Show the stereotypical/average American these pictures and videos, and they’ll likely make fun of how girly these young men look. Even while the likes of Justin Bieber and One Direction enjoy incredible popularity, there is also (among their non-fans) a very prominent and prevalent discourse about how girly they are. Soft, weak, effeminate, whatever words might be used. For all of our claims of openness, of diversity, and freedom, there are a myriad things a young man in the US (and, likely, in many other parts of the Western world) cannot do, cannot be, cannot wear, cannot look like or act like if he wants to be accepted as “masculine,” and if he wants to avoid being called sissy, pussy, wuss, or faggot.
And yet, in K-pop (and in S. Korean and Japanese popular culture & youth fashion more broadly), we see young men dressing, looking, moving, being, the kind of men that the dominant normative US discourse would deem decidedly effeminate, or even “gay.” But this look, this “type,” is not only tolerated or accepted in South Korea – in fact, these K-pop “idols” are considered, more or less, the epitome of masculine attractiveness. Yes, they’re quite strong and tough in some of their videos, drawing upon elements of gangsta/hip-hop/rap aesthetics. And, yes, most if not all of these idols are totally ripped under those clothes, with what they call in Korea “chocolate abs.” But, they are at the same time, in the same videos, or in other videos, looking young and boyish, cute and innocent, and terribly fashionable, perfectly put together. They’re slick and chic, have their hair done up just so, and feature a beautiful baby-face, with perfect blemish-free skin and captivating eyes (it’s makeup – and no one criticizes them or laughs at them for using it). Sometimes they dye their hair cotton-candy pink, wear boyish shorts, or even cross-dress entirely. They’re about as far from the square-jawed, meat-headed macho masculinity we seem to idolize, in which all too often, there seems a pressure to not even indicate any interest or awareness of fashion at all, let alone doing anything with hair and makeup.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m sure that Korea has its share of gender equality problems. And there are actually quite a few very well-written blogs, as well as more scholarly writings, discussing and analyzing gender issues specifically in Korean media & pop culture. But, speaking purely in terms of the embrace of this alternate masculinity, the freedom to be fashionable, to wear makeup (or even just BB cream), to do all sorts of things with your hair, and indeed the freedom to be cute, innocent, pretty, and to not have to act the mature, macho man – the ability to be whatever kind of man you want to be, without fear of being called wuss, or girly, or fag – is fascinating and wonderfully appealing to me. I wish that we in the US could take a page from this book, and cultivate a new normativity that embraces a greater diversity of gender expressions.
I was fortunate, growing up, to have never been explicitly called horrible slurs such as “faggot,” and to never be physically attacked by bullies, but I certainly feel the pressure all the same. A pressure to avoid dressing or acting or looking a certain way, in order to better fit in, and to avoid ridicule. And a lot of people are not so lucky. And for what? Gay, straight, or anything in between, young men should be free to dress and act however they want, to do their hair however they want, even to use makeup – to be free to explore a wider range of self-expressions and identities – without feeling that societal pressure to have to “be a man” according to a particular macho conception of what “being a man” entails. I was lucky to never really be verbally or physically attacked, but, then, that’s also because I gave into the pressure to conform, and I’ve regretted it ever since. If I’m not already too old to be dyeing my hair or dressing punk or goth or whathaveyou, if I’m not too old yet, I’m mighty close to it, and I wish I’d had the confidence to experiment with those sorts of things a lot more when I was younger. But it’s precisely because of those societal pressures that I didn’t have the self-confidence – that I scarcely had any self-confidence in my appearance, in my body, in my fashion, at all, until I was 27 or 28. So, I guess I live vicariously through these videos.
People laugh and joke about the “hipster” trend. But, from skinny jeans to bright colors to wacky, colorful sneakers, to all sorts of expressions, I see in these developments the beginnings of a shift towards a softer, less macho, but widely accepted “alternate” masculinity – a masculinity that’s allowed to pay attention to fashion, and to be colorful, and to be thin and soft, rather than big and tough. And while many people may see these trends, e.g. skinny jeans, as silly, or whatever they may say, I don’t think I hear too many voices saying that hipster fashion is effeminate, or sissy, or “gay.” And that’s very much a step in the right direction.
Superheroes as hipsters, by David Buisan