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On Asian Pretty Boys

On Asian Pretty Boys

  • Culture
  • Life
Once upon a time, I openly declared I wasn’t a fan of the pretty boy. While some friends religiously collected posters of doe-eyed K-pop superstars or clean cut Taiwanese heartthrobs, the effeminate Asian male never caught my fancy.

I completely missed the Taiwanese boyband F4 bandwagon, could not relate to Norwegian pop duo M2M’s hit single Pretty Boy, and never caught on to Korean dramas because I didn’t find the soft-spoken male lead remotely attractive.

“My boyfriend cannot seem more girly than me,” I declared, so sure of my taste in men at the young age of 15 but so blind to the cultural factors that had shaped that taste.

Reel life

Having grown up on a diet of Hollywood tv shows and movies and books by white authors, my idea of masculinity centred around the quintessential alpha male –  someone who was in control, commanded respect and boasted an air of suaveness. His favourite hobbies were knocking back a few pints with his fraternity, playing sports or doing, well, other manly things. In essence, he was a guy’s guy. Even the dark and soulful brooding stereotypes would often possess an edge and ruggedness.

On the contrary, the Western media I consumed traditionally portrayed Asian men as undateable, the “geeky nerds with high intelligence but low charisma”. Asian masculinity is painfully awkward, skinny, petite and hairless. Think of the otaku who hides in his room playing computer games all day or the ‘nice guy’ sidekick to the dashing football jock. In other words, Asian men rarely landed a love interest.

Soft and emotional men, were mildly off-putting.

But times have changed – new Asian dramas like hit series Descendents of the Sun showcase the softness and sensitivity of the modern Asian male in a positive light. These men often display an emotional depth and understanding of women and their feelings, which perfectly capture the growing attraction for men who embrace their feelings.

Reality bites

Of course, I now realise it’s reductive to paint Asian masculinity (or masculinity in general) in such broad strokes. However, I didn’t realise how extensively my perception of Asian masculinity affected my perception of my own femininity.

When dating, I’ve noticed I am immediately attracted to alpha males on first impression. While I eventually prefer men who are in touch with their emotions, a trait usually not found in your typical alpha male, I didn’t like this emotional sensitivity to be too obvious. For example, it’s great if a guy was at ease with complicated emotions and situations. But if he often cried and wanted to talk about feelings, not so much.

Soft and emotional men, especially the poster boys for Asian masculinity, were mildly off-putting – only because I disliked this sensitivity and intensity in myself. The ability to feel too much too often is seen as a largely feminine trait, and is something I’ve fought to restrain in order to be taken more seriously.

In a recent Humans of New York interview, Hillary Clinton also admitted that she has always felt the need to control her emotions. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Singaporean mid-twenty something or a white American woman running for President. Because this intentional construction of one’s chill, in order to be seen as more masculine and therefore more capable, is something women all over can profoundly relate to.

can you really fully embrace another when you don’t love those specific traits in yourself?

So the contemporary positive perspectives on Asian masculinity have truly forced me to face the parts of myself I haven’t felt comfortable with in a long time – my love for superficial beauty, my volatile emotions, my sensitivity.

In my disdain for the conventional Asian male beauty, I had pegged femininity as ‘less than’ masculinity and perpetuated sexism, inadvertently denying myself the freedom to be feminine without self-judgement.

For all the love and acceptance that’s easy to preach, can you really fully embrace another when you don’t love those specific traits in yourself? Isn’t it disingenuous to call myself a feminist yet hold flawed expectations of masculinity? Where do I begin to undo the lessons that have taken years to ingrain?

It feels irritatingly simplistic to say that self-love is the root of my problematic feelings towards Asian masculinity, yet there is a modicum of truth that denying men the right to be feminine denies anyone, including myself, the right to be human. That’s a surefire way to be unkind to oneself.

Perhaps my friends who embraced the pretty boy were on to something. Perhaps they were the real progressive ones. After all, when I recall the pretty heartthrobs of yesteryear, what stands out most is how comfortable they were being themselves – the one quality I most want in myself.

If that strong and unparalleled confidence in staying true to oneself is the mark of Asian masculinity, then that’s pretty darn attractive.

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Grace Yeoh Senior Staff Writer