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Are Korean Male Idols the Cure to Asian American Emasculation? [BLOG]

Aozora BrockmanThis week’s blog post comes from Aozora Brockman, a sophomore at Northwestern University. Brockman is studying anthropology, creative writing, and Asian American studies.  She is especially interested in researching racial issues that impact the Asian American community and is currently involved in an independent research project on how Asian American masculinity is viewed by non-Asian female fans of K-Pop male idols. Her intelligent commentary on race is colored by her perspective as a bi-racial Asian American growing up in the 21st century. 

This summer I have been conducting research at Northwestern University on how non-East-Asian female fans of Korean popular culture—primarily K-Pop and K-Dramas—understand masculinity. I interviewed 14 fans between the ages of 18 and 23 who varied in racial and ethnic backgrounds. Specifically, I interviewed second-generation Nigerian Americans, a Mexican American, white Americans, a Filipina, Indian Americans, and a second-generation European American. All were fans of Korean popular music or Korean dramas, or both. In doing so, I found that most of the fans I interviewed expanded their ideas about masculinity to include Korean “soft” masculinity, but more interestingly, that because of their exposure to “cool,” attractive media images of Korean idols, most fans now found East Asian men to be more attractive potential dating and marriage partners.

Most Americans are probably familiar with K-Pop, though they may not be aware of it. Korean artist Psy’s 2012 viral hit “Gangnam Style” is actually part of this genre of music. However, most interviewed fans distanced themselves from the song because they felt it was not an accurate representation of K-Pop. This is because K-Pop is characterized by its flawlessly beautiful boy bands and girl groups. All of the female fans that I interviewed were drawn more towards the boy bands because they felt that the girl groups were too feminine and weak. The boy bands, however, introduced them to a new form of masculinity. Korean masculinity as portrayed in K-Pop and K-Dramas is characterized by softness and cuteness. K-Pop idol masculinity was influenced by the bishonen—or “pretty boy”—image made popular in shojo manga, or graphic novels aimed towards a young female audience. Therefore, the majority of Korean male idols wear make-up, take care of their skin and dress fashionably. In Korean dramas, the heroes are also portrayed as being more emotionally open and sensitive. Since these forms of Korean “soft” masculinity are the opposite of American hegemonic masculinity in which men are expected to be strong both emotionally and physically, when exposed to Korean masculinities through K-Pop music videos and K-Dramas, fans were able to expand their idea of masculinity and understand that masculinity varies by culture, and that it is not a fixed trait but a socially constructed one. Only one interviewed fan was able to fully articulate the constructed nature of masculinity itself, but the majority of fans showed signs of unconsciously heading towards that conclusion.

Moreover, most of the fans I interviewed were also able to change their negative perceptions of Asian men to positive ones. In American media, Asian and Asian American men are often not shown at all, or portrayed as being nerdy, asexual or unattractive. In the 2013 movie “21 & Over,” for instance, a Chinese American wants to stay in to study for a big interview on the night of his 21st birthday instead of going out with his white friends. Because of this perpetuation of emasculated Asian men in American media, the majority of the fans I interviewed—with the exception of those who were Asian American or had close Asian American boys as friends growing up—did not even think to consider Asian men as potential dating or marriage partners before being exposed to K-Pop and K-Dramas. However, the majority of the fans “fell in love” or at least found Korean idol men to be attractive after becoming hooked on K-Pop music videos and K-Dramas.

One Polish-American fan, who I will call Paulina, explained how her exposure to Korean media affected her attraction to Asian men very well and said, “I think it’s definitely been affected by K-Pop and K-Dramas ’cause I’m constantly being thrown at, oh, these are attractive men. Look at these guys, their hair is shiny and they’re dancing and they’re rubbing their lips at you. I don’t know if I didn’t have this interest in my life I would still find them attractive…I don’t know.”

Paulina therefore recognizes how much of an impact her exposure to attractive images of Korean men has had on reversing her perceptions of Asian men. In an extreme case, exposure to Korean popular culture led one interviewed fan to believe that an Asian American man would be the best choice for her to date and marry. This was because she felt disconnected from her African American cultural background and found that she felt more culturally connected to Asians and Asian Americans. She is presently working as a translator for a non-profit in Seoul, and after interviewing her I was struck at how much media can influence ideas of attraction, as well as how new media such as the Internet can make stories like hers possible.

When interviewing a fan who grew up in Lagos, Nigeria and is now attending college in the States, I also realized how much American media can influence perceptions of Asian men. The fan, who I will call Kemiah, thought that all Asian men were Chinese and that they were kung fu masters because growing up in Nigeria, the only media images she saw of Asian men were in martial arts movies. Kemiah said that when she came to America to attend university, she was confused by how her peers thought that Asian men were unattractive and nerdy. This shows how much power the media has to create and reinforce existing stereotypes about racial or ethnic groups.

Kemiah also said that she was confused because “if someone finds out that I have a lot of French music on my iPod, they don’t ask me or say things like, ‘Oh, you like French guys,’ or ‘Oh, you’re going to get married to a French guy’. It only happens with K-Pop, I don’t understand why.” This feeling of being singled out and made fun of because they were fans of Korean popular culture resonated with many interviewees. They constantly had to explain why they were fans of it and defend themselves when peers jokingly told them they had “Asian fever”. Thus, although the Internet and the existence of YouTube makes female fans of Korean popular culture better able to have more positive images of Asian men, it seems as if these women are presently in the minority. The reason why Korean boy bands have not been able to become mainstream in America like “Gangnam Style” was able to, for instance, may have more to do with the fact that while “Gangnam Style” was in line with most Americans’ views of Asian men—as being comical, asexual figures—Korean boy bands and Korean dramas are not.

Yet although Korean boy bands may never become mainstream in the U.S., an underground following is alive and well, and steadily growing. As one African American fan put it, “In the underground K-Pop world, there are more nerds sprouting up.” And although changing negative stereotypes of East-Asian men into positive ones is definitely not a broadly applicable solution to issues of Asian American masculinity (it does not include non-East Asian American men, for instance), it is still a light in the tunnel for the Asian American community, and more broadly, for positive relations across racial and ethnic groups across America.

Read more of Aozora’s blog posts here.