Elwood 5566

Chicken Tonight?

Posted in Comparative, Entertainment, Gender by 노강호 on January 23, 2012

I am still fascinated by the differences in culture between gyms in Korea and those back in the UK. British gyms are always male dominated, not necessarily in terms of numbers but by the hyper-masculine aura that many men exude and if there are two places which demand a more masculine manner, they are the gym and the changing room. Numerous inflictions conspire to induce this aura: strutting about like a peacock, chest out and arms slight bowed, minimal eye contact, and an intense, focused facial expression. And the small group of hard-core muscle-men are always visibly aggressive, snorting, huffing and puffing as they pump their muscles often encouraging each other, if they have ‘spotters,’ with raised voices not too dissimilar in tone and content  from the old-school drill-sergeants I remember from basic training. British culture oozes aggression but you are only ever likely to notice it if you have lived abroad for long periods of time.

exercising ajummas

Most days my Korean gym is dominated by glitzy ajummas. Ajummas are married women, between 30-60, who have usually had children.  There are numerous images of ajummas lingering among the expat community and they are the butt of many jokes and perhaps one of the most common stereotype of the ajumma are of middle class ajummas who have salaried husbands who have free time to frequent coffee shops, restaurants and gyms in little gaggles. The ones frequenting my gym often wear sequined bling-bling tops, silver or gold stockings and wear make-up that is impervious to sweat. Despite intense workouts to high energy gay-pop (aka, K-pop), few seem to either perspire or grimace. With the school vacations the second most noticeable group are graduating high school boys who train in small groups pumping weights of little more than a few kilograms after which they enthusiastically compare their stick insect biceps. Among the migratory crowd of students and the ajummas, are a small group of hard core trainers who can be found exercising on most days. They are never loud, they train without making an aggressive exhibition and will always smile or talk to you.

apparently, though I can’t be bothered to source it, South Korea has the world’s highest percentage of men with six packs

I don’t think I’ve ever met a macho, hyper-masculine male in a Korean gym! Indeed, some of the Muscle Marys I know, despite their bulging biceps six packs and inflated chests, are quite camp. Six months ago, on a Sunday evening, I was sat in a coffee shop which specializes in cup cakes. I’ve never eaten their ‘fancies but if they’re anything like Korean cakes in general, they will be a disappointment. However, lined up in the cafe window they look visually tempting but you shouldn’t be fooled by the whirls of syntho-cream and Hershey-type chocolateless chocolate. My grandmother was a baker so perhaps I was spoilt and additionally, in my youth, most mothers actually knew how to bake cakes. The Muscle Mary hadn’t even got his frame in the front door before he’d spotted me and beamed a big smile. A little later, as he was leaving, he stopped by my table, and opened his box of cup cakes, under my nose, in a manner reminiscent of a wine waiter. The collection consisted of six exceedingly camp cakes bedecked with ‘hundreds and thousands,’ little whirls and here and there ornamented with the Korean equivalent of smarties.  The he invited me to take one in a manner that was both cute and poncy.

this typifies the high school boys who train in my gym next to the ajummas

A few weeks ago I was working out next to a Muscle Mary I hadn’t seen before. He spent an hour pumping weights and squatting before going to the adjoining gym, which doubles as an indoor tennis court, putting on some gay-pop and then spending 30 minutes doing the campest of dance routines part of which included shuffle dancing – a dance trend which is currently popular in Korea.  Another Muscle Mary is Min-su, a twenty six year old student who in addition to being close to six foot six tall, has the body of a muscled Adonis. He works out most days either pumping weights, doing aerobics or practicing taekwondo or judo, (he has third degree black belts in both). Everything about Min-su is male but his soft, smooth face is that of a big school boy.

a rather amusing photo of boy scrutinizing a yakuza-type’s tattoos in the bathhouse

All the Korean Muscle Mary’s I know, and even some of the tattooed yakuza-types who frequent the bathhouses, are camp. The Yakuza guys usually have a dragon on their back, or perhaps a large tattoo on their thigh. One, whom I regularly see is covered by a busy, interweaving  design of dragons, tigers, manga and hanja script that is so dense he looks like he is wearing a blue, short sleeved kimono. The intriguing tattoo stops above his neck, below his biceps and below his knees. Last week I watched a couple of Yakuza’s in the ‘powder room’  drying their hair, pubic and otherwise, with hairdryers and thought to myself that in the west, and armed with a photo you could easily blackmail them. You can find all the Muscle Marys, and indeed most men and boys in the powered room preening themselves, patting their faces with  lotions and gels and now it’s the academic vacation, there are always a couple of teenagers sat naked on the sofa in front of the powder-room television, pawing, loitering and lingering over each other in a manner totally homo and yet homo-less. No matter how camp Korean men behave, no matter how ‘unmasculine’ (and I’m using that straight jacket of a western definition),  it is rarely interpreted as ‘gay’ or ‘unnatural’.  Within reason, and in Korea that leaves immense scope, campness has little or nothing to do with sexuality and indeed seems to be a natural expression of masculinity, especially among younger men and teenagers.

The actor and ‘pretty boy’ Kim Hye-seong. All of 20 but looking 14. He is currently undergoing compulsory military service.

and after four-weeks basic training and now aged 24, Kim Hye-seong looks even younger…

The Korean star Jo Kwon, has a massive following both at home and abroad and has to be, by western definitions, one of the world’s campest male celebrities let alone the campest in Korea where gay-pop and nanciness are fashionable. But ask Korean girls and even boys why they like him and they will often tell you it is because he is ‘pretty’ or ‘handsome.’ To call any British boy ‘pretty’ is a slur that isn’t to short of accusing them of being gay and most British teenage boys will refrain from making any positive comments about the appearance of other boys as to do so is not just unmanly, but verging on ‘homosexual.’ I know plenty of gay men who can make a value judgement on the attractiveness of women and no matter how much they might do this it fails to make them straighter, but unfortunately, for many British men, to even ponder on the appearance of another male in anything but a derogatory fashion is likely to turn them gay. Most Korean teenagers I know seem quite shocked that in the West we would perceive Jo Kwons behaviour as ‘gay’ or ‘homo.’

Korean pretty-boy supremo, Jo-kwon

Here follows a little biography I found on a fan-site, the source of which is acknowledged in the footnotes below:

‘Jo Kwon (Hangul: 조권, born August 28, 1989) is a South Korean singer and entertainer, leader of ballad boyband 2AM.

Jo Kwon is the longest-serving male trainee in JYP entertainment, having trained for 2567 days; exactly 7 years and 10 days since joining JYP.

He was chosen as the last members of Park Jin Young’s “99% Challenge Project” along with Sunye of Wonder girls.

In 2008, he appeared on MNET’s Hot Blood, a program that showed the intense physical training that 13 male trainees had to go through for the opportunity to debut in either 4-member ballad group 2AM or 7-member dance group 2PM under JYPe.

After getting through the eliminations, Jo Kwon was given the position of 2AM’s leader.

Jo Kwon regularly appears as a regular guest on variety shows such as “Star King” and “Sebakwi”.

He also the permanent member of Family Outing 2.

He is also known as “kkap kwon” because of his kkap dance.

He is the member of Wonder Boys,Boys Generation,Bracademy and Dirty Eyed Girls which are the group which contain idol boys who perform girlgroup’s songs.

He joined the cast of We Got Married on October 3, 2009, coupled up with Brown Eyed Girls member Ga-in.

On June 30,2010 he released his first digital single titled ” the day i confessed”.’

Jo Kwon not only dances like a girl, jiggling his hips, pouting his lips and bending over to extenuate his butt in a manner reminiscent of a lewd Lollita but does so with such accuracy that it exposes the extent to which male and female body movements are gendered at least from a western perspective where men are supposed to dance like men and women like women.

Jo Kwon (born 1989)

It’s always difficult trying to perceive such imagery as Koreans themselves might see it but there is clearly an element who see  nothing out of the ordinary with Jo Kwon’s masculinity and indeed, many Koreans, especially teenagers, find it alluring. The fan-site previously quoted, notes that Jo Kwon’s:

‘room is full with dolls from fans and cosmetics. Even his bedsheet is pink.’ (it was only recently in the UK that men have been able to wear anything pink without some derision)

‘People who call his house and talked to him always think that Kwon is a girl’ (that would be a mortifying insult to levy at a British boy)

‘Kwon’s voice is so high’ (another slur on masculinity)

‘During pre debut days,Kwon is famous for being the male version of actress Choi Ji Wo’ (and another)

However, there are plenty of comments about Jo Kwons muscles and six pack to suggest that  there is a subtle mix of girly and masculine traits required to attach the label ‘flower boy’ to a celebrity or individual – a status greatly admired in Korea and Japan. Recently, he appeared in the Korean edition of Men’s Health, shirtless!

A COLLECTION OF FLOWER-BOY PERFORMANCES

2

3

4. JO KWON WOWING THE TROOPS

Finally – There’s nothing like a piece of chicken…

Big Hit Chicken (BHC). Advertising the allure of ‘chicken’ with pretty boy power

PS. I have no issue with gay-pop (K-pop) or indeed with what my culture would deem ‘camp’ men and would much rather be surrounded by ‘camp’ Koreans than the butch and aggressive type men that dominate much of British and American society. Incidentally, one of Kim Hye-seong first roles was in the gay themed short  movie, ‘Boy Meets Boy’ (소년 소년을 만나다).

Creative Commons License
©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.

REFERENCES

Flower Boy Flesh (Bathhouse Ballads Sept 2010).

Jo Kown Profile (Tumblr)

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3 Responses

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  1. wetcasements said, on January 26, 2012 at 7:01 am

    I know what you mean about the irony (from a western perspective) of “Flower Boys” being the height of masculinity in Korean popular culture, but we almost need another word other than “camp.” In the classic sense camp is all about putting on an act that most everybody except boring straight folk get and understand. Here, irony is almost an alien concept unto itself. IMO, Koreans don’t just misunderstand irony but are kind of offended by it. (E.g., “Saying or doing something you don’t mean? 왜요?)

    Interesting nonetheless.

    • 努江虎-노강호 said, on January 26, 2012 at 11:53 pm

      Agreed! And irony and sarcasm are totally lost on Koreans. Have you ever tried explaining ‘camp’ to a Korean? No matter how you phrase it comes out as a slur.

      • wetcasements said, on January 27, 2012 at 4:37 am

        I find myself saying nong-dam-ya about ten times a day, even to students. I’m probably not half as clever as I like to think I am, but irony just doesn’t work here. In fact, it usually offends.

        And mix in sex issues and, well, it’s a cultural barrier to say the least.


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