Where do global tastes verge into cultural appropriation? Where does good fun and moneymaking drive a serious misrepresentation and oversimplification of culture? We’re talking, of course, about music videos and TV commercials.
In a recent piece heralding a comeback move from Gwen Stefani, TIME magazine wanted to remind everyone of the pop star’s controversial taste for Harajuku culture—after all these years, the publication is still demanding an apology. For those of you who don’t remember (Love. Angel. Music. Baby. did come out more than ten years ago), Stefani hired four Asian women to appear as her posse and backup dancers. Reports surfaced that Stefani had renamed the women Love, Angel, Music, and Baby, and that the women, though Japanese-American, were contractually obligated to speak only Japanese in front of the press.
It’s clear from the TIME article that the subject is still sore, though you could probably have guessed so from the backlash this spring over Avril Lavigne’s music video for “Hello Kitty.” The American media called racism over more than just the use of the iconic Sanrio figure. What was perhaps most vilified was Lavigne’s choice in backup dancers for the video—four Asian women, identically dressed and following Lavigne around in formation. Sound familiar?
One thing about this outcry: it came from the American media. Lavigne herself pointed out that she’d made the video in Japan, with plenty of Japanese voices going into the planning and execution. As some commenters with ears to the East pointed out, Lavigne’s Japanese fans were thrilled with the video. Even the Japanese embassy declined to be offended, instead focusing on the publicity that the music video offered their country. After all, in recent years the “Cool Japan” program has been geared towards just what Lavigne’s video does—taking up Japanese pop culture and media and bringing it to an American audience. Teasing apart the ethics of the video and the accusations of cultural appropriation, the University of Oxford’s Kei Hiruta argued that portraying Japan as the victim of exploitation in this instance robs the nation of power and agency where clearly there has been careful planning and marketing.
Which brings me to my next point:
Japan has been importing American culture for marketing purposes for years. Can we talk about all of the American celebrities who’ve done ads in Japan? In this compilation video, you’ll catch the likes of Bruce Willis, Britney Spears, and Nicolas Cage (as a cartoonishly bewildered cowboy, I’d like to point out!). Who are these American stars benefiting? Sure, they’re carrying home a big check, but ultimately it’s the Japanese companies who are cashing in on these glossy snippets of Western culture. Ben Stiller directing his manic blue-eyed gaze at the camera might as well be a scene from Zoolander, and might even have been poking fun at the role. These actors are performing for a Japanese gaze, mouthing words and hawking products that they can’t possibly understand as part of a larger societal context. They don’t know that hey, this coffee is typically one poorer people would grab on their way to work. Hey, that candy is one that little Japanese girls trade before class.
I don’t know if any that stuff about the products is true—I’m making it all up. But that’s the point. Ads and music videos are maybe thirty seconds, maybe a couple of minutes long. That’s not a lot of space to step into a cultural conversation, though it’s certainly possible. What often gets prioritized is often not the global conversation but rather the marketing aesthetic. So yes, no matter what gender or nationality or style your backup dancers are in, they’re probably going to be in the background, dancing all alike. If you bring in a foreign star, you’re probably going to have to take a shortcut through some familiar narratives, whether that means casting them as a cowboy or an action hero. Is it fair to ask a song like “Hello Kitty,” ostensibly about a pillow fight, to make complex trans-national commentary? Is there an ethical way to go about making a compressed snapshot of a culture? How can we balance the way that countries invite themselves to be portrayed overseas against the way receiving cultures are going to perceive that portrayal? We don’t have an answer, but we’d love yours.