“Be a man”. This phrase is commonly thrown at men when they are displaying acts of vulnerability or weakness; traits often associated with femininity. To “be a man” is to cast out anything “girlish”: no complaining, no sparkly clothes, and absolutely no crying. Calling a man a girl is taken derivatively, since femininity is something to fear and avoid. Even in the case of women themselves, being too girlie is to be called an “airhead” or less intelligent than their serious “manly” counterparts. How can society flip the narrative on femininity? How do we figure out that it isn’t the end of the world and is by no means an insult? By constantly blurring the lines between what is considered “masculine” and “feminine”, blending them together instead of putting one up against the other, we can start to find some answers. A place to look for these answers is none other than the world of K-pop.
K-Pop, or Korean pop music, is a place where all idols, both boys and girls, are often seen sporting sparkly eyeshadow and often androgynous clothing in many music videos, public appearances and photo shoots. The debate surrounding what is “manly” with K-Pop boy groups is not a new one. Many new western audiences can’t seem to wrap their heads around a presumably straight boy putting on lip tint and shimmery eye shadow for fashion. These idols that seemingly have soft or feminine features are referred to as kkonminam, or “flower boys”, and are seen often as desirable and sought after in the recruitment process. Masculinity is becoming more and more ambiguous, which is a concept most expertly represented by comparing the two boy groups SuperM and TXT. By putting their recent comebacks side by side, we can start to explore how each group interrogates masculinity and femininity and whether or not it is empowering to choose one or combine the two in harmony.
SuperM, who had its recent comeback in September of this year, refer to themselves as “the Avengers of K-Pop”. Comprised of members stemming from different mega-groups from the behemoth SM Entertainment, such as SHINee, EXO, WayV and NCT, it is no surprise that this group is one to look out for. What is surprising, however, is how un-innovative the new supposedly innovative boy group turned out to be. With their recent music video “One (Monster & Infinity)”, “boys-being-boys” seems to be the slogan of the day.
The members are seen sporting three outfits throughout the video; one being very military-esque, with sand camouflage and war medals sprinkling their chests; another being black dress-wear with green highlights (something reminiscent of the 1999 film The Matrix); and the final displaying NASCAR inspired driving coats and muscle tees. Each outfit displays a sense of authority, where the metals on their military outfits convey aptitude and prowess and the muscle-tees showing physical strength. There are many references to stereotypically masculine movie franchises sprinkled throughout the music video. The member Kai is seen scaling a glass tower, reminiscent of the famous scene found in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, where Tom Cruise’s character, Ethan Hunt, is seen dangerously climbing outside of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai for various secret spy activities. The lyrics “landing in the Matrix, tryna break it” is also a reference to The Matrix, where the lead Keanu Reeves is celebrated for his superman abilities and fighting style. The overall message of the song is that of excellence; the members are seen boasting of their ability to overcome anything and warn others of their existence through lines such as “I’m the one, better run” and “Bring the battle, gimme what I want”.
Through the lyrics and the visuals, SuperM seems to want to advertise what it means to be manly. The action movie references all add up to what “the perfect man” should be; one who, not only isn’t afraid of a fight, but wants it, is able to handle such crises as climbing a huge building and has enough money and tenacity to accomplish anything else. The “no pain, no gain”, a phrase boasted by many gym-dwelling young men, lyrics explore this further. With little to none references to things that may be considered feminine, with the only exceptions being the traditional K-Pop makeup and notably the sparkly jewelry that accompanies the military garb, the group seems to be saying that in order to be this “perfect man”, you must reject anything feminine. But is this the only answer? Does masculinity have to be so black and white where in order to “be a man”, one should only adopt the ideals of the music video? The group that seems to directly challenge SuperM’s manly mantra is none other than TXT.
TXT, an acronym that stands for Tomorrow by Together, is the second boy group from BigHit Entertainment, the first being the world-wide phenomenon that is BTS. Needless to say, the younger boys have some huge pants to fill since their older brothers are breaking records in every surface and crevice of this Earth. Since many eyes are on them, it was interesting to see what they would do for their recent comeback that occurred a month after SuperM’s. Titled Blue Hour, the theme of their concept photos and music video seems to be that of imagination and wonder. In the music video, the boys go on a magical journey. From lazily sleeping on a tree, to dancing in front of a colorful merry-go-round in the sky, and shrinking to miniature size to stroll through a pastel forest, playing pranks on each other and interacting with sweater wearing squirrels, “Blue Hour” is a direct opposite of “One (Monster & Infinity)”. The lyrics tell a tale of being in-love, where the boys express that the time that they spend with their lover at the cusp of night and day, or the “blue hour”, exists in a different, magical reality.
The outfits in this music video seem to directly challenge stereotypical men’s fashion. One set of outfits has each of the five members in blue jeans but with various sweaters or coats. Notably two of the members, Yeonjun and Taehyun, are seen wearing crop-top sweaters, with Yeonjun’s being bright pink. Another ensemble piece utilizes cowboy inspired shirts and hats but with a twist. Again, Taehyun is seen with a vest/t-shirt crop-top combo, Beomgyu has sparkles on his cheeks, Huening Kai wears a leather jacket and Yeanjun sports a pink mullet complete with a black cowboy hat, jeans with holes around the waistband that expose his lower hips, and cowboy boots. By mixing traditional men’s wear – i.e. the blue jeans, cowboy hats and leather jackets – with soft, pink crop-top sweaters, pastel colors and an abundance of sparkly makeup and jewelry, TXT seems to blend masculinity and femininity together. They didn’t choose to wear 100% traditional cowboy clothing, where the western cowboy is often seen as a symbol for gritty, dirty, toughness. Instead they combined typical femine indicators with a masculine cowboy image. In the bridge of the song, it shows Huening Kai being dressed by blue birds who drop a cowboy hat on his head and drape a thin, pastel green trench coat over his shoulders. The way the birds dress him is almost a scene straight out of a fairytale, where animals help a princess get ready for an elegant party.
Watching the two music videos back to back is a jarring experience. One boasts dark and menacing colors complete with rigid, precise choreography, while the other is overflowing with pastels, soft sweaters and smooth, gliding dance moves. Though each video is a work of art in their own rights, they celebrate two different things. Expanding beyond the music videos, the concept photos for each comeback are worth comparing. SuperM’s SuperOne concept photos show off the members posing in front of sports jersey’s with their names on them, complete with a strange combination of red tracksuits and plaid formal wear. TXT’s concept photos, on the other hand, is very retro with bright colors, where members are seen wearing even more crop tops, with Soobin’s rainbow crop-top is paired over a sheer, sparkly black long sleeve. Again, SuperM is perpetuating typical masculine fashion through sport-like images and TXT is seen blurring the line. With everything that is witnessed, what can be learned from the two groups?
SuperM’s comeback exists exclusively on one side of the masculine vs. feminine coin. It indirectly puts the concepts against one another, claiming that to be one is to be completely rid of the other. To be a man is to 100% be rid of anything feminine. Meanwhile, TXT exists on the plane of the coin that’s neither side. They exist in the inbetween, or the “blue hour” between what is feminine and what is masculine, if you will. They seem to say that they can still be cowboys even though they are pastel cladded with shimmery stars painted on their cheeks. They can still be their own form of “the perfect man” through different and more innovative ways; something their SM counterparts argue against. To become the “perfect man”, or really the “perfect human”, TXT seems to be saying that you need to be inspired by both sides to this complicated coin. Just because one is wearing a pink, crop top sweater doesn’t mean that they don’t have the capability to scale a skyscraper. Choosing both doesn’t make you weak, it makes you stronger, and it is in this lesson where labels are no longer needed to “be a man”.
A/N: Hey guys! My name is Erika and I am a new author here! I hope you liked the article! 🙂 Head on over to the About Us section to get acquainted. Thank you for reading!