Recently, Allure journalist Jesa Marie Calaor interviewed Gwen Stefani regarding her newest fragrance line, GXVE. Given that Calaor is a first-generation Filipina American, she felt compelled to ask Stefani about her former Harajuku line, which she described thusly:
The fragrance collection included five scents and each was housed in a bottle shaped like a doll caricatured to look like Stefani and her four “Harajuku Girls,” the Japanese and Japanese American backup dancers she employed and named Love, Angel, Music, and Baby for the promotion of her album. The perfumes gained industry recognition, winning The Fragrance Foundation’s Fragrance of the Year Award in 2009, and spawned generations of flankers. Magazines (Allure included) covered them extensively. Meanwhile, I, a first-generation Filipina American teen in New Jersey, starving for Asian representation in pop culture, begged my mom for the “Love” fragrance. She consistently responded with a hard no, always pointing to its price tag: $45 for one ounce of perfume at Macy’s.
This was an experience I’d sort of had myself, except I felt cajoled into buying the mini figurines because I “felt like I should.” Then they’d sit on my shelf, staring at me dispassionately, and I’d look back feeling uneasy for reasons I didn’t understand back then.
Ultimately, the reasons would become the dead cat I’d swing around in my adult years: the Harajuku line—named for the Harajuku district in Shibuya in Tokyo, Japan—was yet another example of a non-Asian person appropriating Asian culture because Asian shit is “trendy.” At best, this sort of thing has always made me feel wildly uncomfortable. At worst, it’s utterly dehumanizing. Though I may not be Japanese, East Asian cultures often get lumped together, which is partially due to a deliberate history of post-wartime concessions made to Western powers in order to minimize reconstruction efforts.
In particular, Japan really began to double down on rebuilding its cultural strengths, with a large end-goal being improved relations with Western nations. As a result, it’s become very normalized for Japanese pop culture to be spoon-fed to other nations with very little thought behind it. This extends to the people themselves, too; Asian women are at an increased risk of sexual violence due to ideas surrounding accessibility, while Asian men are largely fetishized due to idol culture.
All of this to say, it makes sense that Stefani went on to say this:
“…that was a culture that was so rich with tradition, yet so futuristic [with] so much attention to art and detail and discipline and it was fascinating to me,” she said, explaining how her father (who is Italian American) would return with stories of street performers cosplaying as Elvis and stylish women with colorful hair. Then, as an adult, she was able to travel to Harajuku to see them herself. “I said, ‘My God, I’m Japanese and I didn’t know it.’” As those words seemed to hang in the air between us, she continued, “I am, you know.” She then explained that there is “innocence” to her relationship with Japanese culture, referring to herself as a “super fan.”
“If [people are] going to criticize me for being a fan of something beautiful and sharing that, then I just think that doesn’t feel right,” she told me. “I think it was a beautiful time of creativity… a time of the ping-pong match between Harajuku culture and American culture.” She elaborated further: “[It] should be okay to be inspired by other cultures because if we’re not allowed then that’s dividing people, right?”
That last sentence is a sentiment I often see expressed, and it makes me boil. It’s such an undermining tactic to get people to shut up, without putting in any effort to hear what others are saying. Because it’s not like we don’t want Stefani or her consumers to have fun—by all means, go to Harajuku and feel artistically inspired, allow it to influence your art, do all that and then some. There’s a lot of beauty to Japanese culture that merits appreciation, and the world is a big, beautiful place, worthy of exploration.
But to then turn around and claim that you’re part of the culture yourself, that just because you enjoy a thing and feel connected to it, you can claim mastery of it? Make money off of it? My god, how spoiled are you? How naive are you? Was your family denied reparations for years because of systemic racism?
What wouldn’t divide people is if everyone could just get educated on modern systems of racism and understand that, while race doesn’t define a person, it is a metric by which a person is born into and experiences the world. To appreciate the culture of someone of another race is to simply appreciate it, with respect and humility. That stuff is great. To appropriate is to consume and embody it, like a gluttonous alien, and then act as though it was always meant for the taking.
When NME covered this subject in 2021, they included Stefani’s response to criticisms lodged by Margaret Cho:
When comedian Margaret Cho’s criticism of Stefani’s dancers, comparing them to a minstrel show, was put to the singer, she responded: “If we didn’t buy and sell and trade our cultures in, we wouldn’t have so much beauty, you know?
“We learn from each other, we share from each other, we grow from each other. And all these rules are just dividing us more and more… I think that we grew up in a time where we didn’t have so many rules. We didn’t have to follow a narrative that was being edited for us through social media, we just had so much more freedom.”
And this just explains so much. “Buying and selling” cultures … to think of it that way reframes entirely how those with power uphold these systems of oppression. They don’t see culture as an integral part of a people that needs to be honored and respected. They see it as a commodity, a byproduct of capitalism, to be consumed and repurposed for their own ephemeral needs. You can share cultures without needing to exploit them for a quick buck.
Ultimately, I don’t think people like Stefani will ever truly understand the impact of the things they say. So, to try to convince them otherwise is like trying to teach an old dog not to pee on the carpet. Instead, what we can do is talk about it amongst ourselves and try to do something about the system itself. These people will always be detractors and cry like piss babies about how “social media” is the thing making the world worse, but the world was already in need of a spring cleaning. And now, we have tools to do that—hence the fact that we’re having these conversations at all.
I’ll end by saying this: Calaor, your article was fantastic, and I’m sorry you had to have that conversation. If it makes you feel better, I once was at a party where a guy tried to take me home by telling me he “followed the Bushido code” in his everyday life—the implication being that his love for, uh … a very loose understanding of Japanese history … made his dick game better. And that I, a Chinese person, would be into this.
Yeah, this shit is everywhere. But thankfully, it’s not insurmountable.
(featured image: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)
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Madeline (she/her) is a writer and dog mom. She aims to use her writing to positively represent mixed-race people like herself, and is currently working on a novel. However, when she isn’t writing, she’s either battling insomnia or taking too many naps. You can read her stuff at https://madelinecwrites.com/
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