Flower Men: The Hot Topic of 2009?

daniel-henny-cosmetics-advertisment(Source: SpaceHo)

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!).

Still, one genuine quibble with the Korea Time’s article is the misleading title, as it was actually the last downturn — the Asian Financial 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

Jo In-sung(Source: Dramabeans)

“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 (source, right: ruppy2009).

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.

boys-over-flowers-korean-drama(Source: 동작신진보)

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.”

25 thoughts on “Flower Men: The Hot Topic of 2009?

  1. James,

    That Arch10 guy (who made the comment) is a complete idiot. I’ve watched him on the paper’s site. He manages to pretty well misinterpret everything and believes that any commentary on Korea is an attack on it.

    If he’s the guy saying your piece is bad?

    It’s probably good. ;-)


    1. Cheers. No, I’m not worried about him in the slightest. He pops up like a weed at virtually every single article at the KT (Ah! Is that what “weed men” means Bobby?). And besides which, like YouTube the KT comments sections seem like strange parallel universes, where 90% are trolls (they get deleted everywhere else) and virtually anything gets mentioned, regardless of the actual content. To wit, the latest on mine:

      What would Jesus say about you leaving your child in the US, never seeing it, and not paying child support, Theissen? What would He say about the reason you ex-wife forbids you from seeing it and keeping you out of the US? Just wondering.

      Stirring stuff.


  2. sometimes I think about getting a sock ID and going on the KT website just to do some cathartic idiot-ing for a while.

    It’d be the perfect place to get it out of my system.


  3. I don’t really think the origins for flower men should be entirely attributed to changing women’s tastes. One shouldn’t disregard that many men like to treat themselves (not for attracting women) and perhaps due to previous notions of masculinity, was unable to.
    And also, I had originally thought the target audience for flower men would be young teens, and that flower men specifically referred to men who looked distinctly feminine. No? what exactly defines a flower man?


  4. James, I am a regular reader of your very interesting posts.

    Could you drop the non-sensical, Korean, expression “IMF Crisis”? The IMF was the solution, not the problem. What you refer to is called properly the “Asian Financial Crisis (of 1997)”.

    I noticed a change in the way young male college students see themselves around mid-2006… in the university’s toilets. Since then I cannot wash my hands in five seconds anymore, because there are two students in self-absorption, admiring their feminine features in the wall mirror.

    I agree with your analysis of the phenomenon.

    James: Since changed, and thanks!


  5. maybe it’s a delayed import from the US, since, because he starred in M.A.S.H., Alan Alda couldn’t rock the market in the 70s. But, too, South Korean men followed many of the consumer fashion trends of the post-60s. My father-in-law has longer hair than I do, and my wife hates it. it seems South Korean women experienced the 80’s re-conservative movement, too.

    Roboseyo: isn’t kvetching what blogging is for? Maybe you can kill too birds with ones tone, and vent as a character combining both you and your wife? I had the notion years ago to air arguments with my wife in the form of dueling posts, but she’s just not a public person.


    1. Teacup – I don’t think that the origins should be entirely attributed to women’s tastes either: the 801 word article necessarily leaves out a great deal.

      Another thing that had to be left out was that it wasn’t until the World Cup of 2002 that it became publicly acceptable for unmarried women to express sexual tastes and desires – I’m being serious – so while the target audience for flower men was originally very much young teens, like I hinted at in the last paragraph, (angry) married women both wanted alternative ideals of men other than strong providers and in particular were in more of a position to have that desire influenced by and reflected in popular culture. So in a sense, they appropriated the kkotminams from the (then) teens.

      What exactly a kkotminam is is very much open to lengthy debate, but despite what I say in the article, the term metrosexual is actually a good equivalent for it (just not their origins). Many Korean celebrities described as such though, are in fact quite uncomfortable with the weak, girly connotations to it, and they maintain such muscular physiques partially at least to counter those.

      Christian – I’m quite embarrassed. I heartily agree about the correct term and why, and in fact that’s the first time I’ve ever used the IMF one (really; I wrote a great deal on it as a student). Consequence of my writing the article from 6pm to 4:30am sorry.

      Thanks for the compliments though!

      Baltimoron – Sorry, but a delayed import of which US fashion trend exactly? Not disagreeing necessarily, just confused.


  6. 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.

    As for IMF Crisis/Asian Financial Crisis – it all depends on who’s talking. There is no such thing as a correct term for something like that. It’s called by whatever the people around are calling it.


    1. Mellow – I’m just about finished responding to your comment in a separate post, which I’ll link to here once it’s up (update: here it is). But as for what terms to use for the economic crisis of 1997-98, while there may indeed be “no such thing as a correct term for something like that,” it is much more loaded here than you make out, which is why I would choose “Asian Financial Crisis” over the (false) blame-attributing “IMF Crisis,” regardless of how much that may well ostracize me from many Koreans (but not, I might add, from most Korean economists).

      Rocketman – I’ve got no time for complete cretins who clearly can’t even be bothered to read what I wrote. I mean seriously dude, did you really think that that sheer drivel was somehow worthy of my response?


  7. What phenomenon?

    What was the point of this article? To say that Korean teenagers do not want to dress like their fathers?
    All Korean men now dress like dandies because of four factors:
    1. The movie the King and the Clown.
    2. David Beckham being popular
    3. Married Korean women being out of work
    4. More movies and TV dramas
    You state that these factors are what have caused them to wear smarter clothes and wash themselves better than their fathers.
    Is this a bad thing? I don’t know because you say the main problem of this desire to look a little different is a bunch of upset fathers.
    What is your point?


  8. James,

    Thanks for your reply. I look forward to reading more :). As for the term for the economic crisis — you may well be correct. I’m a little oblvious to those kinds of nuances.


  9. James Turnbull wrote:
    many of whom may well be quite perplexed and embarrassed at what they see as their sons’ effeminate looks.

    … and …

    What their fathers regard as effeminate now were actually the norm in many earlier periods of Korean history for instance,

    How do you establish that the fathers think their sons (or other young men) are “effeminate”? Just like Christian refers to students “admiring their feminine features in the wall mirror,” it sounds like you’re applying an outside view that may not apply.

    What you see as “effeminate” may be regarded by some wearer/doer or his girlfriend as “cute,” “childlike,” or “colorful,” not effeminate. Or by his father as “overly cutesy,” “childlike,” or “preening,” but not necessarily effeminate.


    1. Kushibo, no offense, but I’m really surprised that you didn’t notice the great pains I took in the article to point out that what most Westerners would regard as effeminate standards of dress and behavior by young Korean men…may be anything but by their own standards, and Koreans in general. Not only do I mention that wearing couple clothes can be a sign of rebellion for instance, but although you quote it you seem to be entirely ignoring my point about standards of masculinity being specific to times and cultures.

      True, I don’t have any concrete evidence to suggest that “fathers think their sons (or other young men) are effiminate,” which is why I wrote “may well be quite perplexed and embarrassed…” Given the huge generational gap in Korea like I describe though, and middle-aged ajosshis’ standards of dress and manners compared to those of twenty-somethings’ (although I do occasionally see the odd member of the former in pink and so on), then it seems entirely reasonable to suggest that they may be perplexed and embarrassed at the later.

      I also happen to think that it’s a nice, light intro to the topic too.


  10. This whole discussion is really interesting and I’d love to see more entries on ‘flower men’ and their related forms in Japan, China, and elsewhere. But I do think you’ve ignored one important element that must be brought into any discussion of masculinity: class. The image of the muscly, tanned, nonchalant man has always been, I think, a more working-class image of masculinity. Think back to 17th and 18th century Europe. Did kings and merchants aspire to that image? With their powdered wigs, tights, and face makeup, I would say no. I think integrated a class-lens into your analysis would strengthen any conclusions you might reach.

    As always though, thanks for the absolutely excellent writing.


    1. Thanks, and yes, that is certainly an important element that should be considered.

      I’ve haven’t written much on this subject since writing this post 2 years ago I’m afraid, but fortunately others have: see here for a recent journal article on kkotminam, and which mentions my posts.


  11. 재미있는 글이군요^^ 영어실력이 미숙해 한글로 남깁니다.T.T 한국에 이런역사 이야기도있습니다^^
    6세기 중국화가가 중국을 방문한 각국 사신들을 표현해 놓은 그림이 있습니다.

    좌측부터 왜, 신라, 백제, 고려… 신라의 사신은 젊고 다른사신들보다 뭔가 여성스럽습니다.

    에 나오는 “화랑(花郞)”에 대한 기록입니다.
    독음은 “신라 진흥왕삼십칠년, 취미모남자, 장식지, 명화랑이봉지, 도중운집”
    “신라 진흥왕 37년에 미모의 남자를 뽑아 화장하고 꾸며 화랑이라 이름하여 받드니,
    많은 무리들이 구름처럼 모여들었다.” 전부 귀족집안 출신이었습니다.

    신라인들은 아름다운 육체에 아름다운 정신이 깃든다는 영육일치사상(靈肉一致思想)에서 남성인 화랑(花郞)들도
    여성들 못지 않은 화장을 하고, 귀고리 ·가락지 ·팔찌 ·목걸이 등 갖가지 장신구로 장식을 하였다. 뿐만 아니라 귀천에 관계없이 여성들이 향낭(香囊)을 차고, 귓불을 뚫어 귀고리를 달고, 장도(粧刀)를 지녔다. 또한 잇꽃으로 연지를 만들어 이마와 뺨 ·입술에 바르고, 백분(白粉) 외에 산단(山丹:백합꽃의 붉은 수술)으로 색분(色粉)을 만들어 사용하였다.


    1. 그리고 레이프가렛이라는 미국의 팝스타가 30년전에 내한한적이있는데.
      그때 한국에서 인기가 너무 많아서 난리가 난적이 있다고 합니다. 저는 그시절 태어난사람이 아니라T.T

      클리프 리차드같은경우는 60년대에 내한했다고 하는데.


      10대들에게는 과거팝스타 내한에서도 볼수있듯이 과거나 지금이나 다를께 없고
      자기 또래의 사람을 좋아하는게 당연한 사람의 심리이죠.

      현대에는 가부장적인 사회는 점점 사라지고..
      부인은 항상 집에서만 있어야 하고 남편의 말만 듣는 시대는 지났기 때문에.
      가부장적인 남성상은 남자가 모든걸 다 할수있어야 하는 남성상인데.
      현재에는 모두다 연애를 할수있는 시대 그리고 활발한 여성들의 사회진출.

      현재에는 HARDWARE보다 SOFTWARE가 중요시되는 시기여서
      영특해 보이는사람 여성에게 잘해줄것 같은 남성상이 인기를 끌기때문에
      부드러운 남성상이 과거보다는 좀더 선호되는 시대이죠.

      그렇다고 한국에서 털이 많고 짙은 쌍거풀의 남성이 여성에게 잘해줄려고 하는 포즈를 취하면
      보통 이런사람들은 “느끼” 하다는 이미지를 가지고 있기 떄문에.. 그런 남성상보다는 모범생, 엘리트 이미지의
      지긋한 남성상이 선호되는것 같습니다^^ (예 : 김래원, 존박, 이승기등)


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