How K-Pop and J-Pop Construct Masculinities

Masculinity as it is constructed in Australia is seen as typically “hard”. An idealized Australian male is white, rugged, practical, heroic, and dependable, but also laid back (Morris; Murrie, cited in Tunstall 2014). Let me be perfectly clear about this right now, I am not even close to meeting the criteria of Australian masculinity. During my autoethnographic studies exploring YouTube, SBS PopAsia, and the internet at large I have come across videos of both Korean and Japanese male performers (singers/dancers/rappers) that not only construct masculinity in a very different way, but are also labelled as “attractive” and “sexy” by fandoms coming from a range of cultural backgrounds (see screen grabs of YouTube comments found below).

My Thoughts and Experiences on the Masculinity constructed by EXO-K (Sheridan n.d.)

EXO-K are a Korean “boy group” who serve as good examples of the complex mix of masculinities that seem to typify Korean pop music. The men in the group are portrayed as young, slightly built, clean, and conscious of their appearance in terms of their makeup, fringe-heavy haircuts, and clothes that I could only really describe as “cyberpunk-urban”. These things that I have been socially conditioned in an Australian context to view as more feminine qualities are also seen coexisting with facial expressions of male brooding as well as aggressive, “primal” characteristics such as shouting and harnessing wild natural “elements” such as fire and wind, which I think would also fit into the Australian masculinity model.

EXO Comment

Comments of the YouTube videos indicate that the band members are sexually appealing to many of the fans, with one female fan joking that a members’ voice alone is potently masculine enough to get her pregnant. There also appears to be some confusion amongst fans outside of Korea in regards to singings about their mother (“mama” meaning “mother” in a range of non-Korean languages), which can be attributed to oedipal, “mothers boy” qualities in an Australian context.EXO Comment 2EXO Mama Confusion

My Thoughts and Experiences on the Masculinity Constructed by Yohio (Sheridan n.d.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INKCPOQL98c
(embedding has been disabled for this video for whatever reason, so please find it via the link above)

Image sourced from here

Image sourced from here

Visual Kei is a subset of Japanese rock where the sound is a combination of punk and heavy metal, and the artists dress in elaborate makeup and costumes, often with an androgynous appearance (Landes 2012). It is a genre of music I was not aware of when I had first seen Yohio’s video, which to a completely clueless viewer like myself was full of many surprises. Yohio looks and dresses like a feminine “Lolita” and sings in Japanese (adopting a typical, male vocal register), but is also actually Swedish. It’s interesting to see that a Swedish performer has become such a successful personality in a fandom built around a Japanese culture.

More Yohio CommentsYohio was my first big experience in reconstructing what I thought I understood about gender. I didn’t judge the performer in a negative way and I will readily admit I find him as beautiful as I found any other feminine figure. But I suppose what got my thinking about gender fluidity and the social construction of gender was the fact that Yohio chose to completely embody the feminine in appearance whilst completely adhering to a masculine style of singing. It really challenged a lot of assumptions I wasn’t even truly aware of about what masculinity and gender identity really mean, especially in relation to the binary-gender values perpetuated by the Australian “hard male” construct. Yohio’s popularity has also prompted gender-discussions to take place within various Asian pop fan communities.

Yohio Comment


References

Landes, D 2012, ”A guy wearing a dress is not a sexual thing’: Yohio’, The Local, 23 November, viewed 5 October 2014 http://www.thelocal.se/20121123/44618

Sheridan, R (n.d.), ‘Autoethnography: Researcher as Participant’, An Introduction to Autoethnography, viewed 15 September 2014 http://ricksheridan.netmar.com/auto/

Tunstall, E D 2014, ‘Un-designing masculinities: K-pop and the new global man?’, The Conversation, 23 January, viewed 5 October 2014 http://theconversation.com/un-designing-masculinities-k-pop-and-the-new-global-man-22335

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8 comments

  1. Hey,
    I found this post really interesting when you talked about the social expectations and constructions of gender, and how these can differ across cultures. I have never really registered that cultures different to ours can have different meanings of what it means to be a true male or female, or to be considered sexy.
    It was surprising to me when I saw that you said Yohio was a man- usually with transgender people there is a small hint of their original male or female appearance, but in this case that was not apparent. I liked the contrast between this artist and other transgender musicians in terms of his style of music. In my experience, transgender artists such as Jeffree Star usually take on a more feminine style of singing, and are usually classified as pop. It was interesting to read about someone who takes quite a different path.

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    1. Forgive me if I misunderstood what you meant but Yohio is not transgendered. His sexual identity is male. He merely crossdresses.
      What I find interesting is that even though he looks almost completely female (the only physical hints that he is male are his adam’s apple and the strong forearms, and maybe his flat chest but there are also flat-chested girls so that doesnt really prove much), i noticed after waching his interviews that not only his voice and the way he speaks emanate masculinity, but also the way he moves (when he doesn’t act like a girl which he admittedly pulls off super convincingly) and his movements and facial expressions imply self-confidence, independence, control, a strong will and a laid-back attitude, qualities that are usually connected with a “strong male” and attract straight females.
      So when I heard that he is straight, I didn’t question it in the slightest. It’s obvious to me, actually. (and I admit, that is only gut instinct but) he doesn’t appear gay at all (I speak of “gay behaviour patterns” like speaking with a higher voice and moving in a certain way, see Jeffree Star.) but instead appears typically straight. The gaydar doesn’t go off. And I think that people do subconciously act in a way to attract the target group they are attracted to themselves. So if a person wants to attract a dominant male, they act submissively. If a person wants to attract a submissive female, they act dominantly.
      To sum up: Yohio gives mixed messages.
      He doesn’t only have a face with feminine beauty. While wearing a dress, he also moves “cutely” and makes cute expressions, smiles softly, pouts, makes wide eyes. This appeals to a straight male audience.
      But he also speaks/sings in a masculine way, smirks, laughs darkly, looks self-confident and in-charge. That appeals to a straight female audience.
      Those mixed messages make everyone absolutely confused.
      I find it deeply fascinating.

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  2. You raised some interesting issues around gender and how Australians and more broadly ‘westerners’ view masculinity. When I was watching the video, I was making comparisons between the K-pop band and one direction. This observation only reinforces how ‘westerners’ have a tendency to view masculinity from a ‘traditional’ lens – an expectation that men are supposed to be strong, heroic etc. So bands like one direction are seen as ‘feminine’ and not ‘manly’. And so the fans who follow them are also ‘made fun of’. It would be interesting to see the perceptions of the rest of Korean society and whether or not they have positive or negative attitudes toward K-pop bands. This would allow you to determine if fan perceptions translate or mirror broader Korean society’s ideal or conceptions of gender.

    Great post!

    – Caitlin

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  3. Very nice post, I found comment on these K-pop video funny to read. As can be see by your example of EXO-K, a voice can get her pregnant. I have seen this type of comment on other K-pop video before and i found it funny. For example, a comment on T.O.P (BIGBANG) video ‘TURN IT UP’ is very similar , ‘OMG HE IS SO SEX’, and something like ‘his stare can get me pregnant’ or ‘this is porn for us girl’. The two video and person in both video are quiet different as EXO-K might be viewed as young and cute while T.O.P is a sexy adult. However, this might not really represented how people in Korea view masculinity as comment can be from anywhere and these idols dress and put on make up just to be appealing to their fan which is from everywhere.

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  4. Hi there, fantastic post. You really do well to deconstruct Western gender stereotypes in relations to the representations of gender that you find in these K-Pop stars. I’ve done a number of gender focused courses during my time here at UOW and your study draws on a lot of the themes we’ve discussed in regards to marginalised Asian masculinity, which might be of interest to you as an Australian man investigating this Asian phenomenon. I guess the standout theme is the way in which Western conceptions of masculinity essentially seek to emasculate or ‘feminize’ Asian men. Since they don’t conform to our ideals about acceptable behavior and physical appearance for men they are viewed as being “unmanly”, but what you have clearly shown is that in fact from a different cultural standpoint these behaviors are very appealing and attractive to the other sex. I think it’s interesting that while Asian masculinity is often downplayed or undermined, simultaneously Asian women get fetishised or become objects of hyper sexuality.

    I would be interested to know if stars like Yohio are having an influence on celebrities in the West. Are we beyond the hard and fast rules of masculinity as we begin to accept that everything is a social construct? Or is that something we are clinging onto more desperately as so many things around us change?

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  5. After exploring the genre of kpop in my group assignment this is a point which I would have to strongly agree with. In comparison to American boy bands like one direction or Australian 5Sos the contrast of masculinity and fandom acceptance is quite bazaar. Hair extensions, the excessive use of leather and studs, extravagant make up; It all points towards an almost feminine appearance. Challenging masculinity? Most definitely. In saying that, I feel as though asian fashion has always attempted to cross boundaries and go ‘out of the norm’ where as if one direction or 5Sos took the same approach the media and public would slam them. Maybe consider more deeply why it is that it is so widely accepted for these boy bands to change things up like they do. Is it because of the music or the culture? Is it a form or identity creation or an attempt to challenge these worldly masculine stereotypes? Maybe both..

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  6. I find it conflictive the exemplification of how Asia seems to defy certain concepts of masculinity that the west strongly holds on to. My objection against using KPOP as an example in this matter is that KPOP is simply the amalgamation of different styles for the purpose of making as much money as possible, nothing else.

    All the feminine aura that you see in KPOP was in fact taken from Visual Kei. Not that Visual Kei is the most original of all music genders, nonetheless, Visual Kei is heavily influenced by japanese sense of beauty that certainly defies western standards for men. In the beginning, having been influenced by western styles such as Glam rock, Visual Kei soon found its own soul receiving influenced from japanese sense of beauty as well as receiving influence from japanese artistic froms of expressions such as Kabuki theatre. Even though Visual Kei also has a mainstream side of itself it still remains an indies subculture made up mainly of people who feel somehow an outcast. In thi sense, its femininity is provocative, it intends to defy the concept that men have to be strong, tough and aggressive. That’s why many Visual Kei musician assume a very femininie appearance to the point that it is easy to mistaken them from women a sthey aso assume very refined feminine mannerisms that make them look authentically female.

    Another interesting or provoking thing about Visual Kei is that it was common and, I’m sure there are still artists doing it today, assuming a female persona. They composed their music from a woman’s perspective thus presenting themselves as the essence of a woman.

    You won’t get much from exploring KPOP because KPOP only took the catchy aspect of looking feminine/androgynous while ignoring the purpose behind it that Visual Kei still embraces.

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