In Defence of Avril Lavigne: Racism, Cultural Appropriation and the Meaning of ‘Hello Kitty’
By Kei Hiruta
The latest music video by the Canadian singer Avril Lavigne has been accused of racism and cultural appropriation.[i] Bearing the name of the world-famous Sanrio character, ‘Hello Kitty’ shows the pop star singing and dancing in what appears to be a girl’s room in Tokyo. She also explores the city, shopping at a candy store, eating sushi, drinking shochu, and waving at her fans as she strolls in the fashionable Shibuya area. Throughout, she is accompanied by four young Japanese women, acting as backup dancers inside the room and following her outside.
It is above all Lavigne’s use of the four dancers that has turned out to be controversial (e.g. here, here and here). They have the same hairstyle and wear identical costumes, apparently reinforcing the stereotype of robotic, expressionless, submissive and childlike Japanese people in general and Japanese women in particular. Contrast to this is the cheerful and outgoing blonde pop star, as if to say that one must be of a particular race if one is to have a fulfilling, genuinely human life. The marginalised Asian women, a Huffpost article says, ‘do not seem to have any agency, emotions or purpose beyond playing Lavigne’s backdrop and representing a watered-down version of Japanese culture, palatable for a white American audience’.
A few objections immediately come to mind. First, it is backup dancers’ job to remain in the margin. They are not supposed to outshine the lead performer. It would indeed be odd if the four women fully expressed their individuality to distract the viewer’s attention from Lavigne. ‘Hello Kitty’ is her show.
Second, there is little evidence to indicate that the backup dancers represent the Canadian singer’s understanding of Japanese women, of Japanese people, or of Asians in general. Here, it is notable that the video in fact shows not only the dancers but also Lavigne’s fans in Japan. The latter are dressed in various colourful clothes. They look cheerful and lively, talking to each other as they follow their favourite pop star. Why, then, should we think that the boundary separating ‘them’ form ‘us’ should lie between Lavigne and the rest? Why is it less plausible to draw a line between the fans and the audience on the one hand and Lavigne and her dancers on the other?
Moreover, Lavigne is neither the only nor the first one to use robot-like backup dancers in a music video. Of particular relevance here is the Japanese singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. In her video ‘Ninjari Bang Bang’, for example, backup dancers not only dance like robots but are in fact CG robots. In her ‘Invader, Invader’, dancers wear not only identical costumes but also identical masks, complete with a half-robot DJ. As some of Lavigne’s fans are reported to have guessed, it is quite possible that the Canadian singer simply incorporated aspects of these and similar videos into her recent work. If the guess proves correct, that could make ‘Hello Kitty’ unoriginal, but this scarcely amounts to racism.
Even if ‘Hello Kitty’ is not racist, some critics argue, it is still morally wrong because it indulges in cultural appropriation (e.g. here, here, here and here). In their view, Lavigne is blameworthy because she has no genuine interest in or appreciation of Japanese culture but selectively uses some of its ingredients to promote herself. The real issue, then, is not her (purported) lack of originality but the manner in which she makes up for it.
As has been widely reported, Lavigne herself challenged this allegation, expressing her sincere ‘love [of] Japanese culture’. ‘Hello Kitty’, she argued, had been filmed ‘WITH my Japanese label, Japanese choreographers AND a Japanese director IN Japan’. Her critics are not impressed. To cite one particularly eloquent writer, Lavigne is guilty of ‘[p]icking and choosing pieces of a culture and wearing them for kicks like a hilarious Halloween costume, then discarding them when it’s no longer fun and going back to a comfortable white celebrity life’. Lavigne’s incorporation of Japanese words into the lyrics rubs salt into the wound, to some people’s eyes. A Japanese-Canadian writer feels ‘deeply offended’ to ‘witness a 29-year-old Canadian woman with the audacity to sing in the language of my ancestors, a beautiful, noble language’.
In reply, one may argue that casual cultural appropriation is simply an indispensable part of entertainment industry. To stay under the spotlight requires responsiveness to the shifting cultural trend. If a musician hopes to remain in the profession, he or she must show both style and integrity, navigating between the Scylla of opportunism and the Charybdis of repetitiveness. In this regard, musicians scarcely differ from democratic politicians, who must adjust themselves to popular demands as much as they wish to inspire the public. One could of course be a critic of ‘moronizing’ mass culture à la Herbert Marcuse, but one should not single out and attack Avril Lavigne for conforming to the norms of her industry.
This response is unlikely to satisfy Lavigne’s critics, whose concern is not exactly with the casual and selective use of cultural ingredients per se. Rather, they are opposed to the appropriation by the powerful of the culture of the powerless. It is one thing for a noble savage in a land of abundance to appropriate the fruits of the earth; it is quite another for a feudal lord to appropriate the fruits of serfs’ labour. On the critics’ understanding, Lavigne is a modern-day cultural lord, who has no moral entitlement to exploit Asian cultural assets. No wonder why the language of power is pervasive in the critical comments on ‘Hello Kitty’.
It must be noted at this point that the music video has offended few Japanese people, who are presumably the primary victim group of Lavigne’s alleged cultural appropriation. I found no negative comments in the Japanese media when the controversy initially broke out in its Anglophone counterpart. I now find many posts and articles (e.g. here, here and here), but the main issue there concerns why ‘Hello Kitty’ has been perceived to be discriminatory abroad. Similarly, the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. is reported to have said that 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’.[ii]
A survey of the relevant Japanese websites indeed suggests that the majority do not see ‘Hello Kitty’ as an instance of Western appropriation of Japanese culture. On the contrary, a considerable number of people regard it as a testimony to the nation’s soft power, or its capacity to exercise international influence by attracting others. This might be a wishful thinking on the part of the declining nation, hoping to remain to be a global power player in the face of China’s unstoppable growth. Politics aside, however, I genuinely cannot see why cultural influence must be one-way traffic. Practically all J-pop musicians are influenced by their Western counterparts; why can they not influence a Canadian musician in the same way?
Furthermore, ‘Hello Kitty’ may also be seen as a reasonably successful outcome of the Japanese government’s ‘Cool Japan’ policy. This is designed to export Japanese goods and services, including fashion, music and entertainment. The controversial music video may not be what the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry would have liked or expected, but it seems to be in accord with the spirit of the METI policy. Ironically, some of Lavigne’s harshest critics end up in portraying Japan as a submissive and childlike nation that needs their protection, ignoring its official and unofficial efforts to culturally and economically assert itself.
These considerations call into question the simplistic dichotomy between the hegemonic ‘White Westerners’ and the powerless ‘Asian Easterners’ that so many critics have taken for granted. For one thing, the dichotomy is a bit dated to make sense of today’s global power structure. Clichéd though it may sound, ours is a time when a Korean pop song tops charts across the world, and musical talents with various ethnic backgrounds fiercely compete for a Carnegie Hall performance (‘the Orientalisation of classical music’, to borrow Niall Ferguson’s expression). Moreover, it is worth asking on whose behalf Lavigne’s critics accuse her of cultural appropriation. Most Japanese people do not feel offended. Culture itself cannot feel offended. Who are the victims?
A Cultural Icon
Let us not lose sight of something obvious amid the furore: ‘Hello Kitty’ is a music video and by itself tells little about what the commentators have been discussing. As we try to decode the meaning of ‘Hello Kitty’, we find ourselves attributing various meanings to it. This perhaps explains the frustration among the critics, who in effect address various issues they care about, while professing to review the three-minute music video. In this sense Lavigne’s latest work may be said to mirror the world in which we live; the trouble is that the world itself is filled with discord. Meanwhile, the pop star emerges triumphant, as her work gets associated with a wider and wider range of contemporary issues, making her appear to embody the disharmonious soul of the age. For this she must be congratulated. Indeed, she may claim to remain what she became more than a decade ago with her debut album Let Go: a cultural icon.
[i] The music video has attracted many more charges, but I shall focus on the two major allegations in this piece.
[ii] This statement has been repeatedly quoted in the media, but I have been unable to find it on the Embassy website. It is possible that somebody from the Embassy said it in his or her private capacity.