A world driven by impactful visuals, complex dance moves and vocals to die for: this is the world of K-pop and Korean pop-culture. Most K-pop boy bands present themselves under a colourful, soft light with bright hair colours and gender non-conforming fashion. However, in the West, Many cannot digest the rise of K-pop as it is the ultimate threat to stereotypical toxic masculinity.
Toxic masculinity can be described as the constant stigmatizing of expressive emotions for men or anything that goes beyond the box of traditional male gender roles. It is the tough, muscular, angry bad boy image that apparently sweeps women off their feet. It has been making rounds in the media for decades and respectively affecting the behavior of men and especially how heterosexual men perceive themselves. A stark reflection of society’s toxic masculinity can be seen in the character of Jordan Belfort from the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, who reeks of this entitlement and privilege.
Most K-Pop boy bands defy these gender norms. They are known for often wearing feminine associated colours like pink, red, yellow along with beautiful earrings and flawless skin. At a first glance, the common bigoted response is “they look like women”, which is yet another example of how deep-rooted toxic masculinity is in our society.
The most well-known K-pop boy band, BTS (‘Bangtan Sonyeondan’ translates to ‘Bulletproof Boy Scouts’) has taken the world by storm. With their new English single, Dynamite, topping the charts and creating Grammy buzz, they are often compared toThe Beatles. The level of craze received from their fan base called “ARMY” is unprecedented, but what sets them apart is their stage presence. Their concerts radiate a magical sense of energy and passion for music and performance.
The most common sight on fan cams is of the members of the band singing up close with one another and showing affection on stage- a rare sight with western boy bands. They are essentially saying one does not need to portray physical strength to validate one’s masculinity. It can also be done through being emotive and breaking down gender norms. During their first virtual concert on Oct. 13, most members of BTS did not shy away from showcasing their overwhelming gratitude to their fans especially Park Jimin when he broke down.
Whether it is being expressive and showing a sensitive side of one’s personality or following gender non-conforming fashion, it is a fact that BTS presents their true selves to the public eye. In an interview, Park Jimin said that when he was younger he wanted to be “a strong man” but now he “does not have to pretend anymore” to do so.
The phrase “kkonminam” which translates to “a man as beautiful as a flower” gained popularity in the mid-2000s in South Korea. It is used to refer to men who take an interest in their looks such as K-pop stars. The phrase does not hold any gender or sexual orientation binding. In South Korea, putting effort into one’s appearance and looks is the norm. On any regular working day in Seoul, most people on the subway would be looking their best from head to toe. There are beauty and skincare shops in every corner. It is not uncommon to see K-pop stars and even regular Korean men wearing face packs at home and having a skincare routine. It is a revolutionary idea in the west for heterosexual macho men to be taking care of their looks and skin.
With K-pop becoming a global phenomenon, the skincare and beauty industry in South Korea has boomed. There is a rise in the export of beauty products. Over $625 million worth of cosmetics were exported from South Korea to the US last year. K-pop is exporting the South Korean music and beauty industry whilst also dismantling toxic masculinity.
Eradicating the normalization of traditional masculinity will take time but K-pop has sparked the conversation. Western pop stars like Harry Styles and Luke Hemmings have also jumped on the bandwagon of challenging gender norms. Harry Styles does it through his nails and clothes and Luke Hemmings did it on his Instagram through glitter make-up. Bigoted comments are prevalent for anyone posing a threat to societal norms but it has not stopped these stars. As RM or Kim Namjoon, the leader of BTS said in his 2018 UN General Assembly speech, “We have learned to love ourselves, so now I urge you to ‘speak yourself’.”
Link to the song “Dynamite”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdZLi9oWNZg
By Tanya Kaushal.
Image: Jimin Memories Gallery on Flickr