Pomp and Circumstance
Masculinity, Grooming, and the Asian Male Image

the pompIt’s funny how masculinity is defined by grooming etiquette. Believe me; in some parts, entering a barber shop with a vagina is taken none-too-lightly by serious hair [men]folk. Because tradition. We crack up at that Buzzfeed video of the renegade hipster cutting off premature man-buns, but the phallic and emasculating implications aren’t lost on us. Apparently there’s a fine line between taking the grooming from an acceptable manliness level to a slightly too-feminine touch. But what happens to those lines when the Internet starts crushing all of the imagined expectations surrounding the image of “manliness”?

One of the top hair trends for men this year according to multiple fashion blogs, magazines, instagrams, and Buzzfeed is the pompadour.  “Volume in the front, tight on the sides, streamlined.” Elvis, Johnny Cash, James Dean. Comb it, poof it, and slick it back. Enter its modernized prodigée – The Pomp – “a modern take on a classic.” The blog and video series are produced by James Bui and Harrison Truong, two Vietnamese-American men, who’ve arguably helped shift media content on the image of “Asian Male.”

The Pomp, a blog that focuses on the pompadour and its necessary products, began three years ago. The whole vision, however, unlike many YouTube channels, doesn’t try to dictate  what clothes viewers should wear, or how to try different hairstyles.

The duo sticks to reviews of pomades – the substance used to style the hair-do. And all of this, Bui says, is deliberate.

“There are all these sheep following different design brand shepherds telling them how to wear clothes, how to style this, how to present yourself to this world.  I’m saying, let’s get rid of the shepherds. Let the sheep choose what they want to wear. That’s why I never tell them to do this specific pomade of the day or this outfit.”

Bui and Truong believe in a vision of democratizing how viewers choose what images to show instead of trying to fit a designated silo – especially for males in the Asian diaspora. The conversation about hair products turns quickly to representation in the arts, democratization, and the nature of aesthetics.

They’re only beginning to branch out into clothing now, but the pomade industry is taking off – and the blog has some serious fans. The Pomp as a YouTube series is currently watched by a broad audience – the majority of whom live in the US, ages 18-24. The second-largest contingent live in Indonesia, followed closely by Malaysia, Singapore, the UK, NZ, and Australia.

But what if the blog and the hairstyle still emits copies? According to the viewer statistics, thousands of young men are watching these videos and not only making decisions about their images, but ingesting the aesthetics and the way James and Harrison, two men of visible Asian heritage, are presenting themselves to the rest of the world.

They are fully aware of that viewership and the implications of representation. “I want the Asian-hyphen-American male to have someone they look up to who isn’t laughed at. Like even on YouTube, these big YouTube stars are still fulfilling this joking role. I want to be taken seriously,” says Bui.

What sort of responsibility do they feel in such a role, if any, and how are they planning to use it?

James thinks it can begin with style, some independent thought, and some self-confidence. And he wants to show viewers that one can look respectable without wearing prescribed “flashy stuff.” “At the end of the day, I just don’t want another Asian American boy to go through the same shit I went through to prove myself. I want the image to be respected.”

Bui explains his thoughts on the current positions in society reserved for Asian males. “I can only speak to the Vietnamese American experience, but I feel like the perpetuated image… is something pretty metrosexual. I want something … that when people look won’t peg me immediately as the Asian guy with that sort of style.”

Asian males in mainstream media have barely diversified in representation. Only recently have there suddenly been sexy Steven Yeuns. The emasculation and/or desexualization of Asian males in mainstream media has been a complicating part of conversations surrounding Asian Pacific Islander gender identities. What parts of masculinity can empower without reproducing patriarchal and oppressive structures to non-male-identifying API folk?

Perhaps The Pomp will prove that artistic presentation and aesthetics are possibilities. As long as they don’t entail appropriation.

The fact that there are numerous trend pieces going around the Internet that list the pompadour as one of the top 10 to-dos of 2015 is ironic in content for all of James’ desire to have more diverse and individualistic style-points for men. But at the end of the day, the blog is a creative outlet for The Pomp. And in form, perhaps The Pomp is altering the level of say a certain subset of men have in controlling image perception.

James Bui is well-aware of the irony. He laughs.  “It’s a trend. I’m not ignorant about that. At the end of the day, it’s not about the pomade or the hair. It’s about the image.”

If they were all about the unique image – did the two of them have the same tastes? “Not at all,” said Truong. “James has a way he sees this world, and it’s my job in the blog to figure out what that is, and stick to those aesthetics and keep things tight and running. My photography and the way I see the world are different from his, so The Pomp is about learning to see those differences.”

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