I didn’t intend to write an article on Avril Lavigne’s latest video “Hello Kitty”. But, after reading AimxAim‘s fine article in Janakya Mottainai “How much of a culture are you really allowed to like?” I was inspired to write a follow-up comment. My simple comment turned into the 800 words published here. I’d like to thank AimxAim for allowing me to crosspost my comment here.
Firstly, I’m not white. I know a lot of white people are confused by the “double standard” of racism. I’d like to remind them that racism is something perpetrated by the dominant culture against the subordinate culture. Racism is the act of suppressing or subordinating cultures that are different than the dominant culture. Some people may believe this definition controversial since it means that they will never be subject to racism or (gasp) “reverse racism”. A member of the dominant culture, while he/she may be discriminated against, will never be subject to an institutionalized system that blocks their upward mobility. Racism permeates the fabric of the culture from people, to its laws, and to the portrayal of subordinate cultures in popular media.
I don’t think most white men can truly understand or empathize with the effects of a lifetime of the media images of Asian men as either asexual, effete nerds or asexual, robotic kung fu masters. So, when Avril Lavigne films a video in Tokyo, yet casts the only Japanese man in the video as a sushi chef I think we have a problem. With all of Tokyo from which to draw, the only scenario involving a Japanese man worth filming was a sushi chef? I dare Avril to film a video in Tokyo where her romantic interest is a Japanese man. I double- and triple-dare.
Think about the message this video sends to Asian women. The four Asian girls are the background dancers to the White girl, making them little more than Avril’s props and accessories. They dance so emotionlessly just behind Avril they might as well be mannequins. Perhaps it was an artistic decision to make the girls look bored and soulless, but should we allow “art” to be used as an excuse here? Real art should provoke thought and send messages. What is the message transmitted in this case? Perhaps this isolated instance can be laughed off, but what of the hundreds of images of Asian girls who are nothing more than the arm decorations of a white male protagonist?
This video does nothing to further the cause of the Japanese people who Avril claims to love. This is the real crime of “Hello Kitty”; it’s a wasted opportunity. It’s not that I believe Avril intended to make a piece of racist trash. I don’t believe Avril is racist in the outward, aggressive sense of racism. It’s likely that she doesn’t even realize that her art serves to psychologically smother the aspirations of young Asian men and women. She may not realize it because she is not Asian. When she was a young girl, she probably just needed to change the channel to see positive her role models (I know that women have few positive role models of their own; I’m not trying to downplay sexism). But, what about, Keiko Yoshida? How long does she pound the “channel up” key before she finds a strong independent Asian woman to idolize? She won’t find her idol in an Avril Lavigne video.
Through the eyes of an Asian-American male, “Hello Kitty” represents the worst kind of racism- a racism that lies deep in the subtext and seeds psychological trauma and self-hate. However, the definition of racism I’ve laid out above is also the reason why the Japanese people have a different reaction to “Hello Kitty”. In Japan, Avril is the subordinate culture. Her video isn’t viewed as racist in Japan because it does not serve to oppress their culture. It CAN’T oppress their culture. If Avril made the most horribly bigoted, slant-eyed, yellow-faced video ever filmed, it would likely be a non-issue in Japan because either (1) it would never be seen, or (2) the entire country would be united against the monstrosity (in which case I could imagine Lavigne opining “freedom of speech”).
What is “Hello Kitty”? While I think the song is disposable pop (there’s nothing wrong with disposable pop) I have no choice but to take the viewpoint of an Asian-American when assessing the video. Avril’s smattering of kaleidoscopic images is no different than the myriad offerings of Asians fulfilling their assigned stereotypes. Blinded to the plight of Asian Americans, I think Avril truly thinks “Hello Kitty” a benign piece of celluloid. While the video is much less outwardly offensive than (say) Han Lee from “2 Broke Girls” (how is this still on the air?) the implications contained therein contribute to the internalized acceptable racial roles for Asians. Even if she didn’t make the “Hello Kitty” video for Asian Americans, I think we are right to expect more from someone who ” love(s) Japanese culture” and “spend(s) half of my time in Japan”.