According to a Pew Research Study of interracial marriage, in 2013, 28% of Asian Americans married non-Asian people. This trend has led to rise in the number of mixed Asian American people – one only needs to watch network television shows like The Bachelor and magazine covers to know that multiraciality is becoming increasingly visible in and integral to U.S. society. However, the racialization (or lack thereof) of mixed people in the public eye reflects larger ideas of what race and multiraciality mean for a neoliberal United States that prioritizes self-identity as the ultimate route for empowerment. To represent mixed race people is to further underscore the constructed nature of race in the U.S. – by examining art made by a mixed Asian American female artist, this analysis will reveal how creative control and “bad object formation” can displace hegemonic discourses of love, multiraciality, and racialized sexuality.
Michelle Zauner, also known by her stage name Japanese Breakfast, is a mixed Korean American female artist. Growing up, her identity was very much influenced by the dynamics of a white father and Korean mother, as she describes in a piece that won Glamour Magazine’s 2016 essay contest. Zauner began in the indie scene as the vocalist for an indie rock band (comprised of three other white men) called Little Big League, but split off to pursue Japanese Breakfast as a solo project. The uniqueness of Japanese Breakfast is in Zauner’s complete creative control of the vision. Placing Japanese Breakfast’s music videos in conversation with what Rosalind Chou describes as media where the power is “largely in the hands of whites” underscores how media representations of Asian Americans, and particularly Asian American women, prioritizes a white racial frame and relegates Asian Americans to the role of subjects to others’ gaze (Chou 137-138). Images of exogamy, interracial relationships, and mixed race individuals thus become circulated not as genuine markers of an inclusive United States of America but instead as cultural shorthand for diversity written for a white gaze.
In contrast, Japanese Breakfast’s most recent single “Everybody Wants to Love You”, uses traditional markers of cultural foreignness to sublimate the audience’s ideas of Asian American women and of femininity as a concept tied to love and normative social reproduction. Inspired by one of Zauner’s own experiences with a one-night stand, the song heavily features Zauner’s fun mellow guitar line and dreamy vocals. The video begins with Zauner dressed in a traditional Korean hanbok, exaggerated makeup, and an elaborate hairstyle, sitting on a toilet. The absurdity and carefree flouting of formal etiquette is fast-paced and fun, mirrored in the fast editing and flashing lights of the bar and highway backdrops. Images of Zauner traipsing around a bar in the extravagant dress and aggressively playing pool are crosscut with her messily eating a hamburger, throwing a tantrum, and smoking by herself.
These images, of typical bar and nightlife culture, are made strange by the image of Zauner’s singularity in the cultural costume (a juxtaposition reminiscent of Tseng Kwong Chi’s 1983 East Meets West Manifesto photography/performance piece). The delicacy and femininity typically associated with the cultural dress is deconstructed as Zauner moves about and indulges in food, drink, and harmless debauchery. She runs through empty streets alone and shreds on her electric guitar while sitting atop a flatbed truck. She shotguns a beer and drinks out of a paper bag on the side of the road. Building upon Shimizu’s idea of “bad objects” as representations of deviant sexualities highlighting Asian women’s sexual agency, Zauner’s character represents immodest or inappropriate behaviors similarly as “social critiques of gender, race, bourgeois, and sexual heteronormativity” (Shimizu 227). Her ability to float around without the need for external validation in the glowy nightlife scene – as if in a fantasy where her foreign dress is not immediately seen as queer or where women are able to freely walk around abandoned streets without fear of attack – is a similar exercise practiced by the Asian American feminist filmmakers who dissociate hypersexuality from its origins in white male fantasies through visual and auditory techniques of subversion.Her dress functions to normalize an exaggerated performance of Asian-ness, coaxing the viewer to question the cognitive dissonance experienced when seeing the markers of Asian American womanhood independent of a man’s perspective. In this case, Zauner exaggerates her defiant persona, and in an irreverent finale, flouts both gendered and heteronormative expectations by escaping on the back of another woman’s motorcycle.
The solitude in the video further underscores this “bad object” production, depicting female pleasure, freedom, and empowerment untethered from ideas of Western femininity and discourses of love. The lyrics exhibit a laissez-faire attitude toward romance not tied in monogamy – lines like “when we walk up in the morning/will you give me lots of head?” epitomize a pursuit of feelings of happiness and pleasure, which is often denied to Asian American women in depictions as mere objects to protagonists. The subversion of “everybody [wanting] to love you” operates to dismantle love from a vehicle for capitalist propagation of resources and instead prioritizes love as a reflection of a subject’s humanity through desire.
What make the video most significant are Zauner’s own experiences of racialization in moving from a prototypical female vocalist position in Little Big League to the sole creative visionary of Japanese Breakfast. During a Q&A at Northwestern this weekend, Zauner explained that in her music career she was never “read as Asian” by music journalists or critics until she released music as Japanese Breakfast. As the vocalist for Little Big League, Zauner’s Asian identity was mostly overlooked. In contrast, the visibility of Japanese Breakfast’s debut album Psychopomp and its strong inspiration from Zauner’s late mother, who was Korean, led many music outlets to fixate on Zauner’s Asian appearance and decorum – one outlet went as far to compare her “adorability” to mochi. To contextualize Zauner’s fluid multiracial Asian American identity within this shift in public image is to give credence to the agency she exercises in creating representations that disrupt hegemonic ideas of Asian American femininity, racial hierarchy, and multiraciality. Her whiteness and Asianness are represented in the video, neither subordinated to the other, but relationally and without bounds – her performance of a hegemonic Korean femininity reveals its artifice, interrupting comfortable ideas of racial authenticity and instead illustrating a seeming infinity of racial and gender identity formation.
Chou, Rosalind S. 2012. Asian American Sexual Politics: The Construction of Race, Gender, and Sexuality. Rowman & Littlefield.
Shimizu, Celine Parreñas. 2007. The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene. Duke University Press.