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[TOONING IN] Putting a new face on Korea’s beauty debate

Stories about makeup and style find ways to challenge society’s strict expectations
June 10,2019
Webtoons that revolve around the subject of makeup, from left: Naver’s “Makeup Cleansing Man” (translated), “True Beauty,” Daum’s “Get Ready With Me” and “Maebungu.” [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Web comics are referred to as webtoons in Korea, a portmanteau of web and cartoons. Major portal sites such as Naver, Daum Kakao and Nate have their own webtoon sections, while comic-only services such as Lezhin and Mr. Blue provide hundreds of varieties suited to different tastes. In recent years, webtoons have become so popular that some have inspired TV dramas and movies, and cartoonists themselves have become big-name celebrities.

From simple and humorous cartoons to works that deal with sensitive issues, webtoons and the discussion surrounding them provide an insightful look into contemporary Korea. With its new Tooning In series, the Korea JoongAng Daily will examine popular webtoons and what they can reveal about society.

For most women, an essential part of getting ready in the morning is putting on their makeup. The color of their eye shadow or lipstick may vary according to their mood or their outfit, but for many, leaving the house without makeup is not an option.

Though some argue that putting on makeup is a way to boost their self-esteem and not meant for others, the fact that many women feel pressured to put on makeup and adorn themselves daily has been a heated issue among Korean feminists in recent years.

On the one hand, some advocate for people to wear whatever makes them feel best, while others point to makeup being another means of society regulating and oppressing women.

“In the past, it was deemed a feminine instinct to want to look good, and nobody posed any questions about it. It was just the right thing for women to dress up and put on makeup to look good for men,” said Yun Ji-yeong of the Body & Culture Institute at Konkuk University.

As sentiments evolve, webtoons are reflecting the many different viewpoints that women have on the issue.

“We may not have a clear consensus yet, but the fact that people began questioning it is meaningful. And because webtoons can reach an audience much bigger than books or dissertations, it is likely to have an impact in the long term.”

The webtoon “Makeup Cleansing Man” on Naver reflects the many viewpoints that people have regarding their appearance. The series carries a message that while it’s human instinct to want to look your best, society turns that instinct into a burden. The story revolves around makeup artist Cheon Yu-seong and college student Kim Ye-seul, who end up competing together on a TV show. Yu-seong is the man who puts makeup on Ye-seul, who has never had the chance to learn the intricate art of makeup before meeting Yu-seong.

The first episode, which was uploaded last May, was harshly criticized by readers who said it was “uncomfortable to see another work that fortifies people’s stereotypes that everyone should be pretty.” But later episodes revealed that the webtoon was focused on doing just the opposite: questioning why people wear makeup in the first place.

In episode 28, Ye-seul competes for the title of expressing “a truly red lip.” While others take photographs wearing red-colored lipstick, Ye-seul’s team comes up with a black-and-white photograph that shows her face covered with hair except for her lips. “What do you think the color of my lips are in the picture? Does it look red?” she asks to the audience. “It’s actually not red. But why would we think that my lips look red? That’s because that’s the most common thing. We talk about being unique all the time, but what we end up wearing on our lips are colors that resemble red.”

Ye-seul finishes her speech by saying, “If makeup was really for expressing our individuality and was for self-esteem, then we wouldn’t think that these lips were red,” and she eventually wins the round. Other episodes also pose similar questions, such as whether it’s OK for children to imitate adults and wear makeup, whether you have to be skinny to be pretty, or whether being pretty is necessary at all. The subtle love story that develops between the two main characters is fun to follow, but for anyone who has had second thoughts about makeup, “Cleansing” is a must-read.

“Get Ready With Me” on Daum Webtoon has a similar story, but takes a different approach. Main character Jeong Geu-rim is the owner of a makeup salon who gets scouted by Cha Ji-wook, the head of the operations team at cosmetics brand Olbi. Unlike other makeup salons, Jeong focuses on what the clients want, rather than applying the typical makeup styles seen on TV. The interesting thing about this piece is that it gives very thorough and detailed makeup tips, like those seen in tutorial videos on YouTube.

In the first episode, Geu-rim explains to her visitor that if you’d like to look more mature, then you should make your eyebrows thinner, have them point slightly upward and use an eyebrow pencil just a tone brighter than your natural hair so that it doesn’t stand out too much. The tips that come with each episode are similarly quite useful for anyone who would like to change their makeup for the better.

Then there are works that use makeup to talk about something else or praise it for making people look prettier. While Daum’s webtoon series “Maebungu” talks about how women were mistreated during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Naver’s “True Beauty” series is a teenage rom-com that makes readers believe that inner beauty will never actually be as important as outer beauty. While it has yet to be seen whether the author is trying to deliver a surprise message or not, the webtoon’s first 59 episodes - which the author has described as “a very long introduction” - features extremely beautiful and handsome main characters who are all quite obsessed with their looks and are ashamed to go outside without any makeup. Perhaps if the title wasn’t “True Beauty” and wasn’t a story about high school students, it wouldn’t be so outrageous.

The corset-free movement took Korea by storm last year, when women refused to adorn themselves in a way that was traditionally deemed feminine by society, ridding themselves of long hair, skirts and makeup. Whether it was OK to force other women to do the same or criticize them for being “slaves of social norms” became a much-debated subject.

It’s never right to force anyone to do anything they do not wish to do. Yet perhaps the fierce arguments may bring about more discussion about whether people actually enjoy their daily labor in front of the mirror.

BY YOON SO-YEON [yoon.soyeon@joongang.co.kr]