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!

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—nor 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 (source, right: unknown).

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: 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.