The first time K-pop boy group BTS performed in America was on their show, American Hustle Life, where members “worried they wouldn’t find 200 fans to fill the venue” they were tasked to perform at in 2014 (Billboard).
Two days ago, BTS performed live at the annual Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve’ to millions of viewers and rang in the new year in America. Yet, Andy Cohen and Anderson Cooper of CNN chose to comment on how they were “lackluster”:
“I mean…here’s the deal. We gotta get real. We just saw BTS, we think they were phoning it in.” — Andy Cohen (2:06:46 on the countdown here)
All while BTS was still performing on stage.
I wasn’t surprised. Disrespect towards Asian artists isn’t new in the United States. Unfortunately, informed by a history of devaluing and antagonizing Asian work, Western reactions to K-pop haven’t been as accepting as media outlets have made them out to be.
Creator Ethan Klein of H3H3 Productions has never been one to shy away from controversy, especially on Twitter and his H3 Podcast series.
Indeed, when Blackpink came up in “The Most Liked Music Videos” segment of YouTube Rewind 2019, Klein commented:
“I don’t like K-pop, I hate K-pop. I don’t get BTS. They look like — They’re just a bunch of — How did this become a thing in Western culture? Where all these grown men and little girls are jerking off to little k-pop boys. It’s like a little fetish. It’s like a little tw*nk gay fetish about these k-pop boys.” — Ethan Klein, H3 Podcast #164 (25:45–26:10)
#h3h3isoverparty trended on Twitter almost immediately after the episode’s release. K-pop fans criticized how Klein characterized them as “little girls,” emphasizing the diversity of the fandom. Other fans called Klein out for xenophobia and homophobia.
Klein did not take the criticism seriously. In response, he tweeted:
To the rest of the world, this may be easily brushed off as just fandom drama. Yet on a deeper level, Klein’s comments reflect troubling stereotypes. His comments add to a history of Western racial humor typecasting, antagonizing, and devaluing Asians — normalized by comics, presenters, and public figures.
We’ve seen it before. 2016, on the Oscars stage: Chris Rock’s tasteless skit involving Asian children, ironically after criticizing the Oscars for lacking diverse representation (Vanity Fair). 2017, from the Chainsmokers: member Alex Pall joking about not bringing his dog to China in a Chinese interview (Mashable). 2018, in a comedy podcast by then-to-be-SNL member Shane Gillis (he got fired for this segment): “Why do the fucking ch*nks live there?” when discussing reasons for disliking Chinatown and Asians (Vox). 2019, in an unaired “America’s Got Talent” segment: Jay Leno’s tired joke about Koreans eating dog meat (NBC). All perpetuate damaging, xenophobic stereotypes about Asians. All portrayed as harmless humor.
Categorizing something as humor can be extremely effective at perpetuating harmful stereotypes.
After all, the easiest response to someone taking offense is to counter: “it’s just a joke!” It’s an easy way to absolve the speaker of responsibility. Suddenly, it’s the listener’s fault for getting offended; they’re too sensitive, or too slow, or just unable to take a joke.
Now, imagine you’re at a bar. Or in an auditorium. Or at the Oscars. Or wherever you’re among an audience where there’s more than just you listening. I don’t know how many times I’ve kept quiet because everyone else around me is laughing.
Here’s the thing, though: not everything that elicits laughter is a joke.
There are good-natured jokes, and then there’s just plain old mockery.
If we look at racial humor, Yumi Nagashima, for example, incorporates lots of stereotypes about Asian women in her acts. Hasan Minhaj bases material on his Indian family and identity all the time. Misha Han, Joel Kim Booster, and more do similar things. But these comics incorporate stereotypes effectively. Often, their jokes are funny because their punchlines subvert what the audience expects according to their preconceived notions. Or, they attest to a universal experience between them and their audience. Most importantly, their jokes effectively provoke an examination of relevant social dynamics. Take one of Hasan Minhaj’s jokes: “Americans hit on the arm and bruise the body…Indians slap on the face and bruise the soul.” This plays on the stereotype of Asian parents utilizing corporal punishment, but consider the “bruise the soul” part. The joke prompts reflection — how and why does corporeal punishment bruise the soul? There’s an implied statement on the Asian practice of corporal punishment and how it affects children’s development here.
But where’s the punchline with the Asian jokes mentioned earlier in this article? Is joking about Asians eating dogs going to make Asians and Asian Americans listening reflect upon their dog-eating habits? No, because most of us don’t. Eat. Dogs. And even if we did, why is a joke about Asians eating dogs more acceptable than a joke about Westerners eating cows or pigs? We have to acknowledge the inherent cultural bias in these hackneyed comments about Asians consuming dogs. (See a great article about the double standard here).
Cheap shots like this only serve to denigrate Asians and Asian Americans. Like Klein’s and Gillis’s segments, their comments are mere bashing. Once called out, they attempt to mitigate reactions by characterizing their comments as humor. So why did they consider their comments acceptable in the first place?
The fact that racist Asian comments are considered acceptable says something about how Asians are viewed in the United States. Think model minority. We’re meek, submissive, quiet. We’re followers, listeners, takers of what we can get. We don’t complain about what we can’t get.
First, how problematic is it that this is considered what’s “model”?
Second, this makes us an easy target. Mockery works best when it’s one-directional.
The portrayal of Asians as meek and submissive has special implications for Asian men. As Klein echoed in his comments about K-pop, Asian men are effeminate, weak, and only desirable as fetish symbols.
Now, calling a star “gay” isn’t a new comment in pop culture. Justin Bieber, One Direction, and countless other young male stars have been insulted in a similar fashion online. Once these insults are levied at stars of Asian descent, however, racial implications are emphasized. To call a man “gay” and a “tw*nk” suggests emasculation and effeminacy, reflecting Asian stereotypes perpetuated by early racial theorists. Assistant Professor at Lebanon Valley College, Julia Meszaros, sums it up well in a HuffPost article:
In order to “prove” to the world that colonialism was indeed a “civilizing” mission, Western theorists utilized discussions of others’ aberrant sexualities to justify their interventions abroad. As white Europeans colonized large swaths of Asia, white masculinity was posited as the apex that men could potentially reach. Asian men were placed on the opposite side of the spectrum and constantly portrayed as feminine and weak in the face of European conquerors. The colonial stereotypes regarding Asian men’s femininity continue to inform our current racial stereotypes. — Julia Meszaros, HuffPost
The stereotypical portrayal of Asian male stars isn’t new. Psy, when Gangnam Style became popular in the United States, received similar emasculating comments. In an analysis of Western media coverage of K-pop published by the University of Chicago, author Jenna Gibson notes that:
In addition, even supposedly positive appearances brought with them problematic stereotypes that likely colored the view of K-pop among readers or viewers. Particularly when discussing Gangnam Style and Psy, articles often described him as unattractive, chubby, and quirky, exoticizing and ultimately dismissing supposedly shallow Asian pop culture, as well as feeding into problematic stereotypes of hilarious but ultimately emasculated Asian men. — Jenna Gibson, University of Chicago
Here, we see a conflict between Western media’s desire to take advantage of the hallyu wave and its inability to tell informed, aware stories because of internalized biases. K-pop’s ability to generate buzz and conversation is undeniable. This is why there’s been a surge in news outlets covering K-pop and celebrities dropping K-pop names to attract views and clicks. And by the nature of media, there’s nothing wrong with that. What’s wrong is relying on clichéd stereotypes to frame commentary. Stereotypes that inform judgment.
Klein likely meant to generate controversy with his comments, not attack a whole racial group — he’s basked in the attention that fans on both sides have given him in the past few days. Yet no matter the intentions, the result is the same, and it again reflects upon how casually racism against Asians is accepted in the Western world today.
Furthermore, we can differentiate between standard anti-pop reactions and anti-Asian reactions by identifying an anti-Asian narrative painting Asians as alien and not belonging. About K-pop entering the US, Klein exclaims, “how did this become a thing in Western culture,” exasperated. Here, BTS and K-pop are portrayed as infringing upon “Western culture.” Subtext: they don’t belong — they shouldn’t belong. Klein’s comments, while reflecting standard anti-pop reactions combined with emasculating stereotypes against Asian males, also reflect another troubling angle on Asians: that they are somehow threatening to the Western status quo. It isn’t hard to draw a parallel between this stance and Yellow Peril, emphasizing again just how racially charged Western reactions to K-pop are.
Yellow Peril, a racist term originating from the 19th century, describes the existential threat that Asians pose to Western culture and lifestyles; it was popularized as Asian workers began to immigrate to the West. Economically, Westerners feared that Asians workers, who often worked for much lower wages, were undercutting native workers and stealing their work. Sexually, racial theorists painted Asian men as predators of white women and Asian women as hyper-sexual and submissive. Politically, Asian immigrants were seen as potential security threats and carriers of communism. These stereotypes combined built up the metaphor of Yellow Peril, which informed legislation such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and race riots such as the Chinese massacre of 1871. The depiction of Asians and Asian forces as threatening continues to exist and inform action in today’s society. White flight, when white people move out en mass out of ethnicized suburbias, often comes from fears that their children will be unable to compete with minority children in public schools. We see headlines about China encroaching on trade almost every day. And online, anti-Asian rhetoric festers in forums, posts, and social media.
Western society fears Asian improvement. It tells the Asian individual, yes, pull yourself up by the bootstraps enough so that he/she can be used as a model, an example, but never pull yourself up high enough to threaten existing power structures. Racial rhetoric places Asians as a convenient separator between white people and other minorities. The perceived success of Asians is used to delegitimize struggles faced by other ethnic groups; at the same time, Asians are still not welcomed into spaces traditionally inhabited by whites. The integration of Asians occurs when it only reinforces traditional hierarchies.
Pop music is not just a cultural export but also part of Korea’s economic engine. As K-pop songs begin to hit the US iTunes and Billboard charts, and as BTS begins to perform on shows such as New Year’s Rockin Eve, SNL, and GMA, the potential of K-pop unseating American pop (and by extension, Asian culture becoming more present in Western culture) becomes very real. This perhaps explains why as the Western music market has clamored to profit off of K-pop, they’ve carved out a niche for it instead of integrating it into the existing system. Despite high chart positions, K-pop songs are rarely played on radio. The VMAs were criticized for singling out K-pop as a category this year. Washington Post has called this “separate but equal” (Washington Post). And Klein’s comments, in an attempt to minimize the perceived threat of K-pop, infantilizes its fans and emasculates its idols.
It’s interesting to note that Klein’s first reaction, upon seeing a BLACKPINK music video, is to comment upon BTS’s entry into the US and not BLACKPINK’s. First, BTS is the representative group to Westerners right now. But beneath that, BTS is a male k-pop group, and in our examination of reactions to K-pop, we cannot ignore the implications that gender may have. Different stereotypes of Asian men and women likely inform differing reactions to K-pop groups as well. Asian women have been historically stereotyped as submissive and compliant. Yet Asian men, on the other hand, have been also stereotyped as predatory to white women: Asian men are a threat to dirtying or contaminating the purity of the white race, as perpetuated by Hollywood and WWII-era propaganda. Emasculation is a solution, as is redirection. Comments describing Asian men as asexual or gay invalidate their supposed sexual agency against white women, and these stereotypes may explain why Asian men are often seen as the least desirable type of partner. Steve Harvey utilized a punchline in 2017 based on the idea that finding Asian men attractive is amusing (Hollywood Reporter). Data from Yahoo! Personal in the 2000s showed that “more than 90% of non-Asian women said they would not date an Asian man” (Sage Journals). And 10 years later, OkCupid’s data shows Asian men rated lowest by women on their platform (OkCupid).
Pop culture has fed into this stereotype. As Eddie Huang from Fresh Off the Boat wrote in a New York Times opinion piece:
“The structural emasculation of Asian men in all forms of media became a self-fulfilling prophecy that produced an actual abhorrence to Asian men in the real world” — Eddie Huang, The New York Times.
Keeping Asian men undesirable proves beneficial to non-Asian men, as non-Asian men will never be the “most undesirable one.” An ego boost of sorts. However, K-pop’s popularity proves that Asian men can be attractive in the West, thus threatening this dynamic between Asian men and non-Asian men. Deconstruct further and we return to the concept of Yellow Peril, of restricting the spread of Asian culture, ideas, and genes. To racists, with K-pop, as masses of female, white fans begin to find Asian men worthy of idolizing, the popularization of Asian men connotes not just a cultural takeover but perhaps a racial takeover as well.
K-pop has continued to break boundaries anyways — groups playing major stadiums, BLACKPINK headlining Coachella, NCT 127 appearing on major talk shows — so I’m optimistic. Ironically, growing up, I don’t think my friends or I have ever been questioned for idolizing white pop stars as Asian Americans. Our favorites: Taylor Swift and One Direction. Neither have Western stars ever avoided the Asian music markets. Linkin Park, Beyoncé, Avril Lavigne— all have toured China in the last decade. Dua Lipa just attended MAMA 2019. And arguably, collaborations between K-pop stars and Western artists can be seen as attempts to capitalize upon K-pop’s popularity as much as they can be seen as attempts to penetrate a Western market. It’s just that Western reactions to K-pop can be informed by Western stereotypes against Asians.
I think back to when I went to Poptopia this year, when NCT 127 played last. Fans called out 99.7, the organizer, for letting NCT 127 apparently headline while other artists such as Halsey and Lizzo were not headlining.
In reality, Halsey and Lizzo played the longest sets. NCT 127 only played four songs: Cherry Bomb, Regular, Superhuman, Highway to Heaven. Yet during the break between Lizzo and NCT 127, I watched as throngs of attendees streamed out of the stadium, leaving only a sea of fans holding green lanterns in front.
As a family passed by, I overheard the son asking, “Mom, is the concert over?”
“It’s over, we’re going home,” she answered decisively, while the son looked back at the fans congregating in the front.
Attendees were still streaming out as NCT 127 danced to Cherry Bomb. Less than half of the floor and 100s sections stayed. I couldn’t stop thinking about how disheartening it must be to dance to a leaving audience. Of course, not being able to finish watching the concert could be attributed to other things. Needing to rise early for work or wanting to avoid the traffic, for example. But secretly, I griped about attendees not being able to stay for just 15 more minutes out of respect for a new group. It seemed to me that they weren’t taken seriously because they were new, they were Asian, and that they were foreign. Like the CNN comments. It’s true that Cohen and Cooper might not have found the performances engaging. But to criticize on live national television, while the group was still performing in the background, conveys a fundamental level of disrespect.
Perhaps, the question isn’t if K-pop is ready for the United States, but if the United States is ready to accept K-pop as legitimate.