Avril Levigne’s “Hello Kitty”: Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Appreciation?

Beginning with the song’s title, Hello Kitty, and continuing throughout the music video, we found most aspects of the song problematic. Lavigne’s lyrics reduce Japanese pop culture to a string of words including, Kawaii and Kitty, while pairing them with bright images of oversized pastries and various stuffed shapes – predominantly stars and hearts. The backup dancers are presented as identical, disinterested young, Japanese women. In fact, they only smile once during the music video – when they are shown a photo of themselves in a mini polaroid photo. We took this to indicate that the depicted culture is one that is only appeased by consumption. In a prominent scene, Avril Lavigne is pictured drinking sake and eating sushi. Her reaction appears to be a pretend elation, mimicking and furthering the stereotype of anime culture.

 

The combination of an anime music video produced by a Canadian artist brought to head many questions about cultural appropriation. The first being, “Why anime?” We questioned Lavigne’s authority to use such a theme. Although anime is slightly growing in popularity in the West, it is a very integral aspect of Japanese culture, meant tell details of Japan’s history, culture, and overall society in a captivating way. Through artistic characters, they display their identity and values. However, this video does not achieve any of these standards. In fact, we concluded it was outright offensive to the Japanese and their culture. We thought the video was a tasteless westernization of Japanese pop culture and thus, the perfect example of cultural appropriation.

In this song, Lavigne transforms Hello Kitty, Japan’s version of Mickey Mouse, into a sexual innuendo, changing its connotations to fit a more “Western” framework. Could you imagine turning on the radio and hearing a song about sex using our beloved Mickey to get the point across? We could not! Shortly after the music video’s release, Lavigne was publicly accused of being a racist. She responded through twitter:

042414_avrilresponds

Lavigne’s diction and form of response caused us to question both her authenticity and our understanding of the video. These doubts forced us to rethink our previous judgements – or, at the very least, look for confirmation of their validity; how was Hello Kitty received in Japan? Her lack of concern for cultural details, among other things, led us to deduce that this song and this video would struggle to gain Japanese support. However, we were surprised to find our predictions were inaccurate. A little over a year after its release on YouTube, Hello Kitty has reached over 96,585, 142 views and is one of the most played songs in Japan .

In response to the controversy, the Japanese press denied seeing racist tendencies within the video and were actually very fond of it. This is not what we expected. Brian McVeign, a Japanese scholar, explains this as the result of Japan’s understanding of the relationship between race, culture, and nationality. Their concept of identity comes from within and thus, there are distinct cultural practices that make one Japanese. Anime, happens to be one of them. The incorporation of anime into Lavigne’s video is seen more as cultural appreciation, rather than, appropriation. One article we read claimed, the Japanese believed Avril  Lavigne could not truly appropriate or threaten their cultural identity because she isn’t Japanese.

Cultural appropriation is about power more than anything else. In this case, the Japanese maintain power and authority over an aspect of their cultural identity, complicating our argument of “Hello Kitty” being an example of cultural appropriation. We looked at many other examples of popular Japanese music videos and the themes were very similar to that of Lavigne’s video. The commonalities between them caused us to rethink our hypothesis  and adopt an alternative perspective. We were forced to consider the potential that Lavigne’s video was an accurate depiction of how the Japanese identify their pop culture. It led us to wonder if Lavigne’s intentions were actually trying to target a specific audience or, culturally exploit.

Conflicting ideas drove us to ask, what does it say about us if we called this video an example of cultural appropriation? If this video was made out of respect for a culture, produced in that culture, and accepted by that culture, in belittling the video, are we simply perpetuating culture hierarchy ideals?

After much thought, we came to the conclusion that we fall somewhere in the middle of the two arguments. We are still grappling with the intentions behind Lavigne’s actions – could she be both praising Japanese pop culture and criticizing it? Further, we had trouble finding a cumulative academic Japanese view on the music video to complete the argument. Regardless of these remaining questions, it is evident that people can only truly make claims about cultural appropriation when they are well versed in the culture and issues at stake.

Problematic Findings:
Google Images: “American Pop Culture”

Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 8.22.56 PM american-iconomics-popculture-bills-james-charles-41__700

Google: “Kawaii”

Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 7.55.33 PM

Youtube Comment on Hello Kitty

Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 9.11.09 PM

– Kenny & Kate

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