This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.
The North Star Boys first appeared on my TikTok feed last summer, exiting an elevator and throwing nonchalant but sexy glances at the camera. Then, ripping off their shirts. Standing in a line sucking on lollipops. Eating whipped cream. Fabricating secret admirer videos about themselves. Every time, I would be introduced to their content via someone’s satirical take on their Horny Behavior.
This collective of seven Asian American content creators first rose to prominence for “go girl give us nothing” seductive TikToks, garnering a large fanbase by pushing the boundaries of fan fiction and TikTok’s community guidelines. The North Star Boys’ account currently boasts 4.8 million followers, while individual members like Oliver Moy have around 11.6 million.
According to the group’s YouTube channel, their mission is simply “to be an inspiration to Asian Americans.” Euphemistically, they’ve become known as the “pick your Asian” group, a way for Asian men to fetishize themselves for white audiences. But recently these purveyors of thirsty heterosexual Asian content found themselves in political controversy after they posed in front of a wall with the slogan “Stop Asian Hate.”
The Stop Asian Hate movement gained traction in 2021 after a rise in racist and violent attacks against Asians during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was largely personified by rallies organized across the country to protest the brutality and show solidarity, particularly in the wake of Vicha Ratanapakdee’s death as well as the Atlanta spa shooting.
Which is why followers didn’t love it when the North Star Boys used it as a backdrop for their latest group photo. “it’s giving kendall jenner pepsi,” one commenter wrote. “i’d rather be called a slur,” another said.
“It was comical, and then once you think about it more, maybe a little more concerning,” he told me. “This term reached new heights in its meaning during COVID-19, when Asian elders and community members were really under attack, physically and verbally abused for our identity. But these seven guys are looking cute in front of it.”
In response to the uproar, the influencers posted two response videos, on TikTok and YouTube. “That is not a thirst trap. And we are not activists, nor do we try to be,” said Oliver Moy, his fellow Boys seated around him.
The caption on TikTok read: “To those who are mocking us with your TikToks, I want to ask you to ask yourself, ‘What are you doing for the movement?’”
And, well, the commenters mocked that too.
“When influencers use these hashtags as a way to prove they’re ‘woke,’ without clarifying the action items they’re following to benefit the movement, people lose sight of the meaning,” Lee said. “The words lose impact, and that becomes detrimental to the purpose of these terms.”
The founders of Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition of organizations who founded and popularized the initial hashtag, declined to respond directly about the North Star Boys’ controversial post, but provided a statement about the movement’s work tracking Asian hate crime incidents.
“It’s vital we continue to push for real solutions through investment in civil rights, community resources and education, including ethnic studies in schools,” they said.
Influencers taking lukewarm, Instagram-friendly stands against targeted racial violence is not a new phenomenon (remember the black squares?). The pressures of social media aesthetics have led these efforts to be diluted into general phrases, the action items left behind. Male influencers doing a sexy walk with pumpkins on their heads is not really the inspiring Asian representation I had asked for.
“You need to tell your teammate when they make a bad decision on the court,” Lee said. “We have the same goal as Asian Americans. I don’t think the North Star Boys had bad intentions. I really don’t think they were trying to be malicious or derogatory. But they just had lackluster execution.”
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, the North Star Boys collectively said:
We as Asian Americans stand in solidarity with our community, and only want to use our platform to promote positivity and inclusivity. It’s not just Asian Americans out there that we want to inspire, but everyone should feel that they can talk about what they’re passionate about, be heard, and more importantly feel seen and represented culturally when they get on social media or watch TV. We are always so thankful for all of our supporters for having our back. We see all your messages and appreciate the love.
I mean, public figures supporting a movement is a nice gesture, but the state of our community may need a little more than that.