In 2005, a fictional historical epic about a tyrant king who falls in love with his royal jester became the new obsession of South Korea. In The King’s Man, the jester Gongil is brought to kneel before King Yeonsan-gun, pleading for the life of a fellow clown. Upon seeing Gongil—who the film portrays as an androgynous beauty—the mighty despot descends from his throne and kneels in front of the humble jester to ask, “Are you truly male?”
The movie drew a record 1.23 million Koreans to theaters. Its success was universally attributed to the effeminate beauty of the actor playing Gongil, whose newfound fame also drew attention to the Ggot-mi-nam boom in East Asia. Literally translated as “Flower Pretty Boy,” the idea behind the Ggot-mi-nam boom, prominent in Korea, Japan, and other Asian nations, is that males with feminine features are especially attractive and deserve prominence in popular culture.
In Korea, the media, fashion, and entertainment industries heavily reflect the social climate. In addition, Korean popular culture often reflects a broader East Asian culture as it is currently the dominant popular culture throughout Asia; Korean pop culture, referred to as Han-Ryu or literally the “Korean Wave,” tops all Asian music charts, box offices, and television ratings. And today these new trends regarding androgyny in Korean pop culture indicate the current gender identity revolution in Korea, and more broadly, in East Asia.
Fascination with Androgyny
For millennia, strong Confucian norms have been engrained into Korean society. For Koreans, it has always been of the highest importance that every individual knew how to play his or her part in society. Korea’s traditional ideal male image has been that of strong, dominant masculinity, while the ideal female image has been linked to submissive tranquility.
Siwon Choi, a member of the Korean pop sensation Super Junior, made his international film debut starring in the 2006 movie A Battle of Wits alongside renowned Hong Kong actor Andy Lau. At 20 years old, Choi enjoys tremendous popularity throughout Asia and is ranked as one of Korea’s most successful and prominent celebrities.
Choi, considered the quintessential Ggot-mi-nam, told The Yale Globalist that he defines a Ggot-mi-nam as “an attractive male with pretty facial features, but someone who still retains his physical masculine appeal and characteristics” as opposed to a psychologically androgynous individual, “who is not necessarily good looking, but feminine in his actions.” Choi went on to say, “It seems that fascination with androgynous features is true in all Asian nations. However, it is my personal impression that each Asian country has a different taste for pretty males. In China and Taiwan, people prefer sharper features, while in Japan, people like men who are manly but gentle at the same time. In Thailand, they seem to enjoy a mix.”
Choi’s observations of popular sexuality in East Asian cultures today are perhaps supported by psychology. According to Professor Marvin Chun of the Yale Department of Psychology, fascination with feminine male faces is true all around the world. As he told the Globalist, “Evolutionarily speaking, women tend to favor men who are likely to be good caregivers, and feminized facial features are viewed as one marker for such traits. The increased exposure in the media reflects Korea’s positive move towards a more liberal, open, and tolerant society.”
The Boundaries of Androgyny
Choi believes that globalization brought many changes to Korean culture. He thinks that while Koreans of any given era favored good looking males, there was no freedom to express such fascinations in a society which clearly differentiated male-female roles and expectations through Confucian values. Choi said, “Contact with Western culture, spearheaded by American pop culture, which began around 1945, greatly influenced culture and ideals for many Koreans.”
Today, male androgyny in East Asian pop culture has become predominant in film, fashion, music, and animation industries—so much so that critiques in these fields commonly say that “androgyny is the key to success.” There have even been attempts such as in films like The King’s Man to further exploit androgyny by linking it to homosexuality or bisexuality. But Korean culture is still strongly governed by strict Confucian and religious values that leave little room for these new ideas. Attempts are mostly considered provocative and experimental, seeking to profit off of new and shocking concepts.
When asked how he feels about male actors portraying sexually ambiguous roles, Choi, who acknowledged himself as a conservative and devout Christian answered, “I will respectfully refuse any such offers. While I respect all genders, I do not wish to acknowledge homosexuals as I have been taught that God created Man and Woman with specific characteristics and duties. I realize that with globalization, there are many [entertainers] who do not share my views. There are those who are value-oriented and those who are success-oriented. However shouldn’t an actor deliver an image to his audience through roles he chooses to portray, based on his beliefs in life?”
Liberation and Empowerment
Female androgyny is also on the rise, though to a lesser extent. Last summer MBC, one of Korea’s three major public television and radio networks, aired Coffee Prince, a TV series about a man who falls in love with one of his male employees, only to discover “he” is a woman in disguise. The show enjoyed surprisingly high ratings as it brought in 29.9% of all viewers at prime time hours. Since the show’s success, there has been a noticeable trend among top female celebrities to acquire “masculine” or “boyish” looks by cutting their hair short, wearing male clothing, and appealing to their audiences in non-conventional female character roles on TV.
According to Sang Yup Lee, Producer and Director at MBC, the most important target groups in terms of TV production in Korea are women between their 20s and 40s. In modern day Korea, women of this age group have emerged as the principal consumers of popular culture. Their newly gained financial independence and social status enables them to voice their desires for new entertainment.
As Lee told the Globalist, “Today, women long for a role model, or a character on TV to gain vicarious satisfaction as a goal-oriented and successful woman.” Lee pointed out that this is the reason younger and more sensitive “boyish” males were popular in movies or on television in the late 1990s and early 2000s. According to this logic, Korean women find androgynous males appealing because they enjoy the idea of having more freedom in their relationships. The Ggot-mi-nam character of today is essentially an embodiment of this idealized male.
Such trends have become prominent in a relatively short time-span, with Korean women realizing that they no longer need to repress their dissatisfaction with Confucian ideals of female submissiveness. According to Lee, “This trend is not simply limited to the younger generation. Even when we produce TV shows targeted for women in their 40s to 60s, we often use Ggot-mi-nam characters. The ability for such characters to receive so much love on a national scale is because they come hand in hand with the empowerment of the modern women.”
Lee sees this phenomenon as a positive development. To him, established gender roles might work in traditional agricultural societies, but are no longer useful or even desirable in the modern world. “Of course, just because this is true in the entertainment business does not mean that all people have changed their perceptions of gender roles. Television shows verge on fantasies and territories governed by desires. Therefore, they may be somewhat ahead of their time.”
This new cultural phenomenon reflects Korea’s changing social climate, in which males and females are increasingly breaking away from the age-old and stereotypical Confucian norms. These norms have long held sway, but today Korea is approaching global standards of gender equality. Many other East Asian nations are undergoing similar changes. If Korean popular culture is any indication, traditional gender norms might not dominate other parts of society for much longer either.