Canadian pop-punk singer Avril Lavigne found herself at the center of controversy after a music video off her self-titled album offended and confused many.
The song in question, “Hello Kitty” was co-written by Lavigne and husband Chad Kroeger of Nickleback, and is a far cry from the nostalgia of her lead single “Here’s to Never Growing Up” or the high energy “Rock N Roll.” The video appeared on YouTube on Tuesday, before being taken down, and put back up on Wednesday; it has already reached over a million and a half hits.
The title “Hello Kitty” is somewhat misleading, as the majority of the song talks about throwing a party, friendship, and having fun. The song itself is catchy and standard bubblegum pop. It would’ve been fine if not for the intro and bridge in which she sings “k-k-k-kawaii” and “minna saiko arigato” in a broken accent, both of which are unnecessary, seeing as the only real connection between this song and Japan is the fact that Hello Kitty is a product of the Japanese company Sanrio. In addition, the beloved cat isn’t even in the video, and is only mentioned in the phrases “Hello Kitty, you’re so pretty” and “come come kitty kitty, you’re so pretty pretty” that are interspersed throughout the chorus.
The song has even less to do with the video, in which Lavigne dances around in a bright, outlandish outfit, enjoying sushi and sake. While it’s true that these things can be found in Japan, they’re merely a shallow exploitation that barely breaches the surface of Japanese culture. Lolita and other fringe trends are far from the cultural norm in Japan, something that is seen in this panel from Peepo Choo, a popular Japanese manga released in 2008 that satires the cultural misunderstanding between the United States and Japan.
The back-up dancers are the most obvious example of these stereotypes, and perhaps an unintentional throwback to Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls and Katy Perry’s AMA performance. Four impassive dancers— all Asian and dressed identically— dance behind Lavigne, playing into the stereotype that Asians are obedient and submissive, as well as the idea that all Asians look alike. While background dancers are generally only present to do so, it is clear that these women are only there because of their ethnicity, and serve no other agency or purpose.
Lavigne took to Twitter to defend her video saying, “RACIST??? LOLOLOL!!! I love Japanese culture and I spend half my time in Japan. I flew to Tokyo to shoot this video specifically for my Japanese fans, WITH my Japanese label, Japanese choreographers AND a Japanese director IN Japan.”
Not only is this flimsy response vaguely childish and disrespectful (is LOLOLOL a proper way for any 29 year old to respond to criticism??) Lavigne didn’t do anything to acknowledge or apologize for her mistakes. Instead, she emphasized the idea that just because one person from a marginalized group is okay with something, then the entire group that it involves must be okay with it as well. In addition, working with Japanese dancers and directors doesn’t automatically give Lavigne a free pass. Most minorities don’t have many opportunities in the entertainment industry, and therefore will take whatever job is offered to them, especially if it is with a relatively well-known artist and could further their own career. Not working is more detrimental to them than it is to the artist, as they can easily be replaced with another willing actor or dancer.
While Lavigne may have intended for the video to be a celebration of Japanese culture, it isn’t her job to decide what is and what isn’t racist, as she isn’t the one being cut apart into caricatures and props, and shown off as a cool new accessory. Racism is racism whether intentional or not, and if a minority says that they are hurt or offended by something the immediate action should not be to invalidate their feelings by arguing with them, but to listen to what they have to say. That being said, Lavigne’s video doesn’t embrace Japanese culture in a way that is respectful or appropriate, which is the only way it should have been done.
Entertainment industry, take note: stereotypes are not and will never be cool. Let’s just hope that we can put this embarrassment behind us for good.