The bra boys of South Korea

An advert featuring South Korean actor So Jisup. Photo by Roald Maliangkay.
10 April 2013
An advert featuring South Korean actor So Jisup. Photo by Roald Maliangkay.

With North Korea propagandists hearing a “sinister swish of skirts” from South Korea’s new female president Park Geun-hye, they overlook even more gender bending south of the De-Militarised Zone, as ROALD MALIANGKAY reports.

The female body has long been used in advertising, often for no other reason than to attract the male gaze, and then redirect it to a product or service. The suggestion is: if men buy the product, they are buying into a style that will attract a girl like the one shown.

In South Korea, however, the roles have been reversed. Perhaps inspired by the notion that most shoppers are female, the vast majority of posters and billboards now offer mostly male celebrities to swoon over.

As with female models, the men are often just there for their looks, attracting the female gaze and redirecting it to a product or service. They are even used to sell women’s bras. The images tell women that if they buy the product, they buy into a style that the model endorses, making them attractive to him. Heck, in the case of the bras, it might even be him who one day helps them take it off.
You don’t hear Korean men complain about the growing obsession with male looks, nor with their commodification; at least not yet. It’s partly because the change has been both radical and recent.

Women were the primary poster models in the early 1990s, when male celebrities still represented the promise of physical and mental stamina. The majority had a brawny get-up-and-go look, wore nondescript dark-coloured comfort wear, and only showed their emotions to the criminals they beat up on screen.

The heavy hit South Korea took in the 1997 Asian financial crisis put a serious dent in the image of the macho male. With women too often the ones laid off first, the idea that power made a man more attractive became ridiculed.

A more effeminate, savvy male emerged; strong in character, but understanding and modest. It also translated into an interest in fashion and household activities traditionally considered the realm of women.

The ideal man now dominating South Korean advertising and TV screens is stylish and fashionable, moves elegantly, and expresses himself comfortably and articulately. Icons of the new ideal,  commonly referred to as kkonminam (kkot = flower; minam = handsome man), use liquid foundation or lip-gloss, have carefully groomed, dyed hairstyles and, unlike their predecessors, wear fashionable, tailored clothing combinations, including brightly colored accessories.

The departure from the earlier male ideal is marked and is found across industries and generations. Koreans have always commented on people’s looks, but now men in their 50s and older are becoming more aware of their appearance, and a growing number of them are doing what is in their power to improve it.

To most Westerners, South Korea’s new-look male models appear effeminate. But Koreans have become accustomed to this new ideal of male beauty, and many men are emulating it. Studies show that Korea now boasts the highest per capita use of male cosmetics, and many men are seeking cosmetic surgery to boost their chances of success in dating and employment.

But it is certainly not for everyone. The majority of men appearing on posters and billboards are celebrities. Although the wide use of cosmetic surgery is making men look increasingly similar, they are often associated not merely with a product, but also with a popular drama, and in some cases, a steamy bed or bathroom scene. That is not something the average worker would ever seek to emulate, nor be able to, as the nation’s corporate dress code remains conservative.

Many studies of the use of female models in advertising discuss the domination and commodification of women through their depiction in patriarchal societies.

What makes South Korea so unique is not only the predominance of male models on posters and billboards, but also the fact that the country remains one of Asia’s most male-controlled societies. Korean society still hardwires men to assume and expect a certain authority as the family’s primary provider. What is more, women continue to be under pressure to conform to a high standard of beauty.

Dr Roald Maliangkay teaches and researches South Korean popular culture and society at the School of Culture, History and Language in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.



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