BreakPoint: Masculinity, Makeup, and ‘Flower Boys’

This problem is more than skin-deep.

By John Stonestreet Published on September 12, 2018

No amount of makeup will cover the fact that more and more men are walking away from vitally important aspects of masculinity.

A recent BBC article introduced readers to South Korea’s latest high-profile export. Not a Hyundai, a Kia, or even the musical phenomenon known as “K-Pop.”

I’m referring to men’s makeup. As the BBC put it, “in South Korea, ideas about how to look good as a man are changing attitudes and influencing the world.”

The BBC takes readers inside a “high-end salon” in Seoul’s trend-setting and prestigious Gangnam district. There, a make-up artist “expertly applies foundation, eyeliner and lipstick on a man,” choosing “from an array of products and brands that will be familiar to most women.”

The goal is to look like their favorite K-Pop stars and television celebrities.

Flower Boys

Let me be very clear. This story is not talking about gay men. Rather, it’s referring to an aesthetic associated with what are called “flower boys” in Korea: “delicate, slightly feminine-looking boys.” They are a staple in Korean drama, where they play a role that’s analogous to the gay best friend that we see in romantic comedies in America.

While unlike the gay best friend they may have feelings for the female lead, they almost never get the girl, in large part because they aren’t taken seriously as men. And that prompts an obvious question: Why would a non-gay male want to emulate these “flower boys” in real life?

The question isn’t limited to just South Korea. As Joanna Elfving-Hwang from the University of Western Australia told the BBC, “I think Korea is a trailblazer in men’s beauty culture, definitely in Asia at the moment, if not the world.” This toying with masculinity, she says, “opens up possibilities for men on the street and eventually makes it more acceptable.”

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Now, whether this aesthetic remains confined to Korea or ends up bringing back a trend we haven’t seen since the demise of the last 18th century French king, the struggle to define what it means to be a man in the 21st century developed world remains unsettled.

We see evidence of this crisis everywhere. One example is what Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute called “the flight from work.” As he writes, “America is now home to an ever-growing army of jobless men no longer even looking for work — over 7 million between ages 25 and 55, the traditional prime of working life.”

To put that in historical perspective, “In 2015, the work rate for American males aged 25-54 was slightly lower than it had been in 1940, at the tail end of the Great Depression. During the Great Depression, jobless men jumped on trains and lived in tents trying to find work. Today, most won’t even get off their couch.

Cultural Idea of Masculinity

The “flight from work” shows how our cultural idea of masculinity has been severed from the role of men as provider. In a related trend, American men are also postponing fatherhood. “The average age of a newborns’ father went from 27.4 years in 1972 to 30.9 in 2015.” This reveals that young men aren’t giving much thought to the idea of being a provider but instead often living for themselves.

Then there’s the role of protector, as Eric Metaxas recently mentioned on BreakPoint. The decline of this ideal is reflected in the history of the expression “flower boys.” The phrase originally referred to a group of men who came together to “learn the military arts and cultivate virtue” in seventh-century Korea.

One of those “virtues” was “bravery in battle.” While they dressed well and even used cosmetics, protection of their society was their primary purpose.

Regaining a proper understanding of what it means to be male in our culture is one of the most urgent cultural tasks we face. No matter how much we insist otherwise, biology, physiology, psychology, even the Bible itself, tell us that men and women are different, both created in their complimentary uniqueness to bring life to the world.


Originally published on BreakPoint Commentaries, September 12, 2018. Re-published with permission of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

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  • Lisa

    I’m grateful for my husband, who is a good provider and quite masculine. I hope my daughters will be able to find good men as well.

  • Dave

    We want to control how men look now.

    • By making them eunuchs so they can’t fight back against “revolution”

    • Bryan

      Doesn’t everybody want to control how others look to some degree or another? We always have some sort of “You should look like this” influence from peers, advertisements, etc.
      From the peer side, there have been articles in the future US as to what a man should look like or act like since the time of the early European colonists in the 17th century.
      This isn’t a new phenomenon. But getting away from the long time roles of provider and protector is troublesome, don’t you agree?

      • Dave

        Not everyone wants to control how others look.

        • Bryan

          Fair, there are exceptions of course. You used the Royal We to allow yourself to condemn whichever group your were referencing through sarcasm. I’m pointing out that this is a nearly universal phenomenon that is likely part of being human, comparing oneself to others and whether they meet our criteria for what they should look like, do, etc.
          Stating “We want to control how men look now” is a childish, overly simplistic summary of the article that imposes your bias on the article without adding to conversation by a dissenting argument or clarification of your opinion.

          • Ken Abbott

            That’s the way trolls roll, Bryan.

  • porcupineman1454

    I have to wonder why this matters, why it’s an issue. I never understood the fuss over makeup one way or another, though. The culture will change how it changes in this regard, and I don’t personally think it matters a hill of beans whether men are wearing eyeliner and foundation in fifty years’ time.

  • Nick Stuart

    “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” —C.S. Lewis

    For decades in North American Evangelical churches and on the “family” and “men’s ministry” lecture circuits men have been depicted as damaged little boys, sex-crazed, women-disrespecting, irresponsible mopes who need to be controlled and civilized by their wives.

    In 40 years, in four different churches, I cannot recall there ever being a sermon on Titus 2:5, 1 Timothy 2:9-15, 1 Timothy 3:1-13, Ephesians 5:22-24 (or Ephesians 5:25-33 for that matter) for that matter. I do recall a lot of Bible studies and Sunday School classes devoted to explaining how those scriptures really don’t mean what the plain text of the Scripture would lead one to believe they mean.

    Until pastors, elders, deacons, teachers, and speakers on the lecture circuits decide to stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong, and begin expounding Biblical teaching on manhood, we’re can expect that “Regaining a proper understanding of what it means to be male in our culture…” is not going to happen.

    • Ken Abbott

      Upvoted for the Lewis citation from “Abolition of Man.” Just as relevant today as it was when written in the 1940s.

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