I’m Your Man: Masculinity in K-Pop

In her book, Korean Masculinities and Transnational Consumption, Sun Jung brings a discussion of hybridity into her examination of K-Pop. She argues that hybridizations of Korean traditional masculinities and global masculinities allow various sets of “regional viewers” to embrace such representations. She also highlights Judith Butler’s term “gender performativity,” which is the idea that conceptions of gender are unstable and solidified at certain points in time by “a stylized repetition of acts…gender is instituted through the stylization of the body, and hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.” In other words, constructions of both femininity and masculinity are created within repeated patterns of every day social behavior.

Promotional photo for the popular S. Korean Drama "Boys Over Flowers"

Jung uses the term “soft masculinity” to describe a non-national, hybrid construction that combines traditional seonbi masculinity with Japanese kawaii (cute) masculinity, and “global metrosexual masculinity.” This, she says, is characterized by three performative elements. The first, “tender charisma,” is a masculine “third space,” in which the man can be simultaneously gentle and strong. This idea is connected to seonbi masculinity, and the Confucian ideal of a man with “a tender exterior and a strong inner will.” A second aspect is that of purity and innocence, while the third is politeness. This form of soft masculinity has translated into the kkotminam (a word that is a combination between the words for flower and “beautiful man”) pretty boy phenomenon in South Korea. Evidence of this phenomenon exists in many corners of Korean popular culture, whether in fashion, music, photography, advertising, or television. There has recently been an explosion of “flower boy” Korean dramas, including Boys over Flowers, Flower Boy Ramyun Shop, and Flower Boy Next Door. These more feminine males have often replaced the macho image of the South Korean man, and have resulted from various cultural crossings. Bands like TVXQ, SHINee, and Super Junior have adopted this approach. “Soft masculine” gender performativity is highlighted and negotiated notably in various gender-bending parodies by male singing groups. In fact, transgender role-playing, in which male groups imitate girl group performances on game shows and music programs, have become a common occurrence.

Ok Taecyeon, member of the six member boy group 2PM

On the other hand, however, Jung emphasizes that there is another side to Korean constructions of masculinity––the jimseungdol phenomenon that she dates to 2008. This involves an emphasis on the tough, virile male figure. This includes bands like 2PM, B2ST (pronounced “beast”), and MBLAQ. However, these bands maintain an even more hybridized, multi-faceted approach to masculinity, keeping some aspects of kawaii and kkonminam masculinities, in order to appeal to other established audience sensibilities. This approach “is multi-layered, culturally mixed, simultaneously contradictory, and most of all strategically manufactured.” Jung talks about 2PM member, Taecyeon:

“He is a kawaii cute boy in a sexy beast-like man’s body. For sex appeal, Taecyeon would not hesitate to fiercely rip his shirt off…on the other hand, in a number of episodes of the aforementioned reality shows on cable channels, he often exercises ‘cute gestures,’ making girly and sweet facial expressions and voices. Moreover, this 186-centimeter tall muscular boy often transforms into one of the girl group members, wearing a navy cap with a big pink ribbon or bright orange-colored tight skinny jeans. His masculinity is flexible, transformable, and hybridized.”

Thus, there are many ways in which masculinity is transformed and carefully maintained in order to appeal to a certain feminine desire and to sell an image to the screaming girls in the crowd.

Next Time:
Rain All Over the World: K-Pop and Globalized Masculinity.
Watch this video, featuring the Hallyu star Rain for a sneak preview of what’s next:


Butler, Judith, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Theater Journal 40, no. 4 (1988): 519.

Jung, Sun. Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011.

Moon, Seung-sook. “The Production and Subversion of Hegemonic Masculinity: Reconfiguring Gender Hierarchy in Contemporary South Korea.” In Under Construction, edited by Laurel Kendall, 79-114. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.

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