What terms come to mind when the concept of “masculinity” is voiced? Most Westerners typically think of the rugged man’s man, the Chris Pratt, Brad Pitt, or George Clooney type that embodies strength and toughness, and probably exclusively use hand soap for all of his personal hygiene needs.
In contrast, a newly developing image of what it means to be a man is embodied in the Korean idea of a “flower boy.” The term comes from the Korean word, “Khonminam,” which is a hybrid of the words “flower” and “man,” and describes a gentler embodiment of masculinity that is often characterized by skinny jeans, elaborate sneakers, bright colors, and beautifying male makeup.
Though this image has its roots in Confucian thinking that emphasizes gentleness and passivity over aggressive strength, the flower boy movement has been more recently kick-started by the popularity of K-pop, a Korean music genre usually adopted by boy bands. The rising global interest in Korean culture, from beauty products to the culinary arts, is known as the Korean wave, or “Hallyu,” and is seen most prevalently in the phenomenon that is K-pop. Bands such as BTS have risen to global popularity in recent years, with their consistent flower boy aesthetic paving the way for male interest in fashion, makeup, brightly-dyed hair, and perfect complexions—a significant breakaway from the traditional masculine norm.
In her book on Korean Masculinities, Sun Jung coins the term “soft masculinity” to describe the emerging phenomenon of a male standard that combines “traditional” and “cute” ideas of masculinity, coming together in a new “global metrosexual masculinity.”
She also discusses “hybridity,” which she uses to explain the careful grafting of ancient Korean identity (based in Confucianism) and the Western idea of a macho man. Though the popularity of the flower boy image as derived from K-pop celebrities is, at its core, a successful marketing ploy, soft masculinity carries implications for a new standard of manhood.
Outside of the K-pop niche, this new form of masculinity has the potential to shift the idea of manhood around the globe, especially in countries with traditionally restrictive gender roles in which a certain level of grooming leads to homophobic jeers or an inquisition into sexual orientation. The cultural acceptance of the flower boy image, or more broadly, men who invest in their appearances, has rendered South Korea the country in which men spend the most on skincare, with numbers jumping even higher in younger generations.
Though many men may consider neon pink hair and a daily eyeshadow routine a bit too far out of their comfort zones, the implications of the flower boy movement can appear in much subtler, yet still beneficial, forms. For example, men should not have to feel ashamed for investing in quality skincare products or providing themselves with elements of self-care that are second-nature to women. Though a hygiene regimen is, at the end of the day, a matter of personal preference, a new era of non-judgmental, and ungendered thinking about beauty and cleanliness would be widely beneficial.
In future years, makeup companies may have K-pop to thank for doubling their target demographic to include men as well. Until then, Westerners must content themselves with perusing BTS music videos and dreaming of a future of hair care freedom.
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