Oh ‘Hello Kitty’, who knew that cute could be so dangerous?

An opinion column by Vicki Aïki Choh

It’s a piece of (cup)cake: Avril Lavigne’s controversial ‘Hello Kitty’ reached nearly 17 million views on Youtube. Image: Billboard.
It’s a piece of (cup)cake: Avril Lavigne’s controversial ‘Hello Kitty’ reached nearly 17 million views on Youtube. Image: Billboard.

When pop-star Avril Lavigne released music video ‘Hello Kitty’ last month, the world bristled with indignation. Finger pointing and “tut tuts!” were issued, hash-tagged, and regurgitated in passion; the ‘R’ word was splashed in headlines.

Racist.

Avril is accused of being one.

Stripped raw in the unflattering media limelight, and lashed by the word-whips of her fans and haters alike, Avril defended ‘Hello Kitty’ in a tweet: “RACIST??? LOLOLOL!!! I love Japanese culture and I spend half of my time in Japan!”.

Admittedly, this isn’t the most convincing of quips to quell any accusation of racism.

Having grown up in different countries and among more cultures than I could remember, I know well the bitter aftertaste of racism. Being a mixed bag of Malay-Chinese-Japanese myself, I detest my encounters with racism, its silent smirks, and its scornful, distrusting eyes.

Charged by such personal memories, I was prepared to pour vitriol into my pen and smudge my opinion on ‘Hello Kitty’. I was prepared to be a part of the mob, even before watching the video.

Other reviewers have beaten me to my preordained task. “Avril Lavigne, Asian women are not your props!” screams a headline by The Huffington Post. Another by The National Post condemned ‘Hello Kitty’ as being “remarkably creepy” due to its racist “celebration of the voyeuristic thrill of [Avril’s] extremely childlike woman’s sexuality”.

Twitter itself was awash with angry tweets tagged #avrilracist.

So, does ‘Hello Kitty’ merit its media lynching?

Not at all, in my opinion. The only thing that’s shocking is that anyone could claim to be morally shocked by it.

Before you shake your Avril daggers at me, allow me to explain. ‘Hello Kitty’ is neither a caricature nor a racist appropriation of the Japanese culture; it is Japanese culture – namely the kawaii movement. Literally meaning ‘cute’ in the Japanese context, ‘kawaii’ or かわいい in hiragana is a Japanese-turned-global cultural phenomenon with an unabashed emphasis on bright colours, child-like innocence, and saccharine whimsy. Just as ‘Hello Kitty’ displayed.

To some who are unfamiliar with the kawaii culture, kawaii could be disconcerting (really?). The sight of a 29-year old Avril jumping up and down over sushi in pigtails wearing a skirt puffed to look like a cupcake may have led a certain reviewer to condemn her “breathtaking immaturity”, and many more to denounce her alleged assertion of white supremacy.

To this I say: to condemn ‘Hello Kitty’ as racist is to be guilty of ethnocentrism. To condemn the pink cupcakes, Avril’s child-like persona, and even the appearance of sushi as racist is to be ignorant of the kawaii culture. Sushi is cute, dammit.

... says el sushi. Image: The Antipodean Adrift
… says el sushi. Image: The Antipodean Adrift

Avril’s unoriginal barrage of “k-k-ka-kawaii” and potentially uninspiring lyrics may not be Japan’s most commendable instance of kawaii culture, but that’s only a matter of taste. There’s no need to get our moral knickers in a twist about it.

And it certainly does not warrant dropping the ‘R’ word on Avril.

Produced by a Japanese director in Japan for a Japanese label and a Japanese kawaii-loving audience, is it any wonder that ‘Hello Kitty’ would be anything but kawaii?

To quote Avril, it’s a “LOLOLOL!!!” from me.

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