BTS: Breaking Boundaries and Redefining Masculinity

By Lily Lim, G11

It’s no doubt we live in a patriarchal society – one built on social norms, standards and expectations. When you think of a man, what comes to mind? Confidence? Strength? Dominance?

This is exactly what toxic masculinity is. The concept refers to repressive societal norms placed on males that are damaging to both men and society. Toxic masculinity glorifies the idea of men being dominant – dominant in sex, status, physical and mental strength, emotion (or lack there of), as well as qualities of aggression, violence, sexism and homophobia.

Be a man. Boys don’t cry. Boys will be boys. Nice guys finish last. These seemingly innocent, light-hearted phrases are products of toxic expectations of men. Men who don’t conform to the socially ideal definition of masculinity are branded inferior, unmanly and feminine; berated for not fitting into society’s rigid, repressive box. Toxic masculinity is not merely a concept. It is a reality. One that has pushed many to the brink of suicide. 1 in 5 men will not reach the age of 50 in the Americas and for every woman, there are 7 male deaths. 

Toxic masculinity isn’t only inflicted, it is also internalised. Many men have been engrained with the idea that there is only one way to be a man. Men are human and humans are complex. Many boys grow up with the idea that they have to ‘man up’ quickly, that transitioning to manhood is a rite of passage, a feat worth celebration. They are taught that emotions are a sign of weakness and crying a sign of ‘girlyness’. This fragile masculinity forces boys to supress emotions and combat negative feelings with denial, ultimately leading to their expressing said emotions externally through brute force and violence, or other times, internally in the forms of depression, suicide or addiction.

The expression toxic masculinity became prominent during the 1980s “mythopoetic men’s movement”, an all-male organisation started by poet Robert Bly. The movement used poetry and myth as a way to change social constructs for men and the definition of masculinity, centering around self-discovery and development.

Mammals, primates particularly, have always asserted dominance in their respective communities through the use of force, intimidation, aggression and possessiveness. However as we evolve, this notion of dominance has slowly become redundant and unprincipled as non-physical factors such as intelligence and mentality have come into play. 

One group in particular has been able to break out of society’s shackles and redefined masculinity entirely, pushing forward a new men’s movement.

Despite falling victim to these detrimental gender norms, with countless netizens denouncing the boys as ‘effeminate, gay and weak’ for their dissentient, ‘flower boy’ style, BTS (and other k-pop groups) have continued to express themselves and stayed true to their individualistic, eccentric and eclectic identities. 

The flower boy aesthetic – termed ‘kkonminan’ in Korean, originated in the early 90’s, a time period of significant societal change, where the idea of a ‘tough, administrative’ man was challenged. Flower boys are characterised by a ‘soft’ image. A slim figure, smooth and glass-like skin; feminine features (a less defined facial structure, a prominent nose tip), and excellent grooming are some traits exhibited in said metrosexuality. This craze was adopted by many kpop idols and was further publicised with the emergence of BTS and consequently, the Korean or ‘Hallyu’ wave.  

From wearing skirts to makeup and openly expressing love to their fans and each other, the boy band has not only propagated adrogynous style but also promoted the importance of mental health. Their ‘LOVE MYSELF’ campaign, in particular, saw BTS working in partnership with UNICEF with the aim of ‘lend[ing] a helping hand to children and teens exposed to violence’. 

Member Suga says: “There is this culture where masculinity is defined by certain emotions, characteristics. I’m not fond of these expressions. ‘What does being masculine mean?’ And, really, what does it?” While the youngest member Jungkook defines great style as ‘wearing anything you like, regardless of gender’.

Their determination and passion to help others reflect their non-conformist identity and has motivated many to embrace the Flower Boy aesthetic and be comfortable in their own skin, regardless of society’s expectations and constructs. 

Simply put: defining femininity and masculinity by actions is unreasonable and impractical. Toxic masculinity isn’t merely a gender issue, it is a human issue.  Boys should be taught that emotions are healthy and human and that there is no one way to be a man. What you wear, the way you speak, the emotions you feel and your physical strength do not make you any less inferior or superior to anyone.

Cover illustration courtesy of Thomas Dimayuga, G11

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