Every year, award shows and other musical events are being held in the music industry in order to honor and praise what was popular that year, what made a cultural impact or changed the musical boundaries for the future of the music industry. In South Korea, at the end of every year, the same thing is done but on a bigger scale than in most countries. The South Korean popular music festivals (SBS’ Gayo Daejeon, KBS’ Gayo DaeChukje) and awards show (Melon Music Awards, Mnet Asian Music Awards) give South Korean artists and K-pop Idol Groups a platform to perform their own hit songs of that year as well as re-interpret their covers of other songs. Boy groups mimic girls and girl groups also perform the songs of boy groups. This transgender role-playing became a trend, especially after 2009, the year in which the K-pop scene started gaining more success in South Korea (Jung, 2011).
Hallyu or the Korean wave, meaning the globalization of South Korean pop culture, has grown immensely in the past couple of years. From cosmetics to fashion and Korean dramas, out of all those industries, the K-pop industry has been referred to as “the heart of Hallyu” (Romano, 2018). Many articles have been written about K-pop’s global popularity gain, and a lot of those articles mention the “addictive melodies, slick choreography, and production values” as a reason for this rise of popularity (Romano, 2018). Another reason would be because these K-pop idols are not afraid to try out new concepts both visually and sonically. These concepts often go hand in hand with the idea of breaking typical gender stereotypes. It is relevant to research the way these gender roles are represented, as this music is reaching a bigger audience day by day and thus influences a great number of people. In this paper, an analysis of the most popular music video by the biggest Korean pop band will be done and so the research question is as follows: “How are gender roles represented in the music video “Boy With Luv (feat. Halsey)” by BTS?” The theoretical framework in the next section will include a discussion of the theories that need to be explained in order to understand the general context of this research question.
Theorist Stuart Hall has discussed his theory of representation in his book “Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices” (1997). He explains the role of representation in media of all texts and the cultural role that this concept entails. He considers representation in the most commonly used definition of the word, meaning to re-present the thing that already holds meaning. Language is the last thing that is needed to complete the map of representation according to him. Language in the widest sense, means; verbal communication, online communication, behaviors, facial expressions, audiovisual images, and anything that can signal something. He further argues that there really is no fixed meaning to any text. The interpretation of meaning is subjective and dependent on the person who consumes it. Despite the fact that meaning can’t be completely fixed, the idea of creating meaning relies on a temporary sort of fixing where meaning is then shaped into new forms and creates new indications of the meaning. Hall describes the importance of the flexibility of meaning since fixed meaning indicates an assigned meaning to a certain text and therefore closes the process of “meaning-giving.”
Continuing in this line of thought, stereotyping fixes the indicated meanings of particular groups in society and limits the range of impressions and ideas that people have about that group. Hall states that in order to keep representation open to new subjectivities it is essential to dive into that particular stereotype to change the part that is responsible for creating that perception. Ideas about gender are being developed when individuals are in their young childhood (Yee & Brown, 1994). Fiske and Taylor (1991) explain the theory of gender schema which suggests that people develop certain ideas about gender and its characteristics, which further guides the process of converting information that’s related to gender by observing models. Those models include the representations of gender. “Content analyses of popular media, including music, have found that rigid gender roles are often portrayed, leading to a host of attitudes and behaviors consistent with rigid gender role perceptions” (Rasmussen & Densley, 2017, p. 189). So how have these gender roles been characterized in western media?
According to Rasmussen and Densley (2017), the portrayal of women has been poor, a relatively negative term. They argue that the media has given women the submissive stereotype and that the media does not portray women in non-traditional roles very often. They then state that in television shows, traditional female occupations include the housewife or homemaker. The ones that are considered non-traditional are more “masculine” occupations such as doctors, lawyers, and construction workers. The portrayal of women in popular music videos is quite rigid too. In rock music, women tend to be portrayed as unintelligent individuals and in traditional gender roles as well (Vincent et al., 1987). Hobbs and Gallup (2011) have conducted content analyses on country music, and specifically on the portrayal of female gender roles and they found that in the lyrics of songs in this genre there are many references to fidelity and the sense of security and assurance. Terms such as fidelity and security can be considered more feminine than masculine too, as it is a term that entails a certain emotional attachment to another person. However, these thoughts are socially constructed just like the idea that a certain occupation “belongs” to a certain gender. These socially constructed ideas go much further than just occupations, of course. Colors, fashion, and mannerisms, all seem to be categorized into two genders and that’s all socially constructed, too.
Additionally, Rasmussen and Densley (2017) add (sexual) objectification of women to the list of stereotypical female gender roles. Sexual objectification “occurs whenever a person’s body, body parts, or sexual functions are separated out from his or her person, reduced to the status of mere instruments, or regarded as if they were capable of representing him or her” (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997, p. 175). Media often portrays women in this way, Rasmussen and Densley (2017) argue that this leads to women and girls to view themselves as objects that can be judged by others too. The focus is too much on the women’s appearance and external factors (such as their hair color, skin color, and body shape) instead of their capabilities. In music videos, especially in the hip-hop/rap genre, women are portrayed as submissive sex objects to men as well (Sommers-Flanagan et al., 1993). They are objectified by wearing very little clothing, while the men are staring at them. Wallis’ (2011) content analysis on MTV music videos revealed that men were most likely to behave aggressively in music videos while women were more likely to act out non-verbal behaviors that are subordinate. To show another example, in country music videos female country artists generally tend to portray women as equal to men but this was not the case for male country artists. They painted women in the same condescending and traditional roles (Andsager & Roe, 1999). There may be various reasons for why women are portrayed this way. In country music, it would be because the genre is primarily male-dominated, even though women listen to this genre as well. Country music is believed to be the representative of white, male, heterosexist culture and because it is believed that the objectification of women is the result of male-dominant ideals, therefore the genre of country music is likely to include sexually objectifying content (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997).
Moving on, the topic of stereotypical portrayals of men in media has been explored by Wood in the piece “Gendered media: the influence of media on views of gender” (1994). The author approaches gender roles in media from different perspectives, and one line that stood out the most about the portrayal of men and simultaneously summarizes the perception that is given by the media was: “Men are presented as hard, tough, independent, sexually aggressive, unafraid, violent, totally in control of all emotions, and-above all-in no way feminine” (p. 32). It seems to be the total opposite of everything that was described about the portrayal of women in media, not to mention the passive-aggressive tone from the author. In addition to this discussion, the way in which men are not presented is just as interesting. The author reports how men are rarely presented as caring for others and rarely shown doing housework for example. It’s usually the opposite, men are represented as uninterested people and unskilled enough to take care of children or to cook. This stereotype leaves a negative impression since it is about how men are non-empathetic and insensitive.
The K-pop industry is known for taking part in presenting these above-mentioned stereotypes. Female K-pop idols are expected to be polite, elegant, innocent but sexy women (even when they’re underage). They wear revealing clothes while dancing in provocative choreography and sing sensual lyrics, a famous example of this would be “Touch my body” by SISTAR (starshipTV, 2014). Male idols are often shown doing choreographies that require more strength than those of girl groups, and boy groups tend to present visually and sonically darker concepts too, whereas those of girl groups often sound more bubbly. However, in the case of male idols, there seems to be a development in breaking those feminine and masculine stereotypes. Male idols are presented wearing makeup, they have dyed hair, are covering girl group dances, and these males are encouraged to be more sensitive and empathetic not only in their lyrics but as public figures (Jang, Park, Lee & Hong, 2019). This small but significant contrast between the gender roles in the Western music industry and the K-pop industry could slowly change the way in which gender roles are represented in the Western music industry, which is one of the reasons for the topic choice of this paper.
The chosen case study is the music video “Boy With Luv” by the South Korean boy group BTS featuring the American singer Halsey. As of now, BTS is the biggest global boy group, they’ve reached a level of “big” that boy groups like them were never imagined to reach. They account for almost 5 billion dollars of the South Korean economy, rivaling the value of Samsung and Hyundai, which are multi-national and multi-billion dollar corporations. These corporations are rivaling against a boy group that debuted barely 7 years ago, from an indie entertainment company (Pandey, 2019). A lot of people who are interested in the music industry are left confused with questions such as “How can a boy group who primarily sings in Korean dominate international markets to the point of having a best-selling record in 2019 with an EP that only had one single?” According to the writers of a Vulture article (Park & Kim, 2018), the difference between BTS and other (Korean) boy groups lies in BTS’ authenticity, their discography’s mix of genres, and blend of Western and East-Asian standards. The founder of Big Hit Entertainment Bang Si Hyuk, BTS’ entertainment label, emphasized the importance of artistic freedom and made his company’s mission to make “music and artist for healing,” and encourages the artists to create their own art, which is something that is not very common in the K-pop industry.
“BTS’s music comes across as organic because it is a natural output of the members’ own minds. It is not a coincidence that BTS began their musical journey with hip-hop, the genre that perhaps has the highest bar for authenticity. In the beginning, BTS was closer to being a hip-hop group in a boy band format, rather than a boy band trying out a hip-hop” (Park & Kim, 2018).
Spreading the message of self-love, incorporating Jungian psychology, and referencing Greek philosophy and mythology to show how they are dealing with their own struggles and sharing their own process of self-discovery in their discography is something that appeals not only to young audiences as the media illustrates. It speaks to people in many parts of the world of all ages, genders, and interest groups, while even transcending language barriers. This is why it is relevant to study and analyze their content because it tells us what these audiences are watching and being influenced by in this age.
The relevance of choosing to analyze the music video “Boy With Luv” (Big Hit Labels, 2019) in particular is not only because it holds the record for most watched video in 24 hours on YouTube (Spangler, 2019) but also because it is a perfect blend of Western bubblegum pop music and aesthetically pleasing K-pop visuals. The American singer Halsey features in this song, she is known to be an artist who tackles controversial topics that most artists would be too afraid to sing about. She fits BTS well, as she also uses the same storytelling methodology in her own albums and music videos. By analyzing the lyrics that were written by these men, their overall fashion, dance performances, and vocals, the next section of this paper will connect to the previously discussed representation of gender roles, with a focus on soft masculinity.