BTS‘s surge into the international mainstream is not only changing music; it’s challenging the west’s traditional perception of masculinity.
In the social sciences, “toxic masculinity” refers to traditional constructions of manhood that are built on machismo and are detrimental to both individuals and to society. By this definition, a “true man” is tough, emotionless, and dominant–basically, the exact opposite of “feminine”. Physically, he is burly, imposing, and definitely not “pretty”.
In the west, Asian masculinity has traditionally been perceived as lesser and, as a result, Asian men have suffered from emasculation and been deemed less sexually desirable. Now though, the game is changing and K-Pop is one of its major players.
Male idol groups like BTS simultaneously embrace Asian masculinity while subverting toxic masculinity by effortlessly alternating between what is considered “feminine” and “masculine”.
BTS has redefined masculinity in many ways, but one of the most obvious is their fashion sense. Although BTS looks handsome in suits and other traditionally masculine clothing…
…like, really handsome…
…BTS isn’t afraid to experiment. The members have worn bright “feminine” colours…
…and also traditionally female accessories like earrings and chokers.
BTS also wears make-up, on and off stage, and takes extremely good care of their skin.
In the west, men with beauty regimens have been seen as less manly than their rough-skinned, bare-faced counterparts, but why? Just look at J-Hope‘s flawless complexion. Who wouldn’t want that?
BTS’s masculinity is more than skin deep though. Anyone who has grown up in the west has heard the damaging phrase “real men don’t cry”. BTS is as real as it gets and these men aren’t ashamed to show their full emotional range to the public.
Rather than hiding their tears, BTS opens up to their fans about their struggles, hopes, dreams, and anxieties. In many cultures, men are expected to conceal their feelings, which has contributed to cultural stigmas about mental health.
The BTS members, most notably Suga, have tackled mental health in their music. Under the name Agust D, Suga released a mixtape that tackles his own battles with social phobia and depression.
The BTS members also freely express their love for each other, something “real men” in the west aren’t encouraged to do. In Bon Voyage, BTS wrote letters about how much the other members mean to them.
Although BTS (and K-Pop as a whole) isn’t enough to eradicate toxic masculinity, one can’t deny their massive cultural influence. The members live their lives in an authentic way that is encouraging people to abandon traditional gender roles in favour of loving themselves for who they are.
This message of self-love and individuality combined with the way they present themselves will hopefully change minds while inspiring more Asian men to overcome negative stereotypes and embrace their own authentic selves.