You can’t blame overseas reporters for just calling them metrosexuals: kkotminam (꽃미남), literally “flower beauty man,” sounds a little strange even in Korean, let alone English.
Done too often though, it’s easy to lose sight of the differences. Combined with scholarship that (over)emphasizes the trend’s roots in popular yaoi manga from Japan, one can easily be forgiven for thinking that Korean men are doing no more than imitating what they see overseas.
This needs rectifying. Not least, because when men suddenly adopt some new fashion en masse, it’s invariably with the specific purpose of getting laid. But what was so special about the 2002 World Cup that made Korean women demand hitherto “effeminate” clothing, personal-grooming, and behaviors from them, if they wanted any hope of doing so?
To answer, you need to consider what happened in the 5 years preceding it, which was a tumultuous period for Korean society. Especially for Korean women, something which tends to get ignored in most accounts of events.
In brief, once democratization began in the late-1980s, women were finally rewarded with the drafting, implementation, and — yes — even enforcement of a wealth of sexual equality legislation, after years of having such concerns ignored or deferred by the military authorities and democracy movement respectively. Also, the female workforce participation rate slowly but surely increased, despite the predominance of the salaryman system and the attendant male-breadwinner ideology. In more ways than one, women could feel justified that their patience was being rewarded.
Then the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-8 struck. Not only was “expensive” sexual equality legislation indefinitely postponed, but the government-business “solution” was to disproportionately lay off women, the logic being that young single ones, largely living with their parents, would be provided for by their fathers, whereas married women (and their children) would be provided for by their husbands. More advanced in their careers, and thus more expensive, the latter would be particularly targeted, to the extent that many would do their utmost to keep their marriages a secret from their employers, a theme subsequently explored in many dramas.
Lest anyone feel that this overview is a wild generalization, note that, tellingly, president Lee Myung-bak would repeat the same solution in the next financial crisis in 2008, although by that stage there was more of a pure financial logic: by having the most irregular workers in the OECD, which women would form the vast majority of. Back in 1998 though, and coming so soon after supposedly liberating and empowering democratization, which actually only really, qualitatively, began upon the administration of the first civilian president Kim Young-sam (김영삼) from 1993, then I’m going to take a wild guess that women were, in short, pissed off.
And with that prickly conclusion in mind is precisely how one should view the following music video by the Korean girl-group SES, made in 2002:
About which Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling gives the following insightful commentary, starting with:
Taken at face value, the SES video seems to be about getting revenge on some boorish (white) men and humiliating them, but I think there are other ways to look at this video than just as a representation of Korean anti-Americanism. A very simple question would be: How many working women in Korea interact with foreign bosses, foreign colleagues, or foreign customers? I would imagine that the vast majority of working women never have to deal with foreigners in the workplace. So, for working Korean women…who would the sexist or rude bosses, colleagues, or customers really be?
And a little later:
…could this be seen as a “liberating” narrative of women standing up to boorish, disrespectful men in positions of power over them and humiliating them or otherwise getting revenge on them and asserting their power. In this case, the use of foreign actors to portray these men acts as the spoonful of sugar which makes the medicine go down because images of Korean men being humiliated would never be approved.
Whatever the answer, what’s clear is that, especially in 2002, on TV, Korean men could never have been treated like this, unless it was done with a lot of humor (and probably not even then). It needs to be asked, of course, why it would be acceptable to portray foreign men the way they are in this video, but not Korean men.
Lest you feel that Matt exaggerates the restrictions on how Korean men could be — and still can be — portrayed in popular culture, see here for a wealth of further examples. Yet, despite those, there were other ways women could express their anger. And a lot more besides.
While I should always resist the temptation to generalize my own experiences to the rest of Korea, it is still remarkable just in its own right that, in one of my first ever classes here in 2000, some of my female students mentioned that they were regularly chastised by middle-aged women on the street for — wait for it — wearing short sleeves. For just 2 years later, it would be a point of patriotic pride for them to wear a crop-top made out of the previously sacred national flag during the 2002 World Cup, and very much encouraged by their elders. As Hyun-Mee Kim (see the footnotes) puts it:
Stripping the Korean national flag of its heavy solemnity and nationalism, [women] brought change with their white, red, blue, and black sports bras, scarves, tank tops, and skirts. And the young Korean women who had been the target of criticism by the media every summer for their “excessive spending” and “oversexed outfits” were praised as original and attractive fashion leaders at the soccer scenes (Hyun-mee Kim: 228-229)
To clarify, I am not (yet) making a connection between this and previous events: merely pointing out the speed of the change. But, how to explain that pace? What on earth did soccer — of all things — have to do with the way women chose to dress?
Perceptive readers may already be thinking that all the skin was publicly encouraged to show support of the Korean soccer players, not the first time women’s bodies and sexuality have quite literally been used in service of the South Korean state (see Sex Among Allies by Katharine Moon, or my own series on gender and militarism). And, indeed, the media did soon describe it as such.
But Hyun-mee Kim notes that Korean women were already on the streets wearing sexier and/or more comfortable clothing that summer, well before public perceptions caught up with and condoned the new standards of dress that they had created. Moreover, and crucially, they were also simultaneously publicly discussing, idolizing and objectifying the Korean players and their bodies in ways that would have been previously thought of as shocking. And, as one does not salivate over a guy’s pecs simply by government decree (please correct me if I’m wrong), then it’s difficult to deny that both were definitely initiated by and for women.
Also, that much more was going on than simply women showing more skin, questioning public standards of decency, or talking more about men that they found attractive. Indeed, the process had already begun in popular culture in the mid-1990s.
Writing in 2002, So-hee Lee mentions that in 1995, “the most popular topics among university students were sexuality, sexual identity, and other sexual subjects” but that in 2002 “there is still no broad popular social discourse on female sexuality outside of marriage”. Partially that was because the term barely existed in Korea then as explained, but primarily it was because – for all the stereotypes of married Korean women or ajumma (아주마) having gender but not sex – precisely they that were at the forefront of a veritable sexual revolution in Korea beginning in the mid-1990s. As she explains, many Korean women novelists confessed that it was in marriage that they had begun to recognize their repression as women for the very first time”, and this was because:
Looking at their mother’s lives, Korean women in their early thirties believed that their marriages would be different. Because the Korean standard of living and patterns of Korean life changed very quickly, they believed that Korean ways of thinking had been transformed with the same speed. This is where their tragedy begins. As [a character in a mid-1990s novel discussed] says, “mothers teach daughters to live differently from themselves but teach sons to live like their fathers”….During sixteen years of schooling, they had learned that equality is an important democratic value, but nowhere had they been taught that women experience the institution of marriage as a condition of inequality. Many married women of this generation have [thus] experienced a process of self-awakening…(Lee: 144)
Lee’s chapter is about a succession of novels, movies and TV dramas that suddenly appeared between 1993-1996 which, with their blunt depictions of Korean women’s sexual desires, sexual repression, sexual frustrations within marriage, direct challenges to sexual double standards and so forth, were direct challenges to those stereotypes and provoked intense discussions throughout Korea. Unfortunately, a detailed discussion of them will have to wait for another post (update: and here that is!), but it can be said here that Lee concludes from her study of them that:
Looking back at Korean culture with a certain detachment [in 2002], I can imagine that the years 1995 and 1996 will be remembered as a critical period for the emergence of social discourse on sexuality, especially female sexuality. The year 1995 was particularly remarkable in that housewives began, on their own initiative, to speak in public about wives’ subjective sexuality (Lee: 160).
And that, in a comparison with the US in the 1970s:
My reading of the concept of female sexuality in Korean popular culture might suggest that Korean society is now at a stage of development comparable to America in the 1970s, when every kind of women’s issue appeared in realistic novel form….If this parallel holds, then what kind of story is unfolding in twenty-first-century Korea? Is it not difficult to image that a viable revolution against sexual repression might take place? (158)
With even greater benefit of hindsight, I’m not all that sure that the mid-1990s are remembered quite like that in 2008, and Lee did acknowledge that her discussion possibly:
…gives the impression that Korean women now are marching to demand their sexual subjectivity, in reality, most Korean women are marching only as the passive consumers of the sorts of cultural products described previously, not as their active cultural producers (159).
But quite presciently, she continues:
When women are able to intervene in the process of cultural production as subjective consumers with a feminist point of view, the Korean concept of female sexuality can be transformed more rapidly than before (159, my emphasis).
And of course, just like the 2008 Olympics that are coming in up in 3 weeks time, the World Cup is no longer merely or even primarily a competition for victory between nations, but is a prominent global cultural product. Part of that cultural product is the bodies of the the players themselves, and Korean women in 2002 definitely fundamentally changed the ways in which they “consumed” those.
The Rise of Kkotminam: A backlash against salarymen?
The first change they made was in confirming the dominance of feminized ideals of male beauty that had first begun evolving in the mid-1990s. Consider this description of the previous ideals:
The streets of Seoul are now filled with girlish women. Some look fragile, as if calling for protection. Women of this generation say that want to be protected rather than to protect. Young girls who used to favor gentle “mama’s boys” now turn their backs on them. They are anxious to fall in love with “tough guys” who look strong and even violent, like Choi Min-su and Lee Cheong-jae, who played tough gangsters in the explosively popular 1995 television drama Sand Clock (모레시계). Besides having a “tough guy” as a boyfriend, the women of this emerging generation want a pet. A pretty and coquettish girl, with a tiny, cute dog, beside a tough guy is part of this emergent new image. (Cho Haejoang: 182)
Although the book that was from was published in 2002, by the reference to the television drama and by the focus of other chapters I get the impression she is really writing about the mid to late-1990s. Later in the chapter, she mentions how the country as a whole reverted to a justifying male breadwinner mentality under the banner of “Let’s protect the our fathers who have lost their vitality” or “Let’s restore the authority of the family head” as a result of the IMF Crisis as I’ve discussed, and presumably the natural result would have been that those “tough guy” preferences of Korean women would have been reinforced, or at least the protective elements of them. But in fact, quite the opposite occurred. For instance, by 2000 there was:
…a new type of male emerging albeit in a small number of music videos. It is a de-gendered image of men which is a contrast to the macho image. Male groups such as Y2K, H.O.T., ITYM, and Shinhwa, whose fans are mostly teenage girls, portray this image. They wear make-up and a lot of jewelry and ornaments – which are all considered feminine – and take of their shirts to show off their bodies. This indicates that the male body is also sexually objectified as the female body….The style of the video is similar to that used to show female [bodies] with extreme close-ups to fill the screen with a face, and medium range or full body shots for dances. Although there is a risk of overstating the phenomenon, this image could be interpreted as a signal indicating the possibility of breaking the binary boundaries of men and women that have been formed in a patriarchal culture (Hoon-soon Kim: 207)
And this is corroborated by the fact, as early as the mid-1990s, there were already distinctly feminine advertisements for cosmetics aimed at men. These following ones are all from the Somang Cosmetics website (update: they’ve since been taken down), but I can’t imagine that those of other cosmetics companies would have been significantly different.
1998, with Kim Sung-woo (김승우):
1999, when soccer player Ahn Jung-hwan (안정한) must have signed a modeling contract with them:
2000, with actress Kim Hye-su [김혜수] on the left:
And then of course the notorious television advertisement for “Color Lotion” from 2002, featuring Kim Jae-won (김재원) on the left:
Regardless of what women made of that particular homoerotic advertisement, the establishment of distinctly feminine ideals of male attractiveness were at least partially sealed by Ahn Jung-Hwan’s success in the World Cup, when Somang Cosmetics must have thought that all its Christmases had come at once:
Although the Earth must surely have shifted as Korean women collectively put their hands to their chests and sighed as Ahn Jung-hwan kissed his wedding ring every time he scored a goal, I’m not for an instant placing the blame(!) for what came to be known as the “Flower Men” (꽃미남) phenomenon solely on his shoulders. Where does it come from then?
Of course there is some international basis for it. While Taiwan, for instance, both survived the IMF Crisis relatively unscathed and didn’t host the World Cup, much the same phenomenon still happened there:
Josephine Ho (2001: 63-86), a feminist from Taiwan, points out that most of the recent idols of teenage girls are no longer buff and tough men but rather “feminine men” who evoke a sense of sympathy, saying that there is a “clear contrast between teenage girls of enormous strength and their idols of somewhat weak image.” This illustrates that women in their teens are breaking away from the typical framework of heterosexual romance in which women long for me who will devote themselves to, and take care of them, and have started to express their sexuality in an active manner. The preference for men with the capability and personality of the breadwinner as the “most attractive” is being undermined. (Hyun-Mee Kim: 235)
I don’t know enough about modern Taiwanese society to judge the accuracy of that, but I have no reason to doubt that it’s true. But I have many problems with international comparisons.
Firstly, because they mean that the Western notion of “metrosexuality” invariably comes to dominate discussions, years of repetitive comparisons between An Jung-hwan and David Beckham in the Korean English-language media (and, by extension, by foreign observers too) ultimately seeming to absolve Korean women of any ability to determine their own tastes in men. And just like it does to be told personally that my liking any Korean women at all is mere “yellow fever”, it must surely rankle Korean women to be told that them liking say any Korean idol is no different to, say, a British teenage girl liking a member of Westlife.
On top of that, for all their new assertiveness, there were still definite limits on how far women’s new freedoms could go, and they did not extend to publicly praising and/or objectifying non-Korean men. Obviously that’s a crucial point, but as this post approaches (ahem) 4500 words I realize that a discussion of that would be better placed in Part Three; meanwhile, accounting for changes by a simple importation of foreign ideals of male attractiveness portrays Korean women as, well, mindless, uncritical, and passive consumers and again as Part Three will more fully reveal, this was anything but the case.
As the title suggests, I pose a more proactive explanation, and herein (finally) lies the revelation that has so preoccupied me for the past two weeks. First, consider this statement:
When gender discrimination in public areas such as the labor market and politics is still powerfully all pervasive, Korean women often feel helpless in thinking that change won’t come easily. Their sense of devastation leads to displays of resistance and subversiveness in “private areas such as sexuality. Sexuality and intimacy lend themselves to being viewed as the only arena where the women can affect a measure of change through their will or emotions. In this respect, Korean women’s rapid sexual subjectification demonstrates, on the one hand, the power to transform and, on the other, a collective sense of powerlessness (Hyun-Mee Kim: 240).
The first things that came to mind when I read that were the scene in either La Femme Nikita or Point of No Return (I can’t remember which) when, after receiving her training to become an assassin, the main character is placed in a sort of finishing school where her female tutor reveals the existence of “this power” that women have over men. After that was a line from some sex and/or relationship advice book that I read once, which said that women should not consider sex as something to be given to or withheld from partners as a form of reward and punishment.
Yes, considering the virtual gender apartheid that exists in Korea, then an alleged asexuality of ajummas as a form of resistance to patriarchy was one of the first things that came to mind too. But then the next thing was that, maybe, just maybe, flower men became their new ideal of male attractiveness as a act of at least subconscious resistance to the men that had denied them of the opportunity for children and careers that they’d (finally) come to expect? That still maintained that women didn’t even have sexual feelings, but at the same time taking advantage of one of the biggest prostitution industries in Asia? That had the gall, after doing all that, to expect Korean women to continue to hold breadwinners like them on a pedestal? Like I said, they were pissed off, andKorean men that came up with the aforementioned slogans were surely naive to think that things could have gone on simply as before.
Of course, I acknowledge that it will be much more complicated than that in reality. Like I said, I haven’t looked at the 1990s in any great detail here, but in addition to the sexually radical new books, movies and dramas that came out in 1993-96 that Cho Haejeong discusses, there’s a whole host of developments like the “Missy” phenomenon beginning in 1994 and the “Samonim” (사모님) one before that: in other words, things weren’t quite as simplistic as how I’ve depicted them. I haven’t paid enough attention to generational differences either, even though Hyun-mee Kim quite correctly claims that they are as strong markers of identity in Korea as race is in the US, so much so that most chapters in the books used here us them as their base units of analysis, and increasingly books on Korean politics are too.
As I type this, I realize that no description is complete without those, and so they’ll require an unplanned additional post before I talk about the 2002 World Cup proper in now Part Four (or Five)…which is not to imply that this post hasn’t considerably evolved and mutated itself since I first began writing on this, now somewhat amorphous subject.
Another thing I realize is that until recently I’ve been so enamored of my associations of Korea with futurism (see here and especially here for instance) that I’ve mistakenly disdained studying the 1990s previously, feeling that as I looked further and further back in time in Korea then the people become more conservative and unlikeable, the clothes and hairstyles more bizarre, the women less attractive, and the country as a whole much less modern…and so on. That’s not unreasonable given Korea’s breakneck speed of development, but considering that I arrived in Korea as long ago as 2000, and that I first went to university in 1994, then in hindsight my disinterest has been very strange. After all, to understand me, you’d have to understand New Zealand in my formative years as an adult, and indeed just on the bus home yesterday I listened to a Korea Society Podcast on president Lee Myung-bak’s first 100 days in office, in which one panelist argued that the experience of the IMF crisis defines Koreans of my generation. All obvious certainly, but I’ve got some catching up to do.
Regardless of all that though, I think my notion of flower men becoming popular because of a backlash is a definitely a valid one, and I think original too; certainly no-one that I’ve read recently makes a link like that. At the very least, it needs further exploring.
Only having just begun examining the 1990s myself then, I can’t confirm or disprove Gord Sellar’s suggestion that cross-fertilization from some elements of Japanese popular culture may also have played a role in the rising appeal of flower men, and while my gut instinct tells me that it was mostly home grown and that that would only have had a marginal role at best, I still highly recommend his post just for its discussion of the ways in which the phenomenon has evolved and be sustained since 2002 alone. Given that I end my discussion on them in 2002 (for now), then our two posts nicely compliment each other on that score.
Cho Haejoang, “Living with Conflicting Subjectivities: Mother, Motherly Wife, and Sexy Woman in the Transition From Colonial-Modern to Postmodern Korea”, in Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class, and Consumption in the Republic of Korea, edited by Laurel Kendall, pp. 165-195.
Ho, Josephine, “From ‘Spice Girls’ to ‘compensated dating’: sexualization of Taiwanese teenage girls,” Yonsei Women’s Journal, 7, (2001), pp. 63-86.
Hoon-Soon Kim, “Korean Music Videos, Postmodernism, and Gender Politics” in Feminist Cultural Politics in Korea, ed. by Jung-Hwa Oh, 2005, p. 207 pp. 195-227.
Hyun-Mee Kim, “Feminization of the 2002 World Cup and Women’s Fandom” in Feminist Cultural Politics in Korea, ed. by Jung-Hwa Oh, 2005, pp. 228-243.
So-hee Lee, “Female Sexuality in Popular Culture” in Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class, and Consumption in the Republic of Korea, edited by Laurel Kendall, pp. 141-164.