Wrote this email to the child_lit listserv, posted it here around 11:52am, came back around 8pm to flesh it out and add some provocative images. Enjoy. Or not.
Not unrelated to the topic of children’s literature: recently Hollister opened up a new store in Korea, and some of their white imported models made inappropriate, racist slurs during the store opening and in other settings while in Seoul.
Here’s an image of one of the models trying to “look Asian.” This reminds me of Mickey Rooney attempting to play Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s:
Hollister is owned by Abercrombie & Fitch, which has its own troubling history of racism against Asian Americans (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/1938914.stm) and non-white employees ( http://www.afjustice.com/). My colleagues Vincent Pham and Kent Ono have written a great article titled “‘Of Artful Bigotry & Kitsch’: A Study of Stereotype, Mimicry and Satire in American T-Shirt Rhetoric” if you’re interested in reading a critical analysis of the racist T-shirt issue.
I think there’s also criticism that shorts are too short, clothes are too tight, and size labels are misleading and encourage young women to strive for a particular (and nearly impossible) standard of size and beauty, not to mention some of the very suggestive catalogs and advertising materials that border on soft porn. Hollister is aimed at teens, while a&f is marketed more toward college students, and I think a&f also has a children’s line. There’s also Gilly Hicks, the intimates line, which I think is patronized mostly by high school and college women. The GH store at the Mall of America has a poster of a male body where the shorts hang so low on his hips I’m embarassed to say I even know it’s there.
Hollister and a&f are hugely popular, and have also been popular among Koreans. Whenever I visit Korea, cousins have asked me to bring Hollister T-shirts, and I’ve brought UCLA T-shirts instead. That said, over the past several decades, Korean perceptions of all things American=awesome have been quickly waning, partly because the American military continues to commit crimes while stationed abroad, and partly because Korea has risen as an industrial and economic power in its own right, hosting the Olympics and World Cup games, and producing its own brands, popular culture, etc. Take, for example, PSY’s “Oppa Gangnam Style” music video – click the YouTube still below to watch:
What is it about “Gangnam Style” that has made it so hugely popular across the US? Well, honestly, who cares? As a Korean American, I’m proud that the country of my birth has produced a performer who made such a clever and catchy song and video. Read this http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2012/09/14/korean-pop-star-conquers-us-gangnam-style/#axzz26SgIuBnE for a bit of background and THIS for a super smart analysis of the video: http://opencitymag.com/beyond-the-horse-dance-viral-vid-gangnam-style-critiques-koreas-extreme-inequality/.
Clearly, Koreans are pretty awesome people and make pretty awesome stuff. I just purchased a Korean car (Hyundai Tucson – totes love it), and whenever I go to Korea I buy as many clothes as I can because they actually fit my Asian body better than do clothes sold in the US. I buy Korean cosmetics because they match my skin tone, and heck yeah I eat as much Korean food as I can because it’s delicious (kogi tacos, anyone?). I don’t see it as being strictly ethno-nationalistic, although there is an element of that there, but rather, as buying products that fit my body and if it ends up that I also support companies in the country of my birth – win! I’m certainly not going to knowingly support companies that so egregiously put down my people. Yet when we lust after American-made goods, particularly the goods of a company that has a very clear history of anti-Asian production, structures, behaviors, and merchandising, we are doing just that, and we are permitting and perpetuating the US’ cultural and material imperialism. Did Korean people not know of the a&f t-shirts? Did they not known about a&f’s discriminatory hiring practices? Why did they want and allow a Hollister store to open?
Going back to the original reason I wrote this email/blog post: what does this mean for young people, their acculturation, consumption practices, etc? Borrowing Robin Bernstein’s words from her most excellent book, Racial Innocence, does wearing Hollister script particular desires and behaviors for the body? What are we teaching our young people by allowing them to grow up with this brand, a brand that repeatedly, continually sends unapologetic, controversial messages regarding size, beauty, race, etc? And for heaven’s sake, what are we denying them if we don’t share Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video with the world?