What K-Pop’s Beautiful Men Can Teach Us About Masculinity
K-pop’s rise in America is forcing many to confront long-held stereotypes they have regarding masculinity — especially when it comes to Asian men.
Rob Marciano, the 51-year-old senior meteorologist on ABC’s Good Morning America, is the archetype of a red-blooded American man — six-foot-something, a healthy head of brown hair and Crest-commercial smile, wearing an impeccably tailored blue suit fit for a presidential debate. On an August day in New York City, he stands opposite the South Korean men of Monsta X, themselves models of handsomeness back home. All in their twenties, Monsta X are wearing dramatic red and black prints, some in billowy button-up shirts, and all in tight, black leather pants. Their skin is rendered flawless with foundation, and their smokey eyes and lip tints glisten under the studio lights. Marciano is polite and friendly, but acts like an awkward dad, flashing peace signs here and there, not seeming to understand the massive appeal of one of the biggest bands in the world.
He’s not alone. K-pop has seen a meteoric rise in visibility in the West in the past three years, and bands have been welcomed with enthusiasm — as well as confusion. The wave has largely been led by BTS, who have secured four Billboard No.1 albums (the only other group to do so were The Beatles), and have sold out stadiums around the world. Other groups like BLACKPINK, Monsta X, SuperM, and NCT 127 have also graced American charts and found a voracious fanbase that will show up for them on tour.
But despite its passionate global fandom, many feel as if Korean music is only conditionally embraced by the American mainstream — a temporary foreign novelty rather than a legitimate player. When K-pop groups are invited to American award shows, they’re often excluded from the main creative awards, and either recognized for their social media presence or siloed into separate categories from their Western peers. Brands will often attempt to curry favor with K-pop fandoms by engaging with them on Twitter in a blatant play to artificially grow their followers. Some critics felt that BTS was snubbed at the Grammys for the second year in a row, but that didn’t stop the Recording Academy from inviting them to perform on the big night, in what some pointed out looked like an effort to boost ratings. BTS’ most recent album, Map of the Soul: 7, was the biggest U.S. release of any band so far this year (double the debut sales of Justin Bieber’s Changes), but the band’s music continues to be largely ignored by American radio.
Foreign-language music has never had an easy time climbing the charts in America. But K-pop presents another added barrier to entry: the look and style of its male artists. Despite K-pop’s rise in the West, its integration into the U.S. mainstream might be awkward because it has forced Americans to confront and reckon with long-held stereotypes we have regarding masculinity — especially when it comes to Asian men. By specifically looking at male K-pop groups’ beauty in the context of traditional American views of masculinity, many of our biases and hangups are becoming more evident.
Watch any K-pop music video and you’ll likely be met with loud hair colors, elaborate outfits, flawless skin, heavily made-up eyes and painted lips. While it’s not uncommon to see Western artists play with gender presentation, it’s usually done with the specific aim to be transgressive, and part of the counterculture. But to idols — a term used to describe celebrities in solo acts or K-pop groups who go through rigorous training within a label in voice, dance, and language — it’s not only the norm, it’s also specifically calibrated for audience appeal. And yet that appeal has met some questioning in America.
“Recently, there was an instance where a really popular Instagram account in the U.S. posted my picture,” Korean singer Holland tells Refinery29. One of the only out and proud queer idols in the industry, Holland often stars in avant-garde editorials and takes pride in his aesthetic on social media. “The comments were mostly from American boys and girls, who said, ‘Why are Asian guys all always pretty like girls?’ When I saw those comments, I was really shocked, because not once have I ever thought of myself like that, and I had never heard that kind of thing in Korea.”
Presentation is a cultural priority — men and women, regardless of sexuality — in much of Korean society. Step on the subway in Seoul, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a wrinkly dress or a pair of grubby sweatpants — unless they’re expertly styled under a smart peacoat. Looking your best is a sign of respect to those around you.
“I think the reason lots of K-pop singers put on makeup and do themselves up isn’t because they want to be seen as masculine or feminine,” says Holland, “but rather because they want to show the beautiful side of themselves to audiences and fans. In comparison to American women, Korean women don’t have an issue with men dressing themselves up, grooming or putting on makeup, and I think they even find it charming. So it became natural for guys to do those things. I think it’s cultural.”
This facet of Korea’s masculine ideals can be traced way back to the cultural and military elite known as the 화랑 (Hwarang) — meaning “flowering/elite youth” — who lived in the ancient kingdom of Silla in the Korean Peninsula from 57 BC to 935 AD. They were named as such for their long hair and good looks. Fast forward to the 1990s, when the flower boy, or “꽃미남 (kkonminam)” in Korean, re-entered Korean culture when South Korea’s government decided to loosen restrictions on the import of Japanese goods, including manga and anime. The shōjo manga, which featured androgynous, lithe, doe-eyed “bishōnen” (“beautiful boys” in Japanese) protagonists, and targeted young women, became especially popular. Soon after, the aesthetic made its way from TV (in classic Korean dramas such as Boys Over Flowers) to music, influencing groups such as the ultra-popular TVXQ! and SHINee.
There is a history of Western musicians who made makeup part of their established looks, like David Bowie, Prince, and Motley Crüe, as well as pop-punk bands like Green Day and Panic! At The Disco in the early aughts who briefly made guyliner a trend. But even those looks leaned towards more drama and intensity, and were never meant to be considered mainstream. The normalization of male “prettiness” is something we’re not as used to seeing, as singer Shawn Mendes pointed out when he met BTS in 2017. But, for K-pop idols, prettiness goes beyond aesthetics, and is also about the embodiment of ideals of wholesomeness and purity. That’s one of the many reasons why idols aren’t allowed to date for years, and why many Korean fans love when celebrities are encouraged to act cute, or aegyo. Outside of many East Asian countries, however, this is in itself a subversive act in the music industry, which has historically prioritized aggressive masculine sexuality, but all the more so when you consider the ways in which Asian men have been dismissed and emasculated by the Western world.
Part of the power of the Korean idol aesthetic is in the sheer number of young men who are polished and strategically coordinated in a way that rarely exists outside of solo acts. Bowie and Prince were singular performers, and their aesthetics were contingent on only themselves. But encountering a K-pop group is often like seeing seven, or even 13 Bowies, who are styled to intentionally compliment or match each other’s clothes and makeup, likely fit into an “ideal face shape,” or even sport variations of a similar haircut. Seasoned fans are used to it — every time a group comes out with new music, it also comes with a new visual and creative “concept,” much like Lady Gaga’s Joanne or Artpop “eras.” Some newcomers to the Korean ideal aesthetic, let alone the traditions of K-pop, have found synchronization to be off-putting. It plays into the common stereotype that K-pop is “engineered” or a “machine,” which is largely rooted in racist tropes. So while Western boy bands like Backstreet Boys and One Direction may have technically been “manufactured,” there’s a difference in perception between bands that were “made” in the West and in the East. Thus this hang up — that people can train to be pop stars just as athletes train to be Olympians, and prefer to look like a unified team than a rag-tag crew of individuals — is reflected in K-pop’s beauty.
But not all groups are “flower boys.” Monsta X, by Korean standards, sit closer to the opposite side of the spectrum, which Koreans have coined as “beast idols.” Instead of lithe physiques, pretty aesthetics, and songs highlighting their boyish charms, they opt for six-pack abs; dark, dramatic makeup; and all-around intensity. “There’s always been this perception [by other Koreans] that we're scary,” 26-year-old Monsta X member Minhyuk tells Refinery29, sighing comically into leader Shownu’s shoulder. “Even amongst our peers and other singers, we've heard that,” continues vocalist Kihyun.
But put beast idol group Monsta X, or any K-pop group for that matter, in the context of traditional American masculine ideals, and too often you’ll find opinions like that of Ethan Klein, a YouTuber who took massive heat at the end of last year for his homophobic and racist comments about BTS. “[People have] a little fetish — a little twink gay fetish about these K-pop boys,” Klein said when reviewing YouTube’s most liked videos of 2019.
Many people can’t help but assume the aesthetic of male idols reflects their sexuality. It’s something that, according to Michelle Cho, Assistant Professor of East Asian Popular Culture at the University of Toronto, is the root of so much implicit bias.
“In the Korean context, gender presentation does not map onto sexuality in any way. Homophobia is still very common in Korea, so if that were the case, then it would be really contradictory to have a really mainstream type of masculinity that appears very genderfluid. The common assumption in Korea is that someone being beautiful has nothing to do with their sexuality.” Additionally, Dr. Cho points out that neither does having “same-sex groups of people who show a lot of closeness,” because Korea is a homosocial society — it’s the norm for men to exclusively socialize with each other.
Eric Nam can attest to that as something that he had to get used to after jump-starting his fruitful music career in Korea. After graduating from Boston College, the 31-year-old Atlanta native moved across the world and eventually became a TV host and pop star, known for his affable nature and dulcet tenor. “[Masculinity] is generally more open and fluid in Korea than what you consider standard in the States. Everyone, including guys, are pretty comfortable being touchy with each other. But it's also imbued with things that are distinctly Korean and that Korean people like — things that are cuter, or aegyo, as we say.”
Despite some initial culture shock, Nam not only became more used to the expanded definition of male beauty, but embraced it — so much so that reverting back felt like a step in the wrong direction. “I had friends who started visiting me from the States asking if I put makeup on or have a skincare routine. I was like, Yeah, I do all the time, every day,” says Nam, chuckling. “And now, when I see them, they're like, 'Oh my god, we wish we had listened to you. You still look like you're in college. We look like we’re so much older than you.’ And I was like, ‘I told you. You’ve got to take care of yourself.’"
Nam contends that it’s not just celebrities and idols who put on makeup or pay attention to their skin, but nearly everyone. According to Euromonitor, South Koreans have become the world’s biggest male skincare consumers, growing 44% in the past decade. And according to a recent survey by GlobalData, three quarters of South Korean men undertake a beauty or grooming treatment in-home or outside at least once a week. In the West, K-beauty brands have become staples in most female beauty gurus' medicine cabinets, but those of men largely remain bare (save for the odd Kiehl's moisturizer).
“It's just a really different kind of cultural context,” says Dr. Cho. “I think that those [homophobic] attitudes are changing in some ways with a younger generation that thinks that genderfluid presentation is actually really cool.” Today we are seeing some more flexibility with younger stars. Harry Styles (who, notably, has an affinity for ‘70s aesthetics) has has been known to wear glitter, makeup, and androgynous clothing. Latin trap artist Bad Bunny donned a full skirt and dangly earrings on Jimmy Fallon. Rapper Young Thug wore an Alessandro Trincone dress on the cover of his 2016 JEFFERY mixtape. Seventeen-year-old TikTok megastar Lil Huddy often has his nails painted. But we are still far from seeing these aesthetics trickle down to the everyday American man. But to Nam, fixating on the way idols look is only seeing half the picture. “To people who truly understand, [artists and K-pop idols] are the most masculine, right?” says Nam. “They are killer dancers, they're confident, they're strong, and they're bold, and they're courageous and doing whatever the hell they want.”
It’s important to acknowledge K-pop isn’t a cure-all for toxic masculinity, nor do idols represent some kind of liberated Korean sensibility. Double-standards persist no matter the country or culture. Nevertheless, the fact that their aesthetic is something that many Americans noticeably fixate on because it makes them uncomfortable is evidence that K-pop’s presence has the potential to help us confront deep-seeded beliefs rooted in the American psyche, which does not usually associate masculinity with softness, beauty — and Asianness. It offers to expand the idea of masculinity in a way that up until this point has not been possible in American culture. One in which a group of men clad in florals and sporting earrings, foundation, and shocks of pastel hair can enchant and delight on SNL; in which a man can perform in a crop top and comfortably weep from sheer happiness in a stadium full of fans; in which an Asian man in a mauve smokey eye can grace the cover of Allure; in which the dancing and singing Monsta X, decked-out in leather and crimson-stained lips, can make knees buckle on American national television.
In #NotYourTokenAsian, we take on the pop products, stereotypes, and culture wars that surround Asian-American identity. Follow along as we celebrate our multiplicity during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.