Amidst the loud colors, fanciful outfits, and poppy beats of your average K-POP boy group music video, the most foreign element to an average Western viewer likely has nothing to do with the pageantry. Rather, it's the fact that the boy band members frequently touch one another.
Take the music video for BTS's "Boy With Luv" featuring Halsey, for example:
BTS (방탄소년단) '작은 것들을 위한 시 (Boy With Luv) feat. Halsey' Official MV www.youtube.com
All the members of BTS sit on a couch together, with one member's arm draped around another. Their relationship isn't portrayed as sexual or romantic. They're just really close friends. In Japan and South Korea, this act of intimate, platonic touching is called "skinship." And it's viewed as totally normal between straight male friends.
Human beings crave physical touch, and a lack of touch, or "skin hunger" as some psychologists call it, can result in negative psychological effects similar to depression. But in Western culture, straight men platonically touching other straight men is stigmatized. Two women can hold hands or cuddle without any fear of presumptions that they're sexually intimate with one another, but for male friends, this isn't the case.
The same is true for emotional intimacy. In spite of what many believe, men crave emotional intimacy just as much as women do. At the same time, men are socialized to be stoic and emotionally unavailable, especially around other men. As a result, men struggle to make and maintain friendships compared to women, which can lead to intense loneliness, especially later in life.
Unfortunately, Western media offers lackluster representations of male friendship, oftentimes relegating anything deeper than surface-level bromance to the realms of goofball comedy or "gay panic" humor. Movies like I Love You, Man and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry turn male friendship into a source of laughter rather than a genuine connection between two people who care about one another. Even Scrubs turned the close friendship between J.D. and Turk into a jokey musical number, rife with homoerotic innuendo.
Scrubs - Guy Love (HD) www.youtube.com
Surprisingly, the best representation of a healthy male bromance to-date was in the 2007 high school comedy Superbad. Amidst all the stupid dick jokes, the relationship between Jonah Hill's Seth and Michael Cera's Evan feels as real as any rock solid high school friendship––the kind men tend to miss and yearn for as they age.
While Superbad's plot revolves around two high school losers' quest to get laid before going to college, the movie also possesses a solid emotional core regarding fears of growing up and moving on in life. Arguably,one of the best male friendship scenes in any movie comes near the end of Superbad when, after a big fight, Seth and Evan reconcile during a sleepover. The two talk openly about their fears regarding college and losing touch and verbally express their platonic love for one another. It's a sweet, honest scene, funny but not played for laughs.
I Love You, Man - Superbad (7/8) Movie CLIP (2007) HD www.youtube.com
"I love you. It's like why don't we say that every day, why can't we say it more often?" says Evan.
"I just love you, I just want to go on the rooftop and scream 'I love my best friend Evan,'" replies Seth.
They're right. Why shouldn't male friends be more intimate with one another? Why are two men platonically showing affection for one another seen as socially inappropriate?
For whatever reason, the stigma gets pushed constantly. Worst of all, those pushing it are often well-meaning. In this misguided Telegraph article on "The 12 Rules of Male Friendship," the author lists rules like "3. Never openly verbalize that you value the friendship," and "7. Indirection can be intimate." It's hard to understand why these rules should have to apply to male friendships, especially when studies make it so clear that men feel otherwise and are capable of intimacy.
Similarly, fandom and shipping communities tend to imbue their favorite straight male friendships in fiction with sexual connotations, which may be fun but also further stigmatizes genuine emotional connection between male friends. A great example of this can be found in the Sherlock fandom's "Johnlock" conspiracy, which posits that Sherlock and John are actually written as gay characters in the BBC show, despite the creators' statements to the contrary. In fact, some writers even argue that it doesn't even matter what the actors behind the characters think about their own characters' relationships and motivations.
Even puppets aren't immune. Sesame Street pals Ernie and Bert have long been the subject of the "are they friends or lovers?" debate, which seems like a strange take in a series where nobody seems to have sexual or romantic motivation in the first place. Which begs the question: Why can't two guys just be very close friends? Why do we let society stop men from openly expressing friendships in healthy ways? Why shouldn't we cuddle with our bros?