Trading card manufacturing company Topps came under fire on Tuesday when it revealed its Grammys-themed Garbage Pail Kids sticker collection, which included a violent portrayal of BTS that people widely condemned as racist and insensitive. Topps apologized for the sticker this morning and announced it had removed the card from the set.
Launched in 1985, Garbage Pail Kids were originally designed to parody Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, with each character suffering from some sort of abnormality or being put in a violent or vulgar scenario. The series has since expanded to skewer different pop culture topics. The BTS sticker was set to be featured in the forthcoming “Shammy Awards” collection, which riffs on several artists who performed at Sunday’s ceremony. Taylor Swift is depicted as a woodland creature named “Tree-Swift,” Harry Styles is renamed “Harry Boa” and wears an angry boa constrictor around his neck, and Megan Thee “Stunning Stallion” carries her Grammy award while riding a stallion across the beach.
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The BTS sticker is much less flattering. The card, titled “BTS Bruisers,” depicts all seven members of the Korean pop group as pieces in a game of Whack-a-Mole, left bloodied and bruised after being walloped by a Grammy award. The card was ostensibly supposed to signify BTS’s Grammys snub.
The backlash against the BTS Garbage Pail Kids sticker was swift and severe. Podcaster and YouTuber Jose Ochoa called out Topps in a viral tweet, demanding to know why BTS was the only artist in the Shammys collection to receive a violent depiction. The backlash sparked hundreds of thousands of tweets decrying Topps and containing the hashtag #RacismIsNotComedy.
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On Wednesday morning, Topps issued a two-sentence statement addressing the BTS sticker on Twitter. “We hear and understand our consumers who are upset about the portrayal of BTS in our GPK Shammy Awards product and we apologize for including it,” the company wrote. “We have removed the BTS sticker card from the set, we have not printed any of the sticker card and it will not be available.”
Many people found the statement insufficient, as it failed to address any of the actual problems with the BTS sticker—namely, that it presented a racist caricature of the group and dehumanized them in a way that none of the other Shammy stickers did to its artists. It also helped normalize and perpetuate an increasingly prevalent trend of violence against Asian people—a point further illustrated by last night’s Atlanta shootings, in which a 21-year-old white man killed eight people at three different spas, including six Asian Americans.
Yet even without a concurrent mass shooting that claimed primarily Asian American victims, Topps’ BTS sticker would still be blatantly racist and not at all funny. There were 3,795 incidents of anti-Asian hate reported across the U.S. between March 2020 and Feb. 2021, according to a report from nonprofit social organization Stop AAPI Hate. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism also revealed that anti-Asian hate crimes in America’s largest cities surged 150% in 2020 over 2019. As many people on social media have noted today, former President Donald Trump’s use of phrases like “China virus” and “Kung Flu” to describe the coronavirus pandemic have further normalized anti-Asian hate and further emboldened people to commit racist hate crimes. In this context, it’s easy to see how the illustrators of the BTS Garbage Pail Kids sticker could have made such a careless and insensitive depiction of the group.
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This is also far from the first time the members of BTS have been subjected to racist “jokes” and harassment. Just last month, German radio host Matthias Matuschik compared the boy band to the coronavirus on his show and said they needed to be eradicated with a vaccine. He also said they deserved to take a “vacation” to North Korea for the next 20 years for covering Coldplay’s “Fix You” on their MTV Unplugged special. Last year, Howard Stern Show staffer Salvatore “Sal” Governale also suggested BTS and their team were carrying the coronavirus, calling their international travel “a dangerous situation.” And in June of 2019, on the Australian TV show 20 to One, guest comedian Jimmy Carr said of BTS, “When I first heard something Korean had exploded in America, I got worried, so I guess it could have been worse—but not much worse.”
As I wrote during the Matuschik controversy, these statements and stunts don’t exist in a vacuum. They perpetuate anti-Asian racism that explicitly results in physical violence and sometimes death. These are the real-life consequences of a racist, tone-deaf stunt like Topps’ BTS Garbage Pail Kids sticker. The company’s dashed-off apology is hardly a fitting restitution. Its creators should have understood why it was a terrible idea long before it became the public’s job to rebuke them.