Visibility & The Task of Decolonizing Love [Curatorial Statement + 2 Revised Blog Posts]

[Curatorial Statement]

Visibility is a double-edged sword – in the sense of representation of marginalized identities, visibility is powerful, presenting opportunities to include non-normative narratives into the cultural consciousness. But visibility is not inherently positive. In this class, we’ve critiqued many representations of Asian American people, making visible the invisible discourses of gender and sexuality that undergird depictions of Asian Americans. Through my blog posts I’ve taken up examples of visibility and what the stakes are in representation – critiquing existing platforms of visibility, exploring invisibilities in media coverage, and interrogating positive and negative appropriations of Asian femininity. White racial framing makes images of racialized sexuality pervasive, rendering racial stereotypes as “common sense”; deploying these visible discourses of love and gender thus carries immense potential – both positive and negative – and serves as a potential site for challenging racialized power structures and proposing modes of identity that resist perpetuation of white hegemony.

We’ve discussed Asian American gender and sexuality as both tools of alienation and assimilation – in the case of Asian American women, it renders us exotic enough for white male interest, but also positions us as perpetually distinct from what is narrowly defined as “normal” and denoted as white. The visibility of Asian American (hyper)femininity has policed the Asian female body to fit the white male gaze; so much so that either conforming or resisting this gaze merely serves to reify these racialized gender stereotypes. Limited by totalized images, Asian American women are forced to perform a complex dialectic gymnastics, attempting to exercise female agency in a way that does not serve the interests of a white patriarchal system.

A combination of aesthetic globalization marshaled by the Internet and an increasing multiracial world has ushered in an unprecedented amount of visibility for Asian imagery – desire from indie spaces to appear more edgy and cosmopolitan & an increased ubiquity of images and products exported from Asian urban centers have made Asian identity marketable, consumable, and most of all, visible. A search on Etsy for the word “aesthetic” will bring up apparel decorated with Asian languages; music videos from white alternative artists (such as this or this) use Asian auditory or visual signifiers for stylistic purposes; popular clothing brands will use “Asian-inspired” fabrics and imagery . In 2016, Asian-ness is increasing in visibility, particularly as a shorthand for an intriguing difference or “edginess”. On the one hand, this visibility somewhat normalizes Asian imagery into a public consciousness; on the other hand, when I saw that a white NU student wore a qipao-inspired dress at a formal, there was an undoubtable sense that the appeal of the dress was the hyperfeminine, Suzie Wong-esque connotations of it. How, then, can we navigate these existing images that are so associated with discourses that enact “symbolic violence” on Asian women?

As a bonafide ~special snowflake~ millennial and an obviously non-white person, I gravitate toward alternative spaces, art, and media. It was these supposedly anti-mainstream spaces (e.g. Tumblr) which were formative during my adolescence (at the very least, aesthetically) for my identity. The aspiration to seem as Unique and Empowered as possible is complicated by the visibility of certain tropes of Asian american femininity – this BuzzFeed article (hyperbolically but hilariously) crystallizes this tension of existing images of Asian sexuality and assertions of personal agency. In my experience, regardless of the race of my S.O., the presentation as simultaneously Asian American and female involves the annoying negotiation of Eastern and Western femininity – What will men find ~exotic~ enough (but not, like, in a creepy way)? What will white men find too Asian? What will Asian men find too Asian? What amount of brashness or coyness do I need to perform to appear as a Real infinity of a person rather than a vessel for sexual stereotypes? What the BuzzFeed article attempts to beat over the reader’s head, and why I mention this kind of niche (and potentially incriminating) dialectic of Asian visibility, is the central question to this constant policing of behavior and appearance: How can Asian American women truly and freely operate outside hegemonic ideas of femininity and love? Or, more broadly, how can Asian Americans resist totality? Given certain platforms of visibility (whether explicitly through institutions, or implicitly through social capital or media representations), how, if at all, can Asian Americans exploit (both positive and negative) visibility to challenge the very systems that provide this limited visibility?

To frame this question of visibility (of Asian hyperfemininity) and invisibility (of underlying patriarchal hegemony), I return to a concept introduced during week one. Cultural hegemony – defined as the rule of society by a social group through imposed “common sense” – patrols how we move through the world by normalizing ideologies used for domination. A cardinal example of cultural hegemony is love, something we discussed in one of our final meetings. Modern discourses of love as something individualistic, empowering, and transcending boundaries of identity obscure the productive work love does in service of emotional capitalism, neoliberal colorblindness, and reproduction of heterosexual power dynamics.

Love, then, becomes an exceptionally visible ideological tool for articulating gender and race. Thus, representations of Asian American sexuality have immense potential as sites for reconstructing hegemonic markers of gender and sexuality. Some of the primary texts by Asian American artists we analyzed this quarter have implemented techniques that challenge normative depictions of love and make space for “infinities” (e.g. endings to The Motel, Shortcomings). But how can love be decolonized – that is, removed from their colonial instincts of domination, ownership, and nationalism – if its day-to-day manifestations are so rooted in racialized sexualities? We cannot fade to black in real life; there are no meaningful gazes out the airplane window or shouts into the void. In reality, humanity is not defined by infinities but rather a continuity of discrete realities exposed through interpersonal relationships.

Which brings me back to love, and its societal meanings, as a powerful site for resisting cultural hegemony. I am equal parts fascinated and intimidated by the narrative power of love, its simultaneous insidiousness and fluidity. Love, via heterosexual reproduction and marriage, has long been surveyed and regulated for the interests of a select few. To interrogate what constitutes love – that is, masculinity, femininity, and the violence enacted to consolidate these constructs – and to analyze the fissures that arise in its deconstruction is itself an act of resistance. Through the course of this quarter, I sought to understand my complicity in upholding ideas of love that exclude, erase, and oppress, and interrogate the pervasive forms that this complicity can take. Perhaps it is a uniquely selfish venture, but nonetheless a site for change that I can actually enact in a world full of scary and pervasive ideologies that feel invisible or unassailable. In a political moment when “identity politics” has become the object of bipartisan criticism, it is imperative to interrogate the mechanisms that we construct racial and gender identity in all spheres of our life. And with that, I present my blog posts (or the 2 rewrites for this final assignment):

Love and Femininity in a “Multiracial” World [rewrite of Blog 4]

In Sharon Chang’s book Raising Mixed Race: Multiracial Asian American Children in a Post-Racial World, she proposes the concept of the “visible or invisible minority” – she argues that, due to white racial framing, the perceptibility of ethnic difference affects how mixed race people are perceived, treated, and ultimately how they view themselves. For white/non-white multiracial women, this manifests in a constant negotiation of hegemonic femininity’s beauty standards – presumably, white – and the exoticization of non-white femininities in the United States. To be a mixed race Asian American woman in the U.S. age of multiculturalism is to occupy a liminal space of simultaneous ethnic ambiguity and conformation to white beauty standards. Subversive images created by mixed Asian American female artists delink desirability from hegemonic femininity. This analysis will investigate techniques of “bad object formation” used in Japanese Breakfast’s “Everybody Wants to Love You” music video to uncover how displace hegemonic discourses of love and racialized sexuality.

Michelle Zauner, also known by her stage name Japanese Breakfast, is a mixed Korean American female artist. Placing Japanese Breakfast’s music video 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 mixed race women thus become circulated not as genuine markers of an inclusive United States of America but instead as cultural shorthand for diversity and desirability 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 emo rock band Little Big League to the sole creative visionary of Japanese Breakfast. During a Q&A at Northwestern last weekend, Zauner explained that as the vocalist for Little Big League, Zauner’s Asian identity was mostly overlooked; in contrast, the visibility of her debut album as Japanese Breakfast, Psychopomp, and its strong inspiration from Zauner’s late Korean mother, 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 the fluidity of Zauner’s Asian American visibility 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.

Works Cited:

Chang, Sharon H. 2015. Raising Mixed Race: Multiracial Asian Children in a Post-Racial World. Routledge.

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.

Asian American Cultural Groups & Feminist Imperatives [rewrite of Blog 1]

Asian American organizing rooted in “strategic essentialism” premises political power on a united visibility to understand histories of inequality as interconnected and find collective sites of change (Lowe 1991). This kind of strategic visibility, however, can be easily misinterpreted and appropriated for political agendas. In the case of Asian American identity, certain ethnic and gender identities are given disproportional visibility to accommodate white racial framing. The microcosm of a neoliberal university’s approach to diversity provides a interesting case study of visibility and the complications that are often overlooked when visibility is written according to the imperatives of a neoliberal capitalist institution. This ethnographic analysis of Northwestern’s Asian American student-organized speaker events highlights the politics of visibility that serve to bolster constructs of nationalism and hegemonic masculinity as a means to render Asian American identity contained or digestible to a white student body.

Within the Asian/Asian American cultural student organizations, choice of speakers have revealed the shortcomings of visibility, which has centered visibility of East and Southeast Asian straight men. In 2014, YouTube celebrity Tim Chantarangsu (known by his channel name Timothy DeLaGhetto), whose videos capitalize on antiquated ideas about women and sex for humor, was invited for a Spring Speaker event to perform. Andrew and David Fung (aka Fung Bros), whose most famous videos essentialize Asian American females to tropes (exhibit A and B), were invited for a similar event in Spring 2015. And in February of this year, Eliot Chang was invited to perform during Celebrasia, the campus’ Lunar New Year celebration. Chang, an up and coming Asian American male comedian, relied heavily on characterizations of women as shallow, materialistic “gold diggers” whose value as people was minimized to their sexuality (a quick perusing of his YouTube channel gives a sense of what kind of comedy he is known for):

screen-shot-2016-10-09-at-1-36-34-am
A screenshot of his most recent videos: most egregious video titles include “ARE WOMEN FUNNY??? (uncensored)”, “2 Pretty Girls I just Met Ask Me Anything (uncensored)”, “White Woman Smashes Asian Man Myths” (not pictured)

 

While the first two examples were smaller speaker events, the student response to all three events was quite similar – enthusiasm at seeing relatively well-known Asian American entertainers coupled with more-or-less acceptance of their less-than-innovative content. However, Eliot Chang’s act (which took place at the Asian American community’s most widely attended event of the year), while eliciting some approval during the show, also provoked social media responses in the days following. These two posts exemplified the discomfort caused by his comedy’s subject matter:

“As a woman, I am not an object. I don’t exist to please men. Felt so dehumanized at Celebrasia tonight” – tweet from audience member

“Eliot Chang was unapologetically sexist, racist, and homophobic at Celebrasia…. but his presence on campus wasn’t just an anomaly” – anonymous student, via Facebook post

Despite the initial pockets of disapproval, resistance fizzled out, with the student organizations hosting the event expressing veiled remorse via a formal letter (which avoids naming Elliot Chang), while also expressing in a Daily Northwestern article that Chang’s performance should not detract from the “success of the show overall”.

The invitation of these Asian male entertainers is not, in isolation, problematic. The longstanding lack of opportunities for Asian Americans in mainstream entertainment makes the popularity of these entertainers undoubtedly significant. However, representations, especially those sanctioned and financed by the institution, reveal implicit erasures in identity based organizing. The choice of whose voices are amplified, especially among groups that so rarely have platforms to be heard, is not inconsequential. The continued endorsement of these performers highlights the shortcomings of visibility premised on highlighting successful Asian American figures, especially considering how “success” is often defined by recognition by white mainstream media. Hegemonic masculinity – which relegates Asian American men to margins of normative white masculinity – is thus used as a way to assert Asian American identity as acceptable in the white mainstream; figures like Eliot Chang rely on rearticulations of traditional American patriarchal ideas – of female submission to men’s will, of men’s sense of value defined by their sexual conquest, of the “’naturalness’ of male aggression, competition, and dominance, and of female caring, cooperation, and subordination” (Johnson 84) – to assert belonging in the Eurocentric patriarchy.

The invisibility of hegemonic masculinity within opportunities for racial or cultural visibility highlights the complex politics of visibility, and the consequent need to redefine the aims & responsibilities of designated cultural spaces on campus. What does it mean to center the multiplicity of Asian American experience, particularly along gender lines? How can Asian American organizing resist neoliberal identity politics that contains diversity rather than integrating it within existing structures? The existence of Multicultural Student Affairs points to how cordoning off marginalized identities and rendering them apolitical is normalized as progress. To subvert rather than uphold neoliberal identity politics, cultural organizations and institutions like Northwestern must redefine visibility as sites for rectifying erasures rather than perpetuating priorities of a cultural hegemony.

Works Cited:

Johnson, Allan G. “Patriarchy, the System.” Women’s lives: Multicultural perspectives (2004): 25–32. Print.

Lowe, Lisa. 1991. “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Marking Asian American Differences.” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 1 (1): 24–44.

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