Over the last few years, BTS has grown into an international sensation, amassing hundreds of thousands of fans reaching far beyond the scope of Asia. Being international sensations, however, has opened the boys up to unsolicited criticisms and furthermore, placed them under the scrutiny of the western gaze.
Whether you love them or hate them, it’s impossible to deny that BTS has done wonders for Asian representation worldwide. The boys have proudly spoken up about self-love in front of the UN, redefined Asian male representation, graced the cover of Times magazine, and brought the world of K-pop to the international spotlight as few acts have done in the past.
For all they do, the boys of BTS are far more than a musical act producing catchy pop tunes — they’ve become icons, role models, and advocates for charities. However, in the eyes of the western media, their accomplishments and talents are reduced to mere punchlines.
In 2018, BTS made an appearance on the Graham Norton show, a British comedy talk show. As Korean musicians, the appearance was a groundbreaking moment for many Asian viewers as East Asian representation in the U.K. media remains scarce.
Following the appearance, however, the boys were bombarded with racist and xenophobic messages across various social media platforms. These posts mocked and belittled everything from their physical appearance, dress, to their race and sexuality. One word, in particular, was exhaustively repeated to label the group — “ladyboys.”
Am I surprised that some U.K. racists called BTS “makeup-wearing lady-boys”? Am I surprised that they all seemed to be white men? 🤔 https://t.co/GymBCVQicz
— Jae-Ha Kim 김재하 (@GoAwayWithJae) October 13, 2018
While this appearance was met with a sour reaction from the majority white, male crowd, labeling “effeminity” as their main issue with the group, these same audiences showed no issue with white, male celebrities such as Harry Styles expressing their sexualities.
In fact, when Harry Styles embraced the 2019 Met Gala theme “Camp,” he was hailed as a style icon for his gender-fluid outfit. Not once during this event was he denied his masculinity or had his sexual appeal questioned. This, clearly, does not apply to male Asian talents.
The language used to target BTS was not only wildly homophobic, but it also targets their race. The term “ladyboys” is often used as insults towards Asian men as a way of mocking their Eastern roots, referring to transgender women in Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand.
This language creates a toxic environment for straight Asian men, as well as Asian LGBTQ communities who wish to express their identities freely and without judgment. Ultimately this double standard limits self-expression for Asians as they are emasculated and belittled for the same behaviors that white men would be revered for exhibiting.
Ultimately, these racially-motivated, homophobic insults are based on the belief that masculinity is defined by the West, once again equating the epitome of beauty with the typical Caucasian features while concluding that Asian definitions of masculinity are automatically considered to be somehow lesser.
Historically speaking, this notion can be traced back to the 19th century, when White Europeans began characterizing Asian immigrants. According to a journal article tracing the feminization of Asian men, Asian males were perceived as “human oddities in the minds of whites” and seen as “feminine” due to their silk tunics and petite figures compared to their white counterparts.
Even today, research shows Asians, in general, are stereotyped as being more feminine and therefore, less masculine compared to other racial groups. For men, this leads to emasculation and being repeatedly told that they do not possess the qualities to be considered as stereotypically masculine.
However, masculinity varies within different cultures and personal preferences, it does not have just one definition. The popularity of “flowerboys” and soft-masculinity in East Asian countries such as South Korea is just another variation of the versatile term. And in the modern-day and age, masculinity is no longer solely defined by brawn and strength, it’s much deeper and more complicated than that. These ignorant outbursts are a clear showcase of the fragile and toxic masculinity that still persist today.
By observing Asian entertainment, one can see various definitions of “masculinity,” from the more traditional definitions to the “flowerboys,” and everything in between. Stereotypes never show the full picture, and just as the model minority limits the potential of Asian Americans, this particular stereotype limits the freedom of expression for Asian men.
Straight or not, everyone has the right to express themselves as they wish. Effeminity should not be mocked and homophobic language should never be used as insults. It appears whenever a successful Asian male talent takes the spotlight away from figures the typical White man can relate to, these sensitive men resort to exposing their own toxic masculinities.
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To these fragile, toxic, grown men who have nothing better to do than to insult and mock one of the most successful music groups of all time in order to make themselves feel more “manly,” I’d like to add one more thing.
The boys of BTS regularly perform sold-out shows across the globe, they make a difference in the world, and they have female fans of all ages from every corner of the globe who spend sleepless nights just to catch a glimpse of these talented musicians performing live. Do you really think you could ever come close to achieving the same level of success?
Featured image screenshot via YouTube/@ibighit