“I want to like them, and I want to think they are great, but I am not sure if I can. I mean, racial stereotypes are really cute sometimes, and I don’t want to bum everyone out by pointing out the minstrel show. I think it is totally acceptable to enjoy the Harajuku girls, because there are not that many other Asian people out there in the media really, so we have to take whatever we can get. Amos ‘n Andy had lots of fans, didn’t they? At least it is a measure of visibility, which is much better than invisibility. I am so sick of not existing, that I would settle for following any white person around with an umbrella just so I could say I was there.”
That’s an excerpt from Margaret Cho’s 2005 rant about Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls.
When Margaret Cho wrote her rant, the Harajuku Girls were new on the scene. There was quite a bit of online outrage in 2005 and 2006, when blogs like What Tian Has Learned, Brian Behrend, Racialicious, and aLive from New York all spoke out against the then-new pop culture phenomenon. A blog called Gwenihana aimed to “free the Gwenihana four” by promoting awareness of Gwen’s Harajuku Girls, Maya Chino (â€Loveâ€), Jennifer Kita (â€Angelâ€), Rino Nakasone (â€Musicâ€) and Mayuko Kitayama (â€Babyâ€). The Gwenihana blog may have possibly been inspired by MiHi Ahn’s Salon.com article with the same name, which pulled no punches in its criticism of Ms. Stefani’s cultural appropriation:
“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. … 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.”
The outrage seemed to have died down since then. The Gwenihana blog hasn’t been updated since 2006. Gwen Stefani has since dropped a second solo album, The Sweet Escape, the title track of which led Mad TV to finally parody her Asian fetish long after the initial furor. By 2007, Gwen Stefani’s employment of Asian stereotypes was being played for laughs.
And all the while, the Harajuku Girls have become even more ubiquitous in terms of marketing and product placement. Sneakers. Handbags. Tote bags. Clothing. Watches. Dolls. And now floating inflatable figures in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
And yes, perfume. Which brings me to the whole reason I’m writing this post.
When I hosted the Harajuku Girls solid perfume giveaway over Thanksgiving, it was so not my intention to offend.
I’ve been dreaming up ways to have even more giveaways for a while now, and I tried to line up some really excellent freebies for the holidays. When the opportunity to give away a set of Harajuku Lovers perfumes, which retail for at Sephora for $60 and really comes in an adorable little gift package, came about, I jumped at the chance.
“Yay, perfume! My readers will love this!” was all I thought.
I didn’t think for a second that I’d be compromising what Afrobella is essentially about. I’ve made it my mission as a blogger to celebrate the beauty of women all shades of beautiful, particularly shining a light on the natural beauty of women of color. It was never my intention to exclude or inadvertently celebrate the stereotyping of any ethnicity.
When some readers pointed out the error of my ways, it gave me serious pause.
“How would we feel if a white pop princess decided to have Jungle Bunnies following her around and turned them into objects? Would it all be in â€œfunâ€?“, a regular commenter, Chelle, asked.
And I must admit – I never really considered how it would make me feel if the Harajuku Girls were, let’s say the Afrobella Girls, all dancing behind Gwen and asked to only speak in a foreign language or accent when they are addressed. Is that because I’ve become so used to seeing talented black people back up white artists as dancers or back-up performers? Would it have been better if Gwen took a page from Janet Jackson in the Nineties and surrounded herself with a veritable Benetton commercial of dancing homegirls? I don’t know. And I don’t think that much analysis went into it on Gwen’s part. I think she saw these women and just thought, “super kawaii!” And that was that.
Before Gwen Stefani became interested in Asian culture, she was obsessed with Jamaican reggae culture, and I didn’t raise so much as an eyebrow when Gwen made a hit song from a cover of a cover (Rich Girl started out as a song from Fiddler on the Roof, If I Were a Rich Man. Then Jamaican artists Louchie Lou and Michie One made it big in the Nineties, long before Gwen and Eve’s pirate inspired video). When No Doubt started wearing Rasta colors and brought artists like Lady Saw and Bounty Killer to the American mainstream, it didn’t bother me as a Caribbean woman. In fact, like her predecessor Madonna, Gwen Stefani’s been finding inspiration in foreign cultures almost since the beginning of her career — remember the bindi she was rocking in the video for Just a Girl? — quite often to success and acclaim.
I am not sorry for offering a perfume giveaway — which I still will do — but I am sorry for not considering the deeper issues involved in Gwen Stefani’s ever expanding brand before I jumped headfirst into offering this giveaway.
Does this mean I don’t support Gwen or the Harajuku Girls? Well, I gotta admit I do love the perfumes. G and Love both smell incredible on my skin. I am still going to honor the giveaway — my people at Coty are aware that I am writing this post, and they’re still ready to send a perfume set to one lucky reader of my choice. And out of 76 comments on the giveaway thread, there was only one that really called me out for offering the giveaway. That means over 95% of you are still down with Gwen, and still want her little perfume bottles decorating your dressers.
Judging from this year’s Macy’s float, I’d say the brand isn’t going anywhere soon. But I do see problematic issues with the house that Gwen built. I also see fundamental and easy ways in which some of these issues could be resolved. I think that some first steps have already been taken. For example — the Harajuku Girls are now visiting Macy’s to pimp their perfume themselves, and judging from the response, they’re quite popular with fans. The ad for the Harajuku Lovers fragrance lingers on the girls — Gwen doesn’t even make an appearance, except in bottle form. So I am imagining next the Harajuku Girls are going to be given some kind of platform to express their “personalities.” Could a cartoon be far behind?
I would like to hear these women speak – not in a language or accent that is not their own. I’d love for Love, Angel, Music, and Baby to come out, express themselves, and say y’know, I am happy and/or proud to be one of Gwen’s girls. And here’s why. Or not. And here’s why. I’d love to know how real Harajuku girls in Japan feel about Gwen’s brand. Do they love it? Are they offended? Or are they clamoring to buy their own little bottles that attempt to capture the street fashion style that influenced Gwen to begin with? I’d love to see a video that reveals the reaction of real Harajuku girls to the ones we’re analyzing here Stateside. I think that could be a real step towards addressing the issues that have caused criticism in the first place.
Coty doesn’t have an official statement addressing any controversy the brand has caused, and in 2006, Gwen spoke out in defense of her Harajuku Girls, against Margaret Cho’s statement that I initially quoted.
“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. Itâ€™s just so embarrassing for her. The Harajuku Girls is an art project. Itâ€™s fun!â€ (Cho told EW via e-mail, â€I absolutely agree! I didnâ€™t do any research! I realize the Harajuku Girls rule!!! How embarrassing for me!!! I was just jealous that I didnâ€™t get to be oneÂ¦ I dance really good!!!â€)
Stefani continues: â€I was surprised how racist everybody was about them. Especially when I came over here and theyâ€™d make all these jokes, like Jonathan Ross.â€ Ross, a British TV host, asked Stefani whether an â€imaginary hand jobâ€ from one of her â€imaginaryâ€ dancers would count as cheating on his wife. Stefani responds, â€Everybodyâ€™s making jokes about Japanese girls and the stereotypes. I had no idea [Iâ€™d be] walking into that.â€
I believe her, because I didn’t either. This has been a real learning experience for me. And now, at the end of it all — I think we both should have known better.
But enough about what I think. What do you think, bellas and fellas? Was I wrong to offer this giveaway? What do you think about the Harajuku Girls? What would you like to see from the brand in the future?