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Redefining masculinity the BTS way

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In an age where constructions of masculinity are stifling and destructive, Asian musicians are breaking barriers and redefining what it means to be “manly”. The K-pop group Bangtan Sonyeondan (BTS) in particular is reimagining masculinity – and it’s about way more than how they dress. Their growing popularity means that they are creating new standards of how to be a man, write SHAAZIA EBRAHIM and FATIMA MOOSA.

Eleven reasons you should stan K-Pop sensation BTS

Traditional constructions of manhood and masculinity are often referred to in the social sciences as toxic masculinity because of its detrimental social and psychological effects.

via GIPHY

Toxic masculinity is built on machismo and defines a real man as someone who is tough, controlled, dominant, unemotional, “rational”, sex-obsessed and entitled to respect. Masculinity is also framed as the opposite of anything deemed feminine or queer – and being cast as queer or feminine is considered insulting to those who have internalised this view of masculinity.

Asian masculinity has long been fabricated as lesser than other cultural constructions of masculinity – to the fury of many Asian men today. Reddit communities like Asian Masculinity bely the anger of Asian men who suffer prejudice from the feminisation – and thus “emasculation” of Asian men by Western standards.

Actor Eddie Huang, whose memoir was turned into the ABC sitcom Fresh Off The Boat, wrote in the New York Times of the singularity of the Asian-American man’s identity in dominant culture: “We count good, we bow well, we are technologically proficient, we’re naturally subordinate, our male anatomy is the size of a thumb drive and we could never in a thousand millenniums be a threat to steal your girl.” The so-called emasculation of Asian-American men traces back to the 19th century when Asian male immigrants in America were classified as feminine by their white counterparts. In a journal about the feminisation of Asian-American men, Asian men are defined as “human oddities in the mind of whites.” Asian men cut shorter and slimmer figures and wore silk tunics, and they were considered novel and feminine by white men. And this tells a universal story of the feminisation of Asian men in pop culture – and in ideas about masculinity.

But Asian musicians are changing the game. The remarkable thing about them is not only do they embrace Asian masculinity, they also subvert Western notions of toxic masculinity. Asian musicians switch seamlessly between what is considered feminine and what is considered masculine in a way that is thrilling – and liberating. Their tremendous global platform provides them with a means of creating a new norm for masculinity, one that more organic and experimental.

BTS have redefined masculinity in many ways and the most obvious is how they present themselves physically. Being stylish and expressing the self through fashion is considered feminine. But the members all dress in clothing that eschews traditional hard lines of suits or baggy and shapeless jeans and sweaters favoured by hip hop artists for fashion silhouettes that are decidedly feminine. The group is not averse to pastel colours, bright prints, glitter, sequins, flowy cuts – and accessorising with earrings, rings and chokers.

The group always presents themselves with a full face of makeup in a doll-like perfection – be it flawless skin, a sweeping highlight or kohl-lined eyes. BTS has skin care regimes which would put most of us to shame. The members also change up their hair often have had every hair colour from slate gray to bright red and bubblegum blue. This is revolutionary to Western society which largely deems taking care of one’s appearance as feminine.

BTS did regrettably go through a phase during their debut where they espoused toxic masculinity constructions. In songs like War of Hormone, Boy in Luv and Danger, they objectify the women at the centre of the song with lyrics like “Girls are like an equation, us guys just do them (yup). Wear them more, your high heels.” However, the two senior songwriters of the group, RM and Suga responded to these criticisms, saying they now consult feminist lecturers for their lyrics. Growth, I tell you.

BTS’s aesthetic is not the only reason why they have managed to transform ideas about masculinity. They have no qualms about adhering to toxic masculinity constructions about men not being allowed to cry, share their feelings and show emotions. They cry, they share their feelings all without making it seem like a big deal. There has not been a single award show where the group has won an award where they have not cried, tears running down their faces clearly showing how much it means to them.

There are countless videos on YouTube and V-Live (a streaming app from Korea) where the group sit together and talk about their hopes, dreams and anxieties. In one of the series the group did called Bon Voyage where they went on holiday to Hawaii, they wrote letters to each other about how much the other member meant to them, freely sharing their emotions.

Another side to BTS is that they talk about mental health issues. Traditional Korean society is built on Confucian and Buddhists values about diligence and stoicism, according to a Berkeley research paper. While this does not directly affect conversations around mental health, the paper says it has created a cultural stigma around the issue. The BTS members especially Suga, often talk about their struggles with mental health issues.

Suga has released an entire mixtape released under the name Agust D, where he documents his struggles with depression, social phobia and OCD. The group also have written several songs where they talk about societal pressures from parents, teachers and others to be the best.  Not just for subverting masculinity but BTS manages to redefine the way the youth are expected to act in society.

As a Daily Dot article notes, “K-pop is not a healing balm for all the things wrong with the masculinity construct… These idols celebrate who they are with people who love them—and gender roles are forgotten. We’re all simply there together, exuberantly learning who we are.” And it is important for everyone to be able to express their authentic selves in a way that doesn’t tie them down to arbitrary gender roles.

Men should be able to be beautiful, desirable and stylish if they want to be. Men should be allowed to express their authenticity whether that means wearing sequins and highlighter or a baggy pants and a beard. Men should be allowed to cry, and show their feelings and speak about issues of mental health. People should be allowed to embrace who they are beyond the confines of arbitrary gender roles.

And perhaps that is what the growing influence of Asian musicians globally has orchestrated: Asian men can now embrace their identities in all its complexities and allow themselves to be their own authentic selves without feeling emasculated.

via GIPHY

Featured image via Twitter
36 Comments
  1. Jacy says

    Finally! An article worth reading about BTS!
    I love how well-researched this is and how it discussed BTS’s influence in a bigger picture like breaking stereotypes, loving oneself, and more.
    Thank you for this article
    Don’t tell me the author is also an Army? Haha

  2. Mimi says

    This is a very well written article with depth insight and research, as an ARMY i would like to thank you to speak kindly about the boys

  3. Kat says

    This article is just amazing. It was such a great read. Thank you for this.

  4. Dell says

    Gracias, me gusto mucho el articulo, gracias por entender bien quién es BTS

  5. Vida Viva La says

    I am Korean.
    I honestly know the intent of these articles. I am sick of this article.
    The conclusion is that Asian men are not men than Western men. Is not this your conclusion?
    But Korean singers are just decorated by Cody or a makeup artist.
    What about Korean men with only one Kpop singer? What about Asian men? This evaluation is really stupid

  6. Vida Viva La says

    The West seems to be conservative, narrow, and strict about justice for men.
    Their fashion is also limited. Define what clothes you wear that are unmanly.
    In Korea, men are obliged to go to the military, and much emphasis is placed on maleness.
    In Korea, men are obliged to go to the military and emphasize manhood.
    However, Korea and Asia seem to be more open to men than men in fashion or in many ways

  7. hwarang says

    This is written from a very western pov of maleness. I doubt the members of BTS would consider themselves to be breaking down gender barriers either. It’s part of the kpop idol industry to look perfect at all times, hence why they wear makeup and wear flashy outfits (often outfits created by a stylist they wouldn’t have much input in). This article reeks of orientalism and adds to the emasculation and dehumanisation of Asian men by framing what they would consider as normal activities and as part of their job as a ‘revolutionary’ take on gender, thus supposing that it is universally framed as abnormal to do things like care for your skin if you’re male. Actually, this is only abnormal in the west. You’d be be better off writing an article about why westerners are so racist and constantly other Asian men than you would writing an article about why a Kpop group are revolutionary for doing things Kpop groups and other Asian entertainers have been doing for years.

    1. Person says

      I agree. It’s not revolutionary, it’s just very not-done here.

    2. Afreen says

      There are many angles that can be taken towards a particular topic. No matter what the angle, what we should appreciate, in my opinion, is how well written the article is, adhering to it’s perception and not drifting off of the point. What you’re saying is absolutely correct, but at the same time, just the way you said that it’s abnormal in the West, it’s considered “abnormal” in many other countries too, not just the West, countries which have no clue at all about KPop band or culture for that matter. And the main reason/excuse for (not liking) it is that “they dress up like girls/they look like girls”. In such cases, to help make open/broad the minds and thinking of such people, these type of articles are very much needed.

  8. hwarang says

    Also it’s amusing that there’s no mention of the toxic masculinity and misogyny prevalent in Asian cultures. It’s especially funny to see westerners think that because Korean men have nice skin that they are nationally more effeminate and less toxic than Western males are, like there aren’t Korean expectations of masculinity men have to reach (serving your family, your country, etc). A better take would be to stop framing things like emotions etc as part of the masculine/feminine binary in the first place.

    1. ot7bts says

      ^ THIS. There’s sooo much toxic masculinity and misogyny in Asian cultures and among Asian males.

  9. wintersun says

    Such an interesting article…BTS is much more than a idol group anymore, they are role models to young people everywhere…we are quiet proud of them for using their global influence -the right way by way of their music or their UNICEF project…Kudos Boys…

  10. Eve says

    This was a really nice article to read, thanks u so much.

  11. Nel says

    HERMOSO ARTICULO como pocos he leído. Realmente investigaron. GRACIAS POR ESTO!

  12. Pia says

    Thank you.You exposed all the prejudices of our society when it comes to men.My favourite line was “This is revolutionary to Western society which largely deems taking care of one’s appearance as feminine.”

  13. Shreeya says

    Wow! This is such a well researched and informative article esp for new people who are getting to know BTS. They give out such a great message with their music and from just being themselves. It’s true, we forget about the gender roles and just enjoy their music and learn about ourselves.
    I hope people can appreciate BTS and their hardwork and realise living life is beyond gender roles. It’s celebrating who you really are and accepting others as they are. Thanks for the article though!

  14. JL says

    Well said. Nice to know someone actually sees things beyond what it appears…

  15. wxngsagust says

    Thank you so much for this article ♡♡

  16. ana says

    Me encanto! se expresaron de manera muy correcta , ademas de que pusieron momentos muy significativos para los chicos, y algo que me gusto mucho es que hablaron de canciones viejas de ellos que tienen un gran mensaje y valor emocional , no me malentiendan pero era hora de que hablaran de los otros aspectos de su música y no solamente de dna

  17. Becca says

    Personally, I think a better angle to approach this topic from is how Bts and kpop becoming big in America is affecting beauty standards here. Saying that Bts are intentionally breaking gender boundaries is misleading, what they’re doing isn’t revolutionary in Asia or kpop. A better way to frame this would be to celebrate how kpop’s increaseing global popularity is affecting male beauty standards in the West. One of the things I hear most often from fans of male kpop groups is that their standard of beauty shifted dramatically. “Before I got into Bts I liked rugged, manly men but now I’m more attracted to guys who care about their appearance” is something I often hear paraphrased by fans. For example, there’s a decent portion of Bts fans who are former Western boy band fans (like Directioners), and I often hear them lament that they’ve been “ruined” by Bts because they now can’t help but find most of their old favorites sloppy and unkempt looking in comparison. Its less about intentional genderbending and more about culture clash and the effect its having on Western male beauty standards.

  18. Jessica says

    Very good article

  19. Ximena says

    Wow!
    I loved it your article.

  20. Leslie says

    Such a nice article ❤️So truthfull and it really seem you investigated

  21. Ma. Isobel Lorena S. Morallos says

    This is true. Musculinity is not about the size of your muscles or the number of pack of abs. Some men who consider themselves musculine ridicule those who do not have the same physic as they do. But watching BTS, I have never seen men wearing make up or donning pink look more musculine than them. I find them more musculine than the standard male with a pack of muscles. Musculinity is how you express without having to go through the physical motions. Wearing make up confidently without being threatened of your sex. Because men who does this things are assured of their own sexuality.

  22. Charlotte Keith says

    What a thought provoking article. One of the reasons I fell in love with BTS two months ago is because of how confident they are in their masculinity being such as you state here. What also strikes me is their obvious physical affection with each other. I think it would be very healing if not only western men but also western women could be as freely loving and unselfconsciously physical with each other as they are.

  23. Sol says

    I think in many of the comments here are doing a salad with the article. Yes, BTS are not doing anything that other kpop group aren’t doing right now or that weren’t doing in the past. Now, how many of them do you know??
    They are changing the view of masculinity FOR US, western people, because they are popular in western now, no OTHER groups.
    The argument “others did that before” is ridiculous, because nobody knows “others” and don’t care either. It’s BTS the one that drives the change for the fans who follows them.
    I read a really funny comment that says “I’m Korean and you try to says that Korean aren’t men”. English is not my first language either, but even I could understand that is not what is written in the article.
    Is true that Korean society isn’t perfect, no one is. And is true that they need to change things like the rest of the world, but still we can admire and respect the the good things too.
    I think is great what BTS are doing in their fans, like myself, opening minds for new concepts, new points of view.
    Thank you for the article, It was done conscientiously and just with that i’m satisfied but i liked too. Thank you very much.

  24. Mishka says

    Finally some news bout mahthe boys…where the ARMY at? ✌

  25. C says

    There are some problems in the article in my opinion. First, the photo of Jin in the pink outfit really isn’t proof of anything. That’s an outfit they were all made to wear on stage, and I highly doubt most of them would have chosen it. It would have been better to include a photo of them wearing pink on their own time/when they’ve chosen the clothes themselves. Also, they wear makeup because they have to. In their downtime, they don’t. Also, claiming that their past lyrics were objectifying towards women is also a stretch. There was one use of one strong word in BIL that has multiple connotations, but that’s really it. Finally, Yoongi did not talk about having OCD in his mixtape. It’s a mistranslation. He talks about having compulsions, but not OCD the disease.

  26. Maja says

    This is such a great article, thank you so much 🙏

  27. B.L. says

    The accusation that BTS used to really embrace toxic masculinity was unwarranted in my opinion…at least the only real example given was a very poor translation of a lyric from War of the Hormone.
    Please see this link for a better description of these often sited “problematic” lyrics: https://muish.wordpress.com/2016/05/15/bts-fx-sexy-math-lyrics/

  28. N says

    People should pay more attention to what they read…
    There is a difference between idol and common people. Make-up, fashion, acessories are all part of most korean artists life, because visuals are extremely important in k-pop industry. Off schedule, BTS members wear normal clothes and don’t use make-up.
    And I hate this neologism “toxic masculinity”. Or the word “toxic” applied to subjects other than substances, for that matter. It’s so… 2017, to be mild.
    There’s nothing wrong with men being manly either, you know. Men don’t have to run to the nearest skincare shop now to “validate” themselves.
    Another thing, I hate when people bring up songs like War of Hormone. Before you speak about this song, there are plenty of other songs that are actually offensive.
    War of Hormone is just what it is, a song about girls from the point of view of a youbg boy with boiling hormones. There’s nothing wrong with a man complimenting a woman’s physical beauty and attractiveness to a certain limit. If you claim this song as “problematic”, then you will have to invalidate a good chunk of international music as well. There is a whole world of extremely explicit and offensive songs, and you come for a fun and innocent one like War of Hormone? Get out of here.
    And once again, stereotypes, stereotypes… stereotyping asian men as effeminate and spineless. Don’t judge the whole race based on merely the IMAGE of the idols. Behind them are normal humans, who might actually don’t like to use make-up and to bother so much about skincare and fashion.

    One thing is true, BTS didn’t become any less manly, and they are indeed setting the standards high. Yes, even off-schedule, they are well dressed and groomed, and always looking sharp. Well, that’s why they are BTS.

  29. nzl says

    this article is worth reading.the writer nailed it👏. i am proud stanning BTS..

  30. Kekekek says

    Writer you are top notch.

  31. WhalienS2 says

    As an ARMY, I want to thank you for that 🙂
    That’s a good article

  32. Kate says

    This is a real article, someone deserves to be called a real journalist

  33. AsianDudeRepresent says

    Cute article but you can clearly see that it’s written by the wrong person. A woman sitting in SA, enjoying Asian music thinks she’s got a grasp on the actual situation? Hell no. Firstly in terms of kpop idols being embraced as masculine is only true if men actually adopt those things. I love kpop but I’m starkly aware that I’m in the tiny minority of men that actually listen to kpop. And you can see it in the music and kdramas that these types of media are aimed at women. Men don’t digest them as much as women do and this is even more true in the west. In general guys don’t listen to pop music as much as women do so its a terrible marker for what men think. There’s a problem in Asia and that we Asian men face in the west that we are by default seen as less masculine. This means the net result is that Asian men are the bottom of the totem poll and end up being more creepy as they get more desperate and become stereotyped as Indian “bobs and vagene” and Ladyboys.

    In reality men do things that make them attractive to women. I left women weren’t attracted to masculine men you wouldn’t have this “problem”. Why are the men that embrace the ideals feminist describe then not desirable to those same women. Why is your assumption that there’s a problem with men NOT wanting to be wearing makeup and sequins etc?

    All the representations of men in Korea are designed to be desexualised completely and the end result is that these are men women wouldn’t want to be with in real life.

    I’ve learnt over the years that the worst person you can ask about what men should do to attract women is women themselves! Women don’t understand their own sexual proclivities and when they see kpop guys what they’re really interested in is the fact that ita cute to then to see men dressing feminiely. Look at all the adjectives they use -pretty, elegant, cute. It’s more like they enjoy watching kpop guys as puppies than men they’d actually consider being in arelati5 with.

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