BTS: Permission to Desire
By Rani NeutillFebruary 17, 2023
Victoria is a Filipina nurse who lives in the Bay Area and was born and raised in the Philippines (names have been changed to protect their privacy). She became ARMY (Adorable Representative MC for Youth, the affectionate term for BTS stans) during the pandemic. She is part of a collective of women who identify as “ARMY Over 40,” embracing their age in their fandom. And if you weren’t already aware, BTS is the most popular band in the world.
I, too, am part of ARMY Over 40. I have traveled from Boston to Los Angeles and Las Vegas, spending thousands in savings to see the band. I have waited hours in Ticketmaster queues to buy their tickets. In July 2022, I went to Seoul, South Korea, to present at the Third Global Interdisciplinary Conference on BTS. I have woken up at 5:00 a.m. multiple times to livestream their Korea-based performances. And just like Victoria, when I saw them perform, I felt the air pulse with electricity and experienced the absolute euphoria that only BTS can provoke.
The seven Korean men who make up BTS — Jungkook, Suga, RM, Jimin, V, J-Hope, and Jin — are radically different from the men I grew up watching. My mother was an Indian immigrant, and Bollywood films flickered across our TV screen all the time. Most of her heroes, like Salman Khan, were muscular. They always saved the women they loved, who never spoke as much as they did. Meanwhile, American television also taught me that macho men who fought bad guys were the ones to desire. The ideal man was white and stoic. East Asian men rarely appeared on American screens, and when they did, it was to serve as background noise, comic relief, or a racial threat.
As a scholar, I decided to bring my devotion to BTS to my research. Because of my growing fascination with this segment of BTS fandom and their love for the group, I interviewed 25 Gen-X women of diverse backgrounds who currently reside in the United States. Older women face enormous stigma for loving a “boy band,” and the seven Korean men of BTS are wholly different from the men many of us were taught to idealize. Women my age are rarely given the space to express desire, let alone lust, and I wanted to understand the contours and contexts of their experience.
What I heard were stories about how BTS has alleviated the sorrows that came from living through the pandemic as stay-at-home moms, remote workers, or unemployed women — women who feel that, once they pass the age of 40, they are no longer allowed to have desires. I found that BTS has been a catalyst for a collective reckoning among many Gen-X women about how the objects of their desires have been shaped by the media and how the freedom to desire has been foreclosed by age. I observed what I call a gleeful grieving, made possible by BTS through the permission they granted to desire.
In her 2012 book Desire/Love, Lauren Berlant describes desire as the “cloud of possibility […] generated by the gap between” a love object and “the needs and promises projected onto it.” Desire is something that “visits you […] from the outside,” but as it encounters your affects, it “makes you feel as though it comes from within you; this means that your objects are not objective.” There isn’t something essential in the object that provokes our desires, at least not in the way we may believe. “[W]hat seems objective and autonomous in them is partly what your desire has created and therefore is a mirage,” Berlant continues. “Your style of addressing those objects gives shape to the drama with which they allow you to reencounter yourself.” We feel as if desire comes from ourselves solely in response to something innate in the object; however, desire is shaped from the outside. Because desire is an encounter between the outside world and the image we produce when we meet the object, the way we address new objects of desire can give shape to new stories (what Berlant calls dramas).
In talking to the Gen-X women about their love of BTS, I perceived Berlant’s idea of “reencountering” yourself through the ability to desire anew. All the interviewees discussed their ecstatic desires, or simple love, for BTS as stemming from the band’s “duality” — its members’ ability to switch from feminine to masculine, cute to sexy, a seemingly limitless spectrum of possible affects, in a flash. The women saw the men as embodying shades of masculinity across the cis-heteronormative binary, from macho to effeminate. But crucially, no BTS member lived on either end of such a construction. Rather, each of the seven inhabited every single hue. Almost all the women told me: “If you put them all together, they make the perfect man.” As Jungkook, the youngest member of the group, sings in Korean on their 2018 hit “IDOL” (a song whose chorus, “You can’t stop me loving myself,” is a sort of anthem for the band), “There are hundreds of mes inside of me.”
Many ARMY Over 40 members used the word “permission” to define what BTS provided them. BTS gave some the permission to desire sexually and others the permission to be “curious” about new things. It made me wonder how much of the attraction is a sexual awakening around different kinds of sexualities. The women described Berlant’s reencountering of affects from their youth, but this time with a new object, one that allows them to expunge their personal histories with masculinity in favor of a flourishing new universe of desire.
Unsurprisingly, many of the women — even those who grew up outside the United States in places like Mexico, Vietnam, and the Philippines — shared a similar story to mine about the men they grew up idolizing, in homes flooded with American media: they were “masculine” and mostly white. Two-thirds of the respondents’ partners were cis white men. Ten used the phrase “macho” to describe their husbands. Some of these “macho” partners were prejudiced against BTS due to the fact that the members wear makeup and skirts. One husband even called them homophobic and racist slurs. When one of the women brought back J-Hope merchandise from a show, her husband said, “If I hear the name J-Hope one more time, I am going to throw all this stuff out.” I caught the melancholy in the woman’s voice as she narrated this threat that runs counter to how J-Hope, the member famous for his cheery demeanor, behaves. (A new documentary about the performer, J-Hope in the Box, is set to be released today.)
The women were all reckoning with the masculine education of their childhood. BTS gave the women what many of their husbands might not: displays of emotion. More than one noted that they loved and desired the band members because of their ability to cry in public, touch each other, and provide language of encouragement. In BTS, these women discovered things that some of them might not regularly see or receive: mutual care, along with expressions of sensitivity and love. Through witnessing this in BTS, they were able to grieve, gleefully, over their past understandings of what could be sexually and emotionally attractive.
I heard how the band members gave the women joy, something many of my interviewees had lost during the pandemic. Victoria, the Bay Area nurse from the Philippines, told me how the pandemic had exhausted her. She fell into a deep depression fueled by isolation and couldn’t claw her way out. One day, she heard the song “Epiphany” by Jin (from the band’s 2018 compilation album Love Yourself: Answer) and cried. Things changed as she sprinted down the BTS road to happiness. She went to see the band in concert in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Busan, in BTS’s homeland. She told me not only that it was the first time in ages she had felt alive but also (she admitted, embarrassed) that it was the happiest she had ever been in her life, even more than when she gave birth to her children or got married — conventional milestones in many woman’s lives. I asked Victoria if she believed she was allowed to feel that kind of euphoria at her age. “No, women aren’t allowed to have desires because people think we are past the desire age,” she said. “[H]aving sex is something that isn’t supposed to happen anymore. That’s the reason people mock us for being fangirls. We’re not allowed to be cute and scream like a young girl.”
Victoria told me that after the Las Vegas show, she went out dancing with fellow ARMY Over 40 fans. Her husband, who is deeply supportive of her love for BTS, watched her from afar. Later, he said that she seemed out of control. Victoria replied, “You’ve just never seen me so happy and not caring about the world.” What her husband saw as madness was Victoria gleefully grieving the instructions of her past, choosing a present in which the ability to express desire is no longer prohibited.
A lot of women said that their husbands thought they were too old to like a boy band. In a repressive culture, which ours is increasingly becoming, women of any age need to be disciplined and taught not to express passion, aging women even more so. Teenage girls are often the butt of jokes, seen as wild, irrational bundles of drives, and thus, for adult women, any hint of elation is perceived as a regression to puberty. In rediscovering the euphoric affects of their younger selves, these older women break the rules by tenaciously loving a boy band. They are women who have made altars out of BTS merchandise in their homes, defiantly challenging their surroundings, making space for newfound versions of themselves.
Nadia, a Black woman, told me about her revised understanding of her desires. In her ARMY Over 40 origin story, she was watching an episode of Run BTS, the band’s variety show on South Korean television. Jimin and V were in a bunk bed together; they were cuddling and fell asleep. She realized: This is how men should be allowed to act. Nadia believes she was able to shift her desires because women our age are old enough to see through bullshit. We are newly able to critique our past attitudes, in part because social media has exposed us to a more expansive range of masculinities, possibilities that have always existed but were hidden and considered abnormal. In Nadia’s mention of “women our age,” her use of “we” signals the collective experience of reckoning with our mediatized educations. Many women acknowledged that these new images of a phantasmic, nuanced form of masculinity had prompted a reevaluation of their own understandings of gender. Many also recognized that BTS’s image could simply be a performance, but Nadia noted, “If that’s the case, give them all Oscars.” She was happy to live inside the mirage.
There were five women who said that they didn’t think of the men in BTS as sexual beings because some had sons their age or because they felt uncomfortable due to the age difference. That said, they all professed to find the men gorgeous. When they admitted this, it felt like they were telling me a secret. One told me about a time when her daughter caught her watching videos of J-Hope and said she was “too old to look that thirsty.” I laughed. But her daughter’s statement is a foreclosure of sexual desire based on age and motherhood. Nevertheless, this ARMY Over 40 fan still indulged in the pleasure of watching J-Hope.
Other women were extremely blunt about their sexual attraction and overwhelming desire. A woman in her fifties, born and raised in Vietnam and now married to a white man, described an almost orgasmic moment upon hearing Jimin’s voice. She thought she heard a girl singing while she was watching the Grammys, but when she opened her eyes and saw Jimin, a man, she thought to herself, Who is this angel on earth? A white woman in her forties, when asked if she was attracted to the band, firmly replied, “Oh, yes, I am a hard stan” — i.e., someone who views BTS in a sexual way. When I asked the same question of another white woman, she chuckled and replied, “Of course. I would trip them and beat them to the ground.” She also told me that BTS allowed her to break free of the confines of womanhood, and said, “I am not just a homemaker. I work outside the home. I work inside. I am not a box. Let me open up.”
A few women admitted that they had never found East Asian men attractive before discovering BTS. One, born and raised in Mexico, told me that, although she had never considered such men desirable before, she now barely looks at men who aren’t East Asian. Grace, a white woman who grew up in a diverse part of L.A. County, confessed that she had never thought of East Asian men as viable sexual partners, even while she considered herself to be liberal and politically aware. But when she found BTS, she realized how racist she had been in her thinking and felt shame. Grace recognized a fetishistic aspect to her feelings, but her desires ran deep. If there were a world in which one of the BTS members wanted to be with her, Grace said, then she would risk everything, even her husband and child, to be with them.
One woman shared a story that especially illustrates what Berlant’s idea of reencountering looks like. Carolina, 44, white and from the Midwest, is a soldier in the United States Army. She was stationed in Kuwait one night after just returning from deployment in Baghdad, Iraq. As she told me her story, I could picture the scene in my mind’s eye as if it were unfolding before me now: Carolina sitting on a narrow bunk bed, a cold metal frame edged with neon rust pushed against a beige wall. Two gray lockers surround it, faux walls for a faux bedroom. A tattered sheet hangs between the lockers to provide the fantasy of seclusion, its edges embroidered with dust, a space devoid of the potential for desire. There are three other women in the room, each setting up their own spaces in the exact same way. The internet is spotty and the time difference vast, so she hasn’t been able to get in touch with her family for days. Surrounded by other people, Carolina feels deeply isolated.
The soldiers live in 24-hour shifts, some in mandatory silence, while others work the day away in the 120-degree weather. Carolina stretches out on the thin mattress, pulls out her phone and wi-fi puck, and puts on her headphones, hoping that if she watches some videos, they will coax her to sleep. She visits YouTube to check out her favorite childhood band, New Kids on the Block. A recommendation pops up: a fan-made compilation of clips of BTS’s dance video for their 2016 hit “FIRE.” Leaping down the BTS rabbit hole, clicking on one video after another, an endless swim through a river of content, Carolina no longer feels the heat or humidity. She no longer feels so alone.
In this scene of isolation and discovery, steeped in the hypermasculine ethos of the US military, Carolina’s younger self meets a new self in the mirror. On the site of a Middle Eastern war fueled by American imperialism, she finds joy in seven East Asian men who preach peace and self-love. Men who run counter to many of those she is presently surrounded by. Men who don’t look like the members of NKOTB. Men who will all have to join the military too. Carolina’s finger, touching play on a recommended video, forces an encounter between herself and a new object, an encounter that brings her back to the glee of her younger self, moving her away from traditional white machismo to something that feels radically different.
Much as Victoria found the joy of BTS during the isolation of the pandemic, Carolina discovered the band amid a scene of personal desolation. She discovered the seven dapper, cute, sexy, alluring, funny, talented, prolific, handsome, sweet, kind, loving, earnest men of BTS. And a whole new world of desire was born.
Rani Neutill is an adjunct professor of Asian American literature and creative writing at Emerson College and Tufts University. She is working on a transnational memoir about fractured identity and her relationship with her mentally ill Bengali immigrant mother.
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