For my research paper, I will be exploring the ways K-pop challenges the traditional Westernized stereotypes of male masculinity. It was in the early 2000’s when K-pop became well established and “recognized by global fans through their hybridized form” (Oh, 2015, p.62). K-pop also incorporates a wide variety of music and dance styles from a variety of cultures. According to Chuyun Oh (2015), states, “K-pop performers create a new transgressive Asian identity across orders in the twentieth century through “[what she refers to as] cultural markers, …, sources from hip hop, R&B, techno, electronic, ballad, salsa, modern dance, musical dance, classical ballet and even traditional Asian folk dance” (p.62). It is also important to note that “K-pop is a dance-driven performance that often emphasizes performers’ physical attractiveness and virtuosity” (Oh, 2015, p.62).
With K-pop becoming more of a transnationally well followed and supported musical genre, new studies are being conducted looking into the boy bands of K-pop and their “manufactured versatile masculinity” (Jung, 2010, p. 163). Even then, however, most of the studies that have been conducted focus on the fact that the K-pop masculinity isn’t necessarily true to the persons personality, but more part of the show or the K-pop idols stage persona. While this is a newer topic of study, there still isn’t a significant amount of research that has been done comparing the Western views of masculinity to K-pop idols. Although K-pop originated in Korea, both Korean and Western cultures share similar beliefs of what they deem socially accepted for masculinity with males. However, Korea has started to challenge gender fluidity with the development of K-pop, particularly the boy bands, and has caused Western society to question societal norms of what it means to be masculine. Throughout this paper I will examine the question, In what ways do male K-pop idols challenge traditional Western views of gender and sexuality of men? In doing so I will argue how K-pop boy bands have trans-nationalized the image and meaning of what masculinity is.
The paper will consist of three sections. The first section of this paper will review the K-pop industry of boybands, providing context into how they are selected individually and how the groups are created. It will also examine the dedication and lifestyle of what it takes to become a successful and famous K-pop group. The last part of this section will discuss what goes into the creation of a K-pop idol. Providing context into the image of K-pop idols and the extremes they go to achieve perfection.
The second section of this paper will discuss the wide range of gender images used to depict K-pop groups and provide context into the terms “beast idol” and “flower boys”. This section will also look at the dancing styles, gestures and performance styles of the K-pop idols. In addition, this section will take a look at K-pop boy bands, giving examples of how each is challenging gender fluidity of societal norms of what it means to be masculine. For analysis I will be focused on the following groups: 2PM and BTS.
The third section will then look at the Western views of K-pop compared to the Korean views. Giving context of culture differences with both countries and the impact that K-pop has had on both cultures. The primary focus will be on K-pop boy bands challenging societal norms of what it means to be a masculine male. By analyzing how K-pop has challenged gender fluidity through song, dance, performance and personal persona this section will show how K-pop is redefining culture views of masculinity. For this research paper I chose a number of articles and novels to reference for this research paper. Each source is important to this research topic because they discus masculinity culturally within the Western society and Korea along with focusing on K-pop idols and their transformed masculinity.
With the development of K-pop came a new wave of pop culture and new male image. Today we are seeing more and more K-pop idols acting unconventional, especially when it comes to fashion, performance and even gender norms. According to Chuyun Oh (2015) stated that in Western culture, “heterosexual white men are depicted as the ideal symbols of assertive power and male dominance, signifying the societal standard of masculinity” (p.64). In Western culture anything outside the “typical image of straight white masculinity is considered deviant” (Oh, 2015, p.64). It should also be noted based on the research of Joseph (Brazil) Manietta (2015) that masculinity can be a hybrid of identities and that many K-pop idols may take on more than one persona to reach a larger audience. What I found interesting and agree with from the study by Chuyun Oh (2015) is that “male femininity is neither fully homosexual/heterosexual or feminine/masculine” (p.74). My research on this topic will continue to look into the K-pop idols masculinity styles, but I will be comparing them to the Western view of what masculinity is and looks like. Based on Western views, it is my belief that K-pop idols would not be viewed as masculine in the Western society. Instead they would be viewed as having more queer tendencies or as feminized. However, who decides what is masculine and what isn’t? Where did the Western masculinity “rules” come from? I feel the Western culture has a few things to learn from the K-pop idols of Korea.
Korean pop (K-pop) was created as an experiment of different styles and genres of music. The idols that are famous for being a part of this genre are created, selected based on their looks or the overall image of what the group look is goaled to be, instead of their talents. This form of selecting groups is what Inkyu Kang (2014) references as “McDonaldization” (p.58). McDonaldisation essentially has three parts, the first is the producers or creators have to have an image of what they want the group to look like. Then they go out and find the idols that fit their image. Lastly, they mold and shape the idols into the perfect K-pop group. This system is very manufactured showing that these K-pop idols that so many are not selected on their talent, but instead their looks.
Because of the McDonaldisation of K-pop “now each member functions as a standardized part that can be readily replaced” if they are not following the guidelines (Kang, 2014, p.58). it should also be noted that because of the agencies hand selecting the idols, it has “de-individualized” the idols, not allowing for personal uniqueness. According to Inkyu Kang (2014) “the members must not be distinctive enough to threaten the unity of their group” (p.57). Because the idols are selected based on image, the idols are molded to the perfect persona that goes with the band, often times having them take on a new persona or look. The K-pop industry is also very competitive, so much so that many of the “male trainees often get plastic surgery before they debuted” to increase their chances of making it on stage (Oh, 2015, p.63). While others will wear makeup to give them the perfect look, as image and grooming is everything in the Korean society. Here in the Western society, there are a variety of talent television shows, such as America’s Got Talent, American Idol and The Voice. However, majority of them I would argue pick the idol based on talent first and then looks. The Voice for example, eliminated the visual aspect as all of the judges have their backs to the person performing giving them the opportunity to concentrate on the talent of the performer instead of on their image. The K-pop idols of these groups also go through rigorous training and live a very controlled lifestyle, in order to get to the stage. Due to the fact that these trainees are not selected based on their talents, they often are not the best dancers or singers and undergo extensive vocal lessons, language lessons and dance lessons in order for them to be the best, often times leaving them with little time to socialize, sleep or eat.
Trainees are expected to “refrain from drinking, smoking, using personal cell phones and even having a romantic relationship” (Kang, 2014,p.57). the controlled lifestyles are set to “maintain the stars’ public image that the management companies carefully chose” (Kang, 2014, p.57). A young Seattle, WA teen by the name of Jay Park auditioned for K-pop and made it through. David Bevan interviewed him about his experience with the whole process. Park states, “It’s pretty cutthroat, training wise. You have a bunch of guys all trying to debut, and no one knows who they will pick or if you will be placed. You always have to be on top of your game” (Bevan, 2012, p.8). With the idols not being able to have romantic relationships or contact to their friends and family this also allows for them to focus on their training and allows for the fans to more easily dream and fantasize about being with their favorite K-pop star.
With K-pop idols being molded to perfection from dress to looks it has caused some to question the masculinity of these stars. To focus my analysis, I will be looking at K-pop groups 2PM and BTS and how they challenge the societal norms of masculinity. 2PM is a six member K-pop boy band. They are known for their “dynamic acrobatic boy-band dance styles, maximizing their tough manly images” (Jung, 2011, p.164). Unlike most of the K-pop groups, 2PM actually is more of a “tough, manly or beast-like idol group” (Jung, 2011, p.164). Their performances often show their members “ripping off their shirts showing their well-toned bodies, heavy breathing” and intense macho lyrics. (Jung, 2011, p.165). However, 2PM has also been known to dress in dresses, wear makeup, and make girly gestures (Jung, 2011, p.165). Thus making them what is referred to as a hybrid masculinity or “manufactured versatile masculinity” (Jung, 2011, p.165). Because these groups are made, their masculinity and persona on stage can be flexible to adapt to the situation. These “beast idols often draw upon elements of gangster and hip-hop aesthetics,…dark ripped-up clothing” (Kim, 2013, p.3). Their dance moves, lyrics, attire and body physic “emphasize images of stereotypical, tough, rough men and are closer to the ideal American understanding of what constitutes a real man” (Kim, 2013, p.3). While 2PM is more macho and masculine in demeanor than BTS, they are still expected to keep “well groomed, good looking faces and polished skin” (Oh, 2015, p. 63).
When we look at BTS they do not show the same masculine qualities that 2PM does. In fact, one could say they are the exact opposite. BTS is known for being more a “pretty boy” or “flower boy” group. Flower boy groups tend to have “pretty facial features and slim and attractive body shapes” (Oh, 2015,p. 63). These groups get their name because they are known for being “graceful, well groomed, androgynous polished looks [as if they were] pretty like a flower” (Oh, 2015, p. 63). Members of the BTS group are said to have “perfect kohl-lined eyes and doll-like appearances,…capturing the hearts of millions…around the world” (Bennett, 2016, p.2). While BTS may not be the manliest K-pop group, they still have fans obsessing over their gorgeous looks. However, “this look is [often] brushed aside as downright “girly” as the concept of men wearing makeup is still unacceptable in many…societies” (Paul, 2017, p.4).
The male idols of K-pop are “redefining the very idea of masculinity, and … it is still being digested by men from other cultures and countries” (Paul, 2017, p.6). the idols of K-pop have started to challenge the societal norms of what masculinity is and how it is viewed. They are unlike any other groups with their hybrid masculinity. However, Melvin Paul (2017) says “we should be applaud[ing] their daring choices which highlight their individuality and speak volumes about their identity” (p.6). The confidence these idols poses and display should be noted, that no matter what their outward masculinity either beast like or flower boy, they are still them. What is sad, is many countries are not as accepting of non-traditional norms of masculinity. With the birth of K-pop came the freedom of males to be themselves. “They should feel free to celebrate themselves as not only sexual, but sensual beings” (Bennett, 2017, p.6). K-pop has also opened up the opportunity for not only the idols to express who they are, but also for their fans. “It’s OK for me to dance, to sing, to enjoy who and what I am. This appeals to those who find American masculinity boring” (Bennett, 2017, p.6).
Although the Western society has strong views on what they consider macho and masculine, Melvin Paul (2017) says, “there is no set concept of masculinity in any culture and everyone needs to be open to change” (p.9). With the beauty regimens being a strong part of the Asian culture, one could argue that is part of the reason why Western culture often views these K-pop idols as girly or queer, because of their perfect skin and grooming habits. BTS for example would be a group that would be considered girly because of the males soft masculinity. These new K-pop groups in reality are created to attract a large audience and fan base, because the more diverse and unique they are the more they will be noticed. “Gender roles are not set in stone and we have…the right to bring about change” (Paul, 2017, p.11). The Western society views masculinity as “heterosexual white men … as the ideal symbols of assertive power and male dominance” (Oh, 2015, p.64). With the Western society becoming more accepting of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Transsexual, Queer (LGBTQ) community why are they against performers that challenge the societal norms of masculinity? In a community that strives to welcome diversity, I find it troubling that the Western culture, would question K-pop idols masculinity.
In conclusion my research looked at how K-pop idols are created to perfection and how they continue to challenge the societal norms of masculinity in not only Korea, but also the Western society. They are achieving this through their attire, grooming regimens, song lyrics, performances and persona on and off stage. The typical masculinity in the Western culture is viewed as a male that is physically toned, strong, white and heterosexual. Throughout the history of music we have seen the concept of masculinity challenged through, “heavy metal, grunge, hippie fashion and culture, drag shows, This paper looked at two K-pop boy band groups 2PM and BTS and the stereotypes around each of them, from flower boys to beast idols and the ways they are viewed. In addition, my analysis looked at how K-pop idols are perceived and how their hybrid masculinity differs from the Western society of masculinity norms. My research has shown that there are many forms of masculinity and it can be translated differently across cultures. There still needs to be further research conducted on this topic. An area I would recommend further research into is looking at and comparing the Western culture boy bands to the K-pop boy bands and seeing if there are similarities in the traits of masculinity between the two groups.