While stuck in lockdown last year, I started watching Korean dramas and gradually developed an appreciation for the melodrama, over-the-top plotlines and of course, the men. One day, I posted a montage of shirtless Korean actors on my Instagram Stories (don’t ask) and a friend sent me a message to say, “I don’t see the appeal.”
The men featured in the video – although they had defined muscles – were fair, had softer features and didn’t have much in the way of stubble or facial hair. They were “too pretty” to be considered “masculine”, and thus, did not have appeal.
So as I have been slightly obsessed about the phallus (it’s been at the back of my mind for over a month), I have also been thinking a lot about masculinity. What does it mean to be masculine? And more importantly, where do those ideas come from?
In a journal article about young Americans’ perception of K-pop masculinities, researchers showed university students a video of one of BTS’s performances and asked them a few questions about perceived masculinity / femininity. The results were not too surprising – most of the participants did not perceive the band members as “overly masculine nor feminine”. The researchers say that this “ambivalent view” mirrors the “predominant perceptions of Asian American males in the US gender hierarchy”.
What’s more interesting however, is the participants’ explanations for their ratings. Since the question was open-ended, they were able to fill out answers as they pleased. The answers included pointing out traits like “being very skinny, not very muscular” or that “their body size is small, their skin is soft”. Some also mentioned the lack of facial hair.
The researchers say that these are physical attributes “commonly associated with the image of Asian men” and are usually “categorised as feminine in the US gender schema”. They add that this “preexisting schema can hinder” accurate observations because in fact, the BTS members’ average height is 5 ft 10 inches, which is actually taller than the average American male adult.
What this seems to indicate is that existing notions of gender can cloud our perception. Considering the fact that my friends and I grew up watching Western media, in Chinese households full of stoic men, we have a preconception of what masculinity is supposed to be.
But the more I think about it, the more it feels like a myth.
Boys don’t cry (it’s a lie)
One of the biggest shockers to me when I watched these Korean dramas was how much everyone cries. The male protagonist can go from fighting a group of men to crying in front of a woman in the very next scene.
I mean, of course I know men cry. What’s surprising was that it’s done with no shame. The men never apologise for crying or showing their feelings. There is less of the whole, I’m a man so I must be such and such a way, sort of behaviour. I don’t get the same sense of gender stereotyping that’s so prevalent in Hollywood movies.
And yes, I know Korean TV has its own set of issues, but what I think is interesting is that masculinity is not as universal as we think it might be.
In her book Penis Envy, Mari Ruti wrote: “Bodily organs themselves have no meaning; it’s the collective mythologies that cultures impose on them that do.”
The Phallus is Symbolic and Imaginary. But even when we know this, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of gender norms.
How do we dig ourselves out?
Song, K. Y., & Velding, V. (2020). Transnational Masculinity in the Eyes of Local Beholders? Young Americans’ Perception of K-Pop Masculinities. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 28(1), 3–21. https://doi.org/10.1177/1060826519838869
Ruti, M. (2018). Penis envy and other bad feelings: the emotional costs of everyday life. New York: Columbia University Press. Retrieved from https://lccn.loc.gov/2017049985
In local news:
Sexual favours as bribe. A Sabah Government department head was “transferred out” of his current position because he was suspected of asking for sexual favours. I don’t know what that means… was he fired? I just find it fascinating how sex can be seen as currency. Maybe that’s another reason why it’s such a controversial thing.
Reading / Watching:
From Aspirin to Viagra. I was quite tickled by the start of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s letter in which he describes his discovery of the human spermatozoa: “What I describe here was not obtained by any sinful contrivance on my part. The observations were made upon the excess with which Nature provided me in my conjugal relations.” He had to do it so he wouldn’t be “accused of masturbation”. Lulz…
Islamic Modern. It was very interesting to read the cases of how women use the Islamic courts in the case of “ambiguous marital status” or for financial support. Women seem to be looked after, even in cases where she may have “dubious morality”. In one of the cases where a woman was married three times and had been caught in “compromising circumstances” with married men, the court still moved quickly to secure her financial support, seemingly without prejudice.
I had to stop myself from getting too personal in this issue. Masculinity and gender norms have plagued me since I was a child so it’s not surprising that my research has gone down this track as well. I wonder if inserting more personal stories into these newsletters would be something you would be interested in. Yes/no? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Hit reply and let me know.