By Karen Gwee
In our course so far, we have discussed some of the ways in which Asian American lives have been straitened by the United States’ white supremacist heteropatriarchy. One such consequence is the construction of gendered and (a)sexualized “controlling images” of Asian American men and women (Espiritu, 98). These culturally sanctioned fantasies – Asian American men as sexless sidekicks, or Asian American women as submissive ‘lotus blossoms’ for white men, for instance – persist through entrenched media representation and become embodied in real, flesh and blood Asian Americans through a larger structure of “psychosocial dominance”: societal conditioning that forces members of a subordinate group to accept and embody the stereotype(s) imposed upon them (Espiritu, 98).
Espiritu configures this psychosocial dominance as an oppressive, dehumanizing process that Asian Americans have resisted by creating artistic representations of Asian Americans true to their own experiences. I would like to nuance Espiritu’s conception of Asian American resistance of psychosocial dominance through an analysis of the song “Your Best American Girl” by Japanese American musician Mitski. Through the song and music video of “Your Best American Girl”, Mitski demonstrates how one rehabilitates the self to resist this psychosocial dominance on an individual rather than societal basis, which culminates in the creation of alternative images but also in personal liberation.
Whereas Espiritu’s conception of psychosocial dominance is part of a larger structure applicable to minorities and others, Mitski goes further to demonstrate how it manifests in a person and how it shapes an Asian American’s sexual and romantic life in a deeply felt way. The personal and political are twinned in the song “Your Best American Girl”, which stemmed from Mitski’s own personal experience of a love that was impossible because of wider cultural differences. “I was in love with somebody but I just felt like our backgrounds or the places we come from or how we are raised were so completely different. It felt like something that could not be overcome by love,” she explained on the Song Exploder podcast. Indeed, one of the most heart-wrenching lyrics of the song is the refrain “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me,” evoking a particularly sharp point of difference between Asian and white lives: parenting styles and filial relations. The final line of the chorus – “You were an all American boy, I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl” – frames her individual yearning for a consummated love as a larger desire to become an idealized American woman.
The music video fleshes out these wider societal elements of the song’s failed romance in its allegory of raced romantic relations. In the video, the Japanese American Mitski begins to flirt with a white man, but their mutual attraction is broken by a white woman who quickly appears the more desirable sexual and romantic partner. The women’s attire helps to configure them as racial archetypes: The white woman is scantily clad in denim (an all American material) shorts and a flower crown (a modern day signifer of the white hipster). Mitski wears a bright red pantsuit, her lacy bra peeping through her jacket. Her business casual exterior alludes to the prude, buttoned up Asian American, if not the Asian American as the model minority. The hint of lingerie aligns with the insidious exoticization and sexualization of East Asian Americans. The beginning of the video shows white makeup artists dolling Mitski up, to her mild irritation, implying the role they play in creating this version of her; they are literally controlling her image. The pairing of Mitski and her would-be white paramour also does not happen organically as they are set up together on high stools in a studio. In this symbolic situation, the Asian American figure undergoes psychosocial dominance that normalizes in her a confluence of existent controlling images. At the same time, it becomes clear that Asian American will never be able to access the ‘all American romance’ promised by the otherwise pernicious stereotype, i.e. when she is paired off with a white man. Ultimately the ideal American couple is always, without exception, white. Even the semblance of ‘privilege’ promised by the flattening controlling image is revealed as a farce.
How does Mitski respond to this situation? She is first shocked at the white woman’s rude interruption, but at the song’s first climactic chorus, Mitski begins a furious make out session with her own hand – a literalized, if desperate expression of unashamed self-love. She then leaves the white couple to their own devices for a gold, glittery dress – a rehabilitation and recognition of her own self – and her guitar, which she plays with force, exerting her creative power and ability to turn her own heartbreak into art. She creates an image authentic to herself, one that accommodates her humanity as she smiles one moment then leans wearily against the wall the next. As the song ends, the white couple wrap themselves in an American flag and continue to make out sloppily, completely oblivious to Mitski’s transformation. Ultimately, she decisively exits the set on which the video is filmed without looking back, liberating herself from the psychosocial dominance of the controlling images and indeed, the entire performance of a farcical all American romance.