South Korean men lead the world’s male beauty market. Will the West ever follow suit?

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes. Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels

My email contribution to Jessica Rapp’s piece for CNN. Who told her that if you ask me about one of my pet topics, I’ll happily type away for hours, even if only a few lines will make it into the final article? Confess!

  1. What has South Korean beauty done in terms of redefining masculinity and how has that space changed?

I would argue that the South Korean beauty industry has generally been much more reactive than a driver of trends and redefinitions. In particular, while the kkotminam (lit. “flower beautiful man”) phenomenon of the mid-2000s has now become so mainstreamed as a male beauty ideal that the term has fallen into disuse, it only appears to have been an invention of the beauty industry. In fact, it was overwhelmingly the result of changing women’s tastes, who were already very much changing the public conversation about sexual norms and beauty ideals from the mid-1990s, and who were heavily influenced themselves by the influx of (surprisingly popular) homoerotic yaoi manga from Japan after a ban on their import was lifted in 1998. Also, many of the first male celebrities to be branded with the kkotminam label in fact generally rejected it, and even those that did take advantage of it still made sure to buff up and show off their bodies regularly, lest the label raise questions about their masculinity and heterosexuality.

In that vein, it is actually Korea’s prolonged economic slump, especially its jobless-driven recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, that is primarily driving male beauty trends today. Specifically, Korea now has the highest youth unemployment rate since the catastrophic Asian Financial Crisis of the late-1990s, and has always had too many graduates (Korea has one of the highest numbers of university entrance rates in the world) chasing after ever-diminishing numbers of jobs at conglomerates like Samsung and LG. In this cut-throat environment, 20 and 30-somethings are all about improving their “specs” with extra degrees, courses, internships, English-language qualifications, and so on, and the beauty industry has been quick to address the need to get a step up on the competition through improving one’s looks too. Lest this sound like exaggeration, bear in mind that Korea and Japan are the only countries in the OECD where it is routine to require photographs on resumes, and accordingly the Korean internet is full of forums where people can upload their pictures and receive constructive criticism on their appearance and photoshopping suggestions before they submit their job applications.

A selection of resume forms, seen in an Osaka Daiso last August.
  1. What role does K Pop play into the male beauty culture?

Given all the overseas media attention focused on the Korean Wave, and especially recently on the phenomenal success of the boy-band BTS, it is very easy to overlook the fact that K-pop isn’t actually all that popular in Korea itself, by any metric. Also, there are huge generational and regional differences in male beauty culture, with generally only young Seoulites embracing the new beauty trends that get all the media attention. (Overseas K-pop fans that visit Korea are often surprised and disappointed that most Korean men look nothing like their idols!).

Much more influential then, are the aforementioned job-hunting pressures, as well as men’s almost universally-shared experience of military conscription. Facing two years in the harsh wind and sun along the DMZ, these days conscripts quickly learn to become avid users of sunscreen especially. A gateway drug, if you will, to more involved and varied skin routines once they leave the military.

That said, K-pop has been a thing for over a decade now, so all Korean 20-somethings have grown-up under its influence. It is also true that Korea has a uniquely celebrity-obsessed media culture, to an extent that is difficult to appreciate without living in the country. Over 60% of television commercials feature celebrities for instance (compared to 10-20% in countries like the US and UK), and they appear on TV shows far more often than their Western counterparts. Moreover, most of the men you see when you flick the channels are indeed young K-pop stars, as their entertainment agencies have strong incentives to accept offers of endorsement deals for them, which are far more lucrative than music sales. Naturally, many of these deals are for selling male beauty products. But they are no less influential if they are in ads aimed at women instead (they have increasingly appeared even in lingerie ads for instance), as if Korean women increasingly come to demand the beauty standards and routines of male idols in their romantic partners, then ordinary Korean men will only be too eager to attempt to provide.

Given K-pop stars’ pervasive, ubiquitous presence in Korean daily life then, it is very difficult to imagine the beauty ideals they represent and advocate don’t have some influence on the Korean public, regardless of their personal music tastes!

  1. When we think of male “beauty” in Korea, are we thinking of it in the traditional way that women wear a full face of makeup? Or is the mainstream more about skin care?

The emphasis is overwhelmingly on skincare, based on their previously-mentioned, formative experiences in the military. Unfortunately though, unrepresentative Korean men that do spend lots of money and time on cosmetics are often featured in clickbaity foreign media reports about male beauty in Korea, thereby perpetuating “crazy Asian” Orientalist stereotypes.

Please note that I said spending money on “cosmetics” however. Spending significant amounts of one’s income on minor cosmetic surgery like a double-eyelid operation is very normal and mainstream for Korean men now, and is arguably considered no more or less unusual of an necessary investment in a valuable spec than in, say, the English lessons required for a high TOEFL score.

This was not always the case for Korean men though, so it’s by no means impossible that male cosmetics use will likewise become increasingly mainstreamed in the future too. My personal feeling is that most Korean men will balk at the huge amount of time, effort, and money that Korean women routinely have to spend on cosmetics, but who knows? Korea is a rapidly changing place, and Koreans love to defy foreigners’ convenient stereotypes of them.

Related Posts:

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

For S. Korean men, makeup a foundation for success


In The Associated Press today. Please see here if you would like a fuller explanation of my comments in it though — naturally, author Foster Klug had to miss out a great deal of what was discussed in our interview!

Update: By popular demand, here is the quintessential kkotminam commercial, from 2003:

The black-haired man is now retired soccer player Ahn Jung-hwan (안정환), the blonde actor Kim Jae-won (김재원).

The effeminacy of male beauty in Korea

( Attack on the Pin-Up Boys, 2007. Source )

With thanks to author Roald Maliangkay for the kind words about this blog in it, see here for his short and very readable article of that title in the latest International Institute for Asian Studies newsletter, which I also highly recommend taking 2 minutes to subscribe to. (Email me for a PDF if the link doesn’t work).

For the specific post of mine he refers to, and many more on the kkotminam (꽃미남) phenomenon in general (literally “flower-beautiful-man”), scroll down to the sidebar on the right until you come to the “My Constantly Evolving Thesis Topic” section.

(Update: that’s been removed after a change in theme. Please see here for a list of recommended posts instead)

True, he actually argues that the factors I cite are just some of many that were ultimately responsible for the emergence of that, but then my own views have considerably evolved since first writing about the subject over 2 years ago, and I think we’re in broad agreement really.

Alternatively, perhaps that just reflects how persuasive his own article is?^^ What do you think of it?

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.”

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

Korean Women and the 2002 World Cup: The REAL origins of the kkotminam craze

Korean Drama kkotminam(Source: KIYOUNG KIM; CC BY 2.0)

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.

(Source: 내가 만드는 인생극)

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.

miss-world-cup-korea-shim-mina(“Miss World Cup” Shim Min-ah. Source: Pride of Korea)

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?

Salarymen(Source: Azlan DuPree; CC BY 2.0)

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):

korean-male-cosmetic-advertisement-19981999, when soccer player Ahn Jung-hwan (안정한) must have signed a modeling contract with them:

an-jung-hwan-two-korean-male-cosmetic-advertisement-1999an-jung-hwan-three-korean-male-cosmetic-advertisement-19992000, with actress Kim Hye-su [김혜수] on the left:


an-jung-hwan-one-korean-male-cosmetic-advertisement-2001an-jung-hwan-two-korean-male-cosmetic-advertisement-2001And 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:

an-jung-hwan-three-b-korean-male-cosmetic-advertisement-2002Although 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.