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 now...as 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 particularly...um...bad 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: http://youtu.be/5QjACk4qM6g

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.

2 comments:

Bryan Urasky said...

Taking the time to read though these because I've missed a lot (adjusting to meds still that do everything to fix my chemical issues but fail to improve my social ones.)

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.

Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

"Come on, girl" said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. "We monks don't go near females," he told Tanzan, "especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?"

"I left the girl there," said Tanzan. "Are you still carrying her?"


The ideal of cultural appropriation, like most great truths, is both extremely important and extremely ridiculous. The Dao that can be written is not the true Dao. Learning, understanding, groking a thing has nothing to do with genetics.

The key element of realization of truth is not being able to explain a thing. It is being able to enact a thing. Reciting the Heart Sutra while juggling prayer beads is just an act until you seek the meaning behind it. Then it becomes a purpose, then a desparation, and then, hopefully, an act of hope.

Cultural appropriation is pretending to wear another person's shoes. Even wanting to walk within them is a entirely different path. Not every person can walk every path at every time. You can only go where you, yourself, are going.

Mara Sobotka said...

That makes a lot of sense, and I could not agree more.

BTW, You worry too much :P