Pretty Boys: how BTS are paving a new path for masculinity




Laying on the floor of my friend’s bedroom, my body strewn lazily across the carpet, the evening summer sun begins to fizzle across my skin. I had been hiding a secret obsession for months, and in my relaxed state I accidentally admit, ‘you know, BTS are fucking beautiful’, sliding her a picture of the pretty boys on my phone. She slowly lowers her head to examine their faces, then looks back at me and with a completely deadpan face says, ‘Priyanka, they actually look like children.’ 

I admit, not everyone will agree that the K-pop group are beautiful men, but regardless, BTS’s influence on the concept of masculinity in the ‘West’ has certainly not gone unnoticed. Beginning with their debut in 2013, the boy-band have gone on to perform their ‘Love Yourself’ tour worldwide in 12 countries, attending the GRAMMYs and winning the VMA’s first ever K-pop award along the way.

As a result of their success, BTS has permitted a multi-faceted version of masculinity to be offered to a mainstream ‘Western’ audience as not only an attractive but admirable trait. The K-pop industry formula of providing their fans with as much information about each member as possible through intimate live streams, multiple interviews and TV shows where the boys are made to perform tasks or challenges, although easily criticisable, allows an audience of (mostly) impressionable young girls and young-adult women to see the many sides of each member as a man. Therefore, in contrast to American or British pop-stars where much of a marketing team’s energy is orientated towards creating their specific singular ‘brand’ of that artist, there is no ‘single’ image of BTS that the public sees. However, we must remember that this is another marketing tactic, and an extremely effective one at that. The more one learns about every member, the more one is drawn into this fabricated ‘world’ where the audience member’s perceived image of each boy created by consuming this media becomes their ultimate reality. 

Nonetheless, its effect is that the ‘Western’ constructs of traditional and toxic masculinity such as limitations on demonstrating emotions or affection openly, consistently being perceived as an alpha-male and demanding attention and seeking power through dominating others, either physically or emotionally, are swept away. What we are left with are open and honest men, who are unafraid to cross the borders of typical ‘Western’ masculine and feminine binaries. When praised for being ‘handsome’ and ‘beautiful’, members like Jimin (Park Jimin) and V (Kim Tae-hyung) do not respond with false arrogance and machismo, but rather are often awkward and shy. The ‘brotherly’ nature of the group, with the leader RM (Kim Nam-joon) at the centre, puts forward an image of male friendship that is not one of competition and a desire to appear ‘tough’, but rather honest and exposed communication of feelings, often with an element of silliness and openness. Even in instances on camera of members struggling to express their feelings, such as Suga (Min Yoon-gi) being unable to admit to him sending a loving message to V (Kim Tae-hyung) or Jin (Kim Seok-jin) arguing with V or Jungkook (Jeon Jeong-guk), each situation is handled maturely with a sincere discussion of emotions, sometimes even ending with members crying, which are segments we would perhaps see cut from programs about ‘Western’ male celebrities. 

As well as their personalities, their aesthetic contests traditionally ‘Western’ and Korean gender binaries. Despite often being criticised for their decision to wear make-up, being referred to as ‘girly’ or ‘not manly’, BTS continue to do so, often creating trends that catch on in Korean society. This is by no means a new phenomenon of K-pop or Korean society in general due to their ridiculously high beauty standards, yet, BTS have managed to create an aesthetic that combines both male and female concepts of prettiness, unafraid to sport bright, colourful patterns, hair colours, and make-up looks that have resonated with Western audiences worldwide. Their ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’ video epitomises this best, with each member being dressed in brightly-coloured patterned suits with a typically ‘feminine’, low V-cut collar. 

Musically, their lyrics build upon this genre of honest masculinity. Songs which involve a hypothetical girl to market towards their target demographic such as ‘I Need U’ and ‘Save Me’, unlike Western pop, often refers to their emotional as opposed to physical desire for ‘her’. This tactic, although dangerously manipulative on some levels, brings an image of affectionate and sympathetic men as being attractive forward into the limelight. Outside of those songs, their ‘diss-tracks’ typically also do not centre around an alpha-male image, but rather their hard-work. In their song ‘MIC Drop’, they address their haters by telling them about their trophies, their achievements, achieved by their many hours of relentless dance practice and sacrifices, seen again in the song ‘Dope’. Even in the song by the rappers of the group, ‘Ddaeng’, J-hope (Jung Ho-seok), Suga and RM create a diss-track based on intelligent Korean wordplay and cultural references as opposed to making themselves appear more ‘manly’ to their ‘haters’.  

All of this is not to say that we don’t see this image of masculinity in Western pop culture. The introduction of men like Stormzy and Ed Sheeran into the music industry has opened discourses of what masculinity looks like aesthetically and emotionally, yet songs centred around toxic masculinity such as Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ and Parkway Drive’s ‘Vice Gripe’ are still allowed to be presented to the world. BTS combat these stereotypes through their positivity, honesty and hard-work, bringing the fresh-faces of ‘pretty boys’ to the centre of men in pop culture. 


And for those of you who are curious about my bias, let’s just say I like a lot of Suga in my tea.