On the evening of the 19th June 2019, something that Australian fans of the South Korean megastars, BTS (Bangtan Sonyeondan), often pray for happened – their beloved band received airplay on mainstream Australian television.
The band had been featured on 20toOne, a clip show on Australia’s Channel 9, that was counting down the twenty top “global crazes” that evening.
Much to Australian ARMYs’ horror, BTS were featured in a less than positive light, with the clip show homophobically insinuating that the members were gay and had little-to-no talent.
Perhaps most galling was the blatant racism and xenophobia that many ARMYs’ perceived the show to display. The commentators introduced BTS like a nuclear attack from North Korea when referring to the band’s meteoric rise in the US music charts, and made a number of jokes about the members’ supposed lack of English skills.
Bizarrely, the program also chose to gloss over BTS’ much lauded and publicised address at the United Nations (as part of their role as UNICEF ambassadors and their “Love Yourself” project) to insinuate that the band merely “talked about hairspray” at this important occasion.
Quite naturally, Australian ARMYs were outraged and took to social media – the fanbase’s “home”, where they tend to dominate global discussion – to demand an apology from Channel 9 and 20toOne, trending the hashtag #Channel9Apologize.
Fans particularly took issue with the fact that the program drew upon the commentary of celebrity comedians who seemed to lack knowledge of K-pop or BTS and instead drew upon xenophobic tropes that are common within Australian media regarding Asian people.
The Australian ARMYs’ calls for apology soon went viral globally, eventually prompting an official statement from Channel 9 which stated that the program “apologised for any offence caused”. The apology was also translated into Korean and tweeted on 20toOne’s official account.
However, for most fans, the apology did not go far enough and fans are continuing a project of mass reporting the segment to BTS’ management agency, BigHit Entertainment, hoping to prompt a defamation lawsuit.
The furore on social media has not died down. Tim Blackwell, a radio host and interviewee on the show, quoted an ARMYs’ tweet and commented, “Touched a BTSnerve,” seemingly attempting to diminish the issue of racism into a “fangirl hysteria”. At the same time, Australian comedian Alex Williamson infantilised the fandom through what many within the BTS ARMY viewed as a more sexist perspective:
Calling ARMY “14yo c*ntz,” Williamson showed his respect particularly to Korean male authorities such as researcher Cheon Jinwoo or athlete Son Heung-min, arguing that “successful Asian men & women doing something genuinely important in the field of science & medicine impress me”. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, he never mentioned a female authority in these fields nor how women face glass ceilings particularly in the fields of science and medicine.
Is a boyband worthless of respect purely because they are apparently only followed by 14-year-old girls who supposedly lack education? Are we surprised to see Williamson valorising the male-dominant fields of science and medicine and disparaging pop music fandom, something that is often feminized in mass media?
We will refrain from commenting on claims made by Williamson and others that misrepresent the diversity of the fandom (just look at us, we are scholars in humanities and social sciences but also avid ARMYs’ as well! One of us is even a man – shock and horror!). ARMYs’ across twitter have vocally voiced this message for us:
Instead, we would like to talk about how Williamson uses stereotypical rhetorical devices to pathologize fandom and infantilize women.
“Pathology of fandom” refers to the association of fandom with negative nuances of silliness, excessive obsession, and hysterical frenzy. Despite ARMYs’ clear focus on racism, collective actions and voices delivered in their hashtag movements are not perceived as a form of strategised online protest but are rather easily dismissed as a chaotic, irrational “cult”:
Infantilising fans, especially female fans in the popular music scene, is another typical (and convenient) way of disregarding the gravity of one’s voice: “As a rational male adult, I don’t have to listen to young girls’ hysteria!”
Attempts of infantilising women and thereby diminishing their voices are not new. It is too easy to find in mass media, in the workplace, and in the political world. Channel 9 and Williamson’s case shows that we cannot avoid the infantilisation of women even in our leisure/entertainment activities.
Ultimately, there is a positive ending to this tale of racism and sexism. One of the largest Australian BTS twitter accounts, @bts_aus, actively began a campaign to trend #BTSdidthis to show the wider community that the band has revolutionised Australian engagement with Asia.
The hashtag was trending at number 6 in Australia at the time we wrote this piece, and mainstream Australian media has been quick to condemn Channel 9 (including Australia’s multicultural Special Broadcasting Service). This shows the power of ARMY, who are strong advocates and media activists who seek to call out racism and misogyny wherever it is found.
Stephanie Choi is a K-pop ethnographer who studies how K-pop culture has become a global business through transactions of intimacy. She is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her bias is Jungkook.
Thomas Baudinette is Lecturer in Japanese Studies at Macquarie University. Among other projects, he examines Australian consumers of Japanese and Korean pop culture and LGBTQ+ K-pop fans. His biases are Yoongi and Jungkook.