Matching skinny jeans and sweaters in shades of pastel, long hair with sweeping bangs, copious amounts of eyeliner—to the average American consumer, these sound like characteristics of female singers. However, to the average South Korean consumer, these features are completely normal for male K-pop groups, if not endearing. Despite having witnessed the youthful, teen spirit vibes exuded in “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction or “Baby” by Justin Bieber,” if you showed the average American photos or videos of K-pop groups like SHINee, she would probably laugh and make fun of their soft or “effeminate” appearances. It seems that despite the widespread demand for appreciating individuals for their diversity, the U.S. remains torn and often hypocritical in its long-held views of ideal masculinities and portrayals of men in media—and these views seem to particularly manifest themselves with regard to foreign pop artists.
In the book “Korean Masculinities and Transnational Consumption,” author Sun Jung discusses the idea of “hybridity” in K-pop culture. She explains that part of the exotic, otherworldly intrigue surrounding K-pop is its successful hybridization of stereotypical, Western masculinities (think Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator” or the male Abercrombie & Fitch models with washboard abs) and more culturally traditional Korean masculinities (men who hold to the Confucian ideals of exhibiting “a tender exterior and a strong inner will”—and the exploitation of these hybridizations.
In present-day South Korea, K-pop “idols” are considered the epitome of masculine attractiveness, but they are portrayed in two incredibly different ways—either as “kkot mi nam” (literally translated to “flower boys” in reference to their cute, feminine appearances) or as “jim seung dols” (literally translated to “beast idols,” in reference to “beastly” masculinity). The “flower boys” dance to cutesy choreography and overemphasize their youthful innocence, as seen in Teen Top’s song, “Be Ma Girl.” However, these groups inevitably “grow up,” and their images transform to become more “tough” and “manly”—Teen Top’s latest hit illustrates this drastic shift in appearance.
“Beast idols” often draw upon elements of “gangster” and hip-hop aesthetics, such as the push-up dance choreography paired with dark, ripped-up clothing seen in “One Shot” by B.A.P. These performances emphasize images of stereotypical, tough, rough men and are closer to the ideal American understanding of what constitutes a real man. Groups like 2PM, BEAST, and B.A.P have wholeheartedly taken this approach. These groups perform songs with lyrics and concepts that seem over-the-top with their appropriations of tough masculinity, at times even performing completely shirtless or “fighting the system” in their music videos. Yet in public appearances, such as in TV shows or interviews, they show up with a softer demeanor: youthful, boyish hairstyles and bright, colorful clothing; copious amounts of BB cream to accentuate their fair, blemish-free complexions; and “circle lenses,” or heavy eyeliner, to highlight their eyes. Sometimes, they even cross-dress entirely or sport long, sleek hair and are confused for women completely.
In these ways, male K-pop idols are a long way from the macho men that the Western world seems to idolize. They walk a fine line between seeming more feminine and approachable on the outside, while exuding qualities of stereotypical “manly men” on the inside. For instance, consider artist Taecyeon of 2PM—he is expected to act “cutely” and “gentlemanly” on a faux-marriage television program, “We Got Married,” but likewise expected to sport a “chocolate ab” physique—in other words, a defined pair of six-pack abs—in order to be a “true” man. Thus, it seems K-pop male artists must not only perfect dance moves, fluid rap styles, or strong vocals, but also must perfect the art of gender performance.
And then consider groups like Big Bang—one of the most lucrative groups in the current K-pop scene. In their trajectory into the K-pop industry, their songs and music video concepts have propagated images of being tough boys from the streets (case in point: “Bad Boy”), but they constantly balance out these images of rough exteriors with softer concepts on TV, such as in their Baskin Robbins commercial or parodies of female girl group dances on TV shows. By purposely crafting a balance between the both extremes (“flower boys” and “beast idols”) they have been able to attain their long-lasting appeal.
Sun Jung uses the term “soft masculinity” to describe a non-national, hybrid construction—one that combines “traditional” masculinity with “cute” masculinity, thus approaching a “global metrosexual masculinity.” This seems to be the masculinity idealized and wholeheartedly capitalized upon by the K-pop industry. This idea is perhaps especially fitting for a society that is torn between its historical past intertwined with Confucian thought and its modern industrialization with a desire to reach global audiences. The confusing and at times contradictory portrayals of males in K-pop are all part of a greater multi-layered, culturally mixed, and strategically manufactured marketing ploy, but also extremely fitting to the greater social changes witnessed in the nation of South Korea.
—Staff writer Soy Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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