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East Asian Kawaii Culture Is Insidiously Anti-Woman

Ashley Yang |
October 13, 2013 | 9:30 a.m. PDT


Looking kawaii gives society justification to treat women like children. (Courtney Rhodes, Creative Commons)
Looking kawaii gives society justification to treat women like children. (Courtney Rhodes, Creative Commons)

Editor's note: This is the second piece in  Ashley Yang's new series, "Unpopular Opinions." To read the first part of the series, click here.

A few days ago, a friend sent me a text message of a picture of a “stereotypical Asian girl,” one with long bangs and big glasses, wearing a fuzzy brown hat with bear ears on top and holding a pink phone with a giant plastic Hello Kitty figurine on the back. The caption to the photo was a simple, “why do they all look like this?”

Initially, I was taken aback. I felt uncomfortable with the fact that my friend believed that all East Asians could be tossed together under a single category of “they.” I also didn’t think that the tacky getup of the girl from the photo was at all an accurate depiction of the way “all Asian girls” dressed, and I was offended by my friend’s insinuation that I should be associated with this particular kind of style (or lack of). I immediately moved to create a mental barrier with this idea and wrote off her message as an inanely insensitive comment.

As I rifled through my pencil case in my next class, its contents suddenly reminded me of the photo and more specifically, of her Hello Kitty phone case. Although I’ve never had an affinity for wearing animal-inspired hats or Hello Kitty paraphernalia, through my high school years I was known to frequent Sanrio and walk out with a small stash of pens and notepads that showed designs of similarly adorable characters, such as Chococat or Cinamonroll, the white dog with bunny-like flapping ears. I loved everything in that store, because it was like an Asian Disneyland. The entire atmosphere was cute and fanciful, the outrageous looking animal characters with exaggerated, personified features looked down at me with unfiltered joy from every wall. But little by little, I began to view that entire theme as juvenile and left it behind for more “age-appropriate” interests.

But evidently, there are Asian girls who stuck with Hello Kitty, girls to whom kawaii culture resonated, even as they went off to college and entered adulthood. When I asked myself why many Asian girls, especially those in Asia, choose to be kawaii indefinitely, I realized that maybe it wasn’t as much a choice as it was socialization - kawaii might just be one of the many creatively veiled stooges of patriarchal propaganda. This one was wrapped in shiny pink paper, topped off with a really, really big bow. 

In Japanese, “kawaii” means “cute” or “adorable.” This may seem innocuous upon a cursory view, until you realize that kawaii is centered around an idea of style that is innocent, adorable, and strikingly child-like. Actual children possess those qualities by nature, but the exaggerated features that kawaii girls assume in order to appear artificially “cute” are highly theatrical and when taken up on a daily basis, silly. Silly girls can’t be taken seriously in a world of adults, and especially not by adult men. Being kawaii only gives a world already riddled with misogyny more justification to condescend to women, to tell us that we aren’t capable, rational, and powerful people because we don’t take ourselves seriously enough to look like adults. Although the girl herself might not be thinking this far when she carries a Hello Kitty iPhone or puts in her circle lenses, she is actually infantalizing and disenfranchising herself from her right to be an independent, respected individual. 

Kawaii also implies that it is a superior model of beauty because it is mutually exclusive with “sexy” and “glamorous.” This might initially seem like a positive shift for gender politics because of objectification of young women is such a pervasive issue, but kawaii attempts to separate “cute” from sexy by demanding that young women conceal the sexual dimension of their persona that undeniably emerges as part of adulthood in the costume of a child. However, a woman dressed like a child still has the physiological features of an adult - namely breasts and wider hips - that when combined with their appearance can directly contribute to the sexualization of children. The kawaii look wasn’t intended to be sexy, but it’s definitely fetishized, the most flagrant scenario being the “sexy schoolgirl” pornographic motif. At worst, it looks like role play, with men in a paternalistic position of dominator and women submitting to his desires. 

The very core of being kawaii is an air of everlasting youth and innocence. In promoting the superficial markers of both, the kawaii movement fails to acknowledge its role in perpetuating a culture that exalts youth above all the other qualities a woman can have, namely maturity and experience (for evidence, look at the “leftover woman” phobia sweeping China). This depreciates women’s value in an irredeemable way as a form of social control - youth is something that you can never get back, but society can watch as women continue to try, poring (pun intended) over skincare regimens and mutilating themselves with facelifts while losing their money and self-worth along the way. As a whole picture, kawaii isn’t really about being a sweet, nice girl. It’s about doing everything you can to stunt your growth to make sure that you always remain a girl. 


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