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Soft Masculinity & K-Pop

Soft masculinity has become a gender-bending aesthetic that has established itself as an important part of the changes in the identity and perception of the word 'man'. South Korea is a country that’s been promoting soft masculinity through their means of public diplomacy like K-Pop and K-Drama's. In South Korea, the ideas about the term masculinity or good looks for men have been changing, and this has also been influencing the rest of the world. However, the question arises as to how the deep-eyed hyper-masculine culture that was prominent in Korea has now started evolving and shifting to the softer side of the term masculinity.

The characteristics of soft masculinity were first observed during the Silla Period. Hwarang also known as the Silla’s flowering knights, were regarded as a culturally elite class who were well versed in- philosophy, combatting techniques, religious teachings and literature. The term flowering knights was used to refer to the physical beauty of these young men, who were also mindful of their physical appearance. One might call this metrosexual identity in modern terms.

Sun Jung introduced the concept of soft masculinity and linked it to a product of trans cultural amalgamation, which she referred to as chogukjeok. The Korean term for a flower boy is kkotminam, which has started to replace the pre-existing image of a rough, touch and macho South Korean man .

Kkotminam in korean dramas and k-pop

Bae Yong Joon is a significant actor who introduced kkotminam images in Korean dramas. With his drama Winter Sonata, which also happened to play a key role in the beginning of the Korean Wave, Bae Yong first introduced the concept of soft masculinity, which was later popularized by Korean drama series and Korean boy groups. Korean male idols were trademarked to dress well, have delicate features and beautiful skin, and wear makeups.

The pretty boy phenomenon enabled the play of gender possibility by erasing the line between the two genders: male and female. K-pop plays a key role in erasing this line; G-Dragon, a member of the K-pop boy group Big Bang, became the first male model of a red lipstick for SAEM. This played a key role in breaking the impositions of gender and sexuality on makeup and fashion. The K-pop boy bands that helped impart the idea of applying makeup and being confident about it around the world were EXO, Big Bang, GOT7, and BTS. These bands created countless headlines in the West to embrace both the softer and harder aspects of masculinity.

BTS albums and soft masculinity

BTS is a K-pop group that has consistently gained global recognition for their songs and has increased popularity of the K-pop industry. Tamar Herman once said that:

"Many K-Pop groups now create concept albums, album series, and story world, but none have done so as effectively and organically than BTS."

BTS chose not to stick to a particular genre. Instead, they have been exploring different genres and challenging themselves in terms of music. Their song 'I Need U' from their album The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Pt 1 is said to be more of a revolution than just a song. The typical use of elaborate storylines in music videos began with BTS albums. The song portrayed the start of young adulthood, and its rawness focused on an uncertain future that coexisted with beauty. During this time, American and European artists such as Taylor Swift, One Direction, and Justin Bieber were more focused on the romantic aspects of a heteronormative relationship. On the other hand, the meaning of the lyrics of I Need U by BTS was recognized by the queer-identifying people, who could not relate to the lyrics of the song by Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, and One Direction. With this, BTS became a voice and representatives of many who were struggling with their own daunting explorations.

Going back to 2013, when BTS made their debut with their title song “No More Dream,” the concept involved dressing the members in black and white with bold gold accessories. Their styling at that time reciprocated the meaning of masculinity. The K-Pop groups in those times were bound to portray rebellious, macho, and bad boy images, which aligned with the ideal type of masculinity in the media.

Professor Oh describes toxic masculinity as ‘suppressing emotions or masking distress,’ ‘maintaining an appearance of hardness’ and using ‘violence as an indicator of power.’ When a man does not possess these characteristics, he is often seen as ‘feminine or weak, especially in Western cultures' . Some of the traits of this type of masculinity can be seen in the music videos of the BTS group before 2015. Instead of terming their music videos at that time as toxic, it can be said that their videos were directed at strict limitations of masculinity. The member SUGA of the group, in an interview with Amazon Music once said

“When I was growing up, all the hip-hop artists wore really baggy pants and clothing. But right now, it’s skinny fit everything. If a hip-hop artist dressed like that back then, some would’ve said, ‘You’re not a real hip-hop musician'".

The song I Need U was equally important to the group. With this song, they began exploring positive ways of expressing their own forms of masculinity. Over the years, one particular member of the group who has been struggling with images of masculinity is Jimin. Park Jimin is one of the main dancers and also a main vocalist of the group. He is known for his high-pitched vocals, which are stunning, but many people criticized his vocals, as his voice was similar to that of female singers. The criticization was not just limited to his voice, but it further expanded to his facial appearance, which was also compared to a feminine structure. The fandom of the group has been celebrating the duality of Jimin, but the harsh comments left around the Internet had affected him a lot during the debut year. He became quite self-conscious of these differences.

Jimin talked about how there was a transition in his mindset in a promotional interview for their album series, Love Yourself. He said,

“I think I wanted to appear like a strong man.”

His style of performance, which had previously been typical signs of masculinity (flexing and showing abs), now shifted as the group started embracing the new motto “Love Yourself.” In an interview with Rolling Stone he had talked about his struggles of loving himself,

"We've been telling people to really love themselves," and he continues, “This year, I began to tell myself these things."

While embracing the motto’ “Love Yourself” he began embracing his duality and felt less obligated to appear masculine. He says,

“Now...I don’t have to pretend. I can just be myself, talk about myself without pretending anything.”

Breaking fashion and beauty stereotypes

BTS speaks out against toxic masculinity in numerous ways in terms of fashion by wearing skirts, fishnets, corsets, makeup, and jewelry. They also celebrated their freedom of expression by wearing gender fluid pieces on stage. ARMY has always been enthusiastic and has supported BTS in their bold choice of fashion, which also encouraged other K-pop groups to break gender norms. Some of the iconic pieces worn by K-Pop idols are EXO Kai’s leather crop top, SUGA’s fishnet, Jimin’s plaid miniskirt, and RM’s corset.

Accepting a softer look at masculinity was not limited to fashion. Asians have a naturally round face with soft complexions, glowing skin, and small eyes, compared to the sharp features and facial hair of Western men. Kevin Woo of the group U-KISS was from San Francisco. When he made his debut, he experienced culture shock. He said that while growing up in the US, most celebrities were mainly muscular and had facial hair. He was unfamiliar with males using makeup and was confused about how Koreans described masculinity. He said that, contrast to men from the US, Korean men had a feminine side, a slim figure and put makeup on. K-Pop idol Holland when asked about makeup said,

“In Korea, makeup has no gender or sexuality. Makeup is not just for women or necessarily feminine. It's for everyone”

BTS also started being noticed for their, “bright eye shadows and pastel-colored hairstyles, while also showing that they are taking care of their complexion, which is not normal for men. The change in male idols applying beauty products caused not only women to become more interested in K-beauty, but also men started to become influenced to become as desirable as an idol.

Korean men maintain skincare regimen grooming practices, genderfluid fashion, and cosmetic use. However, to Americans this type of behavior contradicts their definition of masculinity. Cosmetic companies such as BeREADY and SNEAKY marketed cosmetic items specifically targeting men and emphasized that the application of these products differed from that of women’s products. In America if a man were to wear makeup he is said to use ‘girly’ products. In K-Pop, idols are considered influencers who have been promoting the use of cosmetics and makeup by men and promoting soft masculinity on social media sites, across billboards, and on television to normalize men using them. BTS was the campaign model for the cosmetic brand VT Cosmetics in 2018. The clip showed members appearing in different settings, striking a pose, and gazing at the camera. Words and phrases like- ‘I Respect, ’ ‘Your Passion, ’ ‘Emotion, ’ ‘Color’ and “Style’ appeared with each member.

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