No “Dynamite” in Asian Representation

Sophia Liu

On November 24, 2020, the South Korean boy band BTS was nominated for their first Grammy award for their first song entirely in English, “Dynamite.” I was ecstatic—here were seven artists who worked their way up from a shared one-room bedroom finally achieving the worldwide recognition they deserve. But while I was undoubtedly happy, I was also confused. 

“Dynamite,” for anyone familiar with BTS’ discography, is not remotely close in artistry and complexity to the majority of their other songs. “Dynamite” is a bubblegum pop song devoid of the advanced wordplay, philosophical allusions, and creative concepts that BTS is known for. In fact, “Dynamite” was not written by them or anyone associated with their label, Big Hit Music—but constructed by David Stewart, Jessica Agombar, and Ron Perry, the CEO of Columbia Records, BTS’s US distributor. 

What was more disappointing is that BTS avowed never to sing in English just to achieve a hit. In a 2019 interview with Entertainment Weekly, leader Kim Namjoon explained that he didn’t want to change BTS’s authenticity by singing in English because “That’s not BTS.” But of course, with “Dynamite,” and then with “Butter” a year later, it seems that BTS has broken that promise. 

BTS’ supposed victory reflects the continuity of the Asian diaspora’s need to shrink themselves to be accepted by Western society. BTS is praised for making waves for Asian representation, but when their success comes at the cost of becoming accommodating to the white gaze, it proves that Asian representation remains flawed. 

The first song in a non-European language to top the Billboard Hot 100 before BTS’s “Dynamite” was “Ue o Muite Arukō” by Japanese musician Kyu Sakamoto in 1963. “Ue o Muite Arukō,” likewise to “Dynamite,” was dumbed down to appease a Western audience. While Ue o Muite Arukō” translates to “I Look up as I Walk,” it was renamed “Sukiyaki” after a popular Japanese hotpot dish that was considered easy for Americans to pronounce—completely irrelevant to the song’s theme. 

More than a half-century after Sakamoto’s hit, not much has changed. Media that is heralded for its inclusion of Asians—Crazy Rich Asians, Bling Empire, Fresh off the Boat, Mulan, and more—continue the trend of constraining the Asian community into a box that does not dismantle existing stereotypes. 

Popular Asian representation in mainstream media overwhelmingly displays Asians as wealthy, pious, and relieved of the racism that Asians face in the real world. When Crazy Rich Asians, based on the novel by Kevin Kwan, premiered in 2018, the movie was seen as a stunning milestone for Asian representation. And while the film, which contains an all-Asian cast, is a step forward, that step is small. Crazy Rich Asians falls to the danger of depicting the “right” type of Asians, engineering a schism where the central characters—the rich, Singaporean Young family—are distanced from the lived realities of most Asian people. In other words, the movie, regardless of its symbolic representation, fails to be groundbreaking because instead of addressing the real social issues affecting Asians, it embraces a mirage of white-Asian equivalence and then claims to portray an authentic Asian experience. 

In Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong, Hong remarks on the opening scene of the film where the Young family are discriminated against by a hotel manager who, threatened by their presence, claims the hotel is fully booked. In response, the Young family purchases the hotel. The message becomes “If you discriminate against us, we’ll make more money than you and buy your fancy hotel that wouldn’t let us in,” Hong gathers. “Capitalism as retribution for racism. But isn’t that how whiteness recruits us? Whether it’s through retribution or indebtedness, who are we when we become better than them in a system that destroyed us?”

Even more damaging about Crazy Rich Asians is that it undermines the representation of other marginalized groups. Peik Lin, played by Awkwafina, speaks in a blaccent, a way of talking that mimics Black vernacular. Peik Lin is the quirky, sassy character that provides comedic relief, and her blaccent is intentionally employed to obtain laughs. By exploiting Black culture for her benefit, Awkwafina’s blaccent, which is switched off in interviews and other performances, is cultural appropriation. 

Other popular movies and television series with Asian characters don’t handle representation any better. Bling Empire and House of Ho similarly glamorize the privilege of the top 1% of wealthy Asians and Asian Americans. Fresh Off the Boat, a network TV series acclaimed for featuring a family of Asian Americans the first time in decades, relies heavily on stereotypes to advance its jokes and ultimately presents a fantasy where struggles like the domestic abuse that Eddie Huang, the restaurateur whose life the show is inspired by, experienced, are dismissed. Huang, vehemently opposed to the direction of the show, called it “pasteurized network television with East Asian faces” that pacified white viewers by saying “we’re all the same.” Again, the live-action remake of Mulan changed several key aspects from the original story to reinforce Mulan as obedient and submissive, furthering the Asian stereotype of being deferential and rigidly hierarchical. In addition, the lack of representation in the writing room prompted cultural inaccuracies, such as mistaking an Egyptian phoenix myth with a Chinese one. 

In a year where Asian American Pacific Islander hate crimes have continued to skyrocket, it is no shocker that mainstream media falls short of fostering a safer future for Asian people. Instead, recent attempts prove to be ineffective, pigeonholing Asian people into the same stereotypes of being wealthy, accommodating, and free of “real” racism or “next-in-line” to be white. Misrepresentation will only perpetuate the cycle of prejudice. Journalist Lisa Ling concludes that when the media presents one kind of perception of the Asian community, “how and why wouldn’t you harbor those stereotypes as well?” 

As audiences, we can’t accept all representation as positive representation. When AAPI actors account for less than six percent of speaking roles in Hollywood films, every opportunity for representation should be done without fear, without regard to how the white majority will receive it, and with the pretense to speak the truth. Filmmaker and Try Guy Eugene Lee Yang additionally adds that a more ubiquitous Asian narrative would simply allow Asian people to “have enough space to exist and be mediocre or plain, or just plain stupid.” 

BTS did not win the Grammy for “Dynamite” last year, nor did they win for “Butter” this year. Their hard work and relentless support by their fans curbed by an impenetrable barrier raises many questions: Will truthful work by Asian people ever be given a solid space in American culture? Will America always be too stubborn to recognize that countries it emasculates, infantilizes, and fetishizes could ever create the same level of artistic output? Or even if BTS, or any Asian artist does win, what will that mean for the Asian community? Will the win be diminished as an example of expected Asian excellence? While I do not have  answers to any of these questions, I do have hope. Seeing Awkwafina’s inadequate apology for her blaccent being slammed by Twitter users and films with truer representation like Minari receive the recognition they deserve reassures me that more accurate representation and a more equitable future is to come.