Soft Masculinity – A Phenomenon Etched in History and Popular Culture

“I think the phenomenon should rather be explained through the notion of hybrid or versatile masculinity – soft yet manly at the same time – which is different from effeminised”

Dr Sun Jung, Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption
Soft Masculinity: A man applying beauty product to his face

In the wake of wider social change, Soft Masculinity, with an affinity for the gender-bending aesthetic has firmly established itself as a part of the changing identity of men. This rather self-aware and softer side of masculinity has had men thrown in at the deep end. Once a deep-dyed hypermasculine culture of Korea, now is the largest consumer of beauty per capita. How did these long-established tenets of Korean male beauty metamorphose?

Soft Masculinity: BTS

World sways to the catchy beats of K-pop with a bunch of young adults redefining modern masculinity with svelte figures flaunting a uniquely hatched androgynous ensemble, gleaming visage and bewitching smiles, pulling off the choreography with sheer finesse and a concert stadium bursting at the seams -K-pop frenzy at its best.

Soft Masculinity

K-pop is the reason why skincare names like Soft, Mediheal today are forsaking pathologized tough guy syndrome and rooting for male beauty and its mindful expression. By the same token, Boy band BTS is stealing the spotlight not only for their crowd-pleasing albums but also for being unrivalled dreamboats, a trailblazing alternative to the generation-old dominant charisma of white masculinity on a global stage.

History 

Kkonminam, even though is a term that has found itself in common Korean vocabulary in the mid-aughts, it can be traced down in the pages of the Silla Period of the Korean Historiographical works like Samguk Sagi  Samgungnyusa. Chuyun and David Oh’s article ‘Unmasking Queerness: Blurring and Solidifying Queer Lines through K-Pop CrossDressing’ also suggests that Korea’s cross-dressing practices and focus on appearances and looks for men have their origins in the Silla period.

Soft Masculinity: Hwarang or Silla’s Flowering Knights

Hwarang or Silla’s Flowering Knights were a cultural and military elite class well versed in the art of combat, philosophy, religious teachings, and literature. The term Flowering Knights were used to extol the physical beauty of these young men, who were known to be mindful of their appearance, what one might call in modern terms- a metrosexual identity. They also shared similarities with Bishounen – a Japanese concept emphasizing the charming looks of a young man whose beauty transcends traditional gender norms

Popular Culture 

Soft Masculinity: Timothée Chalamet

The husky macho guy image hailed in the western popular culture and media stands in sharp contrast to the Korean Concept of Kkonminam. The archnemesis of soft masculinity- a masculinity that we had heard of since 2006 in the media, also called toxic masculinity is conceptualized with elements such as ‘suppression of emotions’ and ‘charged with aggression and more often than not homophobia’ due to which men inflict harm not only on women and society but also on themselves. 

Soft Masculinity: David Bowie
David Bowie

The western popular culture did saw David Bowie redefining the gender dichotomy by his makeup from his 1971 release of Hunky Dory which showed him sporting smoky eyes. It further inspired rock bands like Aerosmith, and The Rolling Stones to wear colourful palettes but it didn’t attract men from outside the entertainment industry who were still bound in the shackles of ‘machismo’ and an ideology signifying the ‘defeated sense of masculinity from its use. 

Whereas Kkonminam- a portmanteau for flower (꽃) and beautiful man (미남), is perpetuated by K-pop and K-drama in the Korean popular culture for quite some time, now, making its way to the larger Asian audience. This concept at large concerns itself with the expression of a hybridised male/female identity rather than a simply effeminized male identity.

Soft Masculinity: Seo Taiji and Boys
Seo Taiji and Boys

In the year 1992, Seo Taiji and Boys dropped a bombshell as they set out to redefine Korean male beauty with their debut as well as gave birth to the Idol culture in the world of K-pop. Later, the Hallyu wave led to the creation of bands like H.O.T, Baby Vox and Sechs Kies, most of these ended up recasting the interpretation of masculinity in Korean, Japanese as well as Chinese popular culture.

  • Soft Masculinity – A Phenomenon Etched in History and Popular Culture
  • Soft Masculinity – A Phenomenon Etched in History and Popular Culture

Ripple turned into an all-encompassing wave as Pretty boy (kkonminam) syndrome in Korea took off on a larger scale with K-drama Winter Sonata and actors Bae Yong Joon and Lee Byung-hun were declared Kkonminam icons, the phenomenon has been glorified since then in commercials, billboards, art and literature. 

Resembling Bishounen and Japanese shojo manga aesthetics,  eventually, inspired Sunjeong Manhwa from Korea befitting its preoccupation with Shojo manga, with male lead conferred with parallel traits- sweet smiles and stereotypically feminine facial features and a slender figure with playful personality  -reasons adding to its appeal. Further, Kdramas like Boys over Flowers accentuated the need for men in showbiz to zhuzh up their looks and togs, exploring a traditionally more feminine stance.

This newfound masculinity that several K-pop group members embody, to some extent, has done away with the male/female dichotomy of the larger patriarchal society and has allowed them to acknowledge their needs for grooming and at the same time unabashedly go about with their ‘no makeup’ makeup looks. As Fabienne Darling-Wolf suggested the K-pop group SMAP was the “perfect female fantasy” signifying their extreme androgyny- a feature that boosted their popularity as a commodity efficiently marketed by Bidanshi Fakutorii (pretty boy factory).

Genderless Branding

Soft Masculinity: Genderless Branding

In Korea, long gone are the days when makeup and fashion came with the impositions of gender and sexuality. The idea of painting one’s face and being confident about it has already crossed international borders with K-pop boy-bands like EXO, GOT7 and BTS making countless headlines in the Western media for embracing soft masculinity and hard masculinity with equal intensity.

The Asian beauty market is all for it, with a significant rise in genderless beauty and fashion consumption that sees a new high with each passing day. Into the bargain, Euromonitor estimated the South Korean male grooming market to be worth 1.28 trillion won ($1.14 billion) in 2017 and $10.2 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach $13.9 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 9.0% from 2021 to 2027 with its chief consumers in Asian market being India and China. 

Soft Masculinity, a Boon or Bane to Masculinity?

Only time will tell whether soft masculinity would help men break through the shackles of toxic masculinity and whether they’d be able to firmly embrace their sense of individuality. But the process has indeed begun, and is gradually defying gender norms of the old world.

Liked this piece? Also read, K-Drama: Why Is It Taking Over the World?

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