Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Let's talk social science! Part 1: "The body of the colonizer"

This is something of a continuation of my thoughts from the Avril Lavigne "Hello Kitty" discussion.  Possibly NSFW due to some images of underwear models, proceed at your own discretion.

(Love, peace, and inter-cultural chicken grease.)

Before we get started, I'd like us to remember that there have been a number of fantastic posts and perspectives on the topic of Avril Lavigne, cultural appropriation and othering in the past few days, and y'all should take a peek at at least some of them.  I'm trying to curate as many as I can here: we'll see if I can come close to getting them all :P :
I argued in my last installment that while Lavigne's video does engage in a bit of cultural appropriation (coming close to minstrelsy), it needs to be considered with nuance, and considered with Lavigne's background in mind as well before we tar and feather her for acting the weeaboo (a term I find grossly offensive for a number of reasons).

However, even though I defended Lavigne's choices in the "Hello Kitty" video, there is still much to discuss on the topic of cultural appropriation and ignorance (a term which I use in the most literal sense; not pejoratively).  Thus, therefore, hence and suchthings, I'm going to put my professorish hat on and address a few social science topics with a J-pop bent over the next...oh...week or so?  We will see how timely I can be :D

So, we're going to kick off this series (there will be at least one more part, if not two or three) with a somewhat controversial topic.  Why is it controversial, you ask?

Well, if you're reading this, and you're white of European descent, you're about to find out :P  

"The Body of the Colonizer"

(A cuppa for the empire your thoughts?)

When I was in India in 2008, one of the first things my prof told our group was to be conscious of the fact that, as people of European descent traveling where we were, we had "the body of the colonizer," and we needed to be mindful and respectful of that in our interactions with people and places.  This is very useful advice for people like us traveling in South Asia, because much of it (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Singapore, to name a few) was under British imperial control for quite a long time, and life was not sunshine and roses for many people native to these regions during this time.

India in particular was under control of the British Raj from 1858-1947, and before that, controlled by the East India Company from 1600 or so on.  In these nearly 400 years that the people in these regions lived under British rule, they lived with many things typical to the phenomenon of colonialism: things including, but not limited to:
  • Religious conversion (and all the threats to one's livelihood, personal autonomy, and spiritual growth that go along with this)
  • Slavery/indentured servitude
  • The imposition of laws which were based on a way of life that was not that of the land
  • The slow, slow degradation of relations between people of different traditions who already lived in the area.
This is an UBER-ULTRA-MEGA SHORT introduction to what colonialism and imperialism are (two subtly different terms), and the effects it has on the people touched by it.  This is also a prompt for you to go out and do some research on it, since I can't give a very extensive world history lesson in just one post :P  And India is far from the only place touched by European colonialism and imperialist ambitions.  Some other regions of interest:
  • South America: Chile and Argentina are the most famous examples by far, but the tiny country of Suriname also has a very entangled history with Dutch colonialism.
  • Australia and the people of Tasmania
  • New Zealand: If you haven't seen "Cloud Atlas" or "The Piano," well, here's your chance to get a quick glimpse into to mid-19th-century anthropology without sentencing yourself to death by academic writing (Trust me, it's fascinating stuff, but incredibly dry and jargony and racist and....yeah).
  • South Africa
  • Kenya: Wanna know how Nairobi became the capital?  Or what the word "nairobi" means? Well, go read about it!
  • Mount Lebanon circa 1839-1860ish: A good area to see not only what European colonialism's goals were, but Ottoman imperialism as well, which was at least as influential as the Europeans, but most Westerners aren't well-acquainted with that unless they've read a metric buttload of orientalists.
  • Israel/Palestine: See how I deftly avoided a massive Godwin here? (Wait, did I just jinx it?)
  • North Fucking Muricuh: Yeah, bitches, I went there.
  • South Korea: particularly how Christianity took so quickly after the Korean War in the 1950s.
  • And, of course, Japan.  Though this is much more a discussion on imperialism than colonialism.
The hardest thing for many people of European descent to consciously acknowledge when traveling abroad is not the fact that icky things happened between people who look like us and people who look like them; but rather that these things are still ingrained in the collective memories of other cultures; and that sometimes, trying to do as the Romans (or Delhites, or Johannesburgers, or Singaporeans, or Tokyoites) do just may not be enough to erase all prejudice.

Or annoyance.

Or fear.

To have the body of the colonizer means that one looks like part of a group of people who exert/had exerted undue power or dominance or lots and lots of influence over another.

As a person of European descent, I look like British women who employed Indian maids in their wealthy households.  I look like Dutch women who hired African people to work her (husband's) land for little to no pay.  I look like the the people who owned the sugar cane fields in Hawaii in the early 20th century.  I look like the disrespectful, ignorant American women who saw photos of geisha after the war, thought their outfits were lovely and exotic, and put on "kimono," etc., for costume parties or for fun or to make themselves look worldly and well-traveled.

And so does Avril Lavigne.

And so, quite likely, do you.

(What's pink, black, white, and obnoxious all over?)

Here we see the interaction (read: T-boning...) of two cultures who have a tense shared history.  

"...But wait...Avril's Canadian, not American!" you might say.  

Well, at first glance (our *first impulse;* that evil, seductive little trickster to whom no sentient being is immune), that doesn't matter.  On a philosophical level, it might, but immediately, it just doesn't.  That argument simply has no place here.  Why? (And here's where, for the sake of simplicity, I'm going to get super pretentious...) Because she is phenotypically similar to a people with a history of conflict with Japan.  

We're going to get super cuddly with this fun little technical word because, well, it's a lot more concise than "she looks different" or "she's not part of their race ethnicity," or worse "she's white."

Avril's phenotype matches that of Americans, and is also somewhat similar to the Portuguese researchers/missionaries/traders who started nosing around in feudal Japan in 1543.  (Note: this is a group of people whose appearance is VERY well-documented by Japanese writers of the time.) 

Let's go back to our other buzzword: cultural appropriation.  The reason that using/being outwardly fond of images that don't match one's phenotypically-assumed culture (yes, that's really all I think it boils down to), especially if *your phenotype has had a tense history with *their phenotype (PHENOTYPES ERRWHER, YOU GUYS), is problematic (holy shit, this sentence is already 4 lines long...) is because of how the colonizers tended to regard and use the cultures they encountered.

A very simplistic definition of cultural appropriation is "is the seizing of another culture without their consent. " (source, and great article, though the author uses the term "Orientalist" somewhat incorrectly. #foreshadowing) The word "seizing" is a bit absolutist and lacking nuance, but in some cases it is absolutely true.

And in some cases, a definition that sounds startlingly close to a definition of rape is exactly the kind of wake-up call our culture needs. 

(No means no.)

The ignorant use of cultural iconography reflects a time when that kind of laissez-faire attitude toward the exotic other was the norm in Western cultures, and while these attitudes are changing; while other cultures are no longer widely regarded as "aww look at the cute widdle primitive people," cultural appropriation is still a problem that needs to be addresssed because we are taking that for granted.

For a very long time, Western colonialists had a nasty habit of talking about the cultures they encountered politely as being "quaint," "exotic," or "unchanging;" and not-so-politely as "backward," "barbaric," or "simple."  Many writings by early European explorers, imperial ambassadors, anthropologists, tradesmen, travel writers, and even novelists will speak of South and East Asian cultures as though the people are children or highly intelligent animals, and that attitude has not completely disappeared in some circles.

The reality of the world we live in is that if you are of European descent, you have an especial responsibility to be aware of that fact; to be aware that we have the body of the colonizer.  (This is not to say that this is right or good or beneficial to the progress of humanity, per se.  It just *is.*)  And this, right here, is why we find ourselves so concerned with Lavigne's video.  And whether or not our criticisms on that matter are entirely founded, we should be concerned about it anyway.  We need to be critical about these things.  


(Kaylee the cat seems to think there is!)

There really is a happy part for us young Euro-type folks when it comes to fucking up the cultural appropriation *thing.*  


**I went to a conference on activism as an undergrad way back in 2009, and one of the workshops I went to was about diversity.  Even in Wyoming, only half-ish of the people who went were Euro-types.  But we had a blast.  We did exercises in pairs to demonstrate a metaphor about white privilege, and we talked about it without judgment.  But after talking about history and civil rights and everything in between, I became very, very conscious of the color of my skin and the shape of my eyes.

And it hurt.  A lot.

I went into the bathroom and cried for a while (yeah, I'm a bit of a touchy-feely super-sensitive type like that), and when I was certain I didn't look all puffy and shamey anymore, I walked out...just as one of the workshop leaders walked in.  She was Native American and worked for the counseling department, and was just an overall awesome person.  And when I saw her, the waterworks started all over again.  Yeah, it was kinda gross :P

She asked me what was wrong, and I just told her that I felt horrid about...well, what I was, basically.  I told her I hated the history of people who looked like me, who lived like me, who had access to the kind of lives that I might have.  And all she did was put her arms around me and say:

"That is a history.  That is not your history."**

Stay tuned for part 2: "Orientalism"  :D  LATERZ!

BiS' last hurrah...

(Pictured: the current incarnation of my abandonment issues)

For those of you who've been waiting to see resident paradigm-subverters BiS in bikinis on the beach making all cute-like, take a moment to appreciate "FiNAL DANCE," and revel in all its idoly glory.

Because it's our last chance :(

(And is Nozoshan not just the most adorable thing ever?! #biasfreeposting)

The video is a great way to look back at all the awesome PV moments BiS has had over the years, so you should watch it, if nothing else, for that.

I will admit, I have been so busy behind piles of grad school that I haven't had time to look into exactly why this wonderful group is leaving us forever crying into our oshi towels, but I've never been so sad to see a group go.  BiS has been one of my favorite idol groups for a long time, so I figure it's okay to make a tribute post without much research this time :P

BiS brought a gritty kind of weirdness to the idol scene, which along with their awesome metal-punkish sound was one of the things that drew me to them.  Their music is pretty fantastic, and not just by idol standards, and that kind of quality has proven itself to have staying power.  (Not to mention being a really refreshing pocket of fresh air in a market suffocated by the miasma of the 48s.)  BiS has also given us a wonderful soloist in the form of Terashima Yufu, who was my oshi until she graduated.  And y'all should check her first single out (released in February this year): she has a really gorgeous voice and an anime-ish sound which reminds me a little of another awesome band you guys should check out: fhana.

Avex has been very kind to us fans on this occasion, and made a pretty complete playlist of all BiS' singles, so if you have not yet gotten addicted to these girls, here's your chance to start!

Best of luck in your futures, ladies.  We will miss your awesome faces :P

Friday, April 25, 2014

Kitties, kawaiis and half-shaves, oh my.

(If you're uncomfortable with sexual topics or controversy or bad words, I'd stay away from this post.  I really have no idea why I'm putting this warning here opposed to every other post with strong language and sex and sarcasm I've ever done...I'm in a mood today :P )

(You know what?  I WILL take that cupcake fight!)

Can I make a confession, guys?  I've...kinda sorta...beenlisteningtothissongonrepeat IT'S CATCHY AND FUN, OKAY? JEEZ  :D

I remember back in 2002, when I was 15, a junior in high school, and dating a match: Avril Lavigne's "I'm With You" was my melancholy self-indulgent coping teen anthem of choice.  Now, in 2014, this song which seems to be about about slumber parties and mutual masturbation (OH NOES, THE LYRICS HAVE BEEN DECODED, HIDE YOUR KIDS) just kinda sounds nice and is a mindless kind of addictive that I can just zone out to while doing my homework in the espresso.

You know what the only thing that really worries me about this song (or video) is?  The fact that Lavigne's material in 2002 and 2014 is disturbingly...similar.  I mean...a 29-year-old woman singing about girlhood slumber parties? ...I dunno, I'm not so much a fan of that.  My 15-year-old self might have been able to relate to it on a level, but my 26-year-old self?  Noooooot so much.  Lavigne has been content to hang out in the milieu of early 2000s youth culture since her debut, and that bothers me a bit.

I'm even LESS a fan of the "like a fat kid on a pack of Smarties" bit.  There is a lot of waxing sociological to be done on the subject of fat shaming, but I'm not going to go into that right now. I just kinda wanna bop Avril upside her half-shave and ask "Dude, what was that about?"  If you're singing to young people in that age group (the people who speak your language, anyway, since we're also going to be addressing such things here), the very LAST thing you should be doing is giving them cultural justification for bullying.  Some similes just need to die, and this is one of them.

However...racist is the last word I would use to describe this song and this video for a number of reasons, and anyone who is familiar with me or my writing will know that I have absolutely no patience for that.  (Hence my continued and intense dislike for the un-apologetic Kamei Eri and Wada Ayaka).

(OH THE APPROPRIATIONEY HORROR!!!!  This comparison brought to you by every J-pop fan in the world forever.)

Okay, let's talk about cultural appropriation.  So...yeah...anyone remember this?

(Complete tripe, courtesy of 2010 T-ara)

You wanna talk about cultural appropriation, disrespect and insensititvity?  Then talk about this piece.

Particularly in the US, discourse around cultural appropriation and fetishizing the exotic other has gone mainstream, and this is a very, very good thing.  Both of these phenomena have a history of trying to put lipstick on racism, and bringing them to light and forcing people to talk about them is awesome.  But there comes a point when nuance becomes *a thing,* and the sooper-smart-and-worldly-you-guys Tumblr exegetes need to cram their holier-than-thou bullshit up a sun-deprived orifice of choice.

Now let's make sure we are completely clear on what "nuance" means.  I'm going to use a super graphicky and high-tech screenshot of the definition of the word, because...well I dunno...looking at how super-formal the format of dictionaries is and how the phonemes are included in definitions makes me feel all smart and transcendent and...I think it looks fucking poetic, okay?!

(Yes, I recognize that I am being a condescending git right now, but just work with me :P )

The spectrum of the meaning of cultural appropriation contains many shades of the "ism," and just as many shades of hypocrisy.  One minute, a person (usually of the on-the-internet persuasion) will be talking about (for example) how Lavigne is using Japanese culture to get attention, she's doing it all wrong, she doesn't get it, she...this that and t'other because they respect the culture or some such and by goll, they know what they're talking about!  

And the next, they will be pointing to a very clearly European descent white girl and looking down their nose at her because she's wearing a hijab or a Hindu head scarf or a mini skirt and thigh-highs or some such else.  

Yes, I have actually seen this happen, and I have actually known people like this. And I also have first-hand experience:

This is a photo of myself taken in 2009.  Notice the bindi on my forehead.  You know, the thing that least "matches" my European ethnicity?  I posted this photo on the forums of an MMO I was playing at the time, and a...discussion...about cultural appropriation ensued. But it was not the socially-conscious kind we'd all like to think discussions of such a type are.  No, you know what happened?  I got called a "sand-wigger."  I ask you this: how the hell is that not exactly the opposite of what it means to be culturally conscious?

On one hand, talking about cultural appropriation has brought our attention to ways in which the naive and underinformed use of other cultures' iconography can be hurtful.  But on the other hand, the very term "cultural appropriation" can be used in an equally ignorant and bigoted way, and I think that's partly what is happening with Lavigne's video.

Now here's where I'm going to be kind of  arrogant and compare my situation to hers. I still wear bindis on occasion because I really dig some of the cultural lore behind them, but mostly because I just like them and think they're pretty.  I also got said bindis while I was in India for three weeks in 2007, after studying Indian women's issues in my spare time and in a class I took for my gender studies degree.  Indian culture is something I find incredibly beautiful and interesting (for the most part, but that is far, far beyond the scope of this blog entry), and I feel a connection to it.  And to a qualified extent, GET it.

What is wrong with that? 

Objectively, ethically, logically, what, I implore you?  I'm all ears.  Just don't expect me not to roll my eyes.

Avril Lavigne is very public about the fact that she likes Japanese culture, as many. many people over here do.  And people who've kept up with Oricon over the years will know that she is a Big Fucking Deal in Japan.  She has a lot of fans over there, and she made the "Hello Kitty" video with the help of Japanese choreographers for those fans to thank them for their support over the years. Lavigne kind of "gets" Japanese culture in the same way that I "get" Indian culture: no, we are not insiders.  We do not have an inborn personal connection to a heritage of beautiful cultural symbols.  But each one of us is kind of connected to it, and she is more so because she is actually known over there; she is a public figure.  I'm just some schmuck :P  I don't blame her for being defensive about the backlash.

(Matsui Rena approves.)

No, neither one of us gets our itty bits of cultural appropriation "right." I mean for gods' sake, she puts sake over ice in the video.  Like, totally ew.  But: I also don't wear salwar kameez or sarees each day I choose to stick on a bindi for the sake of pretty, nor do I pray in Sanskrit (or pray at all), nor do I do yoga as often as perhaps I should.  I also have a very prominent tattoo of Japanese character, and one of a Hebrew letter, which would make anyone who knows even the smallest thing about Judaism laugh. A lot.

Also: how about all that English we see in the lyrics of every idol group we follow?  What about their own kinds of cultural appropriation?  Cases in point:

Remember when PASSPO put out their "world music" singles, which included the "L.A. metal" styled Next Flight, or the above example, the German-metal-themed "WING?"  And remember how talking about the musical and aesthetic stylings of each piece was really fun and awesome?

Or, for a more recent example of the use of very non-Japanese iconography in idol music, how about Tokyo Girl's Style's latest, quite, lovely offering, "Juujika ~Eiga?"  I'll just let you watch it, I really don't need to explain it:

What about all those fashionable bikinis with the American flag on them?  (So totes against the flag code, y'all :P ) Or the British flag?  Remember when Christina Aguilera, a decidedly white girl with no connection to Latino culture, used a butt-ton of Spanish and Latino imagery in certain songs on her "Stripped" album?  How about this beautiful use of Native American chanting (on one of my favorite guilty-pleasure albums, Creed's "Weathered"):

We don't get shit right all the time.  But no one really does, and that's part of the beauty of a global village.  We are all getting things wrong together, we are all understanding them and learning about them together, we are all creating new culture and common ground together.

I ask you again: what is wrong with that?

Is "Hello Kitty" an amazing piece of artistry?  No, not really.  But the reaction to the cultural imagery Lavigne uses is 10 shades of stupid.