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Saturday, January 21, 2006

Harajuku Girls

So Gwen Stefani has these Harajuku girls. They are four Japanese women hired by Gwen to be her posse/shadows. They go everywhere with her, appearing on the red carpet, in her music videos, her album cover, and are mentioned in almost every song on her solo album, including a song she wrote about them (called...Harajuku Girls).

Okay. I guess if you're a popstar celebrity you can do whatever you want and make yourself a posse. But this is where it gets weird and kind of creepy. These Harajuku girls (Harajuku is a district in Tokyo reknowned for many things, in part the flamboyant styles of the locals) are rumoured to be under a contract where they are only allowed to speak Japanese in public, even though people say they're just regular Americans who speak perfect English. And when I say Gwen "has," I really do mean has, because she has renamed them Love, Angel, Music and Baby, after her clothing line (l.a.m.b., which is being marketed towards the Harajuku district) and solo album. MiHi Ahn for Salon.com (or try this link) does a great job of explaining what is going on, but there is a fair bit of controversy over whether this is an instance of negative feishization, if the widespread coverage of the Harajuku girls is positve press, or if it's just one of those weird things that will end up paving the way to general acceptance of minority cultures (as Margaret Cho muses). (more in expanded post)

At first glance, Gwen Stefani's praise of the Harajuku girls may seem to be a positive sign of appreciation for a different culture:
Harajuku Girls you got the wicked style
I like the way that you are, I am your biggest fan
You're looking so distinctive like D.N.A., like nothing I've
ever seen in the U.S.A.
Your underground culture, visual grammar
The language of your clothing is something to encounter
A Ping-Pong match between eastern and western (from Harajuku Girls)
But what does not sit well with me, and a great many others (visit the "Free the Gwenihana Four" blog), is that the Harajuku girls that Gwen drags around with her are her ideas of what Harajuku girls are. The photo above is a great example of this--look at their makeup. The tiny circle of lipstick on the four girls is reminiscent of an antiquated Asian/geisha fashion; they also are all wearing the same (albeit weird) thing. What is supposed to be so unique about the Harajuku district is that individuality rules. There are no trends or lines of fashion that are to be followed except to do the unexpected, although the inspiration tends to be goth or punk. Gwen strips her pseudo-Harajuku girls of the trait she apparently finds so inspiring.

For those who might disagree about Gwen's attitude towards her Harajuku posse, if you listen closely to "Rich Girl," this is what she says:
if I was [sic] a wealthy girl
I'd get me four Harajuku girls to
Inspire me and they'd come to my rescue
I'd dress them wicked, I'd give them names
Love, Angel, Music, Baby
uh...which is what she did. What is tricky is that the whole phenomenon of Harajuku style is one that is superficial and in itself fetishy--also known as Japanese Baroque, it combines elements of gothic, goth-lolita and punk style into a postmodern pastiche of clothing. So appreciation of this intrinsically fetishy style may have to itself border on fetishization. That of course is only true if the Harajuku style were represented accurately, which it completely isn't (schoolgirl uniforms do not fall under goth or punk, but they do happen to be an Asian image stereotype). Unfortunately, it's pretty clear that Gwen just got herself a set of live dress-up dolls, who are a negative portrayal of Asians in the way they play into the meek, cutesy, giggling and silent Asian girl stereotype. No, it's not racism. Yes, it's still not cool.


At 2:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is such an interesting issue and I think your treatment of it is excellent. Thank you!

At 1:50 PM, Anonymous sarika bansal said...

I agree with anonymous, this really is an interesting issue and you discuss it well. One question though -- what (if anything) are the Harajuku girls saying about this? It's pretty terrible that Gwen has adopted them as her posse, but Love, Angel, Music, and Baby do have free will... so if they themselves don't seem to be objecting to this, should we?

At 3:07 PM, Blogger deborah ho said...

I feel like your point, Sarika, is an interesting one but also a catch 22: they're contractually bound to NOT say anything about it, because they can't say anything unless Gwen says they can. and in interviews, they hang around in the background and when Gwen thinks, cock their heads and point to their temples in this creepy human programmed robot Gwen-choreographed way. That line of reasoning is similar to the argument that people who choose to be in porn are being compensated for it and it's their own choice, and they don't seem to be objecting to it, we shouldn't either. But if I feel that porn is negatively impacting the way women are viewed in society, for example, it is my equal right to speak out against it. I'm not going to kidnap them and undo Gwen's posse, but I'm saying it's not cool, whether or not they chose it themselves. It's also similar to the rationale people adopt regarding racial jokes made by people within the race--if they're saying it about themselves, it must not be racist. Mm.. not true.

At 9:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I for one think it's awesome that Gwen has the girls. If I had the money, I would do the same. With respect to the uniformity of their attire, I would suggest that you pay closer attention to their headgear. And with respect to porn, you'd have to be pretty naive about human nature to think that men would behave any better towards women without access to centerfolds.

At 9:44 PM, Blogger andrew golis said...

Hi anonymous, could you explain why you would do the same, what you mean about pornography, etc.? I think you're kind of being sarcastic, but I would love to hear more of your thoughts so that we can continue the conversation...

At 10:43 PM, Blogger deborah ho said...

Anonymous: yes, they're wearing different hats. It still has no resemblance to what is seen in Harajuku: not only would none of them be caught dead in their school uniform, which Gwen's Harajuku girls sport in various reincarnations all the time, they go out of their way not to look similar to each other. And my point about porn was not so much about whether or not my speaking out about it would change things, but rather that I have the right to speak out against it should I feel there is something to say, regardless of how the people who are in it feel about it themselves (as a response to Sarika's point).

At 3:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My basic point is that you have to be pretty paternalistic to complain about the right for four grown women to do what they want for a living. The authenticity of their attire is irrelevant, and the effort to show your Japanese cultural hipness by pointing out various divergences is very annoying. It's the collegiate equivalent of that kid in middle school who thought he was really cool because he listened to indie music, while your favorite bands were "sell-outs." Look, not all Japanese women wear school outfits, obviously. But a lot more of them do than American women. Like any stereotype it has its roots in reality. Re: Andrew, I think it's absurd to pretend that negative male behavior like violence is the product of socialization. In every society on the planet, males, on average, exhibit more violent behavior than women, are more desiring of multiple sexual partners, are more willing to take risks, etc. There are obvious biological and evolutionary reasons for all of this. Blaming porno for rape is simply preposterous.

At 4:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the same ridiculous screed I hear every time anyone points out anything they don't like. Someone claiming to be a libertarian or right-winger says "who are you to tell them!" and whines and moans about how lefties are "paternalistic." Deb is SAYING SOMETHING, NOT ORDERING THEM OR COMPELLING THEM.

Why don't people walk around wearing swastikas? Because if they did people would say "that's racist and anti-semetic and disgusting."

Why don't people use deragatory terms like "chink" or "fag" or "spik" as much as they used to? Because we talked about how hurtful they are and changed our culture.

No one legislated against wearing a swastika or calling people "fag". No one paternalistically threw them in jail for these things. WE HAVE FREE SPEECH, stop acting like anyone who criticizing someone else's speech is trying to take away their right to it. It's ridiculous. If you disagree, if you don't think having 4 grown women dress up like 13-year-old girls to fetishize a culture and a people is appropriate, say so. You have that right. And Deb has a right to say that she's offended, women have a right to say they feel demeaned, and people of various cultures have a right to say that they feel disrespected by the actions of others. Get over it.

At 4:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And I have a right to say grow up. If you think calling someone a "chink" or a "nigger" is at all comparable to four women wearing outfits that may or may not resemble the attire of a Tokyo district, you have no grasp of what real problems are. Whiny boutique outrage like the type expressed in this post is the reason why the Democratic Party is in such shitty shape.

At 10:09 AM, Blogger deborah ho said...

Anonymous 1: I hardly think what I wrote sounded outraged. I say it's "not cool" and "kind of creepy"; believe me, there is a whole lot more in the world that I find outraging. To base your assumptions of what someone may see to be "real problems" in the world off of one less "serious" post is short-sighted and pretty much meaningless. While this is clearly not as egregious as wearing swastikas, that may simply be the result of time and what we've been conditioned to consider pc or not pc. But it may also be because it's NOT as serious, and I never pretend to say that it is. That, however, does not mean that there is nothing to be said about it, or learned from it. Completely apart from whether or not what the Harajuku girls wear is fetishization, Gwen basically treats these four people like her personal dolls. She doesn't acknowledge their existence even when asked ("You can see them too? They're really just a figment of my imagination"); if anything, that treatment of four people as things, regardless of whether they are being paid to do that, is just as much what is so off-putting about the situation. While I respect your right to your point of view, I disagree that it isn't important to think (even briefly) about the subject; sometimes the most can be learned from discussion of the gray areas and the borderline cases.

At 5:00 PM, Anonymous Susan Yao said...

I'm so glad you brought this up, Deb, I've been against Gwen Stefani ever since I found about her 'dolls.' It's more that the more you find out about this topic, the creepier/scarier it gets. Figment of her imagination (you mentioned in the last post)??

It started out I remember with the video about the clock ticking or what not, and they were all (including Gwen) dressed up in a fantasy world where they were sent from the music studio. In the studio all were dressed 'normally' and the harajuku girls even spoke English. Plus in a globalizing world, sure we share our cultures with each other, even the the point where it occasionally enters the mainstream. I didn't think anything of that. Then more videos came out, and there they were, the four girls again. That's just potentially awkward, but plenty of celebrities have posses, just usually their own race, so her having a posse of a different race isn't necessarily good/bad.

An interview I saw with her raised my suspicions, however, because they were basically like mimes, all dressed up, while Gwen was giving the interview. It was kind of startling to see. So I started talking about it to people, then found out about the no-English rule, and just all together as a package it disgusts me. The issue for me is not whether or not the four Japanese women do it out of their own free will, but just the existence of that image and its acceptance in the mainstream. How popular have Gwen's songs gotten??? And this perpetuated Asian stereotype is popularized with her music since it's all a package. Dressed-up, Japanese-speaking, submissive Asian women whose names are love, angel, music, and baby...*cringe*

At 5:27 PM, Anonymous Caitlin said...

hey deb, i think you handled the post beginning with "Anonymous 1: I hardly think what I wrote sounded outraged. I say it's "not cool" and "kind of creepy"; believe me, " really well.

I think that the arguement that we shouldn't talk about something because its not serious enough is ridiculous, dangerous, and counter productive.

At 8:53 PM, Anonymous Mary said...

Just out of curiosity, has any of you ever been to Harajuku or have an intricate knowledge of Japanese culture / counter culture? Though the argument is sound from one point of view, and though I do not agree that objectification is ever truly alright, I do not agree with the general consensus of what it means to be a "Harajuku Girl."

"What is supposed to be so unique about the Harajuku district is that individuality rules. There are no trends or lines of fashion that are to be followed except to do the unexpected, although the inspiration tends to be goth or punk. Gwen strips her pseudo-Harajuku girls of the trait she apparently finds so inspiring."

This would be the comment I disagree with most. Harajuku kids cannot escape the general wave of Japanese conformist culture. They conform in their "individualism." There is, in fact, a distinct look that must be followed if you are to see and be seen next to Yoyogi Park on a Sunday. These kids sit on the sidewalk all day and blow bubbles, eat McDonalds (Makudonarudo), and seem to be put out when the foreigners (gaijin) ask to take their picture. They are not unexpected, actually, the only thing unexpected about them is their lack of presence on a fine Sunday afternoon. They were cliche and familiar long before Gwen Stefani shined the garish American pop culture light on them.

At 8:45 AM, Anonymous Susan said...

Mary, it sounds like you actually have firsthand experience, thanks for sharing. I have a friend who is a Japanese major and in general knows a lot about Japanese culture and says Gwen didn't follow the style at all (whether it's about individuality or not, I agree there's probably a general theme like goth/punk). It's almost like domestication (of pets)...

At 4:49 PM, Anonymous Mary said...

Susan, it's true. Gwen put her own spin on the girls just like she puts her on spin on everything she does. The girls are much better dressed than the real Harajuku girls. =) As for real experience, yes, it's true. I lived in Japan for two years and spent many afternoons meeting friends "by the freaks." I've chatted with many of them and have numerous pictures amongst them. Nice kids, not very directed though.

At 11:53 PM, Blogger deborah ho said...

Hi Mary, thanks for pointing that out. I agree that those sentences are misleading and your correction is well taken. I think a better way of putting what I was trying to get at is that "real" Harajuku girls conform by nonconformity (in the traditional sense); Gwen's however, have been manipulated into a creepy amalgamation of fetish and objectification that equally strips them of what makes Harajuku girls who they are. I like the way Susan put it: they've been domesticated and sold to the American populace.

At 10:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know what? I've been a HUGE fan of No Doubt and Gwen for years, and if she has the accessibility to get herself four harajuku girls and dress them wicked and give them the names love, angel, music, and baby, then let her. She's huge. She can do it. Her style is so unique and always changing anyways (just look at her changes within each No Doubt album) that we shouldn't bother with analyzing what she's doing right now. And I think that if her harajuku girls were absolutely totally completely miserable they would rise up against her and speak out, but they're not, so it must not be horrible. And besides, who wouldn't want to stand next to Gwen Stefani?

At 11:01 AM, Anonymous Mary said...

Wow Anonymous, that was a completely irrelevant and pointless comment. Seeing as how we were having an intellectual debate and the point of debate and discussion is to analyze, your "leave Gwen alone because she's so cool" comment falls flat. Just because you go out and buy peroxide and pom poms to fit in, doesn't mean everyone is going to follow the bright peppy light. Next time, try to contribute something else worthwhile. Hitler was huge and got a lot of people to do what he wanted too, and hey, if the oppressed had risen up and spoken out sooner... you see where I'm going with this.


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