BTS, War of Hormone and the new aggressive hip hop idol masculinity

Last week the K-pop fandom blew up with excitement in a way it hadn’t for a while with the surprise release of BTS’s music video, War of Hormone.

As someone with a vague interest but no particular passion for BTS, the first thing that drew me into watching the video was its name. It’s rare to see something as biological as hormones being referenced in any kind of pop music. This is especially true for K-pop given the way we tend to link hormones to sexuality and the panicked reaction that any K-pop song or video that explicitly addresses sexuality is met with.

Initially I was pretty impressed. The video has a very strong visual identity and the camerawork and editing works really nicely. But as it went on, it started to raise some red flags for me. Talking about women as ‘presents’ and ‘equations that men do’ is quite literally objectifying – it reduces women to objects that exist purely for men in one way or another.

If, however, objectification was the standard by which to judge K-pop (or any pop) music videos, it would be highly unfair to single out BTS for blame. It’s par for the course for a huge number of K-pop videos and, rightly or, mostly, wrongly, it is something the viewer pretty much has to accept in order to enjoy these videos.

But something intrigued and unsettled me about this particular video and made me want to dive back into their back-catalogue. The cocky yet vulnerable lyrics, the way the group moves like a pack of hunting dogs, the humour used to disguise the fact that their bodies are being put on display – there was definitely something new here.

Considering how young an academic field of study Hallyu studies is, there has been a relatively large amount of writing published about Korean masculinity in Korean pop culture. Sun Jung has written a whole book about it and a number of other authors have also contributed their theories and ideas.

But none of them quite fit BTS. Or Block B and BAP. Or even EXO. Or perhaps even Infinite.

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Jung views DBSK during their Mirotic era as typical kkotminam (or flower boy) idols

Sun Jung has previously written about nationality-less Pan-Asian masculinity embodied by the performances of DBSK circa 2008-09 but this feminised pretty boy image and performance with a heavy Japanese influence definitely does not fit the group. The beast-idol masculinity of 2PM she also describes which is used to sexually objectify the male body while still presenting a soft and approachable masculinity off stage is not quite right either.

Crystal Anderson’s ideas which build on Jung’s that K-pop idols have complex overlapping masculinities which adopt elements of African American in order to create hybrid masculinities and disrupt stereotypes of Asian men are definitely relevant but it still doesn’t quite fit.

There is an increasingly threatening edge to the lyrics and performances of some newer boy bands which is not explained by any of these theories. BTS is a perfect example.

In Danger they tell their girlfriend not to confuse them because she will put herself in danger. Yeah sure, she’s a cutie and she’s done nothing wrong. It’s his fault, he’s pathetic. But she’s testing him and he’s hurt and he’s dangerous and, dear lord, there is a lot of violent imagery in this video.

In Boy in Luv (which is a very different title to the Korean one which is a slang term translating to something along the lines of ‘man’s man’ or ‘tough guy’), the lyrics effectively threaten sexual violence telling the object of their affections to grab hold of BTS as her boyfriend before they pounce on her. In the video, they manhandle the female protagonist, shake her and drag her by the wrist but it’s all in the name of that all-important love confession so I guess that’s okay.

In comparison to these previous efforts, War of Hormone is not actually that bad. But when this video of a woman being catcalled as she walks around the streets of New York went viral a couple of days ago I couldn’t help but be reminded of this music video once again.

There by no means the only one but BTS seem to embody a new more aggressive, threatening and domineering masculinity in their performances which hasn’t really been seen in K-pop before. BTS are definitely not about to release a single telling their noona how pretty she is but they do want to be your oppa.

This new more traditionally masculine form of K-pop masculinity is definitely a reaction to something. There’s quite a lot of bravado there but there is also a lot of anxiety. In their performance, BTS need you to know that they are men and straight men at that. They put their bodies on display for their audience to consume with fairly provocative dance performances but they use humour and aggression to distract from it.

This all comes at a time when K-pop is becoming more and more established internationally and the cultural and sexual currency of Korean men is going up in the world. At the same time, there seems to be less and less space for male idols in the mainstream of Korean popular culture.

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Beenzino’s Twitter profile picture shows some elements of Korean hip hop masculinity

5194431a04bce7ee7c6017a55e0af2e8Meanwhile Korean hip hop is getting continuously more popular. Quite a few of the Korean people in their twenties that I’ve spoken to in the past few months have mentioned how popular rappers like Beenzino are with university students and if you look at the Gaon singles chart it’s full of acts like Epik High and Dynamic Duo’s Gaeko. The few male idols that do still chart highly tend to be established acts like BEAST.

Given this, it’s not surprising idol groups are trying to appeal to the general public’s desire for hip hop. The only problem is that hip hop does tend to require a type of authenticity that doesn’t easily sit with the idol production model. This might be why groups like Block B and BTS are partly made up of former underground rappers who often write for their groups. Their own artistic integrity helps to increase that of the whole group.

But the hip hop underground seems to have some real issues with idol hip hop and particularly with idol performances of hip hop masculinity. When the incident with B-Free and BTS blew up last year, a lot of the criticism aimed at BTS was not really about their music but a direct attack on their masculinity: they dressed like girls; they wore make up like girls; they looked gay. As idols, BTS did not perform hegemonic hip hop masculinity in a way that is acceptable to more ‘authentically masculine’ rappers like B-Free.

So perhaps this more aggressive masculinity is a reaction to not being taken seriously as artists because of the perception of what an acceptable rapper looks like. After all, BTS’s albums really do resemble hip hop albums in form with intros, outros, skits and cyphers and many of the members can rap and write pretty good rhymes. At the very least, the song Hip Hop Lover shows that whoever wrote it listens to a lot of hip hop.

Aside from this, the shrinking space for idols in the mainstream has led to a more international focus for K-pop marketing strategies and, from this perspective, this new aggressive masculinity might actually be a sign of growing confidence in the roles Korean men can play on an international stage. Idol groups no longer have to rely on a Japanese-influenced nationality-less feminised masculinity to be recognised outside of Korea. Instead they can be ‘manly’ men who perform a bravado-filled, dominant style of masculinity.

Interestingly, BTS are one of the very few idol groups that assert their Korean identity in their music on a regular basis. The group has multiple songs which contain raps written in different Korean dialects (particularly Gyeongsangdo dialects which tend to be associated with strong masculinity in Korea) and they discuss different stereotypes and expectations of people from different regions of Korea. Simply translating these lyrics does not convey the entirety of the meaning of the song as it requires quite a nuanced understanding of Korean language and historical regional differences. BTS’s masculinity is not just masculine, it is also Korean and it is difficult to separate the two.

Reading BTS’s new hip hop idol masculinity purely from a feminist perspective, they are quite problematic. The aggression and bravado in their songs in videos often escalates to the point of implied sexual and domestic violence which is really not a good example for a young female audience. However, taking a more international perspective, their aggressive performance style is quite subversive. No longer do male idol groups feel like they have to perform a feminised pretty boy masculinity, conforming to stereotypes of East Asian men, in order to be successful internationally. Now they can be hyper-masculine, proudly Korean hip hop idols and still hold their own.

The new hip hop idol masculinity of BTS, Block B and other groups like them represents a turning point for K-pop. It will be interesting to see where it goes from here.

  • Lien

    Such an interesting and thought-provoking read. Thank you.

  • Jay

    Over analyzing .

  • Hélène Bricout

    This was an interesting reading but I don’t agree with it all.
    War of Hormones is obviously objectifying women but isn’t it what the song is about? It’s about Hormones. Hormones don’t think. They just “feel”. Hormones make us (boys or girls) objectify the others, and I think that’s what the song is about. Also, here, the lyrics are clearly about a boy who can’t control his hormones during teenage years. He’s not an adult yet, he still has to experiment etc. I didn’t think of this song as a sexist song. Just a song about sexual desire as a teenager.
    I agree however on the fact that they are provocative but hide it with humor. I don’t know what to think about it yet. It’s original to do it that way but it could also be seen as hypocritical. Like, if someone called them upon their provocative gestures they could say “we’re only being funny”. But yeah, the funny side shows that they’re not perfect and they’re still humans with flaws. Many Kpop group still try to keep their perfect image. BTS doesn’t, I like that about them. They seem more genuine. I guess that’s their concept (And also the concept of Block B, or maybe even more generally hip hop)

    • Jahz

      While I also don’t really agree with the ‘objectifying women’ bit, I think the music video is fun and pretty playful, I also think the whole “aggression=masculine” in hip hop (or in korean culture) thing is pretty relevant though. Specifically about BTS and their ‘Boys in Luv’ music video (where we see them being aggressive with the female love interest, pushing her head around, slamming her into lockers, dragging her into a room by the wrist), and how being aggressively forceful with a girl is seen as romantic and dashing. We usually see these in k-dramas, grabbing a girl’s phone away and stealing her number, yanking her by the wrist to follow you somewhere, even forcibly kissing her when she protests (we see this alot in Boys Over Flowers, which is a pretty popular and successful k-drama). This isn’t a BTS problem, but more like a warped view on what is masculine and it’s relation to korean culture, not that this is how all koreans view it, but it seems to be a popular trend which does tie in with sexism and how men feel entitled to do what they want to a women against her will. (Under “the wrist grab”: http://outsideseoul.blogspot.ca/2012/08/the-other-f-word-feminism-versus-korean.html)

    • https://twitter.com/ses_mb Seren

      I agree with you 100%, really made me think differently about the song.

  • feb

    Please rework on how your ideas flow. I feel like I’m just reading a bunch of rambles with a few good points. These points gets buried under a mountain of tangents that doesn’t do anything but detract the readers from your main ideas. I understand that you’re trying to bring up the issue of sexism so that the article might seem to have a point, but It seems like you’re making a mountain out of a molehill especially in a song written by teenagers. Furthermore, you’re leading the readers by painting a picture of Beenzino as a ‘rapper overflowing with hip-hop masculinity’ where in interviews he clearly states that he reject the notion of that stereotypical rapper view.

    • Shayna Fox Lee

      your response seems to indicate an inability to follow complex ideas rather than an issue with the way the author wrote the piece. I had no problems following their arguments, which, if you actually read the entirety, you’d realize does not actually revolve around sexism, but the tension between national, international, and non-localized conceptions of gender politics.

  • takasar1

    kpop and masculinity but no mention of the ORIGINAL masculine idol (rain)!!!! this doesnt feel right……..

  • Mangoe

    Wow…I just realized how effed up kpop is. And yet I still love it…

  • GeminiGabRiElleSG

    That video of the woman walking around for 10 hours and being cat called annoys me ever since I found out that they admitted to editing out white guys to make it seem more black and latino people are aggressive.

  • https://twitter.com/ses_mb Seren

    I think it’s important to note that the song is about hormones. Hormones are something everyone has and do make us objectify other. However I don’t like the song. I’m a HUGE fan of BTS, the video production, the singing, the actual tune I love, it’s a good song, but I hate the lyrics. It’s certainly interesting and definitely not a reason to hate BTS, I’m still an ARMY but I just don’t like the message they’re putting across in this song.

    Even after this I would still recommend you to listen to more of their songs, they really are a good group it’s just this one song I don’t like.

  • https://twitter.com/ses_mb Seren

    I don’t like the message they’re spreading with this song and MV, but I still like them. I know I’m being completely biased because if it were any other group I would immediately dislike them, but I genuinely don’t think they’re bad people. I think whether this song is sexist or not is definitely debatable and it’s been very interesting reading some of the comments below because they bring up very good points. I just think whether you dislike this song or not, do not judge BTS completely off this. They are really good artists, I’m just disappointed in this song.