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Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet
Race, Gender, and the Work of Personal Style Blogging
By Minh-Ha T. Pham
Duke University PressCopyright © 2015 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
The Taste and Aftertaste for Asian Superbloggers
The message on the sign American designer Marc Jacobs was photographed holding read: "I love you BryanBoy! I wish you were here. (I did write it!!!)." The photograph, taken by V magazine fashion photographer JD Ferguson backstage at Jacobs's fall–winter 2008–9 fashion show in New York City, is just one of hundreds of tokens of affection that fans have sent to the queer Filipino personal style blogger. Like the others, it exemplifies the public's taste not only for the blogger's fashion choices but especially for the blogger himself. What makes this fan message stand out from all the others that Bryan Grey Yambao shares on his blog is that it comes from within the Western fashion industry. The message, created backstage at one of the most important fashion events in the world by one of the most illustrious designers in the world, indicates the reach of the blogger's mass appeal into the citadel of establishment fashion. In two more incredible acts of fanboying, Jacobs created a $4,800 army green ostrich leather handbag that he named BB (in honor of the blogger) and styled the white American male model Cole Mohr to look like the spitting image of Yambao in his Marc by Marc Jacobs ads (shot by the preeminent photographer Jürgen Teller). See figures 1.1 and 1.2.
The Marc Jacobs "I love you BryanBoy" photo and the media frenzy it ignited introduced the practice of personal style blogging to the mainstream fashion public and changed Yambao from an ordinary personal style blogger to a celebrity personality. Media outlets from the mainstream (such as the New York Times Magazine) to the alternative (Schön!) began referring to him using the new title of superblogger.
Not until about a year later would another blogger — also Asian — garner similar levels of public and industry attention. Audiences watching the fall 2010 fashion shows live and online couldn't help see Susanna Lau (aka Susie Bubble) as a source of inspiration for some of what appeared on the most exclusive runways. The models for luxury brands like Lanvin (at Paris Fashion Week) and Erin Fetherston (at New York Fashion Week) all wore Lau's signature long straight hair with blunt-cut bangs. One blogger enthusiastically observed, "susie bubble [sic] you know you are doing something right when half the runway shows from the big leagues had your hair, I think unconsciously or consciously you got them!"
Not long after the fashion shows ended, ads appeared on the Internet seeming to confirm that Lau's style had become the taste of the Western fashion industry. In one such ad for California-based indie online retailer Moxsie, the featured model bore a striking resemblance to Lau, physically and sartorially. For the fashion news aggregate blog Racked New York (owned by Vox Media), the ad was a cultural signpost. One of the blog's headlines declared, "Moxsie's Nod to Blogger Susie Bubble Is the Sign of the Times." While the ad doesn't mention Lau or her blog, most took the omission as an indication of her prominence. As the blog's article explains, "So maybe the ad doesn't mention Susie's name because it doesn't have to — Moxsie expects shoppers to recognize her look on their own."
The fashion public's and industry's taste for Asian superbloggers Yambao; Lau; and the third member of the blogosphere's holy Asian trinity, the mixed-race Japanese American Rumi Neely (the first blogger to appear in a national advertising campaign of a major retailer — Forever 21 — and the first to appear on a Times Square billboard) coincides with and is strengthened by broader shifts in the context in which Asians' relations to the global economy are understood. This is a time when, as Mimi Nguyen and Thuy Linh Tu write, there is a strong "popular appetite for all goods Asian in both the United States and the West more generally" and Asian Americans are "being courted by the corporate marketplace" as never before. In the introduction, I discussed a particular focus of this manifestation of the cultural taste for Asian creativity in the critical and public attention to the Asian creative class. The discursive construction of this new labor class as a group that is both racialized yet seemingly unaffected by racial barriers or racial discrimination serves to legitimate claims about the postracial yet liberal multicultural structure of the so-called new economy. It also reflects the constitutive contradiction of Asian superbloggers' fraught position in contemporary Western fashion economies. The emergence of the Asian personal style superblogger indicates the Western fashion industry's continued dependence on racialized labor (Asian superbloggers are a pivotal workforce in the Asian moment of fashion) as well as the image of the new postracial fashion economy (in which anyone — even a gay Filipino kid — can reach the heights of fashion cultural and economic influence). While queerness is normative in Western fashion industries, the racial and regional difference Yambao represents as a young Asian man from a Third World country was headline news. An article from Agence France-Presse has the headline "Philippine Blogger Stirs a Fashion Revolution," and another from Gawker is suggestively titled "Marc Jacobs Wrapped around Finger of This Gay Filipino Blogger."
I begin this chapter by elaborating on the context within which the cultural and economic influence of Asian superbloggers emerged. How did Asian superbloggers' styles and tastes become so significant in the early twenty-first century? What I am concerned with is what Pierre Bourdieu describes as "the logic of the space of [taste] production" and the location of Asian superbloggers within these logics and spaces of production. In other words, what are the conditions that set the stage for Asian superbloggers to become the flavor of the decade (or century)? In the latter half of the chapter, I consider the logic of conditionality and tolerance implicit in the discourses of liberal multiculturalism and postracism that frame the meanings of Asian superbloggers' prominence in the historically white cultural domain of fashion media and imagery. My argument is that the backlash against Asian superbloggers can be understood as both the evidence and end of conditional tolerance. In other words, the backlash or the racial aftertaste following the multicultural taste for Asian superbloggers is a marker of the inherent limits of tolerance as an approach to diversity and difference. This chapter momentarily sets aside questions about the ways Asian superbloggers position themselves within taste production spaces. How Asian superbloggers position and negotiate their racial and labor identities through their taste work is the focus of the chapters that follow. The purpose of this chapter is to understand the context and extent of Asian superbloggers' rise to some of the most rarefied spheres of Western fashion media and markets.
Asian superbloggers' elite status cannot be understood through racial generalizations about their talent for media production and media relations, their work ethic, or their fashion sensibility. They are beneficiaries of cultural economic shifts that began in the late 1970s and that have accelerated rapidly in the early years of the twenty-first century. As I explain below, the global diffusion of Japanese cute culture, the ascendancy of Asian creative industries and luxury markets that have turned the Western fashion industry's economic focus toward Asia, and the social media–led expansion of ordinary consumers' power to drive fashion advertising and marketing have created space for some Asian bloggers to flourish. This does not discount the very significant ways Asian superbloggers have built on and expanded their roles as new tastemakers, but it provides a context for understanding the practices and significance of their taste work.
The Globalization of Cute Culture and Cute Work
Asian and Asian-like commodities have been produced and consumed transnationally for centuries. Chinese porcelains and tea sets and innumerable chinoiserie objects have been circulating globally since the seventeenth century as symbols and practices of "patrician Orientalism." In the context of Western fashion, Asia-inspired clothing styles and design motifs have been recurring themes. Some notable examples include Paul Poiret's 1911 jupes sultan (harem pants), Jean Paul Gaultier's 1999 kimono bikini ensembles, and Prada's 2013 coats embroidered with origami flowers.
What is distinct about the contemporary global market of Asian commodities and consumers is that it is driven by the aesthetic practices and productions of Asians themselves, rather than non-Asians. The most widely recognized Asian commodities today are those of Japanese cute culture, and none is more recognizable than that cute cat with the marshmallow-y head named Hello Kitty. For Christine Yano, Hello Kitty is "the global icon of cute" because it invites multiple modes of relating to it. Hello Kitty is a site of nostalgia, generational bridging (between mothers and daughters, for example), irony, sexual fetish (as an ideal feminine figure because it is "a mute presence that does not look back at you or judge"), and a site for reclaiming a postfeminist "girl power" that doesn't mutually exclude "frilliness and dominance." All of these consumer relations are built into and expressed through the Hello Kitty global empire of products that target multinational and multiracial markets for girls, women, men, and so-called adult girls (adult women who identify with girl culture). Among the 15,000 or so Hello Kitty products are plush toys, board and video games, furry slippers, plastic fly swatters, sanitary napkins, body fat monitors, exhaust pipes, lawnmowers, men's underwear, and a Boeing 777 jet plane operated by a Taipei-based Evaairways crew. Product sales alone net the Sanrio Corporation $2.86 billion annually.
The economic power of Asian cute culture can also be seen in Pikachu, the small, chubby, yellow bunny-like Pokémon character with small, black, shoe-button eyes and rosy pink cheeks. Pikachu is the fastest-selling game in the Pokémon franchise, which holds the record for the second-most-popular game franchise (in terms of sales) in the world. Mario, another Nintendo creation, holds the number one spot. In the broader popular culture beyond video games, Pikachu is also an economic powerhouse. In Time's list of "The Best People of 1999" (ranked, in part, by each contender's earnings that year), the magazine listed Pikachu second, following Ricky Martin but beating J. K. Rowling and Prince William.
As should be clear by now, cute culture crosses continents and oceans. Its transnational spread — what Yano describes as "pink globalization" — means that it represents an Asian global market rather than a niche one. One of the largest markets for Japanese cute culture is the United States. When Pokémon: The First Movie opened in the United States in November 1999, observers noted that "it played on over 3,000 screens (in contrast to 2,000 in Japan) and was the week's top-ranked movie, grossing close to first week sales for Star Wars, Episode I (and surpassing those of Lion King)."
The global economic impact of cute culture is only one dimension of its significance. For academic and popular observers, the global phenomenon of Japanese (as well as Korean and Taiwanese) cute culture indicates that the global hegemony of the Western ideal of masculine cool is giving way to a new and differently racialized and gendered ideal of Asian feminine cuteness. As one Newsweek article gushes, "Western-style cool is out. Everything Japanese is in — and oh, so 'cute!' "
Scholars argue — rightly, I believe — that the phenomenon of Asian cute culture is both a reflection and an extension of the rising "soft power" of Asian markets in the global economy. Rather than the "hard power" of military or other coercive forces, cute culture represents Asia's "soft power" of economic co-optation through feminized personal and entertainment consumer goods and feminine shopping activities. Consumers turn to Asian cute cultural products not because they are forced to but because these commodities fulfill consumers' personal desire for the cute, the sweet, the feminine, and the soft. Cute culture's mass appeal has to do with its promotion of warmth and intimacy in an increasingly cold and technologically intensive world. In Yano's words, it "can be seen as part of a more generalized nostalgic reaction to a highly technologized, depersonalized world. Thus, 'cute'— Japanese or otherwise — can represent a turn to emotion and even sentimentality." This echoes Larissa Hjorth's observation that Asian Pacific consumers' cute customization of mobile devices with kawaii wallpaper, toy attachments, phone covers, and so on "is about personalising impersonal technologies, and rendering 'cold' dehumanised new technologies friendly, human or 'warm.' "
Studies of cute culture have not taken notice of the fashion blogosphere. This is a surprising oversight, since that blogosphere's visual, textual, sartorial, and body language is steeped in the aesthetic logic, goals, and judgments of cute. Cuteness is apparent in bloggers' linguistic and kinesthetic practices. These include the extensive use of nonstandard words (for example, "logo-a-go-go"; "bargainous printastic sweater"; and Yambao's signature sign-off, "baboosh" — an onomatopoeic word describing the sound that blowing a wet kiss makes); spelling (such as "gonna" and "kewl"); "backchannel sounds" (like "ah," "hmmm," "ugh," and "grr"); and emotional icons including emoticons, graphic symbols, and the linguistic shorthand for hugs and kisses ("xo"). The photographic poses that personal style bloggers perform are also cute. In front of the camera — one that is always either controlled or directed by the blogger — they construct a visual rhetoric of cuteness in the ways they position their heads, bodies, and faces. Their poses suggest youthfulness, modesty, informality, and guilelessness. Some of the most common blogger poses are the pigeon-toed stance; the "elsewhere gaze," which avoids eye contact with the camera lens and viewer; and the "sugar bowl," pose in which the blogger places two hands on the front of his or her hips, making the body appear smaller and thus younger.
In addition to, and perhaps more important than, the physical configurations of the body, personal style bloggers' poses can be understood within the context of cute culture because they exhibit what Gabriella Lukács identifies as a central feature of cuteness, "semantic flexibility." Lukács's critical insight about the semantic flexibility of cuteness provides an important key to understanding the racial and gender dimensions of the production of cute, or cute work. Lukács's analysis focuses on the Net Idol phenomenon in Japan in the 1990s and 2000s. Net Idols are young Japanese women who produce their own websites that feature personal photos and narratives characterized by cute aesthetics and practices. "Net Idols offer diverse styles of care and cater to different types of needs" by creating online personas (sometimes even fictitious biographies) and digital images that are tailored to the expectations and requests of predominantly male audiences. Lukács's informants stress that they are not sex workers, underscoring this point with examples of times they have taken individual viewers to task for requests that they felt were too sexually suggestive or provocative.
For Lukács, the essential cuteness of Net Idols' activities is not located in the visual aesthetics of their practices and productions but in the quality of their work ethic. Drawing on the more nuanced meaning of cute (kawaii) in its original Japanese context, Lukács states: "I challenge the assumption that cute connotes a particular physical appearance of behavior that can be described using a stable set of signifiers. Instead, I stress that semantic flexibility is a central feature of the notion of cute." The word kawaii is not limited to describing babies; small animals; and small, soft, fuzzy things. Quoting Koga Reiko, Lukács contends that "kawaii is a magical word because it can designate almost anything that is round, weak, bright, small, smooth, warm, or soft." Thus, Lukács concludes, "cute is a signifier that accommodates."
Excerpted from Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet by Minh-Ha T. Pham. Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments vii
Introduction. Asian Personal Style Superbloggers and the Material Conditions and Contexts of Asian Fashion Work 1
1. The Taste and Aftertaste for Asian Superbloggers 41
2. Style Stories, Written Tastes, and the Work of Self-Composure 81
3. "So Many and All the Same" (but Not Quite): Outfit Photos and the Codes of Asian Eliteness 105
4. The Racial and Gendered Job Performances of Fashion Blogger Poses 129
5. Invisible Labor and Racial Visibilities in Outfit Posts 167
Coda. All in the Eyes 193
What People are Saying About This
"Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet is a fiercely imaginative and inspiring book. Minh-Ha T. Pham's discussion of the garment industry's racialization and the details she provides about bloggers' lives and the conditions of their labor is impressive. She acknowledges and debunks the writing on overly utopian and breathless views of digital media as 'participatory culture' while giving full credit and agency to the bloggers she writes about. Stunning!"
"Theorizing an unstudied yet influential cultural archive, Minh-Ha T. Pham offers an engaging and sophisticated analysis of personal style blogs that breaks new ground in our understandings of the intersections of technology, aesthetics, racial formation, and cultures of consumption. An important and timely contribution to Asian American studies, media studies, fashion studies, and critical race studies."