BTS are the biggest band in the world right now, and, like many high profile celebrities, they are often the subject of pop culture parody and humour. But unlike many (Western, white) celebrities, it seems that the nature of the jokes that target BTS are frequently underpinned by racism and anti-Asian sentiment.
Over the weekend, Chilean show Mi Barrio received backlash for a sketch about the band. In it, a group of comedians wore brightly-coloured clothes and wigs pretending to be BTS, proceeding to make a series of jokes playing on the name of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, mentioning the COVID-19 vaccine and mocking the Korean language.
After BTS's Chilean fanbase tweeted to condemn the segment, fans around the world criticised the show, trending the hashtags #ElRacismoNoEsComedia and its English translation, #RacismIsNotComedy. Chile's National Television Council reportedly received more than a thousand complaints about the Mi Barrio segment.
On Monday, Mi Barrio posted an unapologetic statement on their Instagram that, per BTS Chile's translation, read: "Thank you everyone for the good vibes! We'll continue improving, learning, listening and we'll remain firm in our intention: to bring fun to families. We collect all the positive comments and also the critics, because that's what we're for: contribute a little humour and fun."
Early on Tuesday morning Australia time, the show's network, Mega, posted an actual apology to their Twitter account. In it, they said they have "absolute empathy with those that might have felt affected" by the segment, adding "it was never our intention to offend, insult or harm any community". Many BTS fans felt that the apology was still inadequate.
The segment is just the latest in a steady stream of racist "jokes" directed at BTS. In March, the trading card company, Topps, shared a preview of their special Grammy nominee edition of their Garbage Pail Kids line, which were mostly innocuous riffs on the performances of the likes of Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish. The BTS card, however, depicted the seven members being beaten with a Grammy award in a game of "whack-a-mole", leaving them covered in cuts and bruises. Inundated with complaints, Topps pulled the card from the set and apologised.
Just weeks prior to the Garbage Pail Kids incident, German radio station Bayern 3 was criticised by BTS fans and celebrities alike for one of their host's comments about the group. After BTS performed a cover of Coldplay's "Fix You" for MTV Unplugged, Matthias Matuschik said their version was "blasphemy" and they deserved to be "vacationing in North Korea for the next 20 years". He also said the band were like "some crappy virus that hopefully there will be a vaccine for soon". He tried to laugh off his comments as not xenophobic because he has "a car from South Korea".
Bayern 3 initially released a statement that seemed to defend Matuschik, saying "it is the hallmark of this show and also of the presenter to express his opinion clearly, openly and unvarnished", adding that the host's actions with refugee aid prove he is not xenophobic or racist, and that his comments were not meant to "hurt the feelings" of BTS fans. They apologised to those who "found his statements hurtful or racist".
After fans and Western BTS collaborators such as Halsey, Steve Aoki, Lauv and Zara Larsson pushed back against Matuschik and Bayern 3, both issued a more direct apology. Bayern 3's statement said "we apologise unreservedly…[Matuschik's] choice of words to comment on BTS were unacceptable", although they still stressed his commitment to equality and also noted he had received threats. Matuschik, meanwhile, said he was "deeply saddened" and added "I would like to unreservedly apologise", while also mentioning his work with refugees and against "right-wing activities". According to a German BTS fanbase, Matuschik has not returned to his program since the incident and will remain off air until April 22.
All of this comes after US shock jock Howard Stern and his colleague Sal Governale were slammed for comments they made about BTS on The Howard Stern Show on SirusXM in the early days of the pandemic, back in February 2020. "BTS was here at Sirius on Friday and Sal was saying, 'There's no way those guys don't have the coronavirus'," Stern said on-air, while Governale said, "I walked into the lobby and it was like Chinatown, out of control, there were so many Asian people".
Closer to home, Channel 9's 20 to One received global backlash after a segment on BTS back in 2019. The show featured comments from various Australian personalities expressing surprise at BTS's success in the West despite "only one band member [speaking] English", and suggestions that their speech at the United Nations in 2018 – in which they talked about self esteem and speaking up for yourself – was actually about hair products. The lowest moment came in the form of featured footage showing UK comedian Jimmy Carr say, "when I first heard something Korean had exploded in America, I got worried. So it could have been worse. But not much worse." In a statement at the time, Channel 9 said the show "did not breach any broadcast regulations" but apologised "to any who may have been offended".
Collectively, it seems to me that these incidents form a veritable bingo card of anti-Asian, and specifically anti-Korean, racism. Needless to say, these kinds of jokes are repulsive at any time, but in an era in which xenophobia and targeted violence against Asian people is more prevalent than ever, they're especially egregious. The frequent association with COVID-19 in particular normalises and fuels anti-Asian conspiracy theories and hatred, which in turn has very real and deadly consequences.
BTS themselves rarely speak out about the racism they've been subjected to, although leader RM said in an interview with Reuters in 2020 that they feel like "aliens" in the American music industry, adding "we don't know if there's a place for us or not". And in the wake of the Atlanta Spa Shootings, the band tweeted a more direct statement about their experiences, expressing their condolences to the victims of the attack and voicing their own "grief and anger".
"We recall moments when we faced discrimination as Asians. We have endured expletives without reason and were mocked for the way we look. We were even asked why Asians spoke in English," BTS said.
"We cannot put into words the pain of becoming the subject of hatred and violence for such a reason. Our own experiences are inconsequential compared to the events that have occurred over the past few weeks. But these experiences were enough to make us feel powerless and chip away our self-esteem."
Less than two weeks after their vulnerable statement, here we are again with Mi Barrio's deeply problematic segment. Like the jokes themselves, the apologies from these media platforms consistently employ the same rhetoric: that the remarks were light-hearted and not intended to cause harm. But it's clear they do cause very real harm. To not realise that by now, in 2021, feels like wilful ignorance. There's just no place – no excuse – for such so-called "humour" anymore.
This is an opinion piece written by Jenna Guillaume, an entertainment journalist and author of YA rom-coms What I Like About Me and You Were Made For Me. Follow her at @jennaguillaume.