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An Informal Review of Sun Jung’s “Korean Masculinities”: Part 2, or Why We’re Not Going to Talk about Bae Yong Joon

Crystal S. Anderson, PhD

Elon University

So, Nabi has given you a pretty good overview of the book and our general observations of it. Chapter 2 includes Sun Jung’s reading of the masculinity represented by Bae Yong Joon. We here at KPK have pretty strong opinions because most of the time, we are fairly confident in what we’re talking about.  This is the reason why I’m not going to talk about Sun Jung’s analysis of Bae Yong Joon. I haven’t seen Winter Sonata, so I can’t tell say anything about her reading of the way “middle-aged Japanese women” (her phrase) read Bae Yong Joon’s masculinity.

But that’s doesn’t mean I don’t have things to say about this chapter, because she talks about more than Bae Yong Joon. I was really struck by the way she framed her discussion of Bae Yong Joon by talking about “pretty boys” in Korean popular culture in general. What really caused me to paint the page in ink with notes is when Sun Jung talks about the presence of “pretty boy bishonen images” in South Korean popular culture (58).  Here is one quote that caught my eye:

Pretty boy bishonen images appeared in the South Korean entertainment industry in the late 1990s.  There have been many beautiful men and pretty boys in the history of global entertainment. Some of the most obvious examples are Alain Delon, James Dean, Marlon Brando and Brad Pitt (58).

Ok, some of y’all may not remember, but here is James Dean:

Yes, he’s attractive, but Sun Jung seems to do this math:  beautiful=attractive=handsome=pretty.  There’s a certain disconnect here for me, because she goes on to suggest that you cannot have these all in the same person, especially if that person is a male Korean idol.   James Dean is attractive, but I don’t know if I’d call him “pretty.” I’d call him rugged, rebellions, attractive, but his persona never struck me as “pretty.”  James Dean represents a kind of masculinity that is RADICALLY different from what she talks about next, which is a “pretty boy” or “pretty man.”  She uses the Korean term kkonminam, which she says is a combination of flower and beautiful man, and she defines it this way:

Generally, kkonminam refers to men who are pretty looking and who have smooth skin, silky hair, and a feminine manner.

But she never says what she means by “pretty looking” or “feminine manner” and I don’t know if I’m down with defining “pretty” using “feminine manner” for men, because I would describe James Dean in many ways, but “feminine manner” isn’t one of them. Ok, but this isn’t a book about James Dean, it’s about Korean popular culture. Fine, let’s see who she considers to be “pretty boys:” HOT, Shinhwa, SS501, TVXQ, SHINee.  You know these groups are not similar nor do they stay the same over time.  She does not recognize that Korean idol groups have a tendency to adopt a variety of concepts over time, and while they are never NOT attractive, she does not allow that they are attractive in a variety of ways, and as a result, reflect different kinds of masculinities. There are different kinds of pretty. If I must, I’ll use Shinhwa as an example. Here is just a smattering of the different concepts Shinhwa has done, all of which seem “pretty” to me:

Sporty Shinhwa

Classy Shinhwa

Pimptastic Shinhwa

Boys Next Door Shinhwa

Are they unattractive? Let’s be real, this is Shinhwa.  But Sun Jung suggests that “pretty” boys are all the same, “pretty” in the same way. I would suggest they are different ways to be pretty, and that “pretty” brings along with it different kinds of masculinities.

Here’s another issue I have: what does “feminine manner” mean? She could explain this, since she’s using it to define the masculinity of these groups, rather narrowly if I may say. But she doesn’t.  What is the relationship between “pretty” and “feminine?” She says “pretty” boys have “feminine manner.” Um, no. It is no secret that I like my male Korean idols “pretty.” I like it when they pay attention to the way they look and how they dress.  It in no way makes me think that they are not masculine, because I have a concept of masculinity that includes men who are attractive and well-groomed. Once again, into the Way-Back machine. People used to take pride in rolling with smooth skin and silky hair, and they were as manly as they come:

Clark Gable

It seems like Sun Jung is trying to make an argument that “pretty” boys have “feminine manners,” and therefore represent a “soft masculinity.” No matter how many times I read that, it seems that “soft masculinity” is second-rate masculinity, not “real” masculinity.  I think that people can see “pretty” boys and not think “feminine manner.”   Because after watching TVXQ’s Keep Your Head Down, I’m fairly sure that one can be “pretty” while doing some whip dancing and and exhibiting some distinctly not-feminine manners (talking to you, Changmin:  stop abusing your hyung).

Photo Credits: finemoviesonline.net, asiaarts.ucla.edu, 3bpblogspot.com, ec.img.v4.skyrock.com, blunderr.files.wordpress.com, originaloldradio.com

Video Credits:

TVXQ, Keep Your Head Down

4 comments on “An Informal Review of Sun Jung’s “Korean Masculinities”: Part 2, or Why We’re Not Going to Talk about Bae Yong Joon

  1. Pimptastic Shinhwa… haha i love that description XD

  2. Hi Crystal,

    Could you please explain what you would consider the difference between bishounen and kkonminam and their respectives definintions? Thanks!

    • Hi, and thanks for your comment!

      Bishonen is a concept of masculinity that derives from Japanese culture, and one sees a lot in cultural production like manga. Sun Jing describes kkotminam as the “pretty boy” syndrome she sees in Korean drama and K-pop. I think they are similar, but I don’t think they function in the same way. They may appear similar, both revolve around appearance, but bishonen is a representation that erases gender differences, whereas I think kkotminam retains attention on masculinity. I think you also have to take into consideration the cultural contexts that surround each. These terms for masculinity means different things in Korean and Japanese contexts. In terms of Korean popular culture, what I find interesting is that kkotminam is just one kind of masculinity that Korean men in drama and music present. The same guy can be kkotminam one minute, exhibit aegyo the next and then produce a more sophisticated masculinity the next.

      I hope that answers your question!

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