In another addition of “oh, those wacky Japanese”, as explained by white people, Avril Lavigne has debuted a new music video called Hello Kitty. When I first watched this as it popped up on my Facebook newsfeed, I immediately felt a migraine coming on. In this video, be prepared for more “edgy” contributions to culture that really hit the same shabby racist note.
The video begins with ‘me no psycho*, arigato, k-k-k-kawaii’, which immediately makes my stomach roil. The first line already makes fun of Asians in standard Mickey Rooney style, by mimicking an Asian broken English style. The Japanese words sound as though they’re just tacked on for flavor; the opening line is literally “me no psycho, thank you, cute’, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. The song is also called ‘Hello Kitty’, which is also confusing – Hello Kitty doesn’t appear anywhere in the video, most likely because they couldn’t get Sanrio to agree to use the image.
In the next shot, it’s revealed that Avril is basically rebooting Gwen Stefani’s old Harajuku Girls. In 2005, Gwen Stefani hired four Asian girls to follow her around in matching outfits for a series of music displays. Comedian Margaret Cho said it best: to be blunt, it’s a minstrel show. She’s collected a group of Asian girls, dressed identically, who background dance behind her without expression. This is what probably makes the video so strongly offensive. Using Asian girls are decorations, accessories, or props is dehumanizing. It’s funny (and by funny, I mean funny painful, not funny haha) that Asians make great background props in everything from Tokyo Drift to Avatar: The Last Airbender but never make main character in their own stories, like 21.
It’s no surprise that the video was met by immediate backlash from Asians and non-Asians alike. Avril further makes an ass of herself on Twitter, responding to the comments with the following:
Thanks, Avril. Such a sensitive response makes us feel so much better.
She continues that she shot the video in Japan, with Japanese cast and directors, for her Japanese fans. The Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C., reports that Avril “had only good intentions when making the video.” The spokesman added … they “would be happy if the discussions surrounding her song and music video results in more people discovering the beautiful and rich culture of Japan.”
That’s understandable; a lot of artists tailor work specifically for one audience or another, and Japan is always interested in encouraging tourism. However, the way this is taken in Japan by Japanese fans is a wholly different view than it is by her other fans abroad. This video is not being consumed in a bubble. Besides her Japanese fans, she has her American fans of many races and other multi-racial audiences around the world. How would it feel to be an Asian-American watching this video, as a white woman simplifies Japanese culture down to thigh highs and tutus with silent Asian girls as dolls?
Here’s another way she could have shot this video (despite the fact that the subject matter and lyrics are pretty flat… apparently it was written by her Nickelback hubby, Chad Kroeger) She could have collaborated with a Japanese artist, for example, to give a little more weight and autonomy to the Japan connection. She could have featured other assets of Japanese culture besides the tiny slice of pop culture that continues to misrepresent Japan to the West as more than the “wacky Japan” tropes. Why not showcase Kyoto, or Okinawa, the deer park in Nara, or Tokyo Tower? Maybe celebrate hot springs or summer festivals in yukata?
From a fashion point of view, the video also fails pretty horrible. Her pink petticoat-tutu hybrid looks like it’s from an American discount toy store, with safety pinned non-descript cupcakes, paired with a Hot Topic corset she rescued from the early 2000s. The only fashion inspiration I liked were her vintage mint glasses – check Etsy if you’re interested in finding similar styles.
Between the blatant racism, tired trope of ‘white girl discovers Harajuku, becomes instant expert’, boring lyrics and story-boarding, it gives the feel of nothing more than a Youtube pop project. In fact, it reminds me strongly of the amateur video song ‘I Love Chinese Food’ by Alison Gold. Only redeeming factor? There’s no creepy dude in a panda costume.
*one of my commenters mentioned that she may actually be saying ‘minna saiko’, not me no psycho, which translates to ‘you rock, everyone’. Credit goes to T.R.A. at Medium for clearing this up for me – another great article about the oppressiveness of the song here.