I remember two headlines from the December 2020 news cycle. One concerned Harry Styles becoming the first man to individually grace the cover of Vogue...in a dress. Conservative commentators pushed back with the claim that “real men'' didn't wear clothing like his, but he was also lauded by progressive pundits and news outlets.
And on the other side of the world, South Korean boyband BTS became the first k-pop group to receive a Grammy nomination. They, too, were subject to a new round of criticisms about their feminine fashion style (that also denigrated their musical success), but none of this made huge headlines in American media. It reminded me that even when it comes to similar forms of oppression, gender and race are important in considering who gets to be represented and why that might be considered revolutionary. BTS’ refusal to conform to any gendered fashion standards not only pushes against the concept that “real men” don’t wear dresses, but also the idea that Asian men, who are often seen feminine and thus feeble, undesirable, and obedient, aren't “real men” at all.
The idea that Asian men and Asians more broadly are weak and passive dates all the way back to ancient Greece. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, proposed in 410 BC that climate and environment shaped people’s physical and intellectual development. Because the land in Asia was “rich, soft, and well-watered,” Asian people were “generally cowardly” and “less warlike and more gentle in character than Europeans.” While over time racist theories about human difference shifted to more biological explanations for the supposed inferiority of non-white people, the idea that Asians were underdeveloped and unassertive remains prevalent to this day.
It’s important to recognize that the enforcement of these stereotypes interacted with existing European notions of gender and patriarchy, which viewed women as submissive and primitive. This existing hierarchy was then extended to Asian people and Asia itself. Both were understood as distinctly “womanly” in their foreignness: submissive and therefore ripe for European invasion and colonization. As Asians began migrating to the United States, these concepts of gender, race, and nationality were used to force East Asians to assimilate into white American culture. When it came to Asian American men in particular, white Americans focused on policing gender presentation, or the way we externally express ourselves (clothes, hair, makeup, etc.), in order to “reform” or “civilize” perceived Asian male “femininity.”
As historian Heather Chan discusses, “Americans associated fashion with modernity” and “used dress to gauge other societies’ stages of development.” These concepts of fashion were heavily gendered; the more gender-specific the clothing, the more “civilized” the society. When East Asian men wore traditional garments more akin to dresses and skirts than trousers, white missionaries and government officials forced them to abandon traditional dress in favor of more “masculine” clothing in an effort to “improve” Asian men. Other expressions of feminine gender presentation even played into understandings of Asians as diseased foreigners. Qi, or long braids worn by Chinese men, were considered sites where disease festered, and white public health officials used outbreaks of the bubonic plague and cholera to justify forcibly cutting qi off. The idea that Asians are foreign and diseased, of course, continues to have violent consequences today in the era of COVID-19, and it’s important to recognize that gender expression and fashion played and continue to play important roles in producing this violence.
In media and entertainment, Asian men were and still are similarly portrayed as submissive, untrustworthy, and ultimately secondary to white men. That’s why traditionally masculine heroes are so important and heralded by the Asian American communities. From Bruce Lee and Keanu Reeves to Booboo Stewart and Henry Golding, seeing strong, successful, and (therefore) desirable Asian and Pacific Islander men on screen is unquestionably important and powerful. However, what might be even more revolutionary is the idea that Asian men can subvert gendered concepts of beauty and desire altogether. Enter BTS, a multi-genre k-pop group that is taking the Western world by storm….while wearing makeup.
It’s important to recognize that BTS is not the first Korean boy group with a more effeminate style, nor are they the first to emerge in the American music market. Where BTS starts making history, however, is in their ability to economically and artistically create huge waves in a very exclusionary Western music industry despite little to no radio airplay or formal media promotion. BTS and their extraordinary fanbase, known as ARMY, are an ever-growing powerhouse that Western music has no choice but to contend with; after all, they sold out Wembley Stadium in mere minutes, have landed multiple Billboard Top 100 singles and albums, and of course, their magnetic sponsorship and viewership power is second to none (they’ve contributed over $4.9 billion to South Korea’s GDP alone).
Many in Western music and entertainment are clearly threatened by their success, and much of the Western criticism and hate of BTS has called upon this long history of gendered racism against Asian people. Criticisms of their “foreignness” are not only tied into their race and nationality (particularly their use of the Korean language) but to their feminine gender presentation as well. All of these things mark BTS as an “other” to be oppressed, excluded, and criticized, often by the very people and institutions who use BTS’ popularity to increase their own platforms. In one well-known 2019 incident, for example, Variety magazine’s official Twitter posted a video of BTS’ entrance to an event where a white woman is heard complaining that the members “are wearing so much makeup,” assuming the members can’t understand her because most of them don’t speak fluent English.
The BTS response? To loudly, vocally embrace gender non-conforming fashion. After the Variety event, the group's oldest member, Jin, posted selfies with the caption “It would be a waste of getting my makeup done so I tried taking some photos” (trans. @BangtanSubs on Twitter). When asked about fashion preferences for Vanity Fair, main vocalist Jungkook advised fans to “wear whatever they want, regardless of gender.” And though it’s their “femininity” that makes BTS a talking point in the United States, it’s also important to recognize their visuals and musical style continue to explore a range of gender expression that cannot be so easily categorized. As member Suga famously mused in a recent Esquire interview, “There is this culture where masculinity is defined by certain emotions, characteristics. I’m not fond of these expressions. What does being masculine mean? People’s conditions vary day by day.”
Indeed, within the span of a few days or even a single performance, BTS will go from classic men’s hip hop streetwear and casual hoodies to sheer lace gloves and collars. They’ll pair black leather jackets with matching corsets (see Concept Photo 2) and men’s suits with women’s shoes. Equally as important, BTS accompanies these fashion statements with songs and self-produced content in which they are open and vulnerable about complex emotions like depression, burnout, and anxiety in a world where men are told that they shouldn’t feel anything besides anger and Asians are told that mental health issues aren’t real.
The only thing that doesn’t change is BTS’ consistent commitment to identifying as men and recognizing the power and privilege that comes with this status. Every BTS studio album since 2014’s Dark and Wild has been reviewed by feminist and women’s studies professors before release to make sure that lyrics aren’t offensive or harmful to women. BTS members are careful to politely avoid touching female celebrities and fans when posing for pictures or on the receiving end of enthusiastic hugs (a practice known in Korea as “manner hands.”) And more recently, they’ve made the conscious decision to produce multiple love songs with gender-neutral lyrics because they believe “feelings transcend gender” altogether.
When Asian men can be comfortable and affirmed in their identities as “real men” through reclaiming aspects of “feminine” beauty without sacrificing their gender identity, we can dismantle both dangerous and oppressive systems of patriarchy and the gender binary that weren’t ours to begin with in the first place. Perhaps we can even imagine a future in which all people feel free to wear whatever they want and be whoever they want.