Tuesday, January 30, 2007

the exploitation of cute girls by other cute girls

Sure, other bloggers give you the latest news, but sometimes I just give what's news to me, even if it's a controversy that's a couple of years old. For example, I just heard about the accusations of racism regarding Gwen Stefani and her Harajuku girls.

I learned of the controversy after my girlfriend and I watched Gwen's latest video, "The Sweet Escape. It's a very cute video with Gwen and two adorable dancing Japanese girls in a gold-plated jail cell. My girlfriend said the Japanese girls were Harajuku girls, and I wound up looking up Gwen on wikipedia.

Basically, a couple of years back Gwen got four Japanese girls to appear in her videos and follow her around to press events. They never speak and they dress after a style of dress popular in the Harajuku district of Tokyo. From pictures I found on google, it's a sort of colorful version of goth. They actually dress a lot like anime characters, with school girl uniforms and pink wigs and stuff like that. While this sort of thing generally looks pretty hot in anime, in real life it tends to make the girls look rather dumpy, but they're having fun and I imagine they liven up the neighborhood.

Anyway, people are mad at Gwen. The best expression of this is a thoughtful and witty blog post by Margaret Cho, who describes Gwen's Harajuku girls as a minstrel show. Gwen is also mentioned in a very interesting article on "Asiaphiles" and there's even a blog called "Free the Gwenihana Four". Gwen's response was rather silly, accusing Cho of not "do[ing] her research," whatever that means, and saying that her Harajuku Girls are an art project.

This is an interesting controversy, because from a non-Asian perspective it all seems like an overreaction. And in some ways it is. Someone complained that if Gwen had four guys in black face following her around people would raise an objection, and of course they would, but it's not like she is dressing these girls in a western-created artificial stereotypical style. Girls in Japan do dress like this. It's more as if she hired four black people to dress up in hip-hop style, which I doubt would cause that much of a stir. So comparisons with Amos 'n Andy are not really fair.

But Cho's post explains pretty clearly what the real problem is; that this is one of the few portrayals of Asians she sees. And that's what makes this a problem. Think back to the 30s and 40s, when movies had tons of black actors playing characters that were stupid and lazy. The problem wasn't actually that there were black characters on screen who were stupid and lazy, because there were also white characters who were stupid and lazy, like The Three Stooges. The problem was a lack of balance; Lou Costello was counterbalanced by Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant, but outside of Paul Robeson, who managed to get some intelligent roles, mainly in England, every black character you saw was a caricature.

So basically, Gwen is right in thinking the Harajuku girls are harmless, and Cho is right in finding them upsetting. If television and movies were full of Asian doctors and lawyers and private detectives and pop singers and circus clowns, four silly girls following Gwen around wouldn't bother anyone. And it's really not Gwen's fault that Asians are underrepresented (shockingly so, considering how many people of Asian decent there are in New York); Gwen's just some pop star enamored of certain cool aspects of Japanese culture, and she thought it would be fun to have giggly Asian girls follow her around, and yes, it objectifies women and objectifies Asians, but Gwen also objectifies herself in her videos so it may not some like that big a deal to her.

One more interesting aspect of this is simply that people look to entertainment for validation. Asians feel invisible because they're not proportionally portrayed on TV and in movies and in music videos. Of course if you're white you take it for granted that almost everyone on TV is like you so you don't really ever think about it as important, and I really don't know what I'd be feeling if there were only a handful of white celebrities. It probably would make me feel marginalized, but I'm just guessing.

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