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: cultural fantasies and stereotypes that Asian Americans are socialized into embodying via a larger structure of “psychosocial dominance” (Espiritu 98). The music video for the song “Your Best American Girl” by Japanese American musician Mitski shows how the larger mechanism of psychosocial dominance works on an Asian American individual to shape their sexual and romantic life in a deeply felt way. Mitski also demonstrates how one may begin to resist this dominance and feel a way towards personal liberation.
“Your Best American Girl” is the lead single off Puberty 2, Mitski’s fourth album released June 2016. Mitski, who was born to a white father and a Japanese mother, has grappled with her feelings of racial liminality and ostensible Asian American identity. “I still haven’t found it, with a capital I,” she said in an interview with Nylon. “I’m mixed, I’m half white, I’m not Asian enough, I don’t understand…” Her complicated feelings inform “Your Best American Girl,” a song that stemmed from Mitski’s own personal experience of a love made impossible by irreconcilable cultural differences in backgrounds and upbringings. 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 personal and political are twinned in “Your Best American Girl”, whose music video fleshes out these wider societal elements of the song’s failed romance in a performative 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 becomes the more desirable sexual and romantic partner. The women’s attire help 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 makeup artists who doll Mitski up (to her mild irritation) and create this version of her are white; these white women literally control her image. Although we do not see how Mitski and her would-be white paramour come to meet, the setup of high stools in a studio implies that this pairing does not happen organically. 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 the 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. Even the semblance of ‘privilege’ promised by the flattening controlling image is revealed as a farce, because ultimately the ideal American couple is always, without exception, white. The white woman’s entitlement, indicated by her arm draped possessively over the man, is proof.
Mitski is initially and unsurprisingly shocked by this rude bait-and-switch. But after that, she forges ahead, making different attempts to resist the psychosocial dominance she has been subjected to. At the song’s first climactic chorus, Mitski begins to make out furiously with her own hand – a literalized, if desperate expression of self-love. But she soon stops, wiping her mouth on the back of her hand, embarrassed and slightly ashamed, perhaps by the thought that she’s tried to match the white couple’s visceral (and sometimes downright messy) PDA session – she merely imitated the performance of an all American love, which was initially empowering but ultimately inauthentic.
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. Before, Mitski mimicked the desperate lovemaking of the white American couple, trying to give herself what the white man would conceivably have given her. But here, she takes hold of an instrument to play her own music, asserting her own agency and control in a performance all her own.
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, Mitski exits the set on which the video is filmed without looking back, liberating herself from the controlling images she has embodied because of the pressures of psychosocial dominance. It is not clear what intention Mitski leaves with, but the fact that she hands off her guitar – her weapon – before leaving might imply that she is not leaving to rabble-rouse or raise an army. Mitski cannot seem to bring herself to deconstruct this myth of all American love. When she plays her guitar, she steers clear of the white couple, and can’t help but eye them occasionally. Mitski’s rejection of this all American romantic ideal, no matter how resolute, does not suddenly render it irrelevant – the camera continues to train its and our gaze on the white couple. As a hegemonic construction, it is still and will always be of interest. It is also an ideal Mitski herself strongly desired just minutes before. Now she would rather leave them to their own devices, so she might but seek a self completely beyond what she has been set up to perform. This is only appropriate for a song that is fundamentally about coming to terms with what one is and what one is not. Mitski finally approves of how her mother raised her; she tried to be her man’s best American girl and failed. What lies beyond? That is what she leaves to discover.