Korea’s “Flower Men”: Where’s the Beef?

gong-yoo-공유-몸짱( Korean Actor Gong Yoo (공유). Source: unknown )

A commentator on my recent post on the origins of Korea’s kkotminams (꽃미남), or “flower men”:

Is there anything to back up your assertions in this essay? I’m just curious, because I’ve never run into anything that would suggest such a mass reaction to the IMF crisis from the married women of korea. There very could have been, but I’ve never seen anything to suggest it and I’m curious as to how you developed this conclusion.

“in just a few short weeks forever changing standards of dress, discourses of sexuality, and cementing these new ideals of the Korean man.” – you’re kidding right? A few weeks? Unless you’re talking a bloody revolution, or something similiarly radical, I”m not aware of any social movements that can change societies that quickly. I highly doubt a soccer tourney ranks like that.

Your essay overall suggests something pivotal occured in the gender relations in South Korea due to the IMF crisis, but you just make some bald assertions without even giving examples. It’s a little tough to swallow, especially to people who are not in South Korea to see what you are talking about, if indeed there is anything to support your assertions.

I thought that last point was a little harsh, but still, those are some valid criticisms. Hence my lengthy response below, which I decided to make a post of rather than burying it in the comments section to a post that most people were unlikely to reread!

slightly-irritated-korean-woman( Source: Unknown )

I do have evidence, but I admit that the charge that I “make some bald assertions without even giving examples” is fair. The lack is partially because I wrote this too much in the style of an opinion piece, and partially because regardless it would have been virtually impossible to provide satisfactory evidence in only 800 words. Like I said in that post, in hindsight this was a very bad choice of subject for a newspaper article.

But that doesn’t mean that what I wrote is somehow all just wild conjecture on my part.

I will be giving a presentation on this subject at a conference in a few months, for which I have to write an accompanying paper first, so if you can wait I will be beginning to present the evidence on the blog in a few weeks. But here’s the gist of what it will include below, and my problems with some of your criticisms.

To start, a discussion of a series of films, novels and plays of the mid-1990s that dealt with married women’s sex lives for the first time. Very controversial when they first appeared, they challenged the widely-accepted notions that women suddenly became asexual upon marriage and that they should simply acquiesce to husband’s affairs and frequent visits to prostitutes, and so many portrayed women (angrily) having affairs of their own as a form of revenge.

내마음의포르노-김별아-kim-byeol-ah-the-pornography-in-my-mind-1995Left: Kim Byeol-ah, author of the 1995 novel “The Pornography in my Mind” (내마음의포르노); interview in Korean here (source).

Well before the period of the Asian Financial Crisis (AFC) then, women’s frustrations with popular notions of Korean sexuality were already being articulated, and they were very receptive to new ideals of Korean Men. It is in this context that the Asian Financial Crisis occurred.

Next, that very rapidly after the AFC, there were many dramas indirectly criticizing the fact that married women were overwhelmingly targeted for layoffs (to the extent that they worked hard to keep their marital status a secret from their employers), and there was a sudden spate of movies depicting relationships between older Korean women and younger men. Thinking that there might be some connection is what got me started on this line on research.

Yes, correlation does not imply causation, and while logical, to claim that the changes were primarily a reflection of women’s anger does require a leap of faith to a certain extent. I am working on finding more concrete evidence for that, but unfortunately, occurring in (still) a largely pre-internet era, and with me having a family of four to provide for(!), then practically speaking that is proving quite difficult. So I have been concentrating my research on other aspects of the origins of flower men first.

But of course, even if I am fully correct, am I ever going to find bold, unequivocal statements saying “Fuck those previous ideals of strong provider types. I’m going to fantasize about weaker, effeminate ones to get back at them” to prove the link? And yet even subtler expressions of this sentiment are still going to be few and far between, and more open to (biased) interpretation. True, these days internet forums and so on are indeed full of bold expressions of anger at women, again, being the first to be laid off in the current crisis (see #1 here), but beyond these the reality is that Korean women are still under severe restrictions as to how explicitly they can challenge the current state of gender relations in more traditional forms of media, of which I can provide dozens of examples just off the top of my head (see here for one of the best examples). You can imagine how much more restricted they were in 1998.

(Update: In hindsight, of course people don’t really change their tastes so willingly and knowingly like that, do they? Ultimately, it may be quite misguided and pointless of me to seek out explicit confirmations of the shift. Particular events can certainly make people more receptive to new things though, so long as those are available and/or fashionable already….hmmm…)

Which begs the question of what would be “sufficient” evidence for my argument exactly? I’m at a loss as to what more evidence than a spate of indirect critiques in popular culture and increased popularity of other ideals there could be really. But then there is the important counter-argument that flower men ideals were primarily, say, the result of imported manga instead, which I will deal with next.

azuma-kiyohiko(  Manga Illustrator: Kiyohiko Azuma. Source: unknown )

For the record, although I did do this when I first started researching this subject a year ago, now I will never deny that manga did played a large role – hell, the primary role – in the fact that Korean women’s new ideals of men came to be flower men rather than, say metrosexuals, and indeed I was at pains to allude to that in the article in the last paragraph of the article. For that reason had the AFC not occurred, then I admit that it is entirely possible that some new forms of flower men or similar ideals would have eventually emerged in Korea regardless. But it did, and the timing is crucial, as it renders any claim that the teens that read it then were somehow responsible for the movies and dramas of the late-1990s I describe as naïve and anachronistic at best.

Only just now, in 2009, are there signs of a critical mass of Koreans that are prepared to admit that Koreans have pre- and extramarital sex, and lots of it, and that women’s sexual desires in particular are not just miraculously turned on like a light on their wedding night and just as quickly turned off after the birth of their first child. But still very much today, and sure as hell back in the late-1990s, what public discourses on women’s sexuality that existed were very much confined to married women and that it should and only occur within the confines of marriage. So in short, young unmarried women, very defensive of their virginal reputations, were in no great position to make demands of and/or have their sexual desires reflected in popular culture.

korean-red-devil-in-croptopFinally, enter the 2002 World Cup, which no, I’m definitely not kidding about: while people may not have noticed this particular aspect at the time, anyone that was actually here would readily agree that it was an amazing time to be young and in Korea, and was just as revolutionary in terms of expressions of women’s sexuality as I described. In all seriousness, consider what life was like for unmarried women literally just a week prior to the start of the games: they would often be criticized walking down the street for merely wearing short sleeves – remember that 19 out of 20 women would wear t-shirts over their bikinis at the beaches then – and it was quite taboo to discuss sexual feelings and preferred men’s bodies, even to close friends. Meanwhile, soccer was very much seen as a men’s game – who were originally rather taken aback by women’s sudden interest – and members of the national team(!) made less per year than I made then as an English teacher.

And yet four weeks later – yes really, just four weeks – literally millions of women had made soccer their own, often outnumbering men in attendance at games and mass viewings of them on big screens in city streets and then celebrations and rallies and, as it was done in the context of a national event, “allowed” and praised by the media to wear crop tops and so on too, just so long as it was in the context of being “Red Devils,” or supporters for the soccer players, and whose bodies they could now suddenly wax lyrical over (and whom were suddenly making millions in advertising deals). Lest you think that I’m exaggerating about how free women were to do either before though, note that women still came under harsh criticism for doing the same to any foreign players, and that the Korean media basically, well, laughed at Japanese women for doing so. Moreover, although it is not making too much of events to characterize all this as unmarried women taking rapid advantage of an outlet for their frustrations, none of it would have been possible without married women taking part in equal if nor more numbers.

It is certainly true that after the World Cup is when the flower men “wave” really started, spearheaded by attractive soccer player An Jung-hwan who sent Korean women’s hearts aflutter ever time he kissed his wedding ring upon scoring a goal and so on, but as I outline in that earlier post I mention (and which I go into these aspects of the  World Cup in much more detail), he’d already been appearing in male cosmetics commercials, for instance, years earlier. So the ground for the wave was paved, so to speak, by married women in the half-decade earlier, and that is why “in just a few short weeks” the World Cup ”forever chang[ed] standards of dress, discourses of sexuality…cementing these new ideals of the Korean man.”

korean-mother-and-daughter-red-devils( Source 2nd from above: unknown. Source above: Louis Theran )

To sum up then, if the AFC has not occurred then we probably still would have flower men today: like I say in the article, the tastes of teenage readers of manga in the late-1990s are now having a strong impact on popular culture.  But it did, and without five years of angry, frustrated, and disappointed married women expressing their displeasure in the only (indirect) ways that were permissible in Korea’s deeply patriarchal society to precede it, then flower men ideals for Korean men would not be as entrenched as they are now. And in particular, the 2002 World Cup would not have had the revolutionizing effect on expressions of women’s sexuality that it did, and today Korea as a whole would be a much less liberal place than it is.


Flower Men: The Hot Topic of 2009?


Written at the request of the Korea Times editor yesterday, with the final edited version available online here.

Naturally I think the original is much the more pleasant to read, and so that is what I include below, but I have to concede that the editor both adapted it well to a news format and made it take much less time to get to the point: in hindsight, my thesis topic(!) wasn’t exactly the best of choices for an 800 word article. Any new readers looking for the promised wider discussion of the issues raised in it though, please see here, here, here, and here for starters, or scroll down to the “My Constantly Evolving Thesis Topic” section in the sidebar on the right.

Still, one genuine quibble with the Korea Time’s article is the misleading title, as it was actually the last downturn – the IMF Crisis – that was responsible for the “Flower Men Wind” as they put it. But that’s no big deal, and its obvious to anyone who goes on to read it.

On a final note, I suddenly have a newfound appreciation for Michael Breen’s sarcastic article about commentators to Korea Times articles. To wit: “this author is out to lunch and offers nothing to KT readers. men need to work and they should be first in line for jobs.”


Downturn Spawns ‘Flower Men’ Wind

“Dynamic Korea” still graces many a Korean government website, and while that slogan has demonstrably failed to stimulate tourism in recent years, it remains a fitting one for such a rapidly changing society. Yet in the midst of such change, how to anchor oneself as a member of it?


In practice, the need for rootedness renders one’s generation in Korea as strong a marker of identity as, say, race is in the US, and one vivid demonstration of this is the sight of grown children alongside their parents: not only are the former often well over a foot taller because of better diets, but in particular the pastel colors of many sons’ clothes, their elaborate hairstyles, their attention to skincare, their “couple-clothes” and so on can be in sharp contrast to the staid appearance of their fathers, many of whom may well be quite perplexed and embarrassed at what they see as their sons’ effeminate looks.

Yet most would probably be surprised and offended to hear themselves being described as such, and, to be fair, such concepts do vary greatly between times and cultures. What their fathers regard as effeminate now were actually the norm in many earlier periods of Korean history for instance, as illustrated by the costumes in the 2005 movie “The King and the Clown,” and – however bizarre this may sound to Western readers – couple-clothes can in fact be worn by both sexes for the sake of rebellion, such visible affection being a stark rejection of their parents’ often arranged marriages, and all that those entailed.

As such, it is important to analyze the origins of current Korean fashions and lifestyle choices in Koreans’ own terms. Unfortunately, this has generally not been the case in English for Korean men’s current “kkotminam” ideals of appearance.

Possibly, this is because its literal translation – “flower men” – sounds awkward, and so the seemingly close equivalent of “metrosexual” is quickly used in its place. This conflation leads writers to attribute the rising popularity of flower men in Korea over the last decade to a mere importing of metrosexuality. This is a mistake.

jang-dong-gun-cosmetics-advertisementAmong other things, Korea completely lacked – nay, explicitly banned – the mainstreaming and then commodification of gay culture in the 1990s that led to the rise of metrosexuality. Even today there are implicit restrictions against positive portrayals of foreign male-Korean female relationships in the Korea media that have prevented metrosexual symbols like David Beckham from ever acquiring the popularity here that they did in, say, Japan during the 2002 World Cup. Moreover, when focusing on men, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that it is actually women’s changing tastes in them that drive changes in their fashions and grooming habits, and accordingly it ultimately proves to be married Korean women in the late-1990s that are responsible for flower men’s origins.

Why married women? Because it was they who bore the brunt of layoffs during the “IMF crisis,” the logic being that they could be provided for by their husbands instead. But coming after decades of the subservience of feminist goals to wider ones of democratization, and only so recently being given the opportunity to achieve those – not least of which was the right not to be fired upon marriage – they were greatly angered at the sudden loss of a long-awaited opportunity. Moreover, to add insult to injury, they were then encouraged by both government and business to support “Korea’s hardworking men” in order to overcome the crisis.

This shows that Korea remains a deeply patriarchal society, and even today women are heavily circumscribed in the extent to which they can publicly criticize Korean men. Indirect criticism, therefore, took the form of an outright rejection of traditional ideals of men as strong, provider types. A sudden glut of movies appeared featuring romances between older women and younger men, and that this was when the first, identifiable, flower men began appearing in advertising too. And then there was the World Cup of 2002: Korean women themselves were surprised at how as a mass they appropriated such a previously masculine event as their own, in just a few short weeks forever changing standards of dress, discourses of sexuality, and cementing these new ideals of the Korean man.


Certainly, there are many more elements to the story: the term “flower men” actually first appeared in 1999 in the context of imported Japanese manga for instance, and as the teenagers that read those grew up, manga-derived films and dramas have gone mainstream. But it is the supposedly asexual married women known as “ajumma” that deserve major credit as instigators of that process, showing that Korea was not a mere passive vessel for Western trends. It is surely telling that the first mention of the term “metrosexual” in Korean newspapers was not until 2003.

Update: “Mirror, Mirror…”, from TIME in October 2005, is a good example of an article that conflates kkotminam with metrosexuals, and in turn sees no essential differences between them and similar groups in East Asia such as, say, “aimei nanren” (love beauty men) in China. But although I (justifiably) criticize that journalistic tendency, there definitely is what my (likely) thesis supervisor has described as Japanese-inspired, “pan-Asian soft masculinity” out there: I just think that its national differences need more acknowledgement, and that at the very least it was very much through the lens of the IMF Crisis that that was imported it to Korea.

Other than that though, the article is not without its good points. For example:

But is the rise of the Asian Pretty Boy all that revolutionary? Not really, says Romit Dasgupta, who teaches Japanese studies at the University of Western Australia. “It’s not a result of David Beckham that suddenly Asian men are starting to look after themselves,” he says. “The tradition was already there.” During Japan’s peaceful Heian period between 794 and 1185, for example, both men and women powdered their faces white. Chinese University of Hong Kong professor Anthony Fung notes that in the West, maleness typically means “muscles, dark skin and strong bodies.” In Asia, by contrast, definitions of masculinity have traditionally been more flexible. During China’s Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), men were depicted in paintings as ethereal, feminine creatures. That refined ideal is best found in the Chinese classic novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber, in which one of the main characters, Jia Baoyu, applies makeup and writes prose in his study instead of battling enemies. And he gets the girl! “Extreme androgyny is nothing particularly new,” says Fabienne Darling-Wolf, a professor of Japanese studies at Temple University in Pennsylvania. “The 50 or so post-war years during which Japanese men were not androgynous-due to Western influence and the desire to ‘catch up’ economically-is the glitch in history, not the other way around.”

(Image Sources: first; second; third; fourth )


Korean Cosmetics During the Downturn: not to be taken at face-value?

song-hye-gyos-cherry.jpgDo Korean women tend to wear more cosmetics than their Western counterparts?

Had the question ever been posed, then I’d always have replied with an emphatic yes, one of my first and most vivid memories of Jinju (진주) being the faces of its ubiquitous coffee girls, almost clown-like in their blankness and painted excess.  Naturally those memories have literally colored my perceptions of Korean women’s use of cosmetics ever since, but I’ve still yet to see any evidence to dissuade me that Korean women aren’t indeed both consummate users and abusers of them, their avoidance of the sun and use of whitening cosmetics, for instance, being so great that they have among the lowest vitamin-D levels in the world, an inconvenient truth that is surely not explained merely by them tending to have darker skins than Caucasians.

What does explain it though? Earlier, I’ve approached that question via the role of women’s bodies in Neo-Confucianism, and then how this has manifested itself in postwar Korean consumerism: not irrelevant by any means, but probably not exactly what would go through Korean women’s minds as they put on cosmetics in the morning either. Instead, much more likely is something akin to this recent Bank of England memo to its female employees, detailing how they should dress:

“Look professional, not fashionable; be careful with perfume; always wear a heel of some sort – maximum 2 inches; always wear some sort of makeup – even if it’s just lipstick.” Shoes and skirt must be the same color. No-no’s include ankle chains – “professional, but not the one you want to be associated with;” white high heels; overstuffed handbags; an overload of rings, and double-pierced ears.

Which has naturally been creating a storm in feminist blogs, although in the end the bank may well have been misinterpreted (see here and here). But by virtue of it being newsworthy, to me this is the Western exception that proves the Korean rule, for a Korean friend who’s worked in Korean banks for over ten years has mentioned that wearing cosmetics has been mandatory for women at all of them, the consequences of not doing so unspecified but still so dire as to deter any would-be rebels from ever appearing at work au naturel. True, she was more often than not a teller, to whom presentation does matter to a certain extent, but I’d be surprised if similar de facto rules didn’t also exist at readers’ workplaces in other industries? For instance, while cosmetics would be somewhat lost on the acne-faced 13-18 year olds that form my own after-school institute’s “clients,” that still doesn’t stop my female colleagues from spending a not trivial amount of time each day checking their appearances and reapplying their make-up at their desks in between classes. Moreover, while it’s true that the options for the single ones are limited when they spend 12 hours a day and 6 days a week at their workplace, Korean men that work at institutes are still very low on the totem pole of desirable mates.


I bring this subject up to provide some context to the original inspiration for this post, which was my noticing the lavish praise the Korean English-language media has dishing on the Korean cosmetics industry in recent months, the Korea Times for instance: quoting industry analysts back in December who predicted robust growth despite the economic downturn; giving a great deal of space to an interview of CEO Seong Ki-ryeong of new Korean brand The Face Shop in January, who is confident about his company’s overseas expansion plans; and finally mentioning the increasing status and sophistication of domestic brands earlier this month, the leading one of which – Amore Pacific – recently usurped Chanel as prestigious Lotte Department Store’s biggest seller, to all of which can be added the Chosun Ilbo’s report on Monday that sales of male grooming products are increasing despite the recession too. How skeptical should we be of reports such as these in light of that information that my friend passed on to me?

Actually, it makes me more inclined to believe them. While it’s true that that Korean English-language media is notorious for advertorials for instance, and that those with a vested interest in the expansion of any industry are hardly the most reliable sources on the current prospects for it, from what I’ve seen of media coverage of the effects of the recession on cosmetic and fashion industries in the international media so far, then – as you might have guessed – I can say without a doubt that both flaws are hardly confined to Korea. In fact, it’s a relief to not read about the so-called “The Lipstick Index” in the latter, the originator of which makes the claim that lipstick sales are inversely-related to (or at worst immune to) economic conditions. In reality though, as the following Economist article makes clear, this is merely fodder for curious slice-of-life articles to distract readers from the recession. Some excerpts:

Believers in the lipstick theory trace the phenomenon back to the Depression, when cosmetic sales increased by 25%, despite the convulsing economy. Some, like Dhaval Joshi of RAB Capital, an investment-management firm, point out that employment in the cosmetics industry has been known to rise as overall employment falls, suggesting that demand for cosmetics increases when consumer confidence is low….


Not everyone is convinced. Reliable historical figures on lipstick sales are hard to find, and most lipstick believers can only point to isolated, anecdotal examples as evidence of the larger phenomenon. Data collected by Kline & Company, a market-research group, show that lipstick sales sometimes increase during times of economic distress, but have also been known to grow during periods of prosperity (see chart). In other words, there is no clear correlation.

Lipstick sales are merely the latest example of a single measure that has been seized upon because it supposedly reflects economic confidence, or lack of it. Hemlines, alcohol consumption, laxative sales and even who wins the Super Bowl have all been proposed as ways to chart recessions, with varying degrees of success. So is the lipstick index dead?

Karen Grant of the NPD Group, a market-research firm, suggests that it might make more sense to look at a wider “beauty index”, rather than lipstick alone, because she thinks it is beauty as a category that holds up well in recessions, whereas sub-categories (such as lipstick) tend to go in and out of style….

Let’s consider that wider “beauty index” then, or at least what form it may take in Korea. Presumably, given those unofficial rules for women’s cosmetics as mentioned earlier, then sales of those may well remain steady here, that first Korea Times article I linked to for instance, mentioning that:

During the onset of the financial crisis in 1998, the nation’s economy contracted 6.9 percent with private spending down 13.4 percent but the cosmetics industry escaped virtually unscathed with a 0.2 percent contraction.

Also, while premium brands have been hardest hit worldwide, it is also true that those consumers already inclined to spend a little extra on perceived better-than average brands and/or natural and organic cosmetics are hardly likely to stop doing so now, and so in this sense rapidly improving, now middle of the range Korean brands like The Face Shop are probably best placed to weather the storm. Moreover, a useful, albeit perhaps obvious lesson for all industries that I’ve gained from reading all of those articles, is that the temptation to lower prices for the sake of sales must be tempered by the knowledge that the brand might find it difficult to shake off a “cheap” image once the recession is over.

But actually I’m not interested in the industry and league table of brands and sales per se, more in the (possible) effects of the recession on the grooming habits and ultimately body images of both sexes. And while the most obvious may be that a renewed premium is placed on personal attractiveness as a minor but not insignificant means of getting and/or retaining a job, I’d argue that given all the above then for Korean women at least there appears to be limited possibilities beyond what they’re actually already doing. One exception though, may be the increased wearing of deodorant, although in fact men represent much more of a untapped market in that regard. So too, do they of cosmetics in general, my realizing in hindsight as I type this that in most of my posts on recent commercials and advertisements for products aimed at men (see here, here, and here for example) I pointed out that they were actually the first of their kind.

Ultimately then, this recession may in fact entail greater changes for Korean men’s body images than women’s, arguably deepening and solidifying those already induced by the newly competitive job market and especially women’s changed preferences for men that came about as a result of the IMF Crisis of 1997-98 (the subject of my coming thesis for those of you that don’t know). In hindsight though, I may have previously exaggerated the extent of changes resulting from that, as although it undoubtedly gave a powerful boost to the notion that there were alternatives to the previous ideal of a male as a domineering but able bread-winner, you don’t need to spend much time here to note that the age-groups of men most directly affected by events then are still not exactly at the vanguard of Korean Metrosexuality now.

Instead, it’s those men in their twenties that are: of course, partially because they – and only they – have the time and inclination, but surely also because they’re the first generation of Korean men to grow up primarily with, say, fresh-faced, fashion-conscious boy-bands as their role models, one manifestation of Korean women’s new ideals for men? Recall that Korea only began to qualitatively democratize just a few years earlier upon the election of its first civilian president in 1993, and I dare say that there was little scope for any singers with appearances like current flavor of the month Ajoo (노아주) under the previous military dictatorships:


Sorely tempting as it is for me personally to revisit my thesis topic though, for the sake of my long term-readers already familiar with it then it’s probably best if I finish that discussion sooner rather than later.  On that note then, there are my own predictions on the effects on the recession on the Korean cosmetics industry and on the ways in which it may change the ways in which Korean women and especially men think about their appearances, but I still gladly open the floor to any others, for I confess that unfortunately my heterosexuality somewhat gets in the way of the focus of my studies sometimes!

( Image sources: 1) aRyaNa, 2) PopSeoul!, 3) DramaBeans, 4) AllKpop )