Mainstream music is weird: the faster and louder a song, and the more effects it has, the less its lyrics matter. The words become more vulgar but more acceptable, because as long as the song is exciting and hype, it is easy to brush off the lyrics. I’m certainly no exception to this. I’m not above mindlessly singing along to the latest Top 40 Pitbull song when it comes on the radio. But then a certain song gets played, and it speaks to you, negatively, and makes you rethink the words you are belting out. My such “song for thought” was Exotic, by Bollywood actress (among other things) Priyanka Chopra. (see the song below) The lines “cool me down, I’m feeling so exotic…yeah right now, I’m hotter than the tropics”, didn’t go over quite so easily. As someone whose brown skin is so defining of her ethnic identity, the line “…right now, I’m hotter than the chocolate” did make me stop and think. Because, as an Asian American woman, I instinctively pay a little more attention to the stereotypes that are perpetuated about us.
But this chain of events cannot be unique to me. When it’s about an identity we associate with, our inherent self-centeredness calls it to our attention. But then, think beyond me, and other female Asian Americans who are consuming the stereotypical content, and consider the people who produce it. How does Priyanka Chopra feel about showing off her identity in this way? What persuaded her to record Exotic? Does its message make ever her uncomfortable? These questions are not just for her, but for all the Asian and Asian American women in the entertainment industry.
The documentary, Slaying the Dragon, begins to discuss this question in its interviews with several Asian American actresses. They all explain that so many directors want the stereotypical “lotus blossom” Asian characters. Timid yet seductive, exotic but attainable for white male enjoyment, these roles are what American audiences were familiar seeing Asian American women in. And because it was familiar, that’s what they associated Asian American women to, and so that is what they came to expect of them both on screen and in real life. Thus, Hollywood could continue making money off of it in this process termed by Leslie Bow as aesthetic commodification.
All of these people realize that the entertainment industry is making money off of their “exotic” appeal. One woman in Slaying the Dragon, Nobu McCarthy, tells of how a director told her directly that they wanted her to play a “dragon lady” role, a request that equates to “we want you to act exactly on your stereotype”. Hollywood is not exactly hiding the practice.
But then, how can these entertainers rationalize their partaking in aesthetic commodification? They must have some concern for it, simply as Asian American women. Priyanka Chopra has even said: “I was very sure I did not want to be the stereotype of what Indian people are seen as, which is Bollywood, and henna. That’s all great! It’s what we are…but that’s not all we are.”
Their rationalization comes back to another of Leslie Bow’s ideas: hybridity. In the face of aesthetic commodification, people can either buy into the stereotypes that Hollywood and similar industries are perpetuating, or people can totally reject all of these industries. It is a choice between selling out our unique identities for the sake of community or rejecting community altogether. Hybridity refers to “cultural survival strategies” that force a compromise between these choices.
So, my question becomes, what are Priyanka Chopra’s, and all the other Asian American entertainers’ strategies of hybridity in the midst of the entertainment world? Her primary strategy seems to be an enthusiasm for globalization. Look no further than lyrics from Exotic: “From a record of Mumbai, Bollywood, Hollywood is all about the money…but if you want the world, I suggest you come with me” She is arguing that, yes, she is taking part in the commodification of her Asian-ness—they call her exotic and then make money off of it—but it works toward a greater cause. She is introducing us to the world (and all the “exotic wonders” it holds), and although some businessmen make some money off of it, that’s just a sideshow, not the main point. She backs this up—with a little more depth this time—in an article about her transition from the Indian entertainment world to the American one:
“The world is smaller than you think. Since I came from another part of the world, I expected many differences in the way things worked but at the end of the day, there actually were more similarities between the American and Indian entertainment industry.”
To her, striving for globalization is a way to connect different parts of the world. I think that’s how she must be rationalizing her own portrayal of Asian women. Even though it is aesthetically commodified, so it is what sells, it is okay because, in her mind, it is still achieving her broader goal.
All this said, I am not agreeing with the rationale I just described. I am aiming to just question and try to understand what that rationale might be. Moreover, I think it is useful to understand a hybridity outside of the one we are familiar with. Our power struggle is also with the entertainment industry, but in a far more separated way than entertainers’ power struggle with the industry, which is also their employer. We have a lot less to lose by renouncing some kind of aesthetic commodification than an actor in Hollywood. I’m not saying they should not strive for that renunciation. Instead, I am saying that I might understand why they all have their own different strategies of hybridity. Their strategies are unfamiliar, and sometimes, as a result, they are offensive, but before they can be questioned for all that, they must be understood in the appropriate and fair context.
Watch Exotic for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPhhZg9v9NU