Backlash: The Role of the Asian Financial Crisis in the Feminization of Korean Ideals of Male Beauty

an-jung-hwan-two-korean-male-cosmetic-advertisement-2002(Source: Unknown)

Just some quick good news that my presentation proposal “Backlash: The Role of the Asian Financial Crisis in the Feminization of Korean Ideals of Male Beauty” has been accepted for the sixth International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS) conference at Chungnam National University in Daejeon in August next year. I understand if you won’t be penciling anything in your 2009 diary quite yet though, so I’ll make sure to post a reminder closer to the date—it would be nice to meet any readers while I’m there, and to receive feedback.

In the meantime, here’s the abstract, based on this (5100 word!) post from earlier in the year:

In the mid-1990s, the dominant images of men in Korean popular culture were of strong, masculine figures that protected and provided for women, mirroring the male breadwinner ethos that underlay Korea’s then prevalent salaryman system and which, by dint of being much larger and more integral to the Korean economy than the Japanese one with which it is most often associated, had a correspondingly larger hold on the Korean psyche. Despite this, in accounting for the complete switch of dominant images of men to effeminate, youthful “kkotminam” in just a few short years after the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98, what limited literature exists on evolving Korean sexuality and gender roles in the last decade seems to exhibit a curious blind spot as to possible economic and employment-related factors, instead attributing it to, variously, a rising general “pan-Asian soft masculinity”, the import of Western notions of metrosexuality, and particularly of Japanese ones of “bishōnen”.

In this paper, I begin by acknowledging the validity of these factors but argue that the dominance of Japan in East Asian cultural studies has led scholars to overemphasize the latter, in turn ascribing too much agency to Korean women in their late-teens and early-twenties that were the primary recipients of such Japanese cultural products as “yaoi” fan-fiction. This is anachronistic, as public displays and discussions of female sexuality and ideals of male beauty were in reality very much proscribed in Korea for unmarried women before the 2002 World Cup, the locus of which was primarily married women instead. Indeed, as I will next discuss, in the mid-1990s there was an sudden and intense public discourse on both generated by increasingly radical depictions of married women’s sex lives in books and films, partially reflecting the coming of the age of the first generation of Korean women to receive democratic notions of gender and family life through their schooling but then encountering the reality of Korean patriarchy in their marriages, and partially also the concomitant liberation represented by increased numbers of Korean women entering the workforce: small, but growing, and symbolically significant in that they vindicated decades of the relegation of feminist concerns to the wider aims of the democratization movement as a whole, with the understanding that they would be addressed upon its success.

It is in these contexts that the Asian Financial Crisis struck Korea, and married women in particular would be the first to be laid-off as part of restructuring efforts, with the explicit justification that they would be supported by their husbands. Rather than retaining and reaffirming breadwinner ideals of male beauty as encouraged however, in the final part of this paper I demonstrate how images of men in Korean popular culture were suddenly dominated by kkotminam and such indirect criticisms of salarymen as were permitted under prevailing public opinion. This was a natural reaction to circumstances, and I conclude that explanations for the shift that do not consequently take the role of the crisis as a catalyst into account are inadequate.

(Source: Somang)

In hindsight, my overall argument about the increasing popularity of feminine ideals of Korean male beauty—that it at least partially stemmed from a sense of backlash and anger by Korean married women at their mass lay-offs and so forth—could possibly have been made a little clearer in that last paragraph, but then I was only just shy of the 500 word limit, and I’m not sure that I could have fitted everything necessary in otherwise. But it did the job! :D

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