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The Blooming of Soft Masculinity: Flower Boys and K-Pop

You’ve definitely seen that guy on campus. The one that might be an international student, who’s walking to his class in skinny jeans and a bright, over-sized jumper with a random English word on it. Clothes you wouldn’t be caught dead in. His look is finished off with salon-grade dyed hair and well-maintained skin. You can’t help but give him a second glance before going about your day.

Unfortunately, Australia is dominated by, and still maintains the traditional standards of, hard masculinity. The ultimate Australian masculinity comes in the form of a white, muscular and rugged heroic figure, who looks like he’s rolled around in the bush for a week straight. Think: Chris Hemsworth or Hugh Jackman (drools).

That guy that you saw with the slightly eccentric fashion is probably part of the ‘soft masculinity’ phenomenon – as coined by Sun Jung, of Melbourne University. This new portrayal of gender is a recent phenomenon, and involves masculinity adopting traits that are usually performed by women.

For instance, many guys who have adopted soft masculinity are seen to be more appearance conscious: taking a liking to fashion, beauty cosmetics, make up and accessories. The favoured personality traits of these men are often more nurturing and sensitive, in contrast to the hyper-aggressive, muscle-flexing masculine personality in the West. This phenomenon has begun to blur the line of what is masculine and feminine, allowing gender to be expressed more fluidly.

To you they might be known as ‘pretty boys’, but in South Korea they are known as ‘flower boys’ or ‘kkotminam’ (꽃미남, kkot = flower; minam = handsome man).

This concept of masculinity can be traced back as far as 10th century Korea, where physically beautiful men were handpicked to be part of an elite group, known as ‘Hwarangs’ or ‘Flowering Knights’. This ancient boyband was known to wear makeup and accessories and were educated in arts, culture, history, religion and even combat.

The modern origins of soft masculinity emerged in Japanese and Korean popular culture in the 90s, with male celebrities maintaining slim figures and softened features. The beauty of the internet then assisted in the momentum of the ‘Hallyu’ Wave, where Korean pop (K-Pop) spread throughout East Asia and Southeast Asia. A concoction of washboard abs on slender bodies, beautified with slick fashion and makeup, had become the look of the new male eye candy in Asia.

So why are girls around the world frothing over these flower boys?

The predominant audience for flower boys are women who are willing to spend a large amount of their time and money on popular entertainment. These new concepts of masculinity are embedded within the products coming from the ‘Hallyu’ Wave, including television dramas, music, beauty cosmetics and film. This has impacted on the lifestyles of its consumers in their expression of masculinity, as well as perception of what women find attractive in a man. Roald Maliangkay mentions that, over the last decade, this new form of expression has become increasingly popular, specifically in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Southeast Asia.

Macho masculinity has become less appealing to women, as the ‘macho’ personality is less approachable and intimidating. They are too aggressive, and unable to verbally express feelings or emotions. Despite having traits that might make them look dependable, protective and financially supportive, they do not sympathise with women about the social pressures placed upon them. The patriarchal Asian society has pushed women to gravitate towards more sensitive men who are open with their feelings and don’t see or treat women as sexual objects.

Some of the founding flower ‘fathers’ that drove the ‘Hallyu’ Wave include singer/actor Rain, actor Lee Byunghun, and actor Bae Yong-joon. They are typically hunky dudes who were the first to wear make up and present themselves in a softer manner, paving the way for other artists and models to follow suit. A good example of this is the lead singer of the kpop boy group BIGBANG, G-Dragon, who became the first male endorser for red lipstick in 2013. And goddamn, he makes red lipstick look good.

The beautiful faces of these flower boys are plastered on every billboard, window shop, television and cinema screen. Elements of traditional masculinity are still present, within their sharp jawlines and solidly-built frame, but their appearance is then embellished with long wavy hair, light foundation, a good amount of guyliner and eyebrows that are on fleek. Many male celebrities are on beauty and skincare ads to tug the fans heartstrings, getting them to buy the products endorsed. This can also be seen frequently in K-Pop music, as the ‘flower boy’ concept has become an essential part of a boyband’s career. These are obvious signs of how the music, fashion and beauty industries are aware of their target market. In South Korea it is common that men in advertising are used to show what he would like his ideal girl to use. It’s a big jump from the West, where men only play the role of an admirer of the woman who uses the product.

Nowadays, men that are well groomed and have good fashion sense look like they have their life together, which is all the more attractive for women. This increased expectation of physical appearance has allowed men to share the burden and social pressures of body image with women. It is no wonder South Korea has the largest capital in plastic surgery than any other country, according to Business Insider. Over the years, procedures for ‘double eyelids’ and rhinoplasty (nose jobs) have increased for women as well as for men, who desire the ‘kkotminam’ aesthetic.

Whether or not it’s your thing, K-Pop is big and is consumed by a global audience. The music, beauty and fashion trends that the Hallyu Wave has presented to the world have redefined the male and female image ideals.