is simultaneously a butch lesbian, a young man yet to gain access to dominant forms of masculinity, and a heterosexual woman. Such varied interpretations of a single cross-gender performance points to the absolute importance of audiences in terms of the construction and identification of gender. They must actively engage with the actor’s performance to consciously explore the creative discrepancies between the actor and the character she plays.6 The emphatic focus on the gap between the character’s and the actor’s gender which typifies cross-cast Shakespearean productions is similarly prominent in Fantasy of the Girls. Indeed, keen awareness of this dissonance is the basis for Seonwha’s insistent statements to Jieun in the opening scene, that ‘You can’t realistically perform Juliet’s emotion when Romeo is a girl’. The performance of a male character by a female actor conjures ‘many bodies’ (Klett 2009: 4), each coming into being through interaction with a given audience. Similarly, Hanam’s cross-gender performance as Romeo allows for the genesis of multiple versions of her own identity, each gendered differently, that come into existence through the varied responses of her audience, the members of her school community, to her incarnation of the Shakespearean hero. The fact that Fantasy of the Girls takes place in a girl’s school is significant. As Melissa D. Aaron has observed, single-sex female institutions, such as girls’ schools, women’s prisons, and all-woman playing companies such as the Takarazuka Revue, played an important role in establishing the validity of all-women Shakespearean performances, despite the predominantly male title characters of his plays. In such institutions, all roles must be played by women; selective female casting is an impossibility. It is in keeping with this practice that Hanam is cast as the male protagonist in the school’s production of Romeo and Juliet and that, indeed, all male roles are played by schoolgirls. Moreover, in the all-girl school, Hanam seems to be known for her cross-gendered acting of male characters. We are told that Hanam has already played an iconic male Shakespearean role, performing as Hamlet the previous year. She even won a prize for her excellent performance in a nationwide competition between school-age amateur actors. While many girls have auditioned for the role of Juliet, Hanam is essentially the only choice to play Romeo, not the least because she is acknowledged as the school’s best performer. Beyond her acting skills, Hanam’s success and popularity in playing two of Shakespeare’s most famous male protagonists also lies, perhaps, in schoolmates’ adolescent fascination with the most ‘boyish’ girl in their all-girl school and the student body’s widely held interest in same-sex intimacy. In the girls’ school, the teenage students create an intimate, girl-only world, in which they can freely share passionate emotions, admire a senior girl, and rival other girls in order to gain attention from the girl for whom they yearn. Here, the girls dote on girls who seem like boys. Hanam’s cross-gender portrayal of Romeo, then, is anchored in and reflects the specific, intense environment of the girls’ school. Her Romeo is the embodiment of the all-girl community’s focus on same-sex intimacy and its generalized attraction to the female body’s elastic mixing of genders. The film’s special interest in the all-girl school setting underlines the need to consider the local contexts of the community which its depiction of the teen-girl actors seems to draw on. The iban subculture of young queer women’s community groups, which first emerged in the late 1990s, brings a distinctive perspective, and additional nuance, to these conversations, not just because of its foregrounding of teen girls’ same-sex desire. Of equal relevance is the way in which, in iban culture, maleness is repeatedly and insistently posited as something that can be theatrically imitated, performed, and remixed by women, whose culturally inflected experiences renegotiate the shifting and dynamic category ‘men’. Fantasy of the Girls, set in 2010s South Korea, reflects on the charged experiences of iban girls from the preceding generation and creates a space in which its female protagonists are steeped to chart the source of the cross-gender Shakespeare acting it ostensibly documents. THE QUEER (IBAN) PERFORMANCE OF TEENAGE GIRLS The term iban was first used in Korean gay communities in the early 1990s. Composed from the Chinese letters i (a prefix meaning ‘second, strange, or different’) and ban (‘class or people’), the word can be translated literally as ‘different or secondary group of people’. More idiomatically, iban is roughly equivalent to the term ‘queer’ as used in English-speaking cultures and thereby shares with ‘queer’ a focus on transgressive qualities of ‘whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant’ (Halperin 62). Hence, gay men engaged in deliberate and playful self-deprecation by identifying themselves as iban, underscoring their marginalized status in an emphatically hetero-normative society. Claiming the term iban brought together gay men as a specific assembly, constituted by their distinction from the ‘general or dominant/universal class of people’ (Cho 274). By the late 1990s, the newly emerging cultural praxes of young queer women shifted the meaning of iban. In its new mode, it was used to refer specifically to the desire of young women to approximate the stylings of young male stars, who had recently become reigning cultural icons. The gender-nonconforming looks of pretty young male pop stars appealed to female teens, who found immensely attractive the new phenomenon of ‘pan-East Asian soft masculinity’ (Jung 71). In her 2019 essay examining androgynous male celebrities of South Korea, Layoung Shin has argued that this new version of masculinity, which generally involved male stars wearing heavy make-up and intricate costuming on stage, appealed to some young girls not only because it offered up stars as objects to adore, but, more importantly, as objects to emulate. Young male singers’ less aggressive and more gender-fluid modes of representing maleness—known as ‘flower masculinity’ (Shin 2019: 162)—offered teenage girls a more accessible and compelling model for their own forays into cross-gendered performance and identity. In the iban subculture, groups of like-minded teen girls formed cosplay teams in order to impersonate boy bands and dance on stage in local festivals or queer community gatherings. The performance did not stop when team members left the stage, however: they continued to mimic the masculine manner, style, and behaviours of their boy-band idols in their offstage lives. This included, for example, copying male stars’ gendered presentation, with girls opting for short haircuts and masculine clothing choices, such as baggy jeans and loose T-shirts. Likewise, language was a crucial tool for the teen girls to inhabit their chosen boy-band identities. They imitated the male stars’ use of language and created gender-specific stage names to express their performative masculinity, calling each other by male titles such as hyung (bro), even in their ‘regular’ offstage lives. Young women’s desire to mimic their male idols was rooted in their pursuit of masculinity, and, as such, cross-gender imitation became a form of mimetic self-fashioning. For them, constructing their gender hinged on the blending of their embodied femaleness and the sartorially signified signs of maleness. As teenage girls navigated and experimented with gender identities in the all-girl cosplay groups, they began to explore their queer desires. Many of the girls involved in cosplay, either as performers or spectators, dated other girls; relationships were usually formed between members of the same team or with members of other performance groups. It was in the context of this combination of same-sex desire and cross-gender performance that the term iban found particular resonance. Whilst gay men in the early 1990s had identified themselves as iban to describe their marginalized social status, later in the decade queer girls turned to the term to convey the central role of imitation in the construction of their identity and sexuality. With the label of iban, girls represented themselves as rejecting dominant paradigms of femininity. Although the word iban is not the most preferable label for younger generations, calling these millennial teen girls by the English equivalent ‘queer’ would erase the crucial contexts of coming-of-age experiences.7 These contexts decisively shaped the girls’ chosen forms of self-expression, and the ways in which they articulated desires that were repressed and sanctioned by their hetero-normative society. If the imitation of male celebrities enabled young Korean women to reflect on their identities and desires, the active production and consumption of fan fiction fuelled the same-sex erotic attachments of iban-identified girls. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, fan fiction (or ‘fanfic’) mainly depicted the eroticized relationships between two or more members of K-pop boy bands.8 They mostly appealed to heterosexual young women. For this reason, some queer and feminist scholars have pointed out that the heterosexually biased depictions of same-sex relationships in fan fiction do not ‘automatically generate unfettered spaces for sexual diversity within the K-pop industry itself’ (Laurie 222). Yet Ji-eun Lee and Layoung Shin (2019) emphasize that fanfic helped iban girls become aware of the possibility of homosexual relationships, especially when there were no other easily available materials on the topic. Almost half of Korean youth ‘encounter homosexuality through fanfic’, which was ‘influential in the construction of forms and ideas of homosexuality among young women in [early 2000s] Korea’ (Shin 2019: 161).9 As Lee has demonstrated in her anthropological study of iban girls, the practice of reading and creating fanfic allowed teen girls to ‘gain access to homosexuality and same-sex intimacy that hardly appear in official discourse’ (60). The consumption of fan fiction is an active project, and, especially for iban girls, the impersonation of male stars was once more key. Iban girls became actors to play out the relationships scripted in fan fiction on the internet, another iteration of their practice of imitating boy-band idols. Online chat platforms, which proliferated from the late 1990s onwards, functioned as a sort of theatre in which these mimetic performances were staged. Over online chat, teen-girl fans connected with each other in order to role-play as their chosen male idols and act out eroticized relationships from fanfic in ‘real life’, by assuming temporary identities to recreate scenes and even dialogues from their favoured texts (Lee 59–60). Just as an actor impersonates a character on the stage, iban girls impersonated male stars in online spaces to create temporary cross-gender identities that involved the theatrical performance of fan-created stories about same-sex romance. It is clear, then, iban girls, and their characteristic female-to-male cross-dressing, emerged in a highly specified culture and held very particular associations with the local pop-music scene and its fan culture. Iban subculture was also a youth trend specific to the period from the late 1990s and early 2000s. As mentioned, it is now rather uncommon that female teens perform cross-gendered imitation of androgynous young male stars and form same-sex relationships with other girls by modelling on the depictions in fan fiction.10 I suggest that Fantasy of the Girls offers renewed attention to the impacts of iban culture on gender presentation, underscoring the shaping importance of iban girls’ engagement with theatricality and fascination with nonbinary genders. More specifically, the film mines the nuances of the girl-oriented iban culture to explore the layered meanings of cross-gender theatrical imitation, the practice through which the film’s characters express their adolescent yearning for same-sex relationships. With the character Hanam, the film, set in 2010s South Korea, traces gender-nonconforming presentation backward to a set of ‘soft’ masculinities that appealed to young women in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Hanam stands out from the crowd of ordinary schoolgirls that fill the school’s halls, mainly due to her boyish looks and outfits. She never wears skirts; despite the school’s strict dress code which mandates that students’ presentation conforms to binary gender roles, Hanam is always dressed in jeans or short athletic shorts. Although she is neither particularly muscular nor physically imposing, her plain shoulder-length haircut, alluringly sharp personal style, above-average height, and slender body make her the nonbinary object of intense attraction for the teen girls in her community. All the students from lower year groups, not just Jieun, considering her as a potential love-object. Wooncheol, Seonwha’s childhood friend who has been striving unsuccessfully to take their relationship to the next level of eroticism, suggests that this sort of same-sex desire is specific to girls’ adolescent development in the all-girl school. To Seonwha’s question about ‘whether male students in your school also admire, follow around, and offer gifts to a senior boy’, he replies nonchalantly: ‘Have you lost your mind? We’re busy avoiding our seniors’. Whilst Hanam’s charms are undeniable, they are nevertheless coded ambiguously. Her gender-nonconformity, and its allures, are cast both as connoting an immature, or imperfect, masculinity and an appealing boyishness. She is presented as a kind of boy-child, exemplified by her devotion to her scooter. Unlike standard road motorcycles or sport bikes routinely associated with tough masculinity, as in the tradition of butch lesbians riding bulky Harley-Davidson bikes at Pride parades, Hanam’s scooter is much smaller and lighter, designed for its versatility and portability.11 It is unreliable and frequently breaks down. Hanam explicitly considers the scooter to be an analogue for her spirit of masculinity. It is telling, thus, that the machine does not fully operate as it should, as its driver desires. In this light, the scooter (mal)functions to offer a somewhat mocking portrayal of cross-gender masculinity and its integral limitations. Yet Hanam’s malfunctioning scooter also represents a softened form of maleness, first embodied by K-pop boy-band stars, that is preferred by teen female fans over traditional, hetero-normative models of masculinity. Sun Jung maintains that the ever-growing appeal of the new standards governing male appearance and beauty is that they ‘are able to satisfy complex human (especially female) desires because [a pretty boy] possesses both feminine and masculine attributes’ (58). From this perspective, Hanam’s scooter is less an icon of her inability to fully embody ‘properly’ masculine features than a symbol of teenage girls’ attraction to ‘flower masculinity’, which has come to replace the previous generation’s insistent preference with macho tough guys. In a similar fashion, Romeo especially appealed to nineteenth-century actresses as a role to which they could bring particular subtlety, precisely because the character fell far short of Victorian ideals of manhood.12 Fantasy of the Girls does not explicitly depict Hanam imitating popular male idols. Yet Hanam’s performance of masculinity which imitates, and even substitutes, maleness echoes connotatively the cross-gender imitative practices of iban girls. It is particularly clear in the scene in which Seonwha crafts a portrait of Hanam, a collage composed primarily of photographs taken by Seonwha when she was a member of the school photography club. In this short but crucial scene, the camera pans to Seonwha’s hands affixing a portrait photo of Hanam’s face above a ‘body’ made from an overlapping assemblage of photos, each offering a close-up snapshot of masculinity, from the glimpses of the male body, such as a nude torso, to typical men’s clothes, such as polo shirts (Fig. 1). In this portrait, Hanam is presented as a mixture of the feminine (her face) and the masculine (male body parts and sartorially coded signifiers of masculine presentation), explicitly identifying her gender expression and identity as a gender-expansive performance that decouples the ideas about masculinity from the male body. In his book Female Masculinity, Jack Halberstam calls our attention to the fact that ‘what we understand as heroic masculinity has been produced by and across both male and female bodies’ (2). The embodiment of masculinity by women, Halberstam contends, is ‘far from being an imitation of maleness’ and challenges the widespread assumption that ties masculinity solely to the ‘male body and its effects’ (1). Bringing the markers of maleness into her own body, Hanam similarly encourages the spectatorial gaze to perceive her as a composite image of the feminine and the masculine, and, more broadly, to test the routine assumptions we make about maleness and masculinity, exclusively informed by the culturally authorized representations of the male body. Like iban girls who engaged in cross-gender imitation of their boy-band idols, Hanam presents a strategy of gender remixing—a collage—that relocates masculinity from the realm of men into the realm of girls. Figure 1. Open in new tabDownload slide Seonwha creates a portrait of Hanam, combining an image of her face with a collage of images of male bodies underneath. Figure 1. Open in new tabDownload slide Seonwha creates a portrait of Hanam, combining an image of her face with a collage of images of male bodies underneath. Fantasy of the Girls echoes, evokes, and reproduces codes and contexts specific to iban culture, including its single-sex setting; the modelling of female masculinity on male stars’ images; the integration of fan culture into girlhood experiences; and the use of role-playing. As teen girls in post-millennial Korea developed and explored their queerness by mimicking and role-playing male singers, Hanam brings into existence her female masculinity by playing the role of Shakespearean heroes such as Hamlet and Romeo, both of which, as Aaron has noted, are routinely cited as roles particularly favoured by women actors taking on Shakespeare’s male characters. By building a bridge between the highly localized culture of iban and the cross-cultural, global fascination with Shakespearean theatre and cross-gender performance, Fantasy of the Girls reflects upon teenage girls’ same-sex desire and their complicated relationships, offering a local translation of a transcultural phenomenon. In what follows, I explore how the female teens’ engagements with and revisions of Shakespeare’s text draw on iban-inflected romantic relationships and create distinctively South Korean queer frames. TRANSLATING BETWEEN SHAKESPEARE AND IBAN CULTURE Fantasy of the Girls centres on a love triangle connecting the film’s three main players, as Seonwha and Suyeon rival for Hanam’s affection. Initially, Seonwha had no intention of acting in the school play. Indeed, she went to the audition not as a participant but as a supportive spectator, cheering on her friend Jieun, who auditioned for the role of Juliet. However, Seonwha soon catches the eye of Suyeon, the student-director of the school theatre team, who hand-picks her for the coveted leading lady role. Whatever Seonwha’s initial feelings, once she begins rehearsing with Hanam, she gradually becomes smitten with her co-star. The more they act together, the more Seonwha falls for her acting partner; their relationship accelerates seemingly in co-ordination with the development of Romeo and Juliet’s love story in the play-text. Things seem more complicated for Hanam, who appears to reciprocate Seonwha’s affection, whilst also pushing back on their connection. She sows confusion, for instance, by urging her acting partner: ‘Please don’t lose your heart to me’. Shortly before the day of their official performance, tensions rise further: Seonwha discovers that Hanam had previously enjoyed an intimate friendship with Suyeon. Believing that the escalation of their relationship beyond the territory of a platonic, albeit very close, friendship was impossible, Suyeon could not fully embrace the pair’s bond and effectively broke things off. The two senior girls now seem to be begrudgingly estranged, as demonstrated by their intense quarrel, in which Hanam throws objects around the locker room as an outlet for her strong emotions. Seonwha realizes the truth of the matter. Suyeon and Hanam are still in love, even if they have not yet articulated their authentic feelings for each other. Seonwha decides to cede the role of Juliet to Suyeon: as Romeo belongs with Juliet, Hanam belongs with Suyeon. The parallel is reinforced in the film’s ending, with Hanam and Suyeon patching things up on stage, in and through their performance as Romeo and Juliet. For Seonwha, things are somewhat less rosy. Powerless to stop the wheels of fate, she watches the two senior girls reconcile on stage from the audience. The film concludes its scene of the school play with Seonwha acknowledging her unrequited yearning for the girl Romeo, Hanam. Her entrance in the grown-up world will be replete with not only unforeseen hardship, but also uncharted queer desires. The use of Shakespearean playacting as a plot device in a teen movie set in a high school, is, in itself, fairly unremarkable. As Ariane M. Balizet has observed, the Shakespearean ‘teenpic’ is a Hollywood mainstay, a subgenre in which a familiar cast of characters, themes, and even language are borrowed from Shakespearean plays and re-oriented in order to delve into modern teen experiences. She cites Get Over It (Tommy O’Haver, 2001) as one of the archetypical examples of the subgenre, with the staging of a Shakespearean play forming a backdrop for, and indeed inspiring, a typical teenage love story. In the movie, a group of high-schoolers enmeshed in a complex web of affections are brought even closer together, tasked with performing in the school play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The outcome is a classic case of life imitating art, as the four protagonists’ complicated offstage relationships map onto those of the characters they play on stage, Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius. Get Over It engages with Shakespeare’s comic depiction of the youthful love through the ‘recognition as familiar’ model, using the canon as a classically authorized paradigm for the film’s depiction of adolescent concerns. The second mode of Shakespearean engagement is called ‘re-cognition’, in which the film encourages the audience to revisit the canonical work with a fresher perspective, reflected in the ways in which the teen movie flexibly uses the source play’s storylines, characters, and themes, updated in keeping with its contemporary setting.13Fantasy of the Girls seems to echo both models. On one hand, it integrates a high-school performance of Romeo and Juliet into its plot as a device to dramatize the protagonists’ relationship. Just as the teenagers in Get Over It model their relationships on Shakespeare’s Athenian youths, the girls’ erotic interactions are intertwined with their portrayal of the playwright’s star-crossed lovers. However, the South Korean movie critically diverges from the subgenre’s well-trodden plot and embeds in Shakespeare’s play the contemporaneous contexts surrounding the girls’ school, reflecting the ‘re-cognition’ teenpic paradigm. Fantasy of the Girls does not faithfully follow Romeo and Juliet’s tragic love story. There are no rivalling houses and no tragic deaths. There is no direct proxy for Romeo as the Petrarchan lover, nor for Juliet as his youthful beloved. Although one might assume that Seonwha, who is forced into the repressive world of adulthood, suffers a death of sorts, the film indeed gestures towards the possibility for the enduring forms of her girlhood experiences and imaginative hopes before it fades to black. Likewise, the film does not parallel the source play’s linear narrative structure, even when the girls deliver its lines more or less verbatim. Romeo and Juliet’s key dialogues are used ‘out of sequence’, only when a specific speech fits a given scene’s purpose. The nature of the language choices in the Romeo and Juliet translation echoes this hybridity. The screenplay of Fantasy of the Girls was co-written by Yoona Kuk and the film’s director, Jungmin Ahn. It is not clear what version of modern Korean translation of Romeo and Juliet they used to write scenes involving the schoolgirls’ play-within-the-film, but the screenplay takes notable liberties with Shakespeare’s text. The co-writers always modernize lines; the characters of Romeo and Juliet speak in modern Korean speech patterns and styles (in fact, it is a convention in South Korea that staging Shakespeare’s play in the language which contemporary Koreans are most familiar and comfortable with, rather than in the languages style from any previous eras). They also frequently abbreviate lines, which is in keeping with the strategies used by many modern adaptations. This modernized and somewhat simplified translation nevertheless maintains Shakespeare’s artfulness, such as figures of speech, and preserves his flourished literary tone. More strikingly, the co-writers liberally inject less formal Korean dialogue into this form of Romeo and Juliet translation. Colloquial Korean idiom frequently intervenes in the lyricism of Romeo and Juliet, creating a hybrid translation of Shakespeare’s blank verse, part literary, part colloquial. This strategy of language remixing comes into existence in the film when the schoolgirls’ Romeo and Juliet routinely switch between formal and colloquial expressions in a single passage. Fantasy of the Girls flexibly uses and remixes the canon’s language, offering a transnational vision of Romeo and Juliet’s heterosexual love that translates the famed story into a distinctly queer, and specifically South Korean, cultural dialect. In the film’s rendering of Romeo and Juliet, the youthful love affair so central to the play’s plot becomes a symbol not just of passion, broadly understood, but also of the spectre of tragedy that haunts Seonwha’s same-sex infatuation, destined to end in pain. On the beach at sunset, Hanam and Seonwha rehearse the scene in which Juliet unwittingly confesses her newly sparked infatuation with Romeo, whom she has just encountered for the first time at the ball. The camera initially offers a shot of Seonwha delivering the speech: ‘O Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name’. Before the camera pans into a wider shot of the two girls gazing at each other, Seonwha’s Juliet announces poignantly, with the line offering an overlapping combination of Juliet’s fictional passion and her own feelings, ‘Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love’.14 With an adoring smile on her face, she then gazes at Hanam with unbridled intensity, who walks ahead of her. The camera movement explicitly links Juliet’s heartfelt speech to Romeo with Seonwha’s longing gaze at Hanam, emphasizing that the speech is delivered to both Hanam and Romeo at once. The pair continue to run lines, sitting in a secluded area of the beach. In the speech that follows, Seonwha, as Juliet, articulates the passion she feels for her own Romeo, Hanam: Seonwha: That which we call a rose By any other word would smell as sweet; So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called, Retain that dear perfection which he owes Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name, And, for thy name, which is no part of thee, Take all myself. Hanam: I take thee at thy word. Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized: Henceforth I never will be Romeo.15 As Hanam’s Romeo urges Seonwha’s Juliet to ‘call me but love’, the film cuts to a close-up of the two girls sharing a tender kiss in Hanam’s room, with the rest of Romeo’s speech overdubbing the scene. In Shakespeare’s play, Romeo’s famous vow that he ‘henceforth never will be Romeo’ demonstrates his unflinching passion for Juliet. Yet, in Hanam’s performance, and in the context of the pair’s kiss, the line’s meaning shifts to presage the impossibility of Hanam and Seonwha’s burgeoning attraction ever leading to a fully realized relationship. In the source text, Romeo’s declaration signals that he would be everything that his beloved could want, and more. By contrast, the line becomes ironic in the film, conveying the fact that Seonwha’s Romeo, Hanam, will never be the Romeo for whom Seonwha so yearns, the authentic counterpart to her Juliet. Indeed, this is the last time the pair perform together as Romeo and Juliet; shortly thereafter, Seonwha learns where Hanam’s affection truly lies. She will never actually be Hanam’s Juliet, not even on stage. By figuratively ‘doffing’ the name of Romeo, Hanam implicitly associates Romeo’s pledge to abandon his identity with the fact that the part she plays is only possible in the imagined world of theatrical performance: Hanam must necessarily cast off the role of Romeo when she steps off the stage. The affection between Hanam and Seonwha, fostered and shaped by the on-stage love affair they rehearse, simply cannot translate to a viable offstage romance. In the invocation of Romeo’s loss of self, the scene implicitly confirms that Hanam’s portrayal of Romeo does not equate to a wholesale transformation: she ‘never will be Romeo’ beyond theatrical performance. Yet this is impossible for Seonwha to grasp fully, as she continues to blur the line between the role and the actor, in her own imagination. On the day of the performance, Hanam’s Romeo, donning a vizard, sets his eyes on Juliet for the first time at the Capulet’s dance party and wonders about the identity of this alluring stranger: I am curious to know the lady who shines brighter than diamond. So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows, as yonder lady o’er her fellows shows. Once this dancing is done, I will take her hand. Forswear it, sight, for I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.16 At this point, Hanam is under the impression that her Juliet is Seonwha. Questions as to Juliet’s identity are all part of the dramatic fiction. But, to Hanam’s immense surprise, when Juliet removes her mask, she discovers that Seonwha has secretly ceded the role to Suyeon. In this moment, the lyrically enchanting first encounter between Shakespeare’s lovers becomes an authentic reunion between the senior girls, separated for a year yet destined to become romantic partners once Suyeon could accept their shared feelings. The translation, or mediation, between Romeo and Juliet’s fictional passion and the genuine sentiment of the actors who embody the lovers on stage suggests that Suyeon will finally embrace her love for Hanam and that their relationship will progress from an intimate friendship to an erotic partnership, just as Romeo and Juliet’s romance escalates after their first encounter. The camera then shifts to offer Seonwha’s point of view. In the audience, she looks on helplessly as Suyeon’s Juliet allows Hanam’s Romeo to kiss her hand. In a flashback, Seonwha remembers the moment when she began practising the same scene with Hanam. Another poignant flashback follows, and we see Seonwha sitting behind Hanam on her scooter, both dressed in character (Fig. 2). In her imagination, Seonwha’s Juliet never has to leave her Romeo, Hanam. As the play comes to a close, with warm applause from the school audience, Seonwha’s voiceover takes over the final moment of the school play sequence, providing her heartbroken recognition that her ‘first love was Romeo’. Figure 2. Open in new tabDownload slide In Seonwha’s imagination, Hanam wears Romeo’s clothes, suggesting that she is inseparable from the role. Figure 2. Open in new tabDownload slide In Seonwha’s imagination, Hanam wears Romeo’s clothes, suggesting that she is inseparable from the role. In these scenes, the three schoolgirls’ emotional coming-of-age experiences are coded as explicitly queer and intimately linked to Romeo and Juliet’s language, storyline, and characters. But the film’s mobilization of the source text goes further than any simple incorporation of its familiar language and authoritative themes in order to justify the girls’ romantic impulses. In depicting the adolescent love between the teen girls, Fantasy of the Girls reinterprets, reimagines, and recreates its heterosexually centred source text, although, as queer readings of the play have demonstrated, the male bonding between Romeo and Mercutio draws on the Renaissance notion of ideal male friendship understood to constitute their unadmitted homosexual feelings.17 In doing so, it provides its young protagonists with the space to recognize and explore their queer desires and identities. More specifically, the schoolgirls are endowed with the narrative agency to modify the play-text, allowing for the transformation of one of the most famous heterosexual love stories into a tale of queer desire. Indeed, as a student-director, Suyeon demonstrates her own strategy for teen-centred transnational adaptation. She dramaturgs the school productions, manages rehearsals, hand-picks the best actors for the performance and even recognizes Seonwha’s acting talent, despite Seonwha’s inexperience with the theatre and avowed disdain for this year’s school play.18 Suyeon seems not to take a role of translator herself and uses the translated Korean text of the play, but she has a hand in manipulating the play-text, re-allocating dialogue from one character to another and inserting into the script lines of her own composition which she believes are a better fit for the current production’s aesthetic goals than Shakespeare’s language. In other words, Suyeon adopts the roles of principal writer and director, and, in fact, produces an adaptation that has much in common with many non-anglophone Shakespearean productions. Pamela Bickley and Jenny Stevens sketch, for example, a rich history of non-anglophone adaptations that decentre the ways of interpreting and staging Shakespearean plays that have previously been established, and have been dominant, in Western contexts. Instead, non-anglophone productions typically highlight fluidity over rigidity, plurality over uniformity. Rather than preserving the canon’s privileged language and seemingly fixed contexts, Suyeon transplants core elements of the play into the fresh, fertile soil of her own cultural context, the all-girl high school. She harnesses specific linguistic conditions and the necessity for all-women casting to produce a deft translation of Romeo and Juliet, embedding the source text in the unique new context. If Suyeon demonstrates her skill as a writer by adapting Shakespeare, Hanam acquires a vehicle for expressing her own female masculinity through her performance of Romeo. The act of performance creates a gender-expansive congruity between Shakespeare’s Romeo, Hanam’s portrayal of Romeo, and Hanam herself. It permits the unification of the categories of masculine and feminine, beyond the limitation of the binary. Just as iban girls forged a close connection with the male stars they idolized through the practice of imitation, Hanam shares a powerful bond with Romeo, a role that she performs but also a figure that she frequently imitates off stage, even though she figuratively acknowledges that her embodiment of Romeo is impossible beyond the theatrical realm. The translation between Romeo and Hanam is of particular interest to Seonwha and Suyeon. For both girls, and especially for Seonwha, the discovery and/or recovery of their affections for Hanam is a direct outcome of their dramatic interactions with Hanam’s Romeo, and, accordingly, from Romeo’s infatuation with Juliet, the role they both perform. It is noteworthy that, as noted above, the scene of the school performance closes with Seonwha’s proclamation that her ‘first love was Romeo’, as she imagines Hanam wearing Romeo’s costume off stage. This moment demonstrates the potent effect of cross-gender performance: the key to unlocking, and articulating, Seonwha’s attraction for the nonbinary senior girl, and thus her queer desire more generally. It is Hanam’s embodiment of Romeo, and not Romeo or Hanam in isolation, that shapes Seonwha’s erotic feelings and sparks her queer desire. Her affection is neither for Romeo nor Hanam but for Hanam-as-Romeo, a girl in drag. Highlighting the queerness of her desire, Seonwha’s attraction is based neither on Romeo’s dress (a physical sign of masculinity) nor Hanam’s body (a physical marker of femaleness) in isolation. Instead, the flashback with the pair in costume on the scooter (Fig. 2) testifies to her imaginative fantasy, and her true desire: Hanam impersonating Romeo, that is, Hanam’s theatrical depiction of the tragic male hero. Simone Chess has observed that the male cross-dresser’s appeal to women derives from a desire for a man in drag that is both heterosexual and queer at once: the attraction is rooted in the fact that he is demonstrably a man wearing women’s clothes. Hanam’s cross-dressing as Romeo prompts a similar kind of erotic yearning in Seonwha: an explicitly theatrical infatuation with a woman, which she is unlikely to uncouple from Hanam’s boundary-crossing enactment of Romeo. Just as spectators watching a woman playing a male role find themselves attracted to the dissonance between the actor’s female body and the character’s maleness, Seonwha is entranced by the erotic possibilities offered by the apparent incongruity between Hanam’s femaleness and the male role she plays with such skill. In the source play, the quickly sparked adolescent passion ends with the young couple’s tragic death. The ending seems to find a parallel in Seonwha’s sad acknowledgement that her love for the girl Romeo is unattainable. Within the film’s broader interest in iban culture, the death in Shakespeare’s text and the erotic disappointment of the protagonist together perhaps suggest a link with the teen culture’s outmoded state. One might even say that the word ‘fantasy’ in the English title of the film reminds the audience of the fact that female-female attachment merely occurs in the realm of girlhood fantasy. Seonwha’s coming-of-age suggests that she must break with this ‘fantasy’ constituted by theatrical performances in the girls’ high school. Her iban-inflected romantic relationship with Hanam would not be carried into adult realities, just as some iban girls cut all ties with the teen community and turned to the heterosexual love-object when they grew up. The film nevertheless suggests the potential for Seonwha to persist with the iban ‘fantasy’. In the last sequence, Seonwha strolls along the wooded paths in the imaginary world that she has built in her dream. She is holding a candy jar, a kind of farewell gift she received from Hanam after the school show was over. Hanam will graduate this coming winter and might leave the town. But Seonwha does not feel bitter about the parting. She embraces it. As soon as putting a piece of candy into her mouth and tastes it, Seonwha sees the rainbow appearing across the moonlit sky. Before the film fades to black, the last image of the rainbow with stars shining brightly above her head seems to foreshadow an untold account of Seonwha’s upcoming adult life, which might continue to overlap with iban desires in a way that consistently proves its usefulness as an identity category for a young adult. Read in this way, the film reshapes the tragic romantic story of Shakespeare’s play with a version of queer potential in mind. Although iban as an identity category is past its prime, there are young women who continue to identify themselves as iban and link their sexual and erotic experiences explicitly with what they practiced in the all-girl cosplay groups.19 The school performance similarly does not spotlight the death. It capitalizes as much on the reconciled love between Hanam and Suyeon as on Seonwha’s disappointment. Whilst no adult is intervening in their ways so as to discipline their exploration of queer desires, each of the girls reacts differently to the iban-inflected romantic feelings. Hanam and Suyeon delight in the rediscovered mutual feelings. Seonwha is definitely heartbroken, but as the final sequence indicates, will be allowed to stay in the world of her fantasy. Whether they are rejoicing in or heartbroken by queer desires, the girls are looking forward to their future and prepared to explore more the ideas about queer subjectivity and relationships. The text’s connection to iban calls for the girls to rely on Shakespeare as well. Through the broader legacy of iban culture, adapting and performing Romeo and Juliet is an animating force behind the schoolgirls’ articulation of intimate queer feelings. For the girls in the film, Romeo and Juliet is a classic text less about the ending of the youthful love. It becomes a text more about the allure and danger they must face when they step into the unknown world of queer desires. As Seonwha ruefully comments, ‘people no longer speak like Romeo and Juliet these days’. The play-text has such an affectively forceful effects on the actor delivering its lines; Seonwha’s affection for Hanam is inspired, at least in part, through her recitation of Juliet’s lines to her beloved. In a reciprocal move, the actor transforms the play-text. In the all-female school production, Juliet’s passion is restaged as same-sex desire, unsettlingly familiar yet fascinatingly intoxicating. Fantasy of the Girls is fundamentally elastic, navigating between multiple languages, sexualities, and binaristic categories of gender. With its unique transnational perspective, the film transforms Shakespeare’s culturally and historically authorized text into a hyper-local, culturally specific tale. It offers South Korean queer teenage girls, both those it depicts on screen and those in the audience, a model for identity construction, through which they can voice and explore desires that are otherwise inexpressible. CONCLUSION The most popular of the Shakespearean plays translated, adapted, and performed recently in South Korea is Romeo and Juliet, and its central emphasis on the possibility of the teenage lovers exploring queer desires resonates in a series of theatrical adaptations. Bare: A Pop Opera, a Los Angeles born musical exploring its teen protagonists’ emotional development, had its fourth run in 2020 in South Korea. The play explores the woes of two gay schoolboys in a romantic relationship. Shortly after one of the boys refuses to open up to the public about the relationship, he takes on the role of Romeo in the school play and subsequently falls in love with the girl playing Juliet. In 2018, two more productions used Shakespeare’s tragic love story to focus on teenagers’ sexual desires and coming-of-age struggles. Shakespeare’s R&J, a critically acclaimed play written by Joe Calarco in 2000, depicts four boys in a Catholic boarding school discovering, playing, and experimenting with Romeo and Juliet. In Juliet and Juliet, two Juliets, one from the house of Capulet and the other from the house of Montague, triumphantly avert the tale’s typical tragic ending. The play offers a ‘happily ever after’ that challenges the lovers’ families’ rejection of the Juliets’ relationships, a proxy for the negative attitudes to lesbian relationships prevalent in hetero-normative culture. These adaptations are not set in the hyper-local contexts of South Korea, and two of the productions are the licensed re-staging of the anglophone adaptations of Shakespeare’s play. However, the critical and commercial success of these performances that offer a queer perspective on the story of Romeo and Juliet points to the fact that South Korean audiences have an appetite for such adaptations. Fantasy of the Girls’ reinterpretation of the star-crossed lovers’ tale is likewise characterized by an insistent focus on teenage sexuality. It crucially echoes these productions’ potential to gesture towards queer possibilities, turning the normative heteroromantic relationship of Romeo and Juliet into explicitly queer. Yet the film varies in its attempt to relocate the play into the highly localized contemporary setting of the girls’ school in South Korea, and its deeper impact is on the source play’s connection to iban culture. It offers a transnational vision of its source, in which a girl Romeo becomes the object of her schoolmates’ erotic infatuation and an all-women cast reinterprets Romeo and Juliet flexibly, modifying Shakespeare’s text to fit their present circumstances. As the movie reflects on its teen protagonists’ anxieties and excitement about the nascent queer desires, it brings the specificities of South Korean iban culture into the dialogue with the subject matter and themes of Shakespeare’s play. Shakespeare was himself an imitator: he drew on a variety of sources to craft Romeo and Juliet, including Ovid’s tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, adapting them to fit the story he wanted to tell. Fantasy of the Girls continues this tradition, reinventing its Shakespearean source by restating its core plot in the culturally specific setting of a girl’s high school in South Korea. Seonwha’s adolescent passion for her cross-dressed senior demonstrates the potential of Shakespearean theatre as an intimate space in which theatrical performance supports the formulation of actors’ identity off stage. In this space, queer intimacies emerge, rooted in a female actor’s remixing of a character’s maleness and the ways in which a local adaptation can productively remix the Shakespearean canon. Christy Desmet has demonstrated that recent Shakespearean adaptations typically refuse to replicate the source text’s ‘centralized, hierarchical system’ and instead embrace ‘multiple, non-hierarchical nodes of meaning and interpretation’ (4). The same is true for Fantasy of the Girls. The film offers a reflection on South Korean girlhood, queerness, and Shakespeare that establishes points of contact between the source play and the culturally specific experience it chronicles. Footnotes Not using line breaks in poetry is a deliberate decision. Retranslating Korean passages of Romeo and Juliet uttered by the schoolgirls performing the play back into English is complicated, because the film combines Shakespeare’s language with modern colloquial Korean perhaps in order to tailor the lines to the teen girls’ vernacular acting. As I discuss in a later section, the teen-girl actors alternate between lines derived from the play-text (which is itself translated into Korean) and lines inserted by the school play’s student-director. For example, Jieun here delivers more or less verbatim the source text’s lines (5.3.165–166), but the last line—‘I will kiss thy lips and so leave this world’—was added to be spoken in colloquial Korean. To convey in an essay written in English the script’s combination of literary and colloquial Korean, I also do a hybrid (re-)translation. I mix my own English translation of the added Korean passages of Romeo and Juliet with the quotations taken from the Oxford Shakespeare edition of the play, with their line numbers specified in endnotes. To accommodate the Korean passages’ simplified vernacular, I translated them into plain modern English. The only exception is the rose speech. See the endnote 15. All English translations of dialogue from the film are mine, unless otherwise specified. Susan Stryker defines ‘gender-nonconforming’ as a term describing individuals ‘who do not conform to binary notions of the alignment of sex, gender, gender identity, gender role, gender expression, or gender presentation’ (24). The word is interchangeable with both ‘genderqueer’ and ‘nonbinary’, but Stryker explains that ‘gender-nonconforming (or gender variant) is more neutrally descriptive of behavior’ (24). In this essay, I prefer to describe gender presentation of both Hanam and Korean iban girls mainly through the term ‘gender-nonconforming’, reflecting Stryker’s definition. ‘Nonbinary’ is also used with less frequency, but I avoid using ‘genderqueer’, because this word is associated with a particular ‘subcultural forms of gender expression that emerged in LGBT communities in punk-, goth-, or fetish-inspired countercultural fashion that emphasizes piercings, tattoos, and dramatic styles of makeup and hair’ (Stryker 24). ‘Gender-expansive’ is another adjective that comes up regularly in the essay. On the account of its use, see the next note. The PFLAG glossary of terms defines ‘gender-expansive’ people as those ‘who expand notions of gender expression and identity beyond perceived or expected societal gender norms’. According to the explanation, this umbrella term can mean a different set of people, including those who present ‘a mix of genders’ as well as those who consider themselves agender. In this essay, I treat ‘gender-expansive’ as the word that shares with ‘gender-nonconforming’ a focus on the embodied mingling of femaleness and maleness. In an interview with Mark Brown in 2016, Emma Rice, the artistic director at the Globe from 2016 to 2018, noted that she wanted to see more women on stage in general, and especially in Shakespearean productions. She commented that gender-balanced casting was a priority, as a means to support the longevity of female actors’ careers. Ronan Paterson offers a similar observation about the two-way interaction between the actor’s performance and the audience’s acceptance thereof. He argues that the performance of gender cannot entirely hinge on the actor’s self-expression or identification. Those who identify themselves as LGBTQ+ individuals in 2020s South Korea now prefer to use ‘queer’ as a broad label or to choose more specific terms like ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’, ‘nonbinary’ or ‘agender’, and/or other terms common in English-speaking countries, depending on their ideas about sexual orientation and gender presentation. Other locally invented slangs which combine vernacular and English words also circulate. In the Western context, slash fiction also refers to a subgenre of fan faction portraying same-sex relationships, with texts derived from, and developing characters and plots that originate in, novels, movies, and games. If a fan-authored fiction features celebrities such as singers and actors, it can also be called real person slash (RPS) fiction. In Korea, fanfic is an umbrella term that can include both Slash and RPS. Korean fanfic depicts many forms of romantic relationships, rather than exclusively focusing on same-sex relationships. However, in the 1990s and 2000s, the creation of male-male fan fiction was the primary focus for iban girls. The statistics are taken from Jee-young Shin (2013: 101). Many younger lesbians nowadays tend to see the girl-oriented iban as an obsolete form of gender expression. The word has almost lost its resonances with the mingling of genders, since younger lesbians seem to no longer consider women’s cross-dressing central to their articulation of same-sex desire. Imitating men could mean that they disregard the ‘women loving women’ principle. Admittedly, this kind of reaction was also raised to iban girls in the late 1990s and early 2000s, that they just pretended to desire women because they coveted men’s lifestyles and looks. For those who questioned the propriety of the term ‘iban’, the so-called same-sex desire of iban girls was not authentic enough to be included in the category ‘lesbian’, since the presumably performed homoromantic relationship was predicated on the aspiration to emulate the heterosexually coded desires of male celebrities. For some of the dismissive reactions to iban culture, see Lee, and Shin (2018, 2019, 2020). But I do not mean that the decline of iban culture has terminated the association between K-pop and queer culture. Mainstream K-pop culture still, or more than ever perhaps due to the increasingly visible popularity of K-pop groups such as BTS and Blackpink, occupies an importance position in the development of queer subjectivity and communal queer experiences not only in South Korea, but in the global context more broadly. One could say that iban was one of the earliest forms of such engagement. For some newly emerging impacts of global K-pop culture on LGBTQ+ people, see Kuo and Zhao. I would like to thank Tai-Won Kim for bringing this to my attention at the seminar at the 4th Biennial Conference of the Asian Shakespeare Association, where I presented an earlier version of this essay. Anne Russell suggests that, because Romeo did not correspond to the Victorian period’s paradigm of ideal masculinity (he was ‘thoughtless and ineffectual’), he was ‘a liminal character’ (157). The role could thus, she argues, potentially have a lot to offer for women actors. Elizabeth Reitz Mullenix similarly argues that Cushman, one of the most famous breeches performers in Victorian England whose Romeo was particularly admired, preferred Romeo over all other male parts she played, on the basis that Shakespeare’s Romeo is a charged, liminal figure that veers between male and female attributes. Balizet cites Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) as an example of this type of Shakespearean adaptation. See especially 124–27. 2.1.76–78. Seonwha speaks the lines verbatim, but leaves out the famous passage’s last line, ‘And I’ll no longer be a Capulet’ (2.1.79). 2.1.86–94. Seonwha and Hanam trade these lines of poetry word for word. Treating these speeches as an exception, I retained the play-text’s line breaks and punctuations. 1.4.161–166. Shakespeare’s lines are interlaced with two added made-up lines. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film Romeo and Juliet emphasizes this aspect of male homosexual attachment. See Van Watson. More strikingly, Suyeon’s role as a director of the school play finds a parallel in the engagement of the actor who played her. Jungmin Ahn mentioned in his 2018 interview with Sooyeon Im that ‘Soohyang Cho came forward and announced that she would like to lead the play-within-the-film’s rehearsals, so that the morale of the casting could get higher. By so doing, Cho argued, she would be better qualified to portray the character of Suyeon’. Korean to English translation of the interview is mine. Layoung Shin records approvingly of an iban-identified young woman’s liberating experience she had in a cosplay team as a teenager. She told Shin that by joining the cosplay team and identifying herself as iban, she was able to navigate the ways in which her preferred ways of representing herself—donning manly styles of hair and clothing—could be understood as something that was not wrong. Now in her mid-twenties, the interviewee works as a queer activist (Shin 2018: 98). Acknowledgements This article grew out of a paper written for the seminar ‘Cultural Relocation and Transcultural Negotiation of Shakespeare in Asia: Adaptation, Translation, and Appropriation’ at the 2020 Asian Shakespeare Association conference. 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Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS PubMed WorldCat Laurie , Timothy. “ Toward a Gendered Aesthetics of K-Pop.” Global Glam and Popular Music: Style and Spectacle from the 1970s to the 2000s , edited by Ian Chapman and Henry Johnson, New York , Routledge , pp. 214 – 31 . Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC Lee , Ji-eun . “Beyond Pain and Protection: Politics of Identity and Iban Girls in Korea.” Journal of Lesbian Studies , vol. 10 , 2006 , pp. 49 – 67 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS PubMed WorldCat Mullenix , Elizabeth Reitz . “Acting Between the Spheres: Charlotte Cushman as Androgyne.” Theatre Survey , vol. 37 , 1996 , pp. 23 – 66 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS WorldCat Paterson , Ronan . “He That Plays the...[Queen]. ” Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation , vol. 14 , 2021 . https://research.tees.ac.uk/files/24102714/He_Who_Plays_the_Queen.docx. Google Scholar OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat PFLAG National Glossary of Terms . Jan. 2021 . https://pflag.org/glossary. Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC Romeo and Juliet. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, BHE Films, Verona Produzione, Dino de Laurentiis, and Cinematografica , UK and Italy , 1968 . Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC Romeo + Juliet. Directed by Baz Luhrmann, Bazmark Productions and 20th Century Fox , USA , 1996 . Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC Russell , Anne . “Gender, Passion, and Performance in Nineteenth-Century Women Romeos.” Essays in Theatre , vol. 11 , 1993 , pp. 153 – 66 . Google Scholar OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat Shakespeare , William. Romeo and Juliet , edited by Jill L. Levenson, Oxford , Oxford UP , 2000 . Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC Shin , Jee-young . “Male Homosexuality in the King and the Clown: Hybrid Construction and Contested Meanings.” Journal of Korean Studies , vol. 18 , 2013 , pp. 89 – 114 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS WorldCat Shin , Layoung . “Queer Eye for K-Pop Fandom: Popular Culture, Cross-gender Performance, and Queer Desire in South Korean Cosplay of K-pop Stars.” Korea Journal , vol. 58 , 2018 , pp. 87 – 113 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS WorldCat Shin , Layoung. “ Imitating Flower Boy Stars: K-pop Male Stars and Assembling New Female Masculinity in South Korea.” Pop Empires: Transnational and Diasporic Flows of India and Korea , edited by S. Heijin Lee, Monika Mehta, and Robert Ji-Song Ku, Honolulu , U of Hawai’i P , 2019 , pp. 155 – 70 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Google Preview WorldCat COPAC Shin , Layoung. “ Avoiding T’ibu (Obvious Butchness): Invisibility as a Survival Strategy among Young Queer Women in South Korea.” Queer Korea , edited by Todd A. Henry, Durham , Duke UP , 2020 , pp. 295 – 322 . Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC Stryker , Susan. Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution , 2nd ed. New York , Seal Press , 2017 . Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC Van Watson , William . “Shakespeare, Zeffirelli, and the Homosexual Gaze.” Literature/Film Quarterly , vol. 20 , no. 4 , 1992 , pp. 308 – 25 . Google Scholar OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat Zhao , Jamie J . “Blackpink Queers Your Area: The Global Queerbaiting and Queer Fandom of K-Pop Female Idols.” Feminist Media Studies , vol. 21 , 2021 , pp. 1033 – 38 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS WorldCat © The Author(s) 2022. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model) © The Author(s) 2022. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Adaptation Oxford University Press

Romeo at the Girls’ School: Fantasy of the Girls’ Queer Teen Adaptation of Shakespeare

Adaptation , Volume Advance Article – Jun 20, 2022

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Oxford University Press
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1755-0637
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1755-0645
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10.1093/adaptation/apac008
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Abstract

Abstract This article adopts a transnational approach to the practice of cross-gender casting and the queer fascination with women playing Shakespeare’s male roles. It offers a case study of the South Korean film Fantasy of the Girls (Jungmin Ahn, 2018), exploring the film’s both strategic transgression of gender norms and boundary-crossing adaptation in the transnational context. Fantasy of the Girls features an all-women school theatre group staging Romeo and Juliet and joins similar cross-cast Shakespeare productions in exploring the interaction between the narrative text and the actor’s gendered embodiment, including in terms of the potent effect of gender-transgressive casting on audiences. To trace the ways in which the film uses the device of cross-cast Shakespearean performance to consider young South Korean women’s queer desires, and to examine the special geo-cultural contexts at play, I turn to a distinctive form of queer youth culture which emerged in 1990s South Korea: iban. In this cultural practice, cross-dressing functions as a crucial means of identity production, as another, albeit implicit, reference underpinning the gender-nonconforming Hanam’s performance of Romeo. The coming-of-age film offers a reflection on the connection between the iban fantasy and Shakespeare’s text, which, in turn, provides a model for identity construction, through which the queer teen girls can voice and explore desires that are otherwise inexpressible. Ultimately, Fantasy of the Girls leverages Shakespeare to foreground the unique experiences of queer teen girls in twenty-first century South Korea. Fantasy of the Girls (2018), cross-gender casting, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare adaptations, Shakespeare in Asia, queer youth culture In an empty classroom, a girl lies on her back, stretched out over several desks, with her eyes peacefully closed. The camera moves slowly to the left, showing another girl who has been sleeping while sitting against the wall. Almost immediately, the camera cuts to a new shot and pans into the latter’s hand that nervously gropes for her glasses. She then puts them on, only to find out that a stream of blood gushing from her friend’s wrist, dripping down to her fingers. She approaches in haste the presumably dying girl, with her movements suggesting that she has no clue about how to save her. She begins to speak, and, in a flash, the audience understands the narrative truth of what they are witnessing. This is not a ‘real’ death scene; the two girls have actually been rehearsing a scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The girl wearing glasses, Jieun, plays Juliet, whilst the girl’s classmate, Seonwha, plays her dead lover, Romeo. Jieun’s Juliet cries out: ‘O Romeo! Romeo--Haply some poison yet doth hang on them, to make me die with a restorative. I will kiss thy lips and so leave this world, to follow thee’.1 She stoops down to kiss Seonwha’s Romeo, who remains in deathlike repose. Though Jieun follows the script faithfully, the movement fractures the scene by causing Seonwha to abruptly break character. She sits up straight to block her friend’s kiss, declaring that ‘this is not happening’. This is the opening scene of Fantasy of the Girls (<소녀의 세계>) (Jungmin Ahn, 2018), a coming-of-age film in which the staging of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in a girls’ school functions as a crucial means to explore the construction of queer teen identity in contemporary South Korea. The prospect of women playing one of Shakespeare’s most iconic male roles elicits mixed responses from the student body. Whilst Jieun is shown to be enthusiastic from the beginning, Seonwha expresses little interest in the famous story of the star-crossed young lovers. The role of Juliet will be assigned through an open casting call. Jieun’s assiduous preparation for the audition is motivated not just by her desire to play the coveted role, but her desire to become closer to Hanam, the most popular girl in school, who has been selected to play Romeo. Although Seonwha acknowledges her friend’s crush on Hanam, she is sceptical that Jieun’s strategy will pay off. Whilst Romeo and Juliet are the theatre’s most iconic lovers, the issue remains: they are a heterosexual couple. For Seonwha, an all-woman cast cannot but fail in replicating the text’s romantic dynamics, both on stage and off. ‘But Hanam is a girl!’, she proclaims, as if to provide her definitive judgement on the matter. Yet Jieun rejects her friend’s assertion, retorting: ‘No—Hanam is… just Hanam’. Not content to let the matter lie, Seonwha again voices her disapproval for a girl Romeo: ‘You can’t realistically perform Juliet’s emotion when Romeo is a girl!’2 It is a man, not a woman, whom Juliet loves in the story known to us, so an all-woman Romeo and Juliet cannot be adequately staged if Romeo is played by a girl. It’s not worth practising as hard for the audition as Jieun has been doing, Seonwha argues. The whole thing is a waste of time. This conversation is crucial in terms of introducing, and elucidating, the film’s strategic exploration of cross-gender casting, with female actors playing male characters. Hanam is the school heartthrob, an object of adoration and fascination to her teen schoolmates in the girls’ high school. It follows, then, she will take the romantic male lead. Jieun’s description of Hanam’s identity as ‘just Hanam’ responds to the film’s ideas about a disorienting mingling of female and male properties. Produced by the intimate conjunction of the female body and Shakespeare’s romantic hero, Hanam’s Romeo inhabits and alters the role. Hanam is frequently identified with Romeo, an identification which could make Jieun embrace more readily her offstage gender-nonconforming performance in a way Seonwha clearly is not in this moment.3 Yet describing her as ‘just Hanam’ beyond the ideas of the man/woman binary paradigm shows that Hanam’s gender expression and identity are defined not simply through her assumption of the male protagonist, but rather through her refusal of the confines of the dualistic categorization. Seonwha, however, maintains that an actor assigned female at birth cannot embody Romeo. When she insists that Hanam’s Romeo continues to be seen as taking on female guise (‘when Romeo is a girl’), her response illuminates a supposedly unattainable association between masculinity and its theatrical presentation coming from a woman actor’s body. Hanam could play the role of Romeo with relative aplomb, but her performance will always, ultimately, be a failure: she will always be a schoolgirl, and Romeo should be a boy. The two girl’s clashing responses to Hanam’s Romeo demonstrate the audience’s crucial role in constructing the actor’s performed gender. Whilst some playgoers, like Jieun, accept and even delight in female-to-male cross-casting pushing the bounds of respective gender, the casting choice also challenges other sectors of the audience who tend to uphold the stable continuity between the gender of an actor and that of a character. This essay explores the slippage between Hanam’s female body and her disorienting embodiment of Romeo’s masculinity, with a particular focus on her cross-gender performance of Romeo in the play-within-the-play. Set in a girl’s high school, Fantasy of the Girls depicts the blossoming erotic feelings between Hanam and Seonwha as a parallel to those of Romeo and Juliet. To trace the ways in which the film uses the device of cross-cast Shakespearean performance to consider young South Korean women’s queer desires, and to examine the special geo-cultural contexts at play, I turn to a distinctive form of queer youth culture which emerged in 1990s South Korea: iban. Derived from the Chinese characters i (a prefix, meaning non- or ab-) and ban (a class or group), the word ‘iban’ translates literally to an irregular group of people. The term gained currency in queer culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s, used as a means to refer to, and link, women’s cross-gender performance and queer desires. For some teenage girls, the imitation of male stars was—and is—crucial not only for navigating uncharted queer identities, but also for discovering their attraction to gender-expansive individuals.4 I argue that Hanam’s gender-nonconforming presentation as Romeo, an authentically masculine role given life through and in a female body, is intimately linked to iban. Recognizing the powers of cross-gender performance in shaping queer identity and fostering queer intimacy illuminates Romeo and Juliet’s queer and transcultural possibilities previously unexplored in the broader tradition of Shakespearean adaptation. Ultimately, Fantasy of the Girls leverages Shakespeare to foreground the unique experiences of queer teen girls in twenty-first century South Korea. NEGOTIATING THE BODIES OF SHAKESPEARE’S HERO(IN)ES Over the last two decades, casting women in Shakespeare’s male roles has become an increasingly visible practice. There have been a flurry of cross-gender productions, perhaps in response to growing feminist demands to increase women’s visibility on the stage.5 With women actors eager to play a wider range of roles, and audience members clamouring for more complex female figures, giving women male roles from the works of famous playwrights such as Shakespeare offers new enticements for theatregoers. The theatrical allure of women players taking male roles partly grows out of a dissonance between the actor’s body and the male character she plays. In the practice of gender-conscious casting, the actor’s gender is not a criterion in the assignment of roles. Gender-conscious productions typically retain characters’ names, pronouns, and gendered forms of presentation, such as costuming, with the actor playing the gender that does not match their own. Female actors’ breasts are not bound, and other bodily markers of femininity remain clearly visible, for example. The marked contrast between the gendered physicality ascribed to a character and the gendered appearance of the actor’s own body raises a crucial question: in such cases, do audiences ‘stop seeing the female body and see only the male role’ (Klett 2008: 169) instead? Some critics and reviewers believe so. Lyn Gardner, for example, comments on Kathryn Hunter’s Richard III that ‘you entirely forget that she is a woman playing a man’ (qtd. in Klett 2008: 169). For Gardner, the actor’s female body effectively dissolves into the male dramatic role that she persuasively performs and the male body that she inhabits on stage. They turn a ‘blind’ eye to the actor’s body, and thus perceive the character with a singular focus. Other spectators, like Seonwha, are unable to perceive anything other than a double vision: they cannot forget, or elide, the actor’s female body, and, as such, are constantly reminded of the gendered gap between the actor and her role. It is in keeping with this recognition of the tension that Elizabeth Klett rejects Gardner’s judgement, describing Hunter’s portrayal of Richard III as intimately linked to the actor’s gendered body. ‘It is […] impossible to completely erase the gendered body from representation’ (Klett 2008: 169), she contends. Playing a role on stage, then, involves not just acting the character out mechanically, but interpreting it, moving it from the realm of the actor into the domain of the audience. Klett finds the participatory role of the audience crucial to analysing the performance of gender in cross-cast Shakespeare. As boundary-crossing performers, women playing men in theatre productions conjure ‘not one, but many bodies’ (Klett 2009: 4). This is exemplified by the diverse range of responses to Fiona Shaw’s performance of the eponymous hero in a production of Richard II, which emphasized to Klett that Shaw’s Richard was at once ‘a dyke’, ‘an adolescent boy’, and ‘a woman’ (Klett 2009: 4). Different audiences discovered differently gendered versions of Richard from Shaw’s acting—he/she is simultaneously a butch lesbian, a young man yet to gain access to dominant forms of masculinity, and a heterosexual woman. Such varied interpretations of a single cross-gender performance points to the absolute importance of audiences in terms of the construction and identification of gender. They must actively engage with the actor’s performance to consciously explore the creative discrepancies between the actor and the character she plays.6 The emphatic focus on the gap between the character’s and the actor’s gender which typifies cross-cast Shakespearean productions is similarly prominent in Fantasy of the Girls. Indeed, keen awareness of this dissonance is the basis for Seonwha’s insistent statements to Jieun in the opening scene, that ‘You can’t realistically perform Juliet’s emotion when Romeo is a girl’. The performance of a male character by a female actor conjures ‘many bodies’ (Klett 2009: 4), each coming into being through interaction with a given audience. Similarly, Hanam’s cross-gender performance as Romeo allows for the genesis of multiple versions of her own identity, each gendered differently, that come into existence through the varied responses of her audience, the members of her school community, to her incarnation of the Shakespearean hero. The fact that Fantasy of the Girls takes place in a girl’s school is significant. As Melissa D. Aaron has observed, single-sex female institutions, such as girls’ schools, women’s prisons, and all-woman playing companies such as the Takarazuka Revue, played an important role in establishing the validity of all-women Shakespearean performances, despite the predominantly male title characters of his plays. In such institutions, all roles must be played by women; selective female casting is an impossibility. It is in keeping with this practice that Hanam is cast as the male protagonist in the school’s production of Romeo and Juliet and that, indeed, all male roles are played by schoolgirls. Moreover, in the all-girl school, Hanam seems to be known for her cross-gendered acting of male characters. We are told that Hanam has already played an iconic male Shakespearean role, performing as Hamlet the previous year. She even won a prize for her excellent performance in a nationwide competition between school-age amateur actors. While many girls have auditioned for the role of Juliet, Hanam is essentially the only choice to play Romeo, not the least because she is acknowledged as the school’s best performer. Beyond her acting skills, Hanam’s success and popularity in playing two of Shakespeare’s most famous male protagonists also lies, perhaps, in schoolmates’ adolescent fascination with the most ‘boyish’ girl in their all-girl school and the student body’s widely held interest in same-sex intimacy. In the girls’ school, the teenage students create an intimate, girl-only world, in which they can freely share passionate emotions, admire a senior girl, and rival other girls in order to gain attention from the girl for whom they yearn. Here, the girls dote on girls who seem like boys. Hanam’s cross-gender portrayal of Romeo, then, is anchored in and reflects the specific, intense environment of the girls’ school. Her Romeo is the embodiment of the all-girl community’s focus on same-sex intimacy and its generalized attraction to the female body’s elastic mixing of genders. The film’s special interest in the all-girl school setting underlines the need to consider the local contexts of the community which its depiction of the teen-girl actors seems to draw on. The iban subculture of young queer women’s community groups, which first emerged in the late 1990s, brings a distinctive perspective, and additional nuance, to these conversations, not just because of its foregrounding of teen girls’ same-sex desire. Of equal relevance is the way in which, in iban culture, maleness is repeatedly and insistently posited as something that can be theatrically imitated, performed, and remixed by women, whose culturally inflected experiences renegotiate the shifting and dynamic category ‘men’. Fantasy of the Girls, set in 2010s South Korea, reflects on the charged experiences of iban girls from the preceding generation and creates a space in which its female protagonists are steeped to chart the source of the cross-gender Shakespeare acting it ostensibly documents. THE QUEER (IBAN) PERFORMANCE OF TEENAGE GIRLS The term iban was first used in Korean gay communities in the early 1990s. Composed from the Chinese letters i (a prefix meaning ‘second, strange, or different’) and ban (‘class or people’), the word can be translated literally as ‘different or secondary group of people’. More idiomatically, iban is roughly equivalent to the term ‘queer’ as used in English-speaking cultures and thereby shares with ‘queer’ a focus on transgressive qualities of ‘whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant’ (Halperin 62). Hence, gay men engaged in deliberate and playful self-deprecation by identifying themselves as iban, underscoring their marginalized status in an emphatically hetero-normative society. Claiming the term iban brought together gay men as a specific assembly, constituted by their distinction from the ‘general or dominant/universal class of people’ (Cho 274). By the late 1990s, the newly emerging cultural praxes of young queer women shifted the meaning of iban. In its new mode, it was used to refer specifically to the desire of young women to approximate the stylings of young male stars, who had recently become reigning cultural icons. The gender-nonconforming looks of pretty young male pop stars appealed to female teens, who found immensely attractive the new phenomenon of ‘pan-East Asian soft masculinity’ (Jung 71). In her 2019 essay examining androgynous male celebrities of South Korea, Layoung Shin has argued that this new version of masculinity, which generally involved male stars wearing heavy make-up and intricate costuming on stage, appealed to some young girls not only because it offered up stars as objects to adore, but, more importantly, as objects to emulate. Young male singers’ less aggressive and more gender-fluid modes of representing maleness—known as ‘flower masculinity’ (Shin 2019: 162)—offered teenage girls a more accessible and compelling model for their own forays into cross-gendered performance and identity. In the iban subculture, groups of like-minded teen girls formed cosplay teams in order to impersonate boy bands and dance on stage in local festivals or queer community gatherings. The performance did not stop when team members left the stage, however: they continued to mimic the masculine manner, style, and behaviours of their boy-band idols in their offstage lives. This included, for example, copying male stars’ gendered presentation, with girls opting for short haircuts and masculine clothing choices, such as baggy jeans and loose T-shirts. Likewise, language was a crucial tool for the teen girls to inhabit their chosen boy-band identities. They imitated the male stars’ use of language and created gender-specific stage names to express their performative masculinity, calling each other by male titles such as hyung (bro), even in their ‘regular’ offstage lives. Young women’s desire to mimic their male idols was rooted in their pursuit of masculinity, and, as such, cross-gender imitation became a form of mimetic self-fashioning. For them, constructing their gender hinged on the blending of their embodied femaleness and the sartorially signified signs of maleness. As teenage girls navigated and experimented with gender identities in the all-girl cosplay groups, they began to explore their queer desires. Many of the girls involved in cosplay, either as performers or spectators, dated other girls; relationships were usually formed between members of the same team or with members of other performance groups. It was in the context of this combination of same-sex desire and cross-gender performance that the term iban found particular resonance. Whilst gay men in the early 1990s had identified themselves as iban to describe their marginalized social status, later in the decade queer girls turned to the term to convey the central role of imitation in the construction of their identity and sexuality. With the label of iban, girls represented themselves as rejecting dominant paradigms of femininity. Although the word iban is not the most preferable label for younger generations, calling these millennial teen girls by the English equivalent ‘queer’ would erase the crucial contexts of coming-of-age experiences.7 These contexts decisively shaped the girls’ chosen forms of self-expression, and the ways in which they articulated desires that were repressed and sanctioned by their hetero-normative society. If the imitation of male celebrities enabled young Korean women to reflect on their identities and desires, the active production and consumption of fan fiction fuelled the same-sex erotic attachments of iban-identified girls. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, fan fiction (or ‘fanfic’) mainly depicted the eroticized relationships between two or more members of K-pop boy bands.8 They mostly appealed to heterosexual young women. For this reason, some queer and feminist scholars have pointed out that the heterosexually biased depictions of same-sex relationships in fan fiction do not ‘automatically generate unfettered spaces for sexual diversity within the K-pop industry itself’ (Laurie 222). Yet Ji-eun Lee and Layoung Shin (2019) emphasize that fanfic helped iban girls become aware of the possibility of homosexual relationships, especially when there were no other easily available materials on the topic. Almost half of Korean youth ‘encounter homosexuality through fanfic’, which was ‘influential in the construction of forms and ideas of homosexuality among young women in [early 2000s] Korea’ (Shin 2019: 161).9 As Lee has demonstrated in her anthropological study of iban girls, the practice of reading and creating fanfic allowed teen girls to ‘gain access to homosexuality and same-sex intimacy that hardly appear in official discourse’ (60). The consumption of fan fiction is an active project, and, especially for iban girls, the impersonation of male stars was once more key. Iban girls became actors to play out the relationships scripted in fan fiction on the internet, another iteration of their practice of imitating boy-band idols. Online chat platforms, which proliferated from the late 1990s onwards, functioned as a sort of theatre in which these mimetic performances were staged. Over online chat, teen-girl fans connected with each other in order to role-play as their chosen male idols and act out eroticized relationships from fanfic in ‘real life’, by assuming temporary identities to recreate scenes and even dialogues from their favoured texts (Lee 59–60). Just as an actor impersonates a character on the stage, iban girls impersonated male stars in online spaces to create temporary cross-gender identities that involved the theatrical performance of fan-created stories about same-sex romance. It is clear, then, iban girls, and their characteristic female-to-male cross-dressing, emerged in a highly specified culture and held very particular associations with the local pop-music scene and its fan culture. Iban subculture was also a youth trend specific to the period from the late 1990s and early 2000s. As mentioned, it is now rather uncommon that female teens perform cross-gendered imitation of androgynous young male stars and form same-sex relationships with other girls by modelling on the depictions in fan fiction.10 I suggest that Fantasy of the Girls offers renewed attention to the impacts of iban culture on gender presentation, underscoring the shaping importance of iban girls’ engagement with theatricality and fascination with nonbinary genders. More specifically, the film mines the nuances of the girl-oriented iban culture to explore the layered meanings of cross-gender theatrical imitation, the practice through which the film’s characters express their adolescent yearning for same-sex relationships. With the character Hanam, the film, set in 2010s South Korea, traces gender-nonconforming presentation backward to a set of ‘soft’ masculinities that appealed to young women in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Hanam stands out from the crowd of ordinary schoolgirls that fill the school’s halls, mainly due to her boyish looks and outfits. She never wears skirts; despite the school’s strict dress code which mandates that students’ presentation conforms to binary gender roles, Hanam is always dressed in jeans or short athletic shorts. Although she is neither particularly muscular nor physically imposing, her plain shoulder-length haircut, alluringly sharp personal style, above-average height, and slender body make her the nonbinary object of intense attraction for the teen girls in her community. All the students from lower year groups, not just Jieun, considering her as a potential love-object. Wooncheol, Seonwha’s childhood friend who has been striving unsuccessfully to take their relationship to the next level of eroticism, suggests that this sort of same-sex desire is specific to girls’ adolescent development in the all-girl school. To Seonwha’s question about ‘whether male students in your school also admire, follow around, and offer gifts to a senior boy’, he replies nonchalantly: ‘Have you lost your mind? We’re busy avoiding our seniors’. Whilst Hanam’s charms are undeniable, they are nevertheless coded ambiguously. Her gender-nonconformity, and its allures, are cast both as connoting an immature, or imperfect, masculinity and an appealing boyishness. She is presented as a kind of boy-child, exemplified by her devotion to her scooter. Unlike standard road motorcycles or sport bikes routinely associated with tough masculinity, as in the tradition of butch lesbians riding bulky Harley-Davidson bikes at Pride parades, Hanam’s scooter is much smaller and lighter, designed for its versatility and portability.11 It is unreliable and frequently breaks down. Hanam explicitly considers the scooter to be an analogue for her spirit of masculinity. It is telling, thus, that the machine does not fully operate as it should, as its driver desires. In this light, the scooter (mal)functions to offer a somewhat mocking portrayal of cross-gender masculinity and its integral limitations. Yet Hanam’s malfunctioning scooter also represents a softened form of maleness, first embodied by K-pop boy-band stars, that is preferred by teen female fans over traditional, hetero-normative models of masculinity. Sun Jung maintains that the ever-growing appeal of the new standards governing male appearance and beauty is that they ‘are able to satisfy complex human (especially female) desires because [a pretty boy] possesses both feminine and masculine attributes’ (58). From this perspective, Hanam’s scooter is less an icon of her inability to fully embody ‘properly’ masculine features than a symbol of teenage girls’ attraction to ‘flower masculinity’, which has come to replace the previous generation’s insistent preference with macho tough guys. In a similar fashion, Romeo especially appealed to nineteenth-century actresses as a role to which they could bring particular subtlety, precisely because the character fell far short of Victorian ideals of manhood.12 Fantasy of the Girls does not explicitly depict Hanam imitating popular male idols. Yet Hanam’s performance of masculinity which imitates, and even substitutes, maleness echoes connotatively the cross-gender imitative practices of iban girls. It is particularly clear in the scene in which Seonwha crafts a portrait of Hanam, a collage composed primarily of photographs taken by Seonwha when she was a member of the school photography club. In this short but crucial scene, the camera pans to Seonwha’s hands affixing a portrait photo of Hanam’s face above a ‘body’ made from an overlapping assemblage of photos, each offering a close-up snapshot of masculinity, from the glimpses of the male body, such as a nude torso, to typical men’s clothes, such as polo shirts (Fig. 1). In this portrait, Hanam is presented as a mixture of the feminine (her face) and the masculine (male body parts and sartorially coded signifiers of masculine presentation), explicitly identifying her gender expression and identity as a gender-expansive performance that decouples the ideas about masculinity from the male body. In his book Female Masculinity, Jack Halberstam calls our attention to the fact that ‘what we understand as heroic masculinity has been produced by and across both male and female bodies’ (2). The embodiment of masculinity by women, Halberstam contends, is ‘far from being an imitation of maleness’ and challenges the widespread assumption that ties masculinity solely to the ‘male body and its effects’ (1). Bringing the markers of maleness into her own body, Hanam similarly encourages the spectatorial gaze to perceive her as a composite image of the feminine and the masculine, and, more broadly, to test the routine assumptions we make about maleness and masculinity, exclusively informed by the culturally authorized representations of the male body. Like iban girls who engaged in cross-gender imitation of their boy-band idols, Hanam presents a strategy of gender remixing—a collage—that relocates masculinity from the realm of men into the realm of girls. Figure 1. Open in new tabDownload slide Seonwha creates a portrait of Hanam, combining an image of her face with a collage of images of male bodies underneath. Figure 1. Open in new tabDownload slide Seonwha creates a portrait of Hanam, combining an image of her face with a collage of images of male bodies underneath. Fantasy of the Girls echoes, evokes, and reproduces codes and contexts specific to iban culture, including its single-sex setting; the modelling of female masculinity on male stars’ images; the integration of fan culture into girlhood experiences; and the use of role-playing. As teen girls in post-millennial Korea developed and explored their queerness by mimicking and role-playing male singers, Hanam brings into existence her female masculinity by playing the role of Shakespearean heroes such as Hamlet and Romeo, both of which, as Aaron has noted, are routinely cited as roles particularly favoured by women actors taking on Shakespeare’s male characters. By building a bridge between the highly localized culture of iban and the cross-cultural, global fascination with Shakespearean theatre and cross-gender performance, Fantasy of the Girls reflects upon teenage girls’ same-sex desire and their complicated relationships, offering a local translation of a transcultural phenomenon. In what follows, I explore how the female teens’ engagements with and revisions of Shakespeare’s text draw on iban-inflected romantic relationships and create distinctively South Korean queer frames. TRANSLATING BETWEEN SHAKESPEARE AND IBAN CULTURE Fantasy of the Girls centres on a love triangle connecting the film’s three main players, as Seonwha and Suyeon rival for Hanam’s affection. Initially, Seonwha had no intention of acting in the school play. Indeed, she went to the audition not as a participant but as a supportive spectator, cheering on her friend Jieun, who auditioned for the role of Juliet. However, Seonwha soon catches the eye of Suyeon, the student-director of the school theatre team, who hand-picks her for the coveted leading lady role. Whatever Seonwha’s initial feelings, once she begins rehearsing with Hanam, she gradually becomes smitten with her co-star. The more they act together, the more Seonwha falls for her acting partner; their relationship accelerates seemingly in co-ordination with the development of Romeo and Juliet’s love story in the play-text. Things seem more complicated for Hanam, who appears to reciprocate Seonwha’s affection, whilst also pushing back on their connection. She sows confusion, for instance, by urging her acting partner: ‘Please don’t lose your heart to me’. Shortly before the day of their official performance, tensions rise further: Seonwha discovers that Hanam had previously enjoyed an intimate friendship with Suyeon. Believing that the escalation of their relationship beyond the territory of a platonic, albeit very close, friendship was impossible, Suyeon could not fully embrace the pair’s bond and effectively broke things off. The two senior girls now seem to be begrudgingly estranged, as demonstrated by their intense quarrel, in which Hanam throws objects around the locker room as an outlet for her strong emotions. Seonwha realizes the truth of the matter. Suyeon and Hanam are still in love, even if they have not yet articulated their authentic feelings for each other. Seonwha decides to cede the role of Juliet to Suyeon: as Romeo belongs with Juliet, Hanam belongs with Suyeon. The parallel is reinforced in the film’s ending, with Hanam and Suyeon patching things up on stage, in and through their performance as Romeo and Juliet. For Seonwha, things are somewhat less rosy. Powerless to stop the wheels of fate, she watches the two senior girls reconcile on stage from the audience. The film concludes its scene of the school play with Seonwha acknowledging her unrequited yearning for the girl Romeo, Hanam. Her entrance in the grown-up world will be replete with not only unforeseen hardship, but also uncharted queer desires. The use of Shakespearean playacting as a plot device in a teen movie set in a high school, is, in itself, fairly unremarkable. As Ariane M. Balizet has observed, the Shakespearean ‘teenpic’ is a Hollywood mainstay, a subgenre in which a familiar cast of characters, themes, and even language are borrowed from Shakespearean plays and re-oriented in order to delve into modern teen experiences. She cites Get Over It (Tommy O’Haver, 2001) as one of the archetypical examples of the subgenre, with the staging of a Shakespearean play forming a backdrop for, and indeed inspiring, a typical teenage love story. In the movie, a group of high-schoolers enmeshed in a complex web of affections are brought even closer together, tasked with performing in the school play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The outcome is a classic case of life imitating art, as the four protagonists’ complicated offstage relationships map onto those of the characters they play on stage, Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius. Get Over It engages with Shakespeare’s comic depiction of the youthful love through the ‘recognition as familiar’ model, using the canon as a classically authorized paradigm for the film’s depiction of adolescent concerns. The second mode of Shakespearean engagement is called ‘re-cognition’, in which the film encourages the audience to revisit the canonical work with a fresher perspective, reflected in the ways in which the teen movie flexibly uses the source play’s storylines, characters, and themes, updated in keeping with its contemporary setting.13Fantasy of the Girls seems to echo both models. On one hand, it integrates a high-school performance of Romeo and Juliet into its plot as a device to dramatize the protagonists’ relationship. Just as the teenagers in Get Over It model their relationships on Shakespeare’s Athenian youths, the girls’ erotic interactions are intertwined with their portrayal of the playwright’s star-crossed lovers. However, the South Korean movie critically diverges from the subgenre’s well-trodden plot and embeds in Shakespeare’s play the contemporaneous contexts surrounding the girls’ school, reflecting the ‘re-cognition’ teenpic paradigm. Fantasy of the Girls does not faithfully follow Romeo and Juliet’s tragic love story. There are no rivalling houses and no tragic deaths. There is no direct proxy for Romeo as the Petrarchan lover, nor for Juliet as his youthful beloved. Although one might assume that Seonwha, who is forced into the repressive world of adulthood, suffers a death of sorts, the film indeed gestures towards the possibility for the enduring forms of her girlhood experiences and imaginative hopes before it fades to black. Likewise, the film does not parallel the source play’s linear narrative structure, even when the girls deliver its lines more or less verbatim. Romeo and Juliet’s key dialogues are used ‘out of sequence’, only when a specific speech fits a given scene’s purpose. The nature of the language choices in the Romeo and Juliet translation echoes this hybridity. The screenplay of Fantasy of the Girls was co-written by Yoona Kuk and the film’s director, Jungmin Ahn. It is not clear what version of modern Korean translation of Romeo and Juliet they used to write scenes involving the schoolgirls’ play-within-the-film, but the screenplay takes notable liberties with Shakespeare’s text. The co-writers always modernize lines; the characters of Romeo and Juliet speak in modern Korean speech patterns and styles (in fact, it is a convention in South Korea that staging Shakespeare’s play in the language which contemporary Koreans are most familiar and comfortable with, rather than in the languages style from any previous eras). They also frequently abbreviate lines, which is in keeping with the strategies used by many modern adaptations. This modernized and somewhat simplified translation nevertheless maintains Shakespeare’s artfulness, such as figures of speech, and preserves his flourished literary tone. More strikingly, the co-writers liberally inject less formal Korean dialogue into this form of Romeo and Juliet translation. Colloquial Korean idiom frequently intervenes in the lyricism of Romeo and Juliet, creating a hybrid translation of Shakespeare’s blank verse, part literary, part colloquial. This strategy of language remixing comes into existence in the film when the schoolgirls’ Romeo and Juliet routinely switch between formal and colloquial expressions in a single passage. Fantasy of the Girls flexibly uses and remixes the canon’s language, offering a transnational vision of Romeo and Juliet’s heterosexual love that translates the famed story into a distinctly queer, and specifically South Korean, cultural dialect. In the film’s rendering of Romeo and Juliet, the youthful love affair so central to the play’s plot becomes a symbol not just of passion, broadly understood, but also of the spectre of tragedy that haunts Seonwha’s same-sex infatuation, destined to end in pain. On the beach at sunset, Hanam and Seonwha rehearse the scene in which Juliet unwittingly confesses her newly sparked infatuation with Romeo, whom she has just encountered for the first time at the ball. The camera initially offers a shot of Seonwha delivering the speech: ‘O Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name’. Before the camera pans into a wider shot of the two girls gazing at each other, Seonwha’s Juliet announces poignantly, with the line offering an overlapping combination of Juliet’s fictional passion and her own feelings, ‘Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love’.14 With an adoring smile on her face, she then gazes at Hanam with unbridled intensity, who walks ahead of her. The camera movement explicitly links Juliet’s heartfelt speech to Romeo with Seonwha’s longing gaze at Hanam, emphasizing that the speech is delivered to both Hanam and Romeo at once. The pair continue to run lines, sitting in a secluded area of the beach. In the speech that follows, Seonwha, as Juliet, articulates the passion she feels for her own Romeo, Hanam: Seonwha: That which we call a rose By any other word would smell as sweet; So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called, Retain that dear perfection which he owes Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name, And, for thy name, which is no part of thee, Take all myself. Hanam: I take thee at thy word. Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized: Henceforth I never will be Romeo.15 As Hanam’s Romeo urges Seonwha’s Juliet to ‘call me but love’, the film cuts to a close-up of the two girls sharing a tender kiss in Hanam’s room, with the rest of Romeo’s speech overdubbing the scene. In Shakespeare’s play, Romeo’s famous vow that he ‘henceforth never will be Romeo’ demonstrates his unflinching passion for Juliet. Yet, in Hanam’s performance, and in the context of the pair’s kiss, the line’s meaning shifts to presage the impossibility of Hanam and Seonwha’s burgeoning attraction ever leading to a fully realized relationship. In the source text, Romeo’s declaration signals that he would be everything that his beloved could want, and more. By contrast, the line becomes ironic in the film, conveying the fact that Seonwha’s Romeo, Hanam, will never be the Romeo for whom Seonwha so yearns, the authentic counterpart to her Juliet. Indeed, this is the last time the pair perform together as Romeo and Juliet; shortly thereafter, Seonwha learns where Hanam’s affection truly lies. She will never actually be Hanam’s Juliet, not even on stage. By figuratively ‘doffing’ the name of Romeo, Hanam implicitly associates Romeo’s pledge to abandon his identity with the fact that the part she plays is only possible in the imagined world of theatrical performance: Hanam must necessarily cast off the role of Romeo when she steps off the stage. The affection between Hanam and Seonwha, fostered and shaped by the on-stage love affair they rehearse, simply cannot translate to a viable offstage romance. In the invocation of Romeo’s loss of self, the scene implicitly confirms that Hanam’s portrayal of Romeo does not equate to a wholesale transformation: she ‘never will be Romeo’ beyond theatrical performance. Yet this is impossible for Seonwha to grasp fully, as she continues to blur the line between the role and the actor, in her own imagination. On the day of the performance, Hanam’s Romeo, donning a vizard, sets his eyes on Juliet for the first time at the Capulet’s dance party and wonders about the identity of this alluring stranger: I am curious to know the lady who shines brighter than diamond. So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows, as yonder lady o’er her fellows shows. Once this dancing is done, I will take her hand. Forswear it, sight, for I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.16 At this point, Hanam is under the impression that her Juliet is Seonwha. Questions as to Juliet’s identity are all part of the dramatic fiction. But, to Hanam’s immense surprise, when Juliet removes her mask, she discovers that Seonwha has secretly ceded the role to Suyeon. In this moment, the lyrically enchanting first encounter between Shakespeare’s lovers becomes an authentic reunion between the senior girls, separated for a year yet destined to become romantic partners once Suyeon could accept their shared feelings. The translation, or mediation, between Romeo and Juliet’s fictional passion and the genuine sentiment of the actors who embody the lovers on stage suggests that Suyeon will finally embrace her love for Hanam and that their relationship will progress from an intimate friendship to an erotic partnership, just as Romeo and Juliet’s romance escalates after their first encounter. The camera then shifts to offer Seonwha’s point of view. In the audience, she looks on helplessly as Suyeon’s Juliet allows Hanam’s Romeo to kiss her hand. In a flashback, Seonwha remembers the moment when she began practising the same scene with Hanam. Another poignant flashback follows, and we see Seonwha sitting behind Hanam on her scooter, both dressed in character (Fig. 2). In her imagination, Seonwha’s Juliet never has to leave her Romeo, Hanam. As the play comes to a close, with warm applause from the school audience, Seonwha’s voiceover takes over the final moment of the school play sequence, providing her heartbroken recognition that her ‘first love was Romeo’. Figure 2. Open in new tabDownload slide In Seonwha’s imagination, Hanam wears Romeo’s clothes, suggesting that she is inseparable from the role. Figure 2. Open in new tabDownload slide In Seonwha’s imagination, Hanam wears Romeo’s clothes, suggesting that she is inseparable from the role. In these scenes, the three schoolgirls’ emotional coming-of-age experiences are coded as explicitly queer and intimately linked to Romeo and Juliet’s language, storyline, and characters. But the film’s mobilization of the source text goes further than any simple incorporation of its familiar language and authoritative themes in order to justify the girls’ romantic impulses. In depicting the adolescent love between the teen girls, Fantasy of the Girls reinterprets, reimagines, and recreates its heterosexually centred source text, although, as queer readings of the play have demonstrated, the male bonding between Romeo and Mercutio draws on the Renaissance notion of ideal male friendship understood to constitute their unadmitted homosexual feelings.17 In doing so, it provides its young protagonists with the space to recognize and explore their queer desires and identities. More specifically, the schoolgirls are endowed with the narrative agency to modify the play-text, allowing for the transformation of one of the most famous heterosexual love stories into a tale of queer desire. Indeed, as a student-director, Suyeon demonstrates her own strategy for teen-centred transnational adaptation. She dramaturgs the school productions, manages rehearsals, hand-picks the best actors for the performance and even recognizes Seonwha’s acting talent, despite Seonwha’s inexperience with the theatre and avowed disdain for this year’s school play.18 Suyeon seems not to take a role of translator herself and uses the translated Korean text of the play, but she has a hand in manipulating the play-text, re-allocating dialogue from one character to another and inserting into the script lines of her own composition which she believes are a better fit for the current production’s aesthetic goals than Shakespeare’s language. In other words, Suyeon adopts the roles of principal writer and director, and, in fact, produces an adaptation that has much in common with many non-anglophone Shakespearean productions. Pamela Bickley and Jenny Stevens sketch, for example, a rich history of non-anglophone adaptations that decentre the ways of interpreting and staging Shakespearean plays that have previously been established, and have been dominant, in Western contexts. Instead, non-anglophone productions typically highlight fluidity over rigidity, plurality over uniformity. Rather than preserving the canon’s privileged language and seemingly fixed contexts, Suyeon transplants core elements of the play into the fresh, fertile soil of her own cultural context, the all-girl high school. She harnesses specific linguistic conditions and the necessity for all-women casting to produce a deft translation of Romeo and Juliet, embedding the source text in the unique new context. If Suyeon demonstrates her skill as a writer by adapting Shakespeare, Hanam acquires a vehicle for expressing her own female masculinity through her performance of Romeo. The act of performance creates a gender-expansive congruity between Shakespeare’s Romeo, Hanam’s portrayal of Romeo, and Hanam herself. It permits the unification of the categories of masculine and feminine, beyond the limitation of the binary. Just as iban girls forged a close connection with the male stars they idolized through the practice of imitation, Hanam shares a powerful bond with Romeo, a role that she performs but also a figure that she frequently imitates off stage, even though she figuratively acknowledges that her embodiment of Romeo is impossible beyond the theatrical realm. The translation between Romeo and Hanam is of particular interest to Seonwha and Suyeon. For both girls, and especially for Seonwha, the discovery and/or recovery of their affections for Hanam is a direct outcome of their dramatic interactions with Hanam’s Romeo, and, accordingly, from Romeo’s infatuation with Juliet, the role they both perform. It is noteworthy that, as noted above, the scene of the school performance closes with Seonwha’s proclamation that her ‘first love was Romeo’, as she imagines Hanam wearing Romeo’s costume off stage. This moment demonstrates the potent effect of cross-gender performance: the key to unlocking, and articulating, Seonwha’s attraction for the nonbinary senior girl, and thus her queer desire more generally. It is Hanam’s embodiment of Romeo, and not Romeo or Hanam in isolation, that shapes Seonwha’s erotic feelings and sparks her queer desire. Her affection is neither for Romeo nor Hanam but for Hanam-as-Romeo, a girl in drag. Highlighting the queerness of her desire, Seonwha’s attraction is based neither on Romeo’s dress (a physical sign of masculinity) nor Hanam’s body (a physical marker of femaleness) in isolation. Instead, the flashback with the pair in costume on the scooter (Fig. 2) testifies to her imaginative fantasy, and her true desire: Hanam impersonating Romeo, that is, Hanam’s theatrical depiction of the tragic male hero. Simone Chess has observed that the male cross-dresser’s appeal to women derives from a desire for a man in drag that is both heterosexual and queer at once: the attraction is rooted in the fact that he is demonstrably a man wearing women’s clothes. Hanam’s cross-dressing as Romeo prompts a similar kind of erotic yearning in Seonwha: an explicitly theatrical infatuation with a woman, which she is unlikely to uncouple from Hanam’s boundary-crossing enactment of Romeo. Just as spectators watching a woman playing a male role find themselves attracted to the dissonance between the actor’s female body and the character’s maleness, Seonwha is entranced by the erotic possibilities offered by the apparent incongruity between Hanam’s femaleness and the male role she plays with such skill. In the source play, the quickly sparked adolescent passion ends with the young couple’s tragic death. The ending seems to find a parallel in Seonwha’s sad acknowledgement that her love for the girl Romeo is unattainable. Within the film’s broader interest in iban culture, the death in Shakespeare’s text and the erotic disappointment of the protagonist together perhaps suggest a link with the teen culture’s outmoded state. One might even say that the word ‘fantasy’ in the English title of the film reminds the audience of the fact that female-female attachment merely occurs in the realm of girlhood fantasy. Seonwha’s coming-of-age suggests that she must break with this ‘fantasy’ constituted by theatrical performances in the girls’ high school. Her iban-inflected romantic relationship with Hanam would not be carried into adult realities, just as some iban girls cut all ties with the teen community and turned to the heterosexual love-object when they grew up. The film nevertheless suggests the potential for Seonwha to persist with the iban ‘fantasy’. In the last sequence, Seonwha strolls along the wooded paths in the imaginary world that she has built in her dream. She is holding a candy jar, a kind of farewell gift she received from Hanam after the school show was over. Hanam will graduate this coming winter and might leave the town. But Seonwha does not feel bitter about the parting. She embraces it. As soon as putting a piece of candy into her mouth and tastes it, Seonwha sees the rainbow appearing across the moonlit sky. Before the film fades to black, the last image of the rainbow with stars shining brightly above her head seems to foreshadow an untold account of Seonwha’s upcoming adult life, which might continue to overlap with iban desires in a way that consistently proves its usefulness as an identity category for a young adult. Read in this way, the film reshapes the tragic romantic story of Shakespeare’s play with a version of queer potential in mind. Although iban as an identity category is past its prime, there are young women who continue to identify themselves as iban and link their sexual and erotic experiences explicitly with what they practiced in the all-girl cosplay groups.19 The school performance similarly does not spotlight the death. It capitalizes as much on the reconciled love between Hanam and Suyeon as on Seonwha’s disappointment. Whilst no adult is intervening in their ways so as to discipline their exploration of queer desires, each of the girls reacts differently to the iban-inflected romantic feelings. Hanam and Suyeon delight in the rediscovered mutual feelings. Seonwha is definitely heartbroken, but as the final sequence indicates, will be allowed to stay in the world of her fantasy. Whether they are rejoicing in or heartbroken by queer desires, the girls are looking forward to their future and prepared to explore more the ideas about queer subjectivity and relationships. The text’s connection to iban calls for the girls to rely on Shakespeare as well. Through the broader legacy of iban culture, adapting and performing Romeo and Juliet is an animating force behind the schoolgirls’ articulation of intimate queer feelings. For the girls in the film, Romeo and Juliet is a classic text less about the ending of the youthful love. It becomes a text more about the allure and danger they must face when they step into the unknown world of queer desires. As Seonwha ruefully comments, ‘people no longer speak like Romeo and Juliet these days’. The play-text has such an affectively forceful effects on the actor delivering its lines; Seonwha’s affection for Hanam is inspired, at least in part, through her recitation of Juliet’s lines to her beloved. In a reciprocal move, the actor transforms the play-text. In the all-female school production, Juliet’s passion is restaged as same-sex desire, unsettlingly familiar yet fascinatingly intoxicating. Fantasy of the Girls is fundamentally elastic, navigating between multiple languages, sexualities, and binaristic categories of gender. With its unique transnational perspective, the film transforms Shakespeare’s culturally and historically authorized text into a hyper-local, culturally specific tale. It offers South Korean queer teenage girls, both those it depicts on screen and those in the audience, a model for identity construction, through which they can voice and explore desires that are otherwise inexpressible. CONCLUSION The most popular of the Shakespearean plays translated, adapted, and performed recently in South Korea is Romeo and Juliet, and its central emphasis on the possibility of the teenage lovers exploring queer desires resonates in a series of theatrical adaptations. Bare: A Pop Opera, a Los Angeles born musical exploring its teen protagonists’ emotional development, had its fourth run in 2020 in South Korea. The play explores the woes of two gay schoolboys in a romantic relationship. Shortly after one of the boys refuses to open up to the public about the relationship, he takes on the role of Romeo in the school play and subsequently falls in love with the girl playing Juliet. In 2018, two more productions used Shakespeare’s tragic love story to focus on teenagers’ sexual desires and coming-of-age struggles. Shakespeare’s R&J, a critically acclaimed play written by Joe Calarco in 2000, depicts four boys in a Catholic boarding school discovering, playing, and experimenting with Romeo and Juliet. In Juliet and Juliet, two Juliets, one from the house of Capulet and the other from the house of Montague, triumphantly avert the tale’s typical tragic ending. The play offers a ‘happily ever after’ that challenges the lovers’ families’ rejection of the Juliets’ relationships, a proxy for the negative attitudes to lesbian relationships prevalent in hetero-normative culture. These adaptations are not set in the hyper-local contexts of South Korea, and two of the productions are the licensed re-staging of the anglophone adaptations of Shakespeare’s play. However, the critical and commercial success of these performances that offer a queer perspective on the story of Romeo and Juliet points to the fact that South Korean audiences have an appetite for such adaptations. Fantasy of the Girls’ reinterpretation of the star-crossed lovers’ tale is likewise characterized by an insistent focus on teenage sexuality. It crucially echoes these productions’ potential to gesture towards queer possibilities, turning the normative heteroromantic relationship of Romeo and Juliet into explicitly queer. Yet the film varies in its attempt to relocate the play into the highly localized contemporary setting of the girls’ school in South Korea, and its deeper impact is on the source play’s connection to iban culture. It offers a transnational vision of its source, in which a girl Romeo becomes the object of her schoolmates’ erotic infatuation and an all-women cast reinterprets Romeo and Juliet flexibly, modifying Shakespeare’s text to fit their present circumstances. As the movie reflects on its teen protagonists’ anxieties and excitement about the nascent queer desires, it brings the specificities of South Korean iban culture into the dialogue with the subject matter and themes of Shakespeare’s play. Shakespeare was himself an imitator: he drew on a variety of sources to craft Romeo and Juliet, including Ovid’s tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, adapting them to fit the story he wanted to tell. Fantasy of the Girls continues this tradition, reinventing its Shakespearean source by restating its core plot in the culturally specific setting of a girl’s high school in South Korea. Seonwha’s adolescent passion for her cross-dressed senior demonstrates the potential of Shakespearean theatre as an intimate space in which theatrical performance supports the formulation of actors’ identity off stage. In this space, queer intimacies emerge, rooted in a female actor’s remixing of a character’s maleness and the ways in which a local adaptation can productively remix the Shakespearean canon. Christy Desmet has demonstrated that recent Shakespearean adaptations typically refuse to replicate the source text’s ‘centralized, hierarchical system’ and instead embrace ‘multiple, non-hierarchical nodes of meaning and interpretation’ (4). The same is true for Fantasy of the Girls. The film offers a reflection on South Korean girlhood, queerness, and Shakespeare that establishes points of contact between the source play and the culturally specific experience it chronicles. Footnotes Not using line breaks in poetry is a deliberate decision. Retranslating Korean passages of Romeo and Juliet uttered by the schoolgirls performing the play back into English is complicated, because the film combines Shakespeare’s language with modern colloquial Korean perhaps in order to tailor the lines to the teen girls’ vernacular acting. As I discuss in a later section, the teen-girl actors alternate between lines derived from the play-text (which is itself translated into Korean) and lines inserted by the school play’s student-director. For example, Jieun here delivers more or less verbatim the source text’s lines (5.3.165–166), but the last line—‘I will kiss thy lips and so leave this world’—was added to be spoken in colloquial Korean. To convey in an essay written in English the script’s combination of literary and colloquial Korean, I also do a hybrid (re-)translation. I mix my own English translation of the added Korean passages of Romeo and Juliet with the quotations taken from the Oxford Shakespeare edition of the play, with their line numbers specified in endnotes. To accommodate the Korean passages’ simplified vernacular, I translated them into plain modern English. The only exception is the rose speech. See the endnote 15. All English translations of dialogue from the film are mine, unless otherwise specified. Susan Stryker defines ‘gender-nonconforming’ as a term describing individuals ‘who do not conform to binary notions of the alignment of sex, gender, gender identity, gender role, gender expression, or gender presentation’ (24). The word is interchangeable with both ‘genderqueer’ and ‘nonbinary’, but Stryker explains that ‘gender-nonconforming (or gender variant) is more neutrally descriptive of behavior’ (24). In this essay, I prefer to describe gender presentation of both Hanam and Korean iban girls mainly through the term ‘gender-nonconforming’, reflecting Stryker’s definition. ‘Nonbinary’ is also used with less frequency, but I avoid using ‘genderqueer’, because this word is associated with a particular ‘subcultural forms of gender expression that emerged in LGBT communities in punk-, goth-, or fetish-inspired countercultural fashion that emphasizes piercings, tattoos, and dramatic styles of makeup and hair’ (Stryker 24). ‘Gender-expansive’ is another adjective that comes up regularly in the essay. On the account of its use, see the next note. The PFLAG glossary of terms defines ‘gender-expansive’ people as those ‘who expand notions of gender expression and identity beyond perceived or expected societal gender norms’. According to the explanation, this umbrella term can mean a different set of people, including those who present ‘a mix of genders’ as well as those who consider themselves agender. In this essay, I treat ‘gender-expansive’ as the word that shares with ‘gender-nonconforming’ a focus on the embodied mingling of femaleness and maleness. In an interview with Mark Brown in 2016, Emma Rice, the artistic director at the Globe from 2016 to 2018, noted that she wanted to see more women on stage in general, and especially in Shakespearean productions. She commented that gender-balanced casting was a priority, as a means to support the longevity of female actors’ careers. Ronan Paterson offers a similar observation about the two-way interaction between the actor’s performance and the audience’s acceptance thereof. He argues that the performance of gender cannot entirely hinge on the actor’s self-expression or identification. Those who identify themselves as LGBTQ+ individuals in 2020s South Korea now prefer to use ‘queer’ as a broad label or to choose more specific terms like ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’, ‘nonbinary’ or ‘agender’, and/or other terms common in English-speaking countries, depending on their ideas about sexual orientation and gender presentation. Other locally invented slangs which combine vernacular and English words also circulate. In the Western context, slash fiction also refers to a subgenre of fan faction portraying same-sex relationships, with texts derived from, and developing characters and plots that originate in, novels, movies, and games. If a fan-authored fiction features celebrities such as singers and actors, it can also be called real person slash (RPS) fiction. In Korea, fanfic is an umbrella term that can include both Slash and RPS. Korean fanfic depicts many forms of romantic relationships, rather than exclusively focusing on same-sex relationships. However, in the 1990s and 2000s, the creation of male-male fan fiction was the primary focus for iban girls. The statistics are taken from Jee-young Shin (2013: 101). Many younger lesbians nowadays tend to see the girl-oriented iban as an obsolete form of gender expression. The word has almost lost its resonances with the mingling of genders, since younger lesbians seem to no longer consider women’s cross-dressing central to their articulation of same-sex desire. Imitating men could mean that they disregard the ‘women loving women’ principle. Admittedly, this kind of reaction was also raised to iban girls in the late 1990s and early 2000s, that they just pretended to desire women because they coveted men’s lifestyles and looks. For those who questioned the propriety of the term ‘iban’, the so-called same-sex desire of iban girls was not authentic enough to be included in the category ‘lesbian’, since the presumably performed homoromantic relationship was predicated on the aspiration to emulate the heterosexually coded desires of male celebrities. For some of the dismissive reactions to iban culture, see Lee, and Shin (2018, 2019, 2020). But I do not mean that the decline of iban culture has terminated the association between K-pop and queer culture. Mainstream K-pop culture still, or more than ever perhaps due to the increasingly visible popularity of K-pop groups such as BTS and Blackpink, occupies an importance position in the development of queer subjectivity and communal queer experiences not only in South Korea, but in the global context more broadly. One could say that iban was one of the earliest forms of such engagement. For some newly emerging impacts of global K-pop culture on LGBTQ+ people, see Kuo and Zhao. I would like to thank Tai-Won Kim for bringing this to my attention at the seminar at the 4th Biennial Conference of the Asian Shakespeare Association, where I presented an earlier version of this essay. Anne Russell suggests that, because Romeo did not correspond to the Victorian period’s paradigm of ideal masculinity (he was ‘thoughtless and ineffectual’), he was ‘a liminal character’ (157). The role could thus, she argues, potentially have a lot to offer for women actors. Elizabeth Reitz Mullenix similarly argues that Cushman, one of the most famous breeches performers in Victorian England whose Romeo was particularly admired, preferred Romeo over all other male parts she played, on the basis that Shakespeare’s Romeo is a charged, liminal figure that veers between male and female attributes. Balizet cites Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) as an example of this type of Shakespearean adaptation. See especially 124–27. 2.1.76–78. Seonwha speaks the lines verbatim, but leaves out the famous passage’s last line, ‘And I’ll no longer be a Capulet’ (2.1.79). 2.1.86–94. Seonwha and Hanam trade these lines of poetry word for word. Treating these speeches as an exception, I retained the play-text’s line breaks and punctuations. 1.4.161–166. Shakespeare’s lines are interlaced with two added made-up lines. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film Romeo and Juliet emphasizes this aspect of male homosexual attachment. See Van Watson. More strikingly, Suyeon’s role as a director of the school play finds a parallel in the engagement of the actor who played her. Jungmin Ahn mentioned in his 2018 interview with Sooyeon Im that ‘Soohyang Cho came forward and announced that she would like to lead the play-within-the-film’s rehearsals, so that the morale of the casting could get higher. By so doing, Cho argued, she would be better qualified to portray the character of Suyeon’. Korean to English translation of the interview is mine. Layoung Shin records approvingly of an iban-identified young woman’s liberating experience she had in a cosplay team as a teenager. She told Shin that by joining the cosplay team and identifying herself as iban, she was able to navigate the ways in which her preferred ways of representing herself—donning manly styles of hair and clothing—could be understood as something that was not wrong. Now in her mid-twenties, the interviewee works as a queer activist (Shin 2018: 98). Acknowledgements This article grew out of a paper written for the seminar ‘Cultural Relocation and Transcultural Negotiation of Shakespeare in Asia: Adaptation, Translation, and Appropriation’ at the 2020 Asian Shakespeare Association conference. 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All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model) © The Author(s) 2022. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com

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AdaptationOxford University Press

Published: Jun 20, 2022

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