Op-Ed for Mexico’s K-Magazine. The article can be read in Spanish via the magazine article, translated by Renata Tarrangona.
There is an unfortunate ingrained societal stereotype that intertwines race with masculinity. Views on Asian masculinity are a large social construct based on emasculation. Archaic though it may be, the image of masculinity is a white, heterosexual man; those of Asian descent often fall into the same feminine, or emasculated, category as homosexual men.
Look at the Hollywood film industry and you’ll be hard pushed to find a strong, masculine, romantic lead of Asian descent. The closest the western world has to a positive Asian role model in a prime-time slot is Steven Yeun, as The Walking Dead’s Glenn Rhee, though it is only in an apocalyptic world that Glenn becomes masculine. The apocalypse allows him to become strong, lead, fall in love, and survive over many of his white counterparts, before he was a pizza delivery boy, somewhat stereotypical.
Hallyu has long relied on the romanticism of their media exports, particularly when selling to South East Asia and Latin America, therefore securing a re-masculated image to Korean men has always been of some importance.
With the inception of 2PM came the beginning of a style of male idols known as 짐승남 (jimseungnam) meaning beast-like-men.
These are male idols that physically conform to ideals of masculinity, a stark contrast to groups like Super Junior and their early flower boy image. This trend is far more common in K-Pop now, notable examples being B.A.P’s Bang Yong Guk, Taeyang of BIGBANG, Jay Park and Rain.
K-Pop employs a hybrid masculinity however, one that is multi-layered. Alongside their beast-like bodies these idols can easily deploy a softer, more stereotypically feminine side as they turn on their charms and aegyo, and in some cases even emulate girl groups.
K-Pop is the breeding ground of the metrosexual, a portmanteu derived from metropolitan and heterosexual. These are urban men with particular care for their grooming, fashion, and appearance.
The metrosexual male holds values typically attributed to both gender stereotypes, for the K-Pop industry this is the balance between those archaic views of white masculinity and Asian emasculation.
The 짐승남 is both the beast, and the beauty, masculine but romanticised, the fairytale man.
It is for this reason many male K-Pop concepts now employ narrative involving imagery of strength, power, and teams or gangs. Even those without the well sculpted bodies can become a real man with a little clever branding. Just take a look at Boyfriend’s transformation from cute, boy-next-door types to their current darker, stronger, grown-up image.
There are exceptions, there always will be, but diversity is they key to changing attitudes. The androgyny of artists such as Super Junior’s Kim Heechul, JYJ’s Jaejoong, NU’EST’s Ren, and 2AM’s Jo Kwon is in itself important, though an all together different discussion.