Friday, November 04, 2005

Little Yellow Pets

AngryAsianMan linked to Margaret Cho's blog, where Ms. Cho spoke out on the topic of Gwen Stefani's Harajuku Girls. The story was picked up by's blog, reporting on Cho's post. Now, I'd like to say, any white woman who thinks it's okay to keep four adult Asian women as pet mascots is not a woman to be idolized or cherished. This is not acceptable behaviour, and we as Asian Americans (and as feminists, because, come on: four women being controlled and dominated? If Stefani were male, the Harajuku Four would be presented as her South Asian sex slave harem.) should be speaking out against this. Stefani has used her wealth and fame to purchase these four women, dress them as dolls, and parade them around as backdrops for her act. She stands them behind her in photo shoots as props, and even uses their features and clothing as a contrast to her own Aryan phenotype (the reason the photos are so striking is because she is a milky-white blonde girl standing in front of four 'darkies'). Margaret Cho says, "a Japanese schoolgirl uniform is kind of like blackface", and I couldn't agree more. Gwen Stefani claims to appreciate Harajuku culture and this is her 'homage' to that community, and yet, the four Harajuku girls that Stefani picked up off the street like strays are never given a chance to represent that culture. Have we heard them speak out? Talk about themselves or their identities? Do we even know their names? And yet, the fence Margaret Cho sits on in her post confuses me. She says, "I mean, racial stereotypes are really cute sometimes, and I don't want to bum everyone out by pointing out the minstrel show." I'm sorry? Which racial stereotypes are these and who is finding them 'cute'? I've never cooed over yellowface and buck-teethed, and I don't feel all warm and fuzzy whenever I watch Full Metal Jacket or Charlie Chan. Sure, I like to hear Ms. Cho make awful racial caricatures of her Korean parents, but only as insider humour and only to a point. Such behaviour from a cultural outsider carries a different connotation and as much as I hate insider/outsider distinctions, in this case, we're not talking about a little bit of fun poked at a member of one's family but a white woman parading four members of another race around like trained monkeys. Cho then goes on to say:

I think it is totally acceptable to enjoy the Harajuku girls, because there are not that many other Asian people out there in the media really, so we have to take whatever we can get. Amos 'n Andy had lots of fans, didn't they?"
And therein lies the problem with Asian American activism. We're so desperate for attention, so eager to roll over in order to see ourselves portrayed at all in the media, that you have people willing to tolerate, even embrace, something like the Harajuku Four. I remember when even the mere glimpse of slanted brown eyes and black hair was enough to make me love a character -- but I like to think that we as a community have evolved a bit beyond the middle school instinctive, unthinking love for all things like us. Amos 'n Andy had lots of fans, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't racist and didn't deserve cancellation. I'm not cutting any APIAer any slack -- seeing my people as objects and props to be used as a backdrop for a white woman is no better than being invisible. Don't let EW's last little "whitefolks aren't all that bad" stat throw you, if you have to conduct a study in order to find us APIAs in media (EW cites Lost, Grey's Anatomy, and Kitchen Confidential), we're not experiencing a surge in numbers in Hollywood. If we still have to count, then our presence isn't improving. When we do appear in media, we embody one stereotype or the other: ever the submissive prostitute, the geeky scientist, the soft-spoken foreigner, the hilariously bumbling comic relief, and usually in a show's "Asian-flavoured episode" (like General Tso's chicken) such that when we show up, we do so en masse as if producers are hoping to get their diversity quotient to audiences in a fast 'n furious flurry. The quicker it's over and we can go back to the all-white guest star list, the better. It reminds me of a discussion section I attended last night; we were discussing minority representation in the media and again, I heard this perspective that negative Asian stereotypes are giving way to positive stereotypes (e.g. Asians as intelligent) and yay, shouldn't we be happy? No, no we shouldn't -- whether we're bumbling idiots or rocket scientists, if we let the white majority define our identities in media for us, we're still bending over and assuming the position for cultural domination and dehumanization. Advocating a change of the stereotypes only says we're still willing and eager to be stereotyped. If positive stereotypes were the key to racial equality, why don't we have positive stereotypes of white people? Only when we take control of our media representation and refuse to let non-APIAs tell us who we are, only when we foster well-rounded images of our community, can we begin to achieve that elusive "step forward". EW postulates, "...[a]nd if Stefani sang about her desire to have enough money to possess, dress, and name four adult black women, or Jewish women, or lesbians, would she be facing a greater public outcry?" There would, but that's beside the point. Our community needs to take matters into our own hands and speak out against Stefani in a single unified front. We need to stop taking cues from other groups, using the black experience, the Jewish experience, or the LGBTQ experience be our meter for whether or not we should be upset. We shouldn't be sitting around whining that no one targets those other communities -- we need to be letting Hollywood know that our community, in its own right, are not to be pushed around. I'm not about to be anyone's damn pet. Update: Alas mentions it. Tekanji was kind enough to link this post in the comments.


Anonymous tekanji said...


I was unhappy by Cho's blase reaction to Stefani's objectification of these women. As if what Asian women really need is more Othering of their culture. I think your point about using them as contrast to her Aryan-ness is spot-on, too.

Gwen Stefani claims to appreciate Harajuku culture and this is her 'homage' to that community, and yet, the four Harajuku girls that Stefani picked up off the street like strays are never given a chance to represent that culture.

I think it's patently absurd for Stefani to claim that what she's done to these girls is 'homage'. She may have picked them off the streets of Harajuku, but she's erased their identities and replaced them with her own white-washed ideal of Japanese-ness.

Have we heard them speak out? Talk about themselves or their identities? Do we even know their names?

They aren't allowed to speak English, you know. I think at one point they were given names, but I honestly don't know if (assuming I'm remembering it right) they were real or names given to the girls by Stefani. And, to further what I've said above, we don't know about the women's identities because Stefani has stripped them of such things.

11/04/2005 03:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with your statement about Asians in general accepting any kind of representation we can get in media. There are voices that advocate improving our depictions in the media, but too few to matter. We have to have standards, we shouldn't tolerate being used as tokens or stereotypes just because the American white media execs are 'throwing us a bone.' Though I doubt that will change anytime soon.

11/06/2005 10:39:00 AM  
Blogger Mendi O. said...

Interesting post. What do you think of the Asian characters on Half and Half? Here's the link Do you watch it? I've been interested in the way race gets portrayed in that show becuase (1) we rarely see black people in Northern California on tv (and I'm a black person from Northern California) and (2) There's often an interaction between black and Asian characters that isn't centered on some problem. The character of Adam I sometimes find stereotypical. I'm aware of the gay stereotypes, but I wonder if the fact that he's a racial 'other' means that his difference is even more highlighted (& fantastical). There's also another recurring Asian character on that show, a waitress with a biting, wry humor. I love it when she's on. I'm interested in the fact that it's not a stereotypical role and her interactions with Mona and Dee Dee are not about race, but mostly I'm interested because her lines are funny and she delivers them well. Don't know the actress' name, but I've seen her around.

11/16/2005 12:21:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Mendi, I've seen literally half an episode of Half and Half, and I only stopped as I was channel surfing because I noticed the gay Asian character. I'm of two minds: I like that we have one of the first inclusions of a gay, Asian character on television because the APIA LGBTQ community is largely even more invisible than APIAs and they have very fascinating identity issues that are rarely addressed.

However, and this is why I'm uncomfortable with shows like Will & Grace, I don't think the LGBTQ community is made better by having stereotypes of gay-ness portrayed as a laughing stock on TV. The Asian character on Half & Half is the quintessential queen; he is hyper-feminine, hyper-sexualized, childish and vaguely weak-willed. He's comic relief because of his sexuality and his race. Not only does that perpetuate the de-masculinized image of gay men, but it also perpetuates the hyper-feminine sexual image of Asian men.

So, in the end, I disapprove of that character. I see no reason why we can't have a gay, Asian male character on a television show who acts like a real person rather than about thirteen different bumbling stereotypes smashed into one.

11/16/2005 05:08:00 PM  
Anonymous z said...

Thanks for this and your comments on Half and Half.

Something struck me as wrong with both Gwen Stefani's "girls" and that character on Half and Half. I just wasn't able to put it as eloquently as you have.

11/16/2005 10:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

apparently she has named the four women Love, Angel, Music and Baby, according to wikipedia. love your blog, hate stefani.

12/08/2005 06:58:00 AM  
Blogger amyjames said...

Coming late to the party here . . . via Carnival of Feminists.

Enjoyed the post/comments but felt compelled to ask why both those who enjoy the spectacle of the Harajuku girls and those who condemn Stefani fail to consider that the girls themselves may have opinions about what they are doing.

They seem to be old enough to make their own decisions (informed or otherwise) - has anyone considered what their rationale for allowing their images to be used in this way might be? (OK, it could just be for the money).

I'm concerned that by talking about the girls in this way - as if they have no opinions or motives of their own - we objectify and silence them just as effectively as Stefani seems to have done.

4/14/2006 12:04:00 PM  
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