Masculinity Through The BTS Lens
For eons it has been preached that sex, rock and roll and a casual disregard for basic hygiene are the pillars on which masculinity is built. Then BTS came along and changed all that
Musicians have been using fashion and personal style to make bold statements and pay homage to their culture, music and religion for decades. Sometimes so dazzling is their vision, that they become a religion unto themselves. Michael Jackson, Madonna and Beyoncé have regularly used religious motifs to transform themselves into ethereal beings on screen. Accompanied with stringent brand control, an online persona plus careful social media and PR management, musicians have become more than flesh and bone — they are phantom beings that have deigned to walk the world among us.
But while Beyoncé, The Beatles, Cliff Richard and Madonna receive praise and notoriety (the good kind) for this ability, South Korean boy band BTS have faced brutal amounts of homophobia and xenophobia in every country outside their own. For the West, which so far had only been introduced to Asian men like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, seeing BTS take over the Grammy Awards (despite not winning), touring London and the United States, entering the Time 100 list and pulverizing world records, was shocking. The fact that the seven-member team did all this while singing in a language that was not English, made it a bigger stumper.
From being called ‘a fad’ to being asked if they’d sleep with their fans or if they even knew English, BTS have faced numerous hurdles during their attempt to establish themselves as world-renowned artists. One of those hurdles is the assumption that their fanbase comprises hysterical pre-teen girls on Twitter. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
I was introduced to BTS in 2015 and while I wasn’t necessarily a fan of their music at the time, I was stunned by their skincare, their beauty and their attention to detail. I had never seen such polished faces in my life and neither had I ever come across such well-tuned choreography. The fact that BTS have talked about using toner, night cream, sheet masks and going to dermatologists is path-breaking in itself — not because male celebrities don’t do it; they just don’t admit to it and nor are they ever asked about it by mainstream media. In India, the size of the male grooming market is nearly $700,000, according to a Nielsen report; it is only set to grow, but somehow men talking about creams and balms on public platforms translate to a supposed admission of being ‘gay’ or ‘like a woman.’
The truth is, no longer are urban men (and women) impressed with advertisements about angels falling from the sky (hello, Axe) — they want to know about the benefits of hyaluronic acid. Skincare is no longer the sole domain of those who identify as women or LGBTQ+. Whether we admit it or not, BTS and K-pop have played a ginormous role in that in the past couple of years.
And it’s not just about BTS using snail mucin essences, face masks and fermented toners — it is refreshing to see their smoky eyes, popsicle-stained lips and glowing complexion garnering praise (or at least starting a conversation) in worldwide media about makeup and a man’s right to being beautiful. Then, of course, there is a palpable fear and confusion amongst heterosexual men who have, for years, been fed the notion that six-pack abs, drinking scotch and not washing your face is what makes you a man. The fact that there are seven men (and an entire music industry, in fact) who actually put in effort to groom before going out to meet their legion of adoring fans, seems off to the average heterosexual male. After all, like certain popular male celebrities, they could just allegedly spit on people from balconies or marry 15-year-old women; why bother with sunscreen?
Why, indeed, should BTS make music about mental health, self-love and make references to obscure literature and psychological concepts when they could just talk about sex, drugs and money? BTS’ presence on the global stage means that the world is finally ready to accept ideas of masculinity that differ from what we have been fed over the years. They’re also proof that you don’t have to dumb down your music to appeal to a global audience — an audience that makes them trend worldwide every single time, haters be damned.
It’s easy to dismiss the entire BTS fandom as ‘cult-like’ or ‘toxic’ and ignore the fact that they raised over ₹5,80,000 (roughly $8,000) to relief funds in Assam after the North East Indian state was ravaged by floods. Or the fact that they put their enormous social media clout towards drawing attention to the International Railroad for Queer Refugees, which was founded in Iran to help LGBTQ+ people who fled their homes due to the fear of persecution — and even death. Not to mention their incredible drive to match BTS’ $1 million donation to the Black Lives Matter organization.
The fact remains that BTS have heralded a new idea of masculinity which finds vast acceptance with men, women and non-binary people alike. The only fear here is that many have jumped onto the BTS train because it is a sure-fire way to garner likes, shares and retweets. But, then again, that number is miniscule when compared to the millions who are growing up in a world where the biggest band on the planet is drawing attention thanks to their message of self-love. Because, honestly, we could all do with a bit of that.
Mayukh Majumdar is a film, pop-culture, and lifestyle journalist who has covered Bollywood, fashion, and social media trends for a variety of media portals and publications.
Curated by Riddhi Chakraborty
This story is featured in the Rolling Stone India Collectors Edition: The Ultimate Guide to BTS