By Dinithi Gunasekera
With hair all colours of the rainbow, the grooviest dance moves, and the most futuristic beats in town coupled with a sizeable fanbase from across the globe, K-pop is far from being a new name in pop culture headlines.
Among the big names in the Korean pop music industry, the boy band Bangtan Boys, better known as BTS, is what’s been hitting the news most prominently as of late.
Following recent derogatory remarks made by a couple of local radio hosts on air (25 August 2020) questioning the legitimacy of the group’s success by slandering their name in xenophobic and racist fashion, an intriguing conversation has been brought to light.
The radio hosts in question have allegedly implied the “oddness” of calling BTS a “boy” band, under the pretext of whimsical banter.
Despite such issues being sensitive matters of concern in today’s world, gender is nevertheless defined from one’s sex assigned at birth and gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), is the innermost concept or perception of one’s own gender as male, female, both, or neither.
The Bangtan Boys
The beloved K-pop idols are often referred to by many using the terms “homosexual” and “transgender”, terms which aren’t meant to be derogatory in the first place, yet used out of context all too often.
This fact being clear, alongside the members of BTS openly identifying themselves as biological males, it is unsettling to the utmost that anyone, let alone influential individuals such as media personnel, converse so disrespectfully in the open.
The open criticism and jeer towards BTS seem to be often directed at their fashion sense which defies the accepted norms of suit and tie culture with the added touch of makeup which is how they appear in their viral music videos and live performances. This also brings out people’s general distaste towards freedom of gender expression that extends beyond the accepted, set frame of what a man or woman is supposed to look like.
Shining a light on the concept of masculinity, it should be pointed out that many are reluctant to acknowledge a particular person as an individual before acknowledging their gender. This incident of mockery targeting the boys of BTS in terms of gender, while completely devaluing and undermining their capabilities as world-renowned performers, is a prime example.
BTS, currently the most popular K-pop group, shattered YouTube records and made Billboard Hot 100 history claiming the title of the first all-South Korean act to top US singles charts and the UK chart top 10 with their new English single “Dynamite” (as much as 101.1 million views on YouTube just 24 hours after its release). Additionally, Big Hit Entertainment Co., the managing agency of BTS, seeks to raise $ 812 million in a South Korean IPO (initial public offering). Such is the current market value of the international pop sensation.
Drifting away from the main issue of narrow-mindedness in terms of gender identity and expression, could the constant hatred BTS and the K-pop industry endure on a regular basis be xenophobia in disguise, directing us to a deep-rooted racial issue, perhaps?
The music industry
It is almost already a given that artistes who do not perform in English face more difficulties in climbing the ladder than those who do. The same applies to people of colour and other ethnicities, all of whom classify BTS as a pop wonder for its popularity across the globe and for challenging all possible social norms.
“The American mainstream music industry is really hesitant to call Asian artistes ‘pop stars’,” observed Kim Youngdae, a South Korean critic.
The collective association of “unmanliness” with inherent racial sentiments attacking East Asian cultures goes on to prove the long journey ahead in a so-called “progressive” world.
In conversation with Bathiya Jayakody, the much-adored musical artiste of the Sri Lankan pop duo Bathiya & Santhush (BnS), Jayakody agreed that gender and gender expression do play a role in the entertainment industry like it does in any other segment of society.
“There is no ideal artiste,” Jayakody said, adding: “Any form of art is art and it is absolutely a personal choice.” As for the unique style of BTS, Jayakody commented: “What is considered normal in one culture may not be the same for another. In a changing society, what I have to say about it is immaterial. However, everybody should have the freedom to express who they are and their art according to their personal choice.
“In a society, you have the right to live how you want to live and others have the equal right to like or dislike that choice,” Jayakody added.
What does it take to be a ‘man’?
Speaking of “maleness” in general, should the definition of the ideal man be the textbook definition of an aggressive alpha male conforming to typical gender roles, behavioural patterns, interests, and even looks?
Screenwriter for Yaas Productions and German teacher at Goethe-Institut Colombo Deepthi Jayasinghe observed: “I like beards and long hair but that’s just my taste. A real man is a man who is who he wants to be.”
“Boys don’t cry”, “man up!”, “stop being such a girl” are not new to the vocabulary young boys are accustomed to growing up with.
“Toxic masculinity is very firmly rooted in patriarchy, where the male is seen as someone powerful, dominating, and macho. Masculinity in itself is not unhealthy or negative, but when gender norms and stereotypes are added into the equation, it can become toxic and consuming,” said counselling psychologist and psychotherapist Nivendra Uduman in correspondence with The Sunday Morning Brunch.
“I believe that toxic masculinity originates in the womb, and traits of toxicity are passed on through our genes. People who have experienced the negative effects of this very damaging phenomenon pass it on, unless they have done the work to heal from those effects.”
In Sri Lanka, “boys will be boys” equates to a mandatory lifestyle that demands conformation.
“Boys will be boys” is almost never enclosed with being kind and humble, but rather with, being the loudest in the room and being able to lift a dozen dumbbell rows. Whoever does not conform or display such traits are destined to be castaways in society.
Uduman brings forth the limited education in emotional intelligence, empathy, and respect at home and school as factors contributing to this vicious cycle.
“They grow up having shut down and blocked out their bodies and their emotions. There is shame associated with feelings of sadness, frustration, disappointment, and tenderness, whereas anger and rage are seen more as a norm associated with being male in society.”
He further commented: “If you touch the average schoolgoing boy’s shoulder blades, they are often tense and tight. It’s not just a physiological thing: It’s all the pent-up emotion that has no release.
“We also have to consider the role emotional invalidation as a young child has on the development of toxic masculinity. In a scenario where a little boy falls while playing ‘hora-police’ and scrapes his knee and starts to cry in pain, a parent who happens on the scene would respond: ‘Appo, why are you crying like a little girl? That’s just a small cut, get up!’
“The little boy learns very early on that pain is not meant to be felt or reacted to, but rather suppressed. That it’s not okay to ask for help, to be. Most importantly, the little boy does not learn how to soothe and regulate himself, leading to emotional problems later on in life.
“We also have to consider the role of the media in perpetuating toxic masculinity,” Uduman stated in regards to how toxic masculinity as a prevalent mindset among Sri Lankans has paved the way for the vapid instances of intimate partner violence and domestic violence in recent times.
“The bottling up of emotions, the shame associated with seeking help, and intergenerational trauma contribute to men resorting to violent means often coupled with alcohol and other substances. The cost of toxic masculinity to healthcare services, legal services, educational services, and basically our entire country needs to be looked at closely.”
Dulana Ethugala, a student at a prominent school in Colombo, shared that he has personally received criticism for not being “man enough” just because he’s not aggressive. “Being a man for me is being responsible for myself and the people around me and being mature enough to hopefully navigate through life.”
Whilst home to a vast variety of thought patterns and ideologies, Sri Lanka is yet a sexually prejudiced caricature. Culturally deep-rooted gender norms plague the fate of Sri Lanka’s youth population. A boy in today’s world is three times more likely to die by suicide and Sri Lanka’s skyrocketing suicide rates have often irreversibly been linked with this phenomenon.
However, it is noteworthy that a few years ago, an incident such as that in question would rarely receive the severe backlash it is receiving now. With the development of well-established organisations such as Equal Ground Sri Lanka, The Grassrooted Trust, and Bakamoono, and even prevalent social media activism that brings seldom talked about issues to light, this uphill climb, although not exactly a breeze, would be a bearable one.
“I think to be a man is to be humble enough to follow those that are wiser and knowledgeable than him, but if there’s a situation where something needs to change and no one is doing anything about it, a man should be able to inspire change with compassion, empathy, and by leading by example; not being afraid to do the hardest work himself. If there’s a disagreement or a tense situation, try to get to the point where you can hug rather than punch,” shared Isuru Muthukuda, PhD. Pharmaceutical Chemistry, University of Sheffield, UK.