Harajuku Lovers and “Gwenihana”

14 05 2009

Every time I see those little (admittedly cute) perfume bottles and colorful outfits for sale, I have to say I’m a little bit put off.


I don’t know if it’s the woman looking like a child thing, or the slanted eyes on the cartoon images, or just the ridiculous use of Asian stereotypes by white people as a marketing tool for a boring clothing and fragrance line that bothers me most.  Maybe it’s the nagging suspicion that “Harajuku lover” is really just a code name for “Asian lover” or maybe “racist and stereotypical version of Japanese culture lover.”  Maybe I’m just sick and tired of seeing Gwen Stefani parading around with a group of Japanese women dressed to look like schoolgirls in her shadow.


Since when does Gwen think that appropriating other cultures is so cool and so fun?  Since when is parading around with a group of identically dressed Japanese women who silently accompany her on photoshoots a good idea?  And as if the silencing isn’t enough when these four women are living in Gwen’s shadow, they are even contractually obligated to only speak Japanese even though all four of them are rumored to be Americans who speak perfect English.

Why is it that all these women are dressed the same?  Well, first of all, I’m assuming that Gwen wants to stand out.  She’s taller, she’s white, she’s blonde.  Isn’t it sending the wrong message that these women are dressed up to look the same, while the only white woman in the picture is dressed differently?  

A 2005 Salon.com article by MiHi Ahn sums the issues with Stefani up pretty well.

Stefani has taken the idea of Japanese street fashion and turned these women into modern-day geisha, contractually obligated to speak only Japanese in public, even though it’s rumored they’re just plain old Americans and their English is just fine. She’s even named them “Love,” “Angel,” “Music” and “Baby” after her album and new clothing line l.a.m.b. (perhaps a mutton-themed restaurant will follow). The renaming of four adults led one poster on a message board to muse, “I didn’t think it was legal to own human pets. But I guess so if you have the money for it.”

Stefani fawns over harajuku style in her lyrics, but her appropriation of this subculture makes about as much sense as the Gap selling Anarchy T-shirts; she’s swallowed a subversive youth culture in Japan and barfed up another image of submissive giggling Asian women. While aping a style that’s suppose to be about individuality and personal expression, Stefani ends up being the only one who stands out.

Margaret Cho has a great piece on her blog from 2005 about Stefani’s work.  But the piece has gotten huge backlash, especially from Stefani herself.  “The truth is that I basically was saying how great that culture is. It pisses me off that [Cho] would not do the research and then talk out like that. It’s just so embarrassing for her. The Harajuku Girls is an art project. It’s fun!” said Stefani in a 2006 interview with Entertainment Weekly.

But who is it fun for?  The silenced background dancers (aka the Harajuku Girls)?  People are not art projects, Gwen.

Stefani also stated in her interview: ”I was surprised how racist everybody was about them. Especially when I came over here and they’d make all these jokes, like Jonathan Ross.” Ross, a British TV host, asked Stefani if an ”imaginary hand job” from one of the ”imaginary” dancers would be counted as cheating on his wife.  ”Everybody’s making jokes about Japanese girls and the stereotypes. I had no idea [I’d be] walking into that,” said Stefani.

Stefani’s “everybody else is racist but me” attitude is troubling.  “Yeah, gee I wonder why people would view Japanese women as submissive, pliable creatures when Gwen Stefani is parading these four women around as dancing, giggling human props…” says Carmen Van Kerckhove on Racialicious.  Gwen’s videos and performances have even depicted these women bowing to her.  No, not just bowing, full-out on the floor groveling.  

MADtv has even mocked Gwen’s subtly racist work.

Gwen is not combatting racism by playing into racist and sexist stereotypes. I was hoping that the Harajuku Lovers phenomenon would blow over by now, but the brand has become even more solidified and successful.  Even a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float was dedicated to “Harajuku Lovers.”  So maybe I’m behind the times with this rant, but I just cannot stand a brand based on racist stereotypes, and I really can’t stand how successful the brand has become.

It’s kind of disappointing coming from a woman like Gwen, who was pretty cool back in the days of her “Just a Girl” fuck the patriarchy ode in the 90’s.  It’s also kind of disappointing that so many people continue to buy these products (or buy the music, videos, performance DVDs, etc.) despite the cultural appropriation and racist/sexist stereotypes that underlie the brand’s creation and continued success.



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