The Woes of the Flower-Boy Image

The Woes of the Flower-Boy Image


An Evaluation of South Korean Masculinities

Photograph of Republic of Korea soldiers wearing camoflauge fatigues and pointing machine guns juxtaposed with a photograph of Taeyong NCT performing in a pink camoflauge shirt
Left: “ROK soldiers intergrate into Bagram’s base defense” (2011), Senior Airman Sheila deVera, U.S. Air Force; Right: “170614 Taeyong NCT – Cherry Bomb Showcase (1)” (2017), Only Ü Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Collage by Sammy Tavassoli.


This article discusses the evolving dynamic of modern and contemporary South Korean masculinities in popular media, which blend hybridized masculine and traditionally feminine attributes in a culturally transcendent form to attract global audiences. Korean masculinities can be roughly divided into two parallel umbrella categories: the more obvious forms of traditional masculinity, and aesthetic androgyny, a softer masculinity that appropriates from feminine gender presentation while still benefiting from hegemonic institutions. While the two appear to be in conflict, the former has actually acted as a foundation for the latter’s influence in patriarchal Korean society, and both exclusively promote the greater privilege and authority of the men who conform to their standards. As a result, many women and sexual minorities experience still harassment and abuse at the hands of men who ascribe to these masculinities. The South Korean military, due to its compulsory and hierarchical nature, has become a primary site for institutionalization and propagation of hegemonic masculinity within Korean male populations.


On one of many occasions, Park, a member of the South Korean military, witnessed a fellow soldier being hazed into drinking from the filth-ridden toilet bowls located within their army base. He knew his superiors suspected the man of homosexuality, and he could not continue to submit himself to complicity in the man’s abuse. After finally mustering the courage to report his superiors’ actions, Park would be rewarded with a kind of humiliation that would rot him to his core. His superiors would forcefully subject him to a public sexual display with the soldier he defended, later ostracizing both of them for their alleged “perversions.” The abuse would lead them both to turn to suicide, beating their heads against the boiler-room wall until enough blood came out for them to die. It wouldn’t work. And then, they would be institutionalized within a psychiatric hospital before reporters from Western media would arrive to document their story.1

This narrative, adapted from a CNN investigative report on firsthand experiences being LGBTQ+ in the South Korean military, remains just one of many accounts regarding how any deviations from Korean masculinity norms can prove near deadly. Fortunately for many South Koreans,2 this type of interpersonal violence based on sexuality has become quite rare outside of exclusively male-dominated spheres, such as the military base described above. While these male-dominated spheres endorse both biological maleness and chauvinistic power as integral parts of their traditional masculinity, the combination seems less attractive in other circles, even as it once was the foremost ideal for men. In fact, numerous hybrid forms of masculinity, classified hereafter as soft masculinities, have more recently permeated throughout Korea as alternatives, hybridizing both normatively feminine and masculine characteristics into their ideal projections of a man. One type of Korean soft masculinity, aesthetic androgyny, describes men who embrace their identities and privileges as biological, heterosexual men yet also project more conventionally feminine gender presentations for their own benefit.

The most obvious examples of those who display aesthetic androgyny can be drawn from Korean entertainment, specifically K-pop singers and television actors, whose behaviors and appearances correspond to the desirable aspects of both men and women in modern Korean society. As a result of the Korean media’s popularization of the more feminine male ideal, what was once a hybrid, alternative form of masculinity has entered the mainstream: Aesthetic androgyny has become a hegemonic identity for men to uphold alongside the more traditional ideal masculinity. For public figures, its characteristics compel a broader audience to become attracted to these men, who often deviate from cultural norms just enough to be nuanced or interesting but not to be called deviants; greater public appeal generates greater revenue. As a result, aesthetic androgyny can be more aptly defined as an appropriation of femininity in a masculine context than as a true ‘hybridization.’

To understand how these two forms of Korean masculinity impose any institutionalized influence, it is important to recognize the fact that both masculinities are forms of hegemonic masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity “refers to the most culturally exalted forms of masculinity—configurations that justify dominance and inequality.”3 Regardless of whether they resemble traditional masculinity or aesthetic androgyny, they have both become ideals that separate the men with social authority from those who yearn to conform but cannot. And yet, aesthetic androgyny and traditional masculinity seemingly contradict each other as different men attempt to conform to their greatly distinct visual ideals to achieve their specific vision of male prowess. Specifically, because different regional populations in South Korea prescribe to different epistemes of masculinity, there arises a conflict between those who embrace aesthetic androgyny as a novel form of masculinity and those who consider it a first step toward sexual deviance. This conflict between traditional masculinities and aesthetic androgyny can affect both heteronormative Korean men and Korean men who are of sexual minorities.

As the compulsion to conform to the newly codified aesthetic androgyny has secured influence over younger generations of Korean men, it has also caused them to be scorned by older generations of conservative Koreans, as well as conservative Westerners, who deem aesthetically androgynous gender expression too emasculating. Conversely, not conforming to the masculine ideals sustained by aesthetic androgyny leads these Korean men, particularly in Seoul, to feel less desirable than men who achieve conformity.4  As for men of sexual minorities, aesthetic androgyny presents itself as less a blessing and more a curse, as they find their gender expressions normalized, so that they experience less harassment in day-to-day life, but their previously distinct expressions of sexuality appropriated without reaping any benefits. They do not have access to the same social rewards in having an androgynous gender performance as heterosexual Korean idols and men in the entertainment industry do, simply because their sexualities already violate the Korean standard of heteronormativity.

Moreover, the classification of homosexuality as a self-selected “perversion” or “psychological imbalance” in Korean society marks the joint cascade of violence perpetuated by both forms of Korean hegemonic masculinity, traditional and aesthetic androgyny.5 Considering that both endorse heteronormativity and cisgenderism, men who prescribe to either ideology feel they must compensate by defining themselves as extremely heterosexual especially after performing more traditionally feminine behaviors. Even K-pop singing idols who flamboyantly engage in feminine gender expression and homoerotic kinship with members of their idol groups can be quick to reject homosexuality as a deviation from morality and religion. Their social rejection, long since institutionalized in Korean schools and workplaces, allows open acts of prejudice, discrimination, and violence to appear more acceptable; it also detracts from efforts to normalize sexual minorities within the country. Likewise, older Korean men and conservatives residing in less modernized regions will denounce not only the K-pop idols who are producing a new wave of hegemonic masculinity but also the men of sexual minorities who adhere to the same soft masculine ideals. Their combined violence takes shape most prominently in the military bases at which all South Korean men are required to serve for a minimum of two years.

As both aesthetic androgyny and traditional masculinity impose conflicting ideals of men upon South Korean society, their influences become additive rather than subtractive, with both shaping gender ideologies of different demographics. Their primary overlap remains their subordination of homosexual men, making it so regardless of differences in ideology, both perpetuate sexual violence against minorities. In order to evaluate the nature of this South Korean violent masculinity, this essay will explore how the mainstream ideal of the Korean man transformed over time, the implications of superficial soft or feminized masculinities, the conflict between aesthetic androgyny and traditional masculinity, and finally the process of institutionalized masculinities becoming violent masculinities. It will also briefly examine the impacts these masculinities exert on South Korean women to disprove the assumption that new waves of superficially feminine, hybridized masculinities can improve their social standings.

Past Literature on Korean Masculinities

The initial, modernized version of an ideal man within South Korean culture very much reflected global influences, for the South Korean entertainment industry was attempting to broaden its worldly impact using readily consumable media that transcended the boundaries of culture and country of origin. Sun Jung, a pioneer in early Korean gender studies, developed the theory of “transcultural masculinity,” explaining how through blockbuster films in particular, Koreans first strived to recreate figures analogous to Western action heroes. Jung states, “the concept of ‘Korean cinema’  . . . which is obviously rooted in the West, flowed into this country by means of the extension of capitalism, and it adapted to its non-Western public as a form of national entertainment.”6 These Western influences, as Jung stated, became localized and transformed within South Korean society in a process of “cultural hybridization” that made them distinctly Korean, beyond their Western roots, but still globally appealing.

Jung elucidates that, both in films and in contemporary media, South Korean men project varying types of masculinities that uphold the same frame of hegemonic ideals. This frame is based upon three overarching value sets of masculinity: “patriarchal authoritarian masculinity, seonbi masculinity, and violent masculinity.”7 The first emulates the ideal Western standard of men, which emphasizes men refraining from “feminine” behaviors, such as watching televised soap operas or deferring to a spouse for decision-making in the household. The second, seonbi masculinity, is a paradigm wherein “men are expected to remain separated from daily domestic labor,” usually in dutiful pursuit of knowledge.8 The final cultural institution primarily regards the violence South Korean men who fail to uphold the former two ideals of maleness and turn to spousal or intimate partner abuse, as Jung then describes in the example of a Korean melodrama, Happy End (1999). This combination of behavioral norms collectively defined the typical man within traditional hegemonic masculinity in Korea. Additionally, these three consistent masculinity values have been adjusted and manipulated throughout the modern and contemporary eras as the dominant version of hegemonic masculinity changes. Although they appear to constitute traditional masculinity over aesthetic androgyny, certain aspects of each value set have remained present in both masculinity subgroups, as will be described later.

Sun Jung’s pioneer book on Korean masculinities, Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption: Yonsama, Rain, Oldboy, K-pop Idols, also discusses four primary types of contemporary hegemonic masculinity: the soft masculinity of prince-like men; a global masculinity with Western appeal; a postmodern or cool masculinity that defies Western standards of traditional or heroic masculinity by instead prioritizing the strength shown by admirable but tortured men in isolation; and finally, manufactured K-pop versatile masculinity, which is a contemporary combination of masculine and feminine features in one cohesively masculine identity. All four recent iterations of Korean masculinity uphold the three facets of the general Korean hegemonic masculinity framework, and all have transcended cultural boundaries by embracing their “Koreanness” in a way that does not detract from their appeal to global audiences.

The distinct types of masculinity that Jung highlights can be conglomerated into two general types of Korean masculinity: one which is aesthetically and performatively more traditional and one which appears to violate those norms: namely, the traditional and the aesthetically androgynous masculinities discussed above. According to Jooyeon Rhee, the more traditional form of Korean hegemonic masculinity (or “traditional masculinity”) “is characterized by patriarchal domination over women’s bodies, labor, and emotion; and which is normalized and legitimized by social practices and institutional measures.”9 As Rhee states, the subordination of women encompasses elements of global masculinity, cool masculinity, and even some of the initial soft masculinity, which aimed for ethereal royalness, therefore modeling superficial connections to beauty and power more than connections to femininity. As for the appearance of the ideal Korean male, it was best defined by the “husky, angular leading men of South Korean dramas from the 1990s and 2000s” who possessed “macho physiques” over gentle or effeminate looks.10 In short, being a man in Korea prior to the late twentieth century required clear indications of physical strength and authority over women; these characteristics acted as gender distinctions, a term signifying a distinct separation between one’s own gender and that of others.11 Because a gender binary—the notion that gender is divided into only male-bodied and female-bodied individuals—largely pervaded South Korea at the time, being a man placed one almost automatically in opposition with femininity.12

The more recent androgynous style of Korean hegemonic masculinity embraces similar patriarchal characteristics but does so under the guise of a superficial inclusion of what was once mainstream androgyny; it combines elements of prior soft masculinity, global masculinity, and K-pop versatile masculinity, and is thus dubbed “aesthetic androgyny.” In spite of the emphasis on macho appeal prior to the popularization of K-pop, a new fascination with “Korean flower boys” quickly erupted once Korean entertainment companies began mass-producing idols that captivated audiences with their hybrid masculinity. In this hybrid masculinity, individuals who benefit from “hegemonic masculinity can appropriate elements from subordinated and/or marginalized masculinities to perpetuate dominance” in “a new hybrid configuration of gender practices.”13

K-pop idols achieved hybrid masculinity by appropriating feminine innocence and cuteness alongside an otherwise chiseled physique. The levels of feminine innocence and masculine appeal were varied according to audience preference; aesthetic androgyny was favored by Japanese fans, who felt it mirrored their own bishounen, or pretty boy aesthetic; contrastingly, manliness and traditional masculinity were prized when appealing to Western or Singaporean audiences, demonstrating how masculinity transformed into a variable to adjust for optimally profitable performances.14 The appropriation of visually feminine aspects in an otherwise boyish man culminates in the idealized “flower boy” figure, which is gentle but still distinctly male, and evokes soft masculinity. According to BBC reporter, Saira Asher, many flower boy K-pop idols bear a combination of feminine, cosmetically-perfected facial features, vibrant designer clothing and hairstyles, extremely muscular figures, and perfectly sculpted jawlines.15 Some of their appearances even derive inspiration from queer or androgynous fashion, though they do not tend to purposely pay homage to those influences. Male K-pop idols also engage in behaviors previously considered effeminate, including aegyo, the Korean concept of manufactured, child-like acts of cuteness.16

In some regards, the shift in values pertaining to masculinity may be a source of positive influence, as it removes Korean manliness from being in direct conflict with femininity. “The way they (K-pop stars) play with masculinity, what it means to be a beautiful man in a heterosexual or non-heterosexual way, it opens up possibilities for men on the street and eventually makes it more acceptable,” Joanna Elfving-Hwang from the University of Western Australia states.17 Nevertheless, this more androgynous expansion of the institutionalized male ideal does not reduce the detrimental effects the hegemonic institution of masculinity itself induces upon Korean society.

It is important to note that aesthetic androgyny does not merely include visually superficial feminine gender performances. Rather, an example of superficially androgynous behaviors can be drawn from Korean cooking television programs, which usually feature cisgender-conforming individuals. In these programs, men violate the norms of emotionally stagnant traditional masculinity by cooking, an act which is associated with strong feminine passions and domesticity.18 Although the male chefs seem to defy the norms of traditional masculinity in participating in a previously more feminine sphere of work, their behavior does not deeply challenge the social hierarchy by which men’s designated roles dominate women’s. In fact, by featuring the male chefs in authority positions, rather than positions of the student or taste-tester, these cooking shows only open up the possibilities for hegemonic masculinity expression. The men are “empowered by femininity that disempowers women in real life,” as they reach televised authority by dominating women in the domestic sphere, which they once had sole control over.19

Conversely, the female actresses invited to serve on these cooking shows assume the roles of students or sexualized “tasters,” who consumed unrealistically large amounts of food while still presenting slim and beautiful figures. The eroticism derived from these female taster portrayals can be loosely classified as a form of food porn, as it pairs the ideal image of a slim woman, enforced by patriarchy, with a shocking twist of gluttonous consumption. This reinforces the media as an institution of, if not an arena for, supporting the patriarchal hierarchy, not a place for defying its values.

In a similar context, Korean men in the K-pop industry have moved beyond only utilizing their aesthetic androgyny for its lucrative nature and to using it as a tool for institutionalized oppression of those who do not fulfill the standards set by hegemonic masculinity. With the advent of the “Burning Sun Scandal,” in February 2018, it became obvious that some male Korean idols employed their aesthetically pleasing and nonthreatening images as visual appeal to distract from their repeated violation of women, particularly illegal sex workers.20 These Korean idol stars had their careers sustained by the institutions which rewarded them with wealth, renown, higher class status, and almost untouchability for conforming to masculinity’s superficial ideals. Soon after achieving fame, some fell into scandal as they sexually imposed their dominance on Korean women, whom they secretly filmed during sex, sold for prostitution, and even raped.21 That these stars abused the very systems that granted them social and economic authority provides evidence against any notions that aesthetic androgyny benefits women or femininity’s status in the public eye.

There remains, however, literature that conflicts with the assessment that Korean hybrid masculinities do not challenge patriarchal gender binaries. In a 2017 analysis of the Korean hallyu, or pop culture wave, in Malaysia, Korean soft masculinity was seen to be a beneficial alternative to the traditionally hegemonic form of masculinity enforced by the Malaysian government.22 As Mary Ainslie notes in her 2017 article “Korean Soft Masculinity vs. Malay Hegemony,” in a standardized, authoritarian context without frequent, superficial hybridizations of masculinity and femininity, aesthetic androgyny and soft masculinity became genuine deviations from the norm that enabled Malaysian fans of Korean pop culture to better experiment with gender expression. The reason behind this genuine ‘hybridization’ in Malaysia as opposed to South Korea relied on the fact that traditionally feminine behaviors stayed coded as feminine when displayed in Malaysia. In Korea, they were instead integrated into a broader range of gender expressions consistent with hegemonic masculinity. Because the distinctions of the gender binary and associated gender performances in Korea have been blurred by multiple eras of soft masculinity, femininity no longer conflicts with masculinity so much as functions as a lesser alternative that can be embraced, given the proper context of an otherwise hegemonically masculine man.

Impacts of Multiple Masculinities in South Korea

Given the two contrasting ideals of men in South Korea, two parallel mechanisms of hegemonic masculinities have emerged. For aesthetic androgyny, hegemonic institutionalization includes the obligation many Korean men feel to cosmetically alter themselves so that they may achieve the ideal beauty standard. In a 2007 study, more than 40 percent of Korean teenage men reported harboring a desire to undergo plastic surgery for lifestyle reasons, which included increasing future employment prospects.23 For these men, succeeding in Korean society required adhering to a standard of physical manliness they did not possess. By surgically altering themselves as they strived to achieve the appearance idealized within aesthetic androgyny, they engaged in systematic patriarchy by affirming the standard male ideal as a necessity for career success.

Still, one may wonder how this widespread appearance anxiety in young men can possibly be a facet of patriarchy or male dominance, if it indeed is based on feminine beauty. Aren’t women empowered, at least for their appearances, by a feminized form of masculinity? Ironically enough, female Koreans who attempt to reap similar benefits from aesthetic androgyny find themselves ridiculed for embracing its feminine ideals only because they are not biologically male. For instance, women who overtly undergo plastic surgery or perform the same manufactured aegyo cuteness as aesthetically androgynous male idols are often labeled desperate and fake, especially if they cannot aptly please their audiences.24 They have even become a common gag on Korean variety shows, underscoring the inclusion of feminine ideals in aesthetic androgyny as appropriation rather than empowerment.25

In actuality, many young South Korean men who identify with aesthetic androgyny do not perceive themselves as feminine but rather experimenting with a new kind of male standard. In an interview with CNN, Roald Maliangkay, a prominent theorist on South Korea’s evolving standards of masculinity, admitted that even Koreans who do not engage in this pseudo-hybrid masculinity feel similarly, stating, “It may appear as ‘effeminate’ to non-Koreans, but it’s probably better described differently . . . While many Koreans will continue to find, for example, applying makeup odd for men, they will not associate that with any effeminacy.”26 This way, the standard maintains its hegemonically masculine status for Korean youth.

As Maliangkay hinted, not everyone in Korea is as positively receptive of the new, cosmetically enhanced male ideal. Yeonseok Jeong, a native resident of Busan, explains, “Outside of Seoul, the K-pop standard is not necessary. The older generation might think of it as weird, but for us [young people], it is a standard the media has enforced so often.”27 Because those outside of Korean cities largely influenced by the entertainment industry may not be as exposed or willing to conform to the recent K-pop ideals, they may simply adopt hegemonic institutions of traditional masculinity over those of aesthetic androgyny. By each prevailing among different demographics of Koreans, the conflicting ideals can coexist, even as some discrimination among men who conform to different masculinities can also occur. Simply put, because both types of masculinity maintain prevalent institutionalized power, the individual-level conflicts between men who endorse only one of them do not take away from their widespread influences on the population. Rather, men who align with the standards of traditional masculinity tend to target men who prescribe to aesthetic androgyny but do not have as much institutionalized power due to other factors, such as their class or sexuality, and vice versa.

It seems rather than undermining the expansion of aesthetic androgyny, traditional hegemonic masculinity acts as a foundation for it. Traditional masculinity has already managed to institute the subordination of women and men deviating from traditional male ideals, giving room for aesthetic androgyny to do the same, though it projects different standards of alleged manhood. Their combined effects result in an augmentation of subordinated masculinities, or “configurations of masculinity with the least cultural status, power, and influence,” with potential to become violent masculinities.28 The two masculinities’ balancing of dominance in Korean society occurs as individuals of both groups assert a kind of subordination onto each other. As Pascoe and Bridges noted, “hegemonic masculinity is historically and contextually mobile,” and its mobility may cause those from different generations to express frustration at the prospect of losing their dominant and desirable statuses.29  As the dominant audience of Korean pop and other modern entertainment, young people tend to embrace ideals of aesthetic androgyny, while their older counterparts still look towards the traditional masculinity standards set prior to the twenty-first century. A common example of this relates back to the Korean military, whereby hyper-masculinized senior officers in each division attempt to assert their dominance on newer recruits through actions which embolden their own sense of traditional masculinity while humiliating their victims.

In the case of South Korean men who denounce aesthetic androgyny but adhere to traditional hegemonic masculinity, their reaction may simply be a reciprocal effect of their fear of no longer benefiting from masculinity, as they wonder if aesthetic androgyny may begin to overshadow traditional masculinity altogether. In a way, their rejection of the masculine ideals they cannot achieve is a kind of compensatory masculinity: “acts undertaken to reassert one’s manliness in the face of a threat.”30 In their frustration against being in a position of potential subordination, traditionally masculine South Korean men may ridicule Korean flower boys by comparing them to homosexuals, effectively reducing them to a state of marginalized masculinity, as non-idealized sexuality comes into play in a discussion of their gender expression.31

As expected, in an effort to retain their power within and defined by hegemonic masculinity, aesthetically androgynous Korean men, including K-pop idols, vehemently deny allegations of homosexuality or even their support for it. Siwon Choi, a member of the idol group Super Junior, publicly declared, “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.”32 By utilizing religion and morality as an argument against homosexuality, Choi both eliminates the possibility that he will lose his status as an icon of aesthetic androgyny and places sexual minorities in a category of definite marginalization outside of the aesthetically androgynous.

On the other hand, in the eyes of homosexual men, the newfound freedom to express femininity as a male in aesthetic androgyny may provide an easy outlet for nontraditional or hybrid forms of gender expression without deviating from social norms. However, because certain emasculating behaviors that previously expressed marginalized, queer masculinities have become heteronormative through aesthetic androgyny, these men may often have trouble being recognized by other non-heteronormative members of society; “coming out” also comes as more of a surprise to their peers, who perceived their behaviors as perfectly heteronormative. In fact, many Koreans still interpret “coming out” as a sexual minority as an explicit choice or even a willing admission to sexual perversions, rather than a brave expression of the self.33 In essence, aesthetic androgyny has capitalized on and mainstreamed forms of both femininity and queer masculinities, reduced the latter two’s dominion over their once-distinct forms of gender expression, and continued to subordinate those who cannot conform to its new male ideals. Consequently, although queer or hybrid masculinities have become semi-normalized, widespread acceptance of homosexuality still has yet to occur, with only 39 percent supporting its normalization in South Korea.34

Violence Against Sexual Minorities in the Military

Given that one dominant intersection between aesthetic androgyny and traditional hegemonic masculinity lies in their marginalization of homosexual men, the violence perpetrated against those men comes two-fold⁠: from those men whose masculine presentations resemble prior queer subcultures and from those men they can easily recognize as traditionally masculine. Violence and intolerance for homosexual love has long since maintained prevalence in South Korea, as the nation has banned gay messaging services and has yet to legalize same-sex marriage, adoption by same-sex parents, or even homosexuals openly serving in the South Korean military.35 In fact, the male-dominated environment of the Korean military severely amplifies the emphasis on hypermasculinity and powerful male dominance, leading to a rejection of all deviations from them, including homosexuality. Those caught having homosexual intercourse or even gay sexting during their time in the military can be jailed for six months, a form of institutionalized violence in itself.36 But for many homosexual males, it is the interpersonal violence exacted on them during their mandatory military service that crumples their will to survive, not the institutions against them.

As in the case of Park, the soldier who was driven to suicide by his peers’ ostracizing, even associations with homosexuality can profoundly damage a man’s reputation and livelihood in South Korea, more so following a dishonorable discharge from the military. Serving in the South Korean military is perceived as an honorable rite of passage that all men, even the most affluent K-pop idols, must partake in. When asked about his feelings regarding his imminent military enlistment, Seokjin Kim of BTS (one of Korea’s current top idol groups), clarified that he considered it a natural duty for Koreans, not a burden, and that his group would approach it with their absolute best in mind.37 With such high value placed on service, a discharge or arrest due to any harmful allegations has the power to devastate a man’s later prospects in life, whether in terms of employment or interpersonal relationships. No doubt, a stain on one’s military record is a stain on one’s life. The hierarchical structure of the military places men in explicit positions of dominance and subordination relative to one another, heightening the testosterone-infused atmosphere’s propensity for outbursts of violence. Because longer-serving men gradually obtain official positions of superiority, they also obtain the freedom to inflict brutal interpersonal violence and hazing measures on the inferiors who violate their convictions about manhood and gender roles.

Regardless of adherence to aesthetic androgyny or traditional masculinity, soldiers afflicted with the stress of inferiority in rank or obsessions with superiority in rank pursue measures to further assert their dominance by targeting men within marginalized masculinities. They feel that because they are somewhat segregated from the societal institutions that provided them the comforts of hegemonic and patriarchal institutions, they require a second outlet for imposing superiority. The easiest common target for these men unfortunately becomes the men suspected of homosexuality. To them, men who entertain the notion that anything outside of heterosexuality and adherence to hegemonic masculinity is valid are automatically placed into positions of humiliation and subordination. The best cases end with two years of paranoia, dodging “gay-witch hunts” that involve superiors randomly inspecting the cellphones and belongings of suspected homosexual men. The worst cases end with senseless hazing, toilet bowl water, death, arrest, and the sensed loss of one’s future life.38

According to CNN’s 2019 report, during one homosexual soldier’s period of conscription, after outing him, his superiors repeatedly engaged in sexual abuse and harassment until he finally mustered the courage to speak out. When the man, identified as Jeram, was hospitalized following his persecution, the faced repercussions for “disobedience.”39

‘Even if I shoot you here, it will simply get covered up as a suspicious death and that will be it,’ the soldier told Jeram. ‘Then, the compensation your family would receive will be even lower than for a military dog.’40

Other examples of blatant prejudice against gender and sexual minorities in the military include the targeting of a transwoman still required to enlist for two years due to her biological sex. The officers instructed her to act more like man, even threatening to insert an umbrella inside of her because she sought to be treated like a woman.41. Again, these acts of discrimination and harassment reveal that neither aesthetic androgyny nor other past hybrid masculinities has fundamentally disrupted the social order which enforces a binary opposition of masculinity and femininity. Those who identify as feminine are still sexually harassed and threatened with the kind of assault that aligns with the patriarchal ideology of men oppressing women through sexual domination. Moreover, those who defy the norms of the gender binary, or even just do not comply with norms of hegemonic, heteronormative masculinity, still experience rejection and ridicule, both for alleged “sexual deviance” and because they are the population without institutionalized power in society.

The institutionalized discrimination and culture of assault in the military bears greater implications regarding the treatment of the LGBT+ community in Korean society. In actuality, many Korean men do not perceive their time in the military as an isolated time of enlistment but as possible guide for the remainder of their lives. A 2019 study on the enduring influence of the mandatory military service on Korean men included testimony from a man who had long since completed his enlistment and revealed, “‘The college and my company resemble the military . . . I learned the basics [of how to be a man] in the military, practised it in college, and now I am using it in the company.’”42 The gender practices common to the military environment become blueprints for later social orders, as their organization establishes an enduring, not transient, patriarchal order amongst men.43 Lee et. al.’s theory postulates that through mandated practice, these social relations become habits that are carried on through college years and into the workplace, transforming the military into a primary institution for fortifying the stronghold of patriarchy and the influences of hegemonic masculinity in South Korea. Such an analysis strongly implies that the discrimination against marginalized masculinities, like that against homosexual men, will proceed until the military structure enforces its decline through institutionalized repercussions.


Within the current social climate of South Korea, there remain two prominent forms of hegemonic masculinity: traditional masculinity, which arose from Korean culture hybridizing globalized and Korean values of visibly manly masculinity, and aesthetic androgyny, which resulted from the popularization of soft masculinity and Korean pop idols with flower-boy features. The two ideals of masculinity are harbored by different demographics, as older or more traditional, conservative Koreans endure less exposure to recent trends in Korean gender expression, such as Korean flower-boy culture, and opt for traditional masculinity standards. Meanwhile, much of the younger generation prefers to embrace the masculine-feminine hybrid characteristic of aesthetic androgyny. Instead of canceling each other’s influences in a competition for cultural dominance, these two types of hegemonic masculinity persist as separately intact, excluding one point of convergence. Both forms of masculinity rely on the subordination of Korean sexual minorities, particularly homosexual men, from which they derive their hegemonic and dominant position in the status quo. Homosexual men in South Korea can receive their most brutal and traumatizing treatment while serving in the South Korean military, an institution which promotes the formation of exclusively male hierarchies and can devolve into an environment for their abject subordination by superiors who cannot be touched.

Not only does the rampant homophobia in the military reaffirm the acceptability of previously socialized homophobic and hegemonically masculine practices, but it also normalizes them throughout the Korean male population. Because almost all South Korean men must enlist in the military for a minimum of two years, this kind of institutionally endorsed prejudice influences nearly every man in the nation. Moreover, many men report that their military enlistment functioned as a period for developing the sense of masculinity that they embodied in their later lives and careers. Thus, the primary implication of Korea’s multiple forms of hegemonic masculinities lies in its reinforcement of a social system that imposes prejudice and punishes the communities of individuals who do not conform to hegemonic standards. Although the number and types of men that can meet the standards of ideal masculinity have increased with the expansion of aesthetic androgyny and soft masculinity in Korea, the hegemony itself still remains. And, more importantly, its damaging implications are still painfully felt.


  1. James Griffiths, Jake Kwon, and Paula Hancocks, “Gay and Trans Soldiers Say They Were Abused in South Korean Military,” CNN, July 11, 2019.
  2. South Korea and Korea will be used interchangeably hereafter.
  3. C. J. Pascoe and Tristan Bridges, Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Continuity, and Change (Oxford University Press, 2015), 18.
  4. Roald Maliangkay, “The Effeminacy of Male Beauty in South Korea,” The Newsletter, Winter 2010 (55): 6–7.
  5. Young-Guan Kim and Sook-Ja Hahn, “Homosexuality in Ancient and Modern Korea,” Culture, Health and Sexuality, 2006 8(1): 59-66.
  6. Sun Jung, Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption: Yonsama, Rain, Oldboy, K-Pop Idols (Hong Kong University Press, 2011), 9.
  7. Jung, Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption, 29.
  8. Jung, Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption, 29.
  9. Jooyeon Rhee, “Gender Politics in Food Escape: Korean Masculinity in TV Cooking Shows in South Korea,” Journal of Popular Film and Television, 2019, 47(1): 57.
  10. Crystal Tai, “South Korean Men Having Plastic Surgery to Get ‘Pretty Boy’ Looks and Macho Physiques of Their K-Pop and K-Drama Idols,South China Morning Post, July 24, 2017.
  11. Lisa Wade and Mira Marx Ferree, Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions (W. W. Norton, 2015), 94.
  12. Wade and Feree, Gender.
  13. Pascoe and Bridges, Exploring Masculinities, 162.
  14. Jung, Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption.
  15. Saira Asher, “Flowerboys and the Appeal of ‘Soft Masculinity’ in South Korea,” BBC, September 5, 2018.
  16. Unpopular Opinion: Enough with the Aegyo Bashing!,” SeoulBeats Opinion, October 16, 2012.
  17. Joanna Elfvling-Hwang quoted in Asher, “Flowerboys.”
  18. Rhee, “Gender Politics in Food Escape,” 56.
  19. Rhee, “Gender Politics in Food Escape,” 60.
  20. Jake Kwon, Sophie Jeong, and James Griffiths, “K-Pop in Crisis: Scandal Threatens to End the ‘Korean Wave’ and Exposes Culture of Toxic Masculinity,” CNN, March 21, 2019.
  21. Griffiths, Kwon, and Hancocks, “Gay and Trans Soldiers Say They Were Abused in South Korean Military.”
  22. Mary Ainslie, “Korean Soft Masculinity vs. Malay Hegemony: Malaysian Masculinity and Hallyu Fandom,” Korea Observer, October 2017 48(3): 609.
  23. Roald Maliangkay, “The Effeminacy of Male Beauty in South Korea,” The Newsletter, Winter 2010 (55): 6–7.
  24. Unpopular Opinion,” SeoulBeats.
  25. Unpopular Opinion,” SeoulBeats.
  26. Roland Maliangkay quoted in Jessica Rapp, “South Korean Men Lead the World’s Male Beauty Market. Will the West Ever Follow Suit?,” CNN, January 28, 2019.
  27. Yeonseok Jeong, personal communication, October 9, 2019.
  28. Pascoe and Bridges, Exploring Masculinities, 18.
  29. Pascoe and Bridges, Exploring Masculinities, 18.
  30. Wade and Ferree, Gender, 142.
  31. Pascoe and Bridges, Exploring Masculinities, 2015.
  32. Super Junior’s Siwon Confirms He Is Against Same Sex Marriage,” SBS PopAsia HQ, September 11, 2015.
  33. Young-Guan Kim and Sook-Ja Hahn, “Homosexuality in Ancient and Modern Korea,” Culture, Health and Sexuality, 2006 8(1): 59-66.
  34. Pew Research Center, “The Global Divide on Homosexuality,” June 4, 2013.
  35. Sam Manzella, “How Gay-Friendly is South Korea?” February 5, 2018, Newnownext.
  36. Griffiths, Kwon, and Hancocks, “Gay and Trans Soldiers Say They Were Abused in South Korean Military.”
  37. Scott Baumgartner, “BTS Addresses Mandatory Military Service in South Korea Interfering with Music,” ET Online, April 21, 2019.
  38. Griffiths, Kwon, and Hancocks,  “Gay and Trans Soldiers Say They Were Abused in South Korean Military.”
  39. Griffiths, Kwon, and Hancocks, “Gay and Trans Soldiers Say They Were Abused in South Korean Military.”
  40. Griffiths, Kwon, and Hancocks, “Gay and Trans Soldiers Say They Were Abused in South Korean Military.”
  41. Griffiths, Kwon, and Hancocks, “Gay and Trans Soldiers Say They Were Abused in South Korean Military.”
  42. Jin Lee, Melika Shirohammadi, Lisa M. Baumgartner, Jihye Oh, and Soo Jeoung Han, “Warriors in Suits: A Bourdieusian Perspective on the Construction and Practice of Military Masculinity of Korean Men,” Gender, Work, and Organization, October 2019, 26(10): 1468.
  43. Lee et al., “Warriors in Suits,” 1469.
Back to Top