tam song, gender, and western bias
alt title: you guys are so lucky i had so many essays to write this year
tam post linh post
hey hi hello it’s me again back to make another probably really long post about a lot of shit but specifically bc i have been…………. Seeing Some Bullshit on my dash and looked back at my original post on tam song and was like shit. i didn’t talk about the fucking gender roles while trying to analyze the effeminization of tam song did i. and because i am NICE and also enjoy talking abt things like this for some reason, in efforts to help people understand things maybe, ig i’m here to lay out some more facts and history and implore u to once again examine your own behavior towards tam song. so! let’s talk about GENDER. AGAIN.
(as usual i would like to explain that these are the thoughts of one person, and they are not fact. i am not an authority or an expert on this topic, and even though i may sound like i believe it and am super-knowledgeable, it doesn’t mean u should hang off my every word. this is the internet after all)
(also this is going to be great i hope u enjoy me enjoying not having to write in MLA essay format after months. settle in have a cup of tea etc etc!)
so today i am going to talk about something that for much of my life i have been absolutely unable to pinpoint but have learned enough to now, i.e., the Great Gender Divide. and no i’m not talking abt misogyny i’m talking about the MAJOR differences between western gender roles versus that/those of the thousands of cultures throughout the giant subcontinent that is asia, which have caused you (mostly metaphorical-you, directed at non-asian people) to perceive us in a very different way. let's open with this quote, which is from linh's analysis post but is a good review of what i'm trying to talk about:
“[John Cho says,] ‘....our whole race is infantilized to some degree, and it manifests itself in different ways. You infantilize a woman, and she becomes eroticized. You infantilize a man, and he becomes emasculated. You infantilize a baby [laughs]—and it’s possible, it appears that you can infantilize a baby even more. [laughs] The babies need to be cuter than white babies. And it’s just a weird thing that I felt like said something about mainstream America’s relationship to Asians in general.’ This infantilization results in Asians having less social autonomy. They are often perceived as polite and quiet, and less threatening than people of other races. Because Asians are seen like children, the perception is that they have little power, access, and control.”
(also idk where to put this but here’s a link to a post about gnc/androgyny perception of the west towards easian people, specifically abt k-pop idols tho. thank u eesha for this post i love you and your brain so much. anyway if you dont want to read through this whole thing at least read this! it is vaguely important to this post's point i think at this point in time i'm too tired to comprehend a single word i have typed today)
now, i don’t have first-hand accounts on a lot of things that friends have told me abt what they’ve seen, which i am sad abt because i would have LOVED to talk about it me and my thousand-word rants, but i do have my own Things I’ve Seen as well as yk, general vibes of this fandom, which maybe perhaps doesn’t make full and complete sense if you’re white, but like think of it this way—being queer, and knowing something is Off about a situation you’re in and being able to figure out you’re uncomfortable because you’re queer and someone is doing something that feels homophobic but you can’t prove it? sometimes your hands shake and you don’t know why? that’s the particular kind of discomfort i occasionally find myself in, in the most random moments, while reacquainting myself with parts of the fandom i haven't really seen much of in a couple years, maybe just since holes left the fandom. ofc maybe it is a different feeling but all opression is opression with different names, or however that saying may go.
tam’s portrayal in a lot of art is very ??? compared to the other boys. referring to BLs and ABO it’s a really common thing to see in gay ships that one of them is a "sub"/"omega", whatEVER the hell that means in real life with real people with real personalities (to note: have read a few ABO fics that are not absolute horseshit and actually give nuanced takes on gender, bc guaranteed you will probably find intelligent gender talk most places in which a universe/trope is super popular ESPECIALLY when the entire thing about it is basically gender roles 2.0, so it's not all bad but that's another discussion for another day). i initially had sth to say about this but decided i am too tired for This Shit however it is important to know abt BL and ABO and be able to discuss it properly instead of just being like "fuck!!!!!!! this is terrible bc it's all fetish!!!" we're not doing black and white thinking here folks also i’ve received a massive headache but am ignoring it, if i get less coherent it’s bc i’m in pain <3. anyway, in kam art—tam’s the shorter one, the one keefe has an arm around, the one with his face buried in keefe’s chest. now i do love kam a lot (mostly on account of i love tam a lot lmao), but there is…. really Something about seeing art and fic this pairing so often, with keefe, this white, boisterous, confident guy, and then tam, who’s so often portrayed as helpless, flustered, etc. around keefe. and yeah, maybe it’s not noticeable—but if u think about it. and if you are thinking about it. as soon as you go into the tag for it you’ll see what i’m talking about. it’s not enough to be a massive thing people are pointing it out, but it’s there. and if you go into tam’s tag alone, or u have some artist mutuals who draw tam, u are honestly bound to see SOMETHING.
(note: please do not harrass people who do these things; honestly as a person who is friends with a lot of people who have made a lot of mistakes, they often don’t know what they were doing, and being a dick does neither you nor them nor anyone else any favors. no one comes out of harrassing someone for accidental racial bias feeling proud, you get me? that’s the major reason i’m not naming anyone specific here. if you’re a friend, and you feel like you want/need to, talk to them privately. but no anons to people you don’t know; no assumptions. gently tell them about it. give them the space to learn.)
things i’ve seen, specifically, especially in relation to tam in a way that almost could be part of each person’s style but also makes him stand out in a way which, frankly, sucks: tam in pastels. tam in dresses, looking embarrassed. tam, super skinny, and with an uber-feminine face. tam drawn androgynously, tam wearing skirts (vs a LOT of other drawings of the other boys that don’t involve it at all, and even of the girls lmao). tam looking over his shoulder, looking demure. tam with his legs crossed. and at this point, remembering all this bullshit, remembering all of these things, all i have to ask is, why?
because, like, ok. i get it. you want to explore gender through this character. maybe you relate to him in his separation from his parents, or his very emo way of dress/attitude. i don’t mind that at all, and being genderqueer myself i know what it means to explore gender, even though it’s from a different direction. and there are trans/GNC asian people everywhere. think alok v menon (indian activist for trans rights), chella man (transmasc, deaf, jewish, and chinese, and an actor and an artist and model and public speaker on top of it all), the very queer history of chinese opera (according to xiran jay zhao’s video on it—basically the drag of the chinese theatre), shamans and eunuchs, the gay apsara dance group in cambodia… i am so, so proud of our specific brand of queerness. it’s a pride that stretches across everything i see these people do. but this way of expressing tam so femininely felt… very different. and it took me a long time to figure out why it made me so uncomfortable, bc, like, what the fuck? no way am i going “shit tam in a dress is bad because he’s a boy”? but after talking to a good friend (thank u eesha!!!!) i think it boils down to this:
what does it mean to be male in asian culture? and what does it mean to be male in western culture? and how does that affect the ways we behave, and the ways we look at things?
they are the same question, but they have such vastly different answers. firstly, because if you’re in the west (or even NOT) you’re bound to know what the ideal western man is immediately. confident, smiley, broad-shouldered, loud; unafraid to declare himself and his opinions; unafraid to throw himself into a just fight. white, usually. and what’s the asian man? in china, the ideal man (according to c-dramas honestly idk anythinggg about it irl) is a smart, well-off, strategic man who knows when to speak. in khmer culture it's similar, though most of the men in my family are more just the people who make people laugh + are hardworking. other than my family tho, most people in public are fairly quiet. ur confident when you have to be, but not obnoxious. masculinity in asia is different.
but what do you see in popular media here in the west? tao xu, who in the original comics was a shortie and a(n accidental) perpetrator of the outing of the main character, and who also is Very Subtly portrayed in both book and film to be childish and Other and funny for it. most asian comedians and actors who are popular are also short, and loud, and have accents, and are usually played off as comedic relief (or they’re beefy for the other reason but that’s NOT THE TOPIC TODAY i already lightly covered hypersexualization in the other one). k-pop, where the idols are (according to that post, not my own witness) praised for being gnc or androgynous when they literally just look like some dude.
(let me be real with u though the actual stereotype was asians all being short. tall asians representation right now goddamn it /hj)
anyway let's turn to fiction shall we? we all kind of already have a grasp of the average western hero so uh here, let's compare.
the likeable white hero: witty, self-deprecating, never-give-up (or they do give up and the lesson is Not Giving Up). there's at least one shirtless scene or them absolutely embarrassing themselves over a girl. usually a smart aleck. their love interest or female sidekick is usually Outspoken and Cool and Not Like Other Girls and also super gorgeous with emphasis on sexualizing whatever woman is in the role. (ex: scott pilgrim probably, 98% of superhero/action movies ever made)
the beloved asian hero: sometimes witty, but often an idiot who is brash and doesn't think things through. often follows a huge character arc to become wise or master a skill. the character arc is learning when to shut the fuck up a lot of the time. they're respectful to their elders. girls aren't sexualized, and most love interests aren't part of a “he gets the girl!” kind of story. they're treated with respect as well and are often quiet, kind, beautiful (though a lot of female characters who sometimes are love interests break this role fairly often). (ex: yang guo in legend of the condor heroes 2008, jackie chan's character in drunken master)
can u see the difference? that’s the cultural difference i’m kind of trying to articulate. it’s not a bad different (most of the time lmao), and both kinds of stories and heroes can teach us good, different things, but it also shows in western portrayals of us--the west saw our differences, didn’t understand them, and repackaged us into something else entirely—into people who are all submissive and quiet and timid and asexual (derogatory) but also serve the white person’s needs when they want something for their own sexual/mental pleasure or comfort. and all because the western world is the part that colonized us, which is something that follows us into present day constantly and pervasively. we can't escape it, even when we come online to like, rest our brains and vibe.
like. it's here when you praise asian musicians for being so ✨gender✨ when all they did was exist and be skinny and have a face that's softer than the ideal white guy's. it’s here when you put an asian boy into a dress looking embarrassed while everyone else is having the time of their lives, and you make him a part of a pairing that follows a gender dynamic that should never have existed in the first place. it’s here when you put him in pastels and make him look delicate and slender and pretty when that is so far from anything he was ever written to be, so far from the focus of who he fucking is. that's looking at someone who looks different from you and not understanding it, and then deciding--whether consciously or not--that he gets to be different in a way that appeals to your perception of who asian people are and what we’re like. and, like, fuck, it makes me sick. and tired. i've reached a point where i COULD just block liberally and cut ppl off but i would like to say something because i mean. might as well make sure that u people understand that this? this is not fucking okay.
i genuinely do not give a FUCK if you’re drawing tam in a dress. what i do give a fuck about is how you’re drawing him, and why, and in what context bc that's where, despite everyone’s woke attitudes and lgbt+ friendly space, you have failed to see the harm in something that has already caused it. being feminine is something we’ve been tied to and incriminated for for longer than any of you have been alive. we’ve been fetishized and prostituted and stereotyped to hell and back. this perception of us is the reason eight women were murdered in their places of work back in march 2021, and the reason k-pop is all over social media, and one of many reasons queer asian people can get no rest. this is why i haven’t seen an asian boy who HASN’T been a nerd who can’t get a girl until kotlc. so here’s my question for this one:
when does it end?
will you ever ask questions about what you’re making? will you ever realize how shitty it is for us to see one asian boy portrayed non-stereotypically, not as a nerd or a geek but someone who’s complicated and traumatized and angry, and then go into fandom and have to realize that no one else sees him the same way?
there are hundreds of ways to have portrayed tam and femininity. they probably didn’t even have to have so much cultural research. it could be hanfu tied the girls’ way. it could be a black dress and lipstick and jacket and protest. i honestly do not fucking care how you're dressing him when it comes to, like, oh no, should i draw tam in a dress? like, you can. it shouldn't be a big deal. but if you’re going to draw him looking like a girl, acting like a girl, with colors typical to girls, and being more feminine than even fucking biana vacker, the pinnacle of femininity in the books—know that it’s absolutely a fucking slap in the face to us to do so. know that you’re doing a disservice to tam’s character to look at him, one of so few asian characters in western media whose masculinity hasn’t ever been diminished canonically, and immediately take it down because fuck the patriarchy or men need to wear dresses/be more tender/we should break more gender roles. i neither refute nor agree with either statement but i find an issue with the fact that u saw an asian guy and took it upon yourself to load that all onto him in such a vicious way compared to every other character in the series. i take it personally that biana vacker in a dress has more agency than tam song in a dress. that's the real issue here. i need you to look real fucking hard at yourself, if you're writing or drawing tam in any capacity. it doesn't have to be even related to tam wearing a dress. if you're not asian, not aware of the stereotypes, take a good hard look at what you're making. if he's weak, do you have a reason? if he's small, why? if he's wearing pastels, what's your reason?
i know i'm making you ask about your own art and reasons for certain decisions you'll have to fumble through like you're in fucking art school but for the love of fucking god. you're making art about a poc who's been deeply mistreated by this fandom for... i don't even know how long. i've only been here two years. but if you want to really make an effort to, like, not be weird about it--and i'm not saying you have to. again, no words here are law--every time you make a decision in regards to his (or linh's) appearance, in regards to personality, character, color palette, you should probably know why you're doing it. at this point, it's necessary that you ask why. and if you don't have a reason? maybe it's because your perception of us is something similar to the thing's i've talked about here. maybe you need to shift it.
anyway. i'm done with this now. saluting to u hope you LEARNED something and will APPLY it bc that would be GREAT goodnight i'm out