Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Three cute things to use as decoration

1. Birds.


2. Butterflies.


3. Asian women.


(Source: Elmwood Stationers.)

12 comments:

ed said...

This is interesting, but I'm not sure I would take immediate offense if I saw these on the shelf. To me, they seem typical emanations of the Japanese "culture of cuteness" (a concept that scholars may or may not have challenged, but to me it seems a real phenomenon). In other words, it's not that these products exoticize or commodify Asian women, per se. Rather, they seem primarily to be American knockoffs (unless they're imports) meant to capitalize on a distinctly Japanese (pan-Asian?) style/sensiblity. They're for American consumption, but the primary producers/consumers for such products are Asian people themselves. All this is problematic in itself, of course, but it's something to think about.

Natalia said...

I'm unclear on your point, Ed.

skg said...

ed: have you seen similar stamps (with stylized Asian women on them) at shops where Asians and Asian Americans are the primary audience? (Kinokuniya comes to mind as one example.)

ed said...

I guess I was interpreting your original post as saying that these stamps were inherently objectionable. As in: see how infantilized images of Asian women are being sold for decoration alongside pictures of birds and flowers. It seemed you were making a critique similar to one you might find on the blog that examines the "magical Indian" archetype.

I think this is problematic. To take an extreme example of negative racial iconography, think of those vintage items you sometimes see that depict the mammy/Black Sambo archetype on household items (cookie jars, etc.). These are objectionable because the aesthetic is inseparable from the stereotypes. The images originate in white culture and are expressly meant to demean blacks; their use on household items reinforces the notion of blacks as suitable only for service and amusement.

Those images of Asian women seem different not only in degree but in kind. For one thing, they’re depicted in a style that originates in Japanese culture. The purpose isn’t to play up stereotypes but rather to make things look “cute” through the use of a certain stylistic conventions: large eyes, round heads and squat bodies, etc. The Japanese word for this style, apparently, is “kawaisa,” a rough synonym for “cuteness”. (That according to wikipedia – I recommend the article with all the usual wikipedia caveats.)

Hello Kitty and Pokemon are perhaps the most well known examples in the West, though in Japan and other Asian countries it’s common to see humans depicted in the kawaisa style as well, both dressed in traditional garb and otherwise. (I’ve never been to the store you mentioned, SKG, but I’ve been to similar store and, yes, you do see lots of images of this kind aimed at a primarily Asian and Asian American audience.)

This cuteness is what you seemed to object to in the heading or your post, and while I can understand how this might, in an extremely subtle way, raise certain red flags about infantilizing depictions of Asian women, I still think it’s misguided to see the images as necessarily racially inflected. To me, it seems an entirely legitimate appropriation of traditional iconography.

Natalia said...

Let me make sure I understand you correctly. Are you arguing that using images of Asian women as decoration on the order of birds, insects, and flowers is not objectionable?

ed said...
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ed said...

Decorative images of humans of any kind – male or female, black or white – are neither inherently good nor bad. I understand, though, that what you’re objecting to is the store's presentation: “Look here! Spruce up your stationary with flowers, hearts, butterflies... & Asian women.” Presumably, this is offensive because it implicitly reduces an entire class of humans to the status of ornamental objects.

While I generally sympathize with this mode of reasoning, I don't totally buy your argument. To go back to those images of black Americans I mentioned in my previous post (which, with their extreme lack of subtlety, help bring clarity to the issue), I would say that what makes them offensive is that they’re essentially emblems of an oppressive system: rather than emanating from an authentic native tradition, they represent a way of depicting black people that was imposed on them from the outside. Thus the images are manifestly and egregiously charged with race, marked by an exaggeration of certain physiognomic features -- nose, lips, skin color, etc. -- that are meant to distinguish the favored race from the despised one.

I don’t see that these depictions of Asian women contain any of those objectionable characteristics, even in diluted form. The point of my last post (admittedly not successfully articulated) is that the style in which the images are rendered is one that can legitimately be seen as part of the Japanese cultural heritage; it represents a way in which a certain group has chosen to depict itself (and others) without regard to explicitly racial considerations (i.e. there’s nothing in the kawaisa aesthetic that is meant to play up and denigrate stereotypical features). This pedigree, I contend, makes the images suitable for use as decorative objects.

And because they are only decorative objects, it’s immaterial whether they’re displayed alongside similarly ornamental images of birds, flowers, or whatever. Your last question seems to imply that simply in virtue of depicting Asian women these images somehow convey a subtext about Asian Women in General – that they obviously belong to a network of negative portrayals of Asian women that still sadly pervades other areas of culture. I don’t think this is an obvious extrapolation. When I look at these things, I don’t see “Asian women”; all I see is a traditional image rendered in new visual idiom.

Natalia said...

'When I look at these things, I don’t see “Asian women”; all I see is a traditional image rendered in new visual idiom.'

Let me guess, Ed. You also don't see color.

ed said...

I have trouble distinguishing green from blue, if that's what you mean.

My point was simply that human beings can be depicted in ways that are reverential, pernicious, or else neutral. I gave my reasons for why I thought those images were harmless.

I hope you don't hurl ad hominem accusations at your students when they disagree with you.

Natalia said...

"I hope you don't hurl ad hominem accusations at your students when they disagree with you."

You'll be glad to learn that I don't. Nor, for that matter, do I do so with my blog commenters.

ed said...

If you say so I'll accept it. But your comment seemed to imply that I must be the type of person who regularly rationalizes racial coding by pretending to be pure of racial thinking; it's a way of complying with hurtful rhetoric by putting on a cloak of benevolence. (You might as well have said: "Let me guess, all your best friends are Asian.") And while I may be guilty of doing just that, simply making the flippant accusation without engaging the argument isn't very instructive.

Linda said...

Ed said: "This is interesting, but I'm not sure I would take immediate offense if I saw these on the shelf."
I wouldn't either, and I think that's part of the problem. The very cuteness of those stamps makes it very easy to gloss over the fact of objectification. But an image doesn't have to be ugly or hateful to still perpetuate racist and sexist stereotypes. And the stereotype of Asian women as cute, harmless, and decorative is definitely racist and sexist, whoever makes or markets the image.