The lingering legacy of 'Factory Girls'

The lingering legacy of 'Factory Girls'
Credit: Tommy Hilfiger

At the 2024 Met Gala, Stray Kids and Jennie represented the world of K-pop, showing up in Tommy Hilfiger and Alaïa, respectively. And, as most good things eventually are, the night ultimately became awash in drama over photographers acting inappropriately, racially stereotyping Stray Kids on the red carpet.

A series of comments by photogs on the carpet were caught on camera, showing them heckling the act with racists stereotypes about a group of Asians being robotic-like and that being within distance of them would spread COVID.

All in all, a pretty nasty welcome to the first K-pop group to walk the Met Gala carpet.

Among what is just kind of typical industry rudeness to try to get the group on-camera in a relatively small space (bring alternative lenses next year, everyone!), there were a variety of other comments: the group was called unemotional and told to have feeling; they're heard being heckled in Korean, presuming that none of the members speak English, despite Stray Kids almost hilariously being one of the most chaotically bilingual groups in the industry; they were called robots; one person says, "I'm getting covid"; by having an outfit reveal and two different sets of clothes, a photog presumed that people would be confused to identify them as one group.

This was all said within hearing distance, likely presuming that the members didn't understand them, despite several members speaking English; two of them are native English speakers.

There are a lot of thinkpieces going around, fan reactions abound, Bang Chan has alluded to it on social media, and someone has even hacked one of the photographers' website. (This last incident has resulted in a whole bunch of other issues, including reputational and potentially legal.)

Xenophobia and stereotyping are, at this point, almost par for the course when it comes to K-pop engaging with American media. And it can't help but recall to mind one of the most egregious examples, a now-infamous 2012 article by John Seabrook for The New Yorker titled "Factory Girls." (Alternative link)

"Factory Girls" is, above all, about the women of K-pop and how an American man, or many men, perceived them circa 2012, but in its depths there's a segment that depicts a long-running stereotype of what K-pop's men are like:

They sat on high stools on a small raised platform. Each was wearing one of the many different costumes that he or she would sport in the course of the four-hour show.The boys’ faces were as pancaked and painted as the girls’, and their hair was even more elaborately moussed, gelled, and dyed, in blond and butterscotch hues. Some guys wore high-waisted jackets with loose harem pants or jodhpurs, circus-ringmaster style; others wore white cutaways with high, stiff collars and black ties, like dream prom dates.They were more androgynous than Ziggy Stardust.The girls wore gold hot pants or short skirts, sparkly tops, and lace-up leather boots. Everyone looked very serious.

The graf leans heavily into stereotypes of the emasculated Asian male identity in the west, but it's the last line that I keep thinking about following the Met Gala fiasco. "Everyone Looked very serious" implies either that this is not a natural state to be, or they're overdoing it. Like at the Met Gala, it dehumanizes a simple thing - focus - and turns it into something Other.

When did seriousness, being a professional, become a problem? Especially on red carpets, where stars are typically not expected to smile for their glam shots.

The answer, of course, is it's not. Expect to people who don't see beyond their own lived experiences: Asians are serious, they are robotic, they are unemotional. "Unlike me" goes unsaid but is loudly heard. Othering at its finest, dehumanizing at its worst. (All this, and it appears to have been a very strategic, professional decision since Stray Kids were on their best behavior because of course they were.)

It's practically obscene that a dozen years later, countless hits and crossover collabs later, K-pop stars are still being stereotyped this way (and not only in the US). It's certainly obscene that this sort of stereotyping happens in the daily lives of countless people in the US.

I wish I had something insightful to say, aside from "this sucks" and "be better." But the truth is we've been having these conversations for far too long to really have anything else to say because the only thing that will bring change is bad actors learning to change. Each of these instances of rage and upset over racism faced by stars who are human are never met with a true amount of change from those at fault, who refuse to acknowledge this humanity beyond their own limited perspectives.

The US media industry is collapsing for many reasons, and I'd argue a lot of it (beyond the serious issue of investors gutting it) is because many companies, many professionals are out of touch and refuse to modernize not only their outlets but also their perspectives. Yet these sort of repeated instances of insensitivity show that there is a lack of seriousness being undertaken to change these perceptions, to change with the times. It should never be your first reaction to treat someone, anyone, like a facsimile of a human, and especially not when you're working. Talk about unprofessional.

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