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Harajuku Lover?

Love the culture?  Write a song about it.  Then, use it to sell a handbag.

The putatively blonde singer/songwriter Gwen Stefani has previously proclaimed (and commodified) her attraction to Tokyo's Harajuku shopping district and the creatively costumed teens who populate it on her Love.Angel.Music.Baby album, as well as with her own entourage of four "Harajuku Girls."  Now, in addition to her celebrity designer line, L.A.M.B., Stefani has launched another fashion label:  Harajuku Lovers

Last year when the album appeared, MiHi Ahn at Salon, among others, argued that the singer had missed the point:

Stefani fawns over harajuku style in her lyrics, but her appropriation of this subculture makes about as much sense as the Gap selling Anarchy T-shirts; she's swallowed a subversive youth culture in Japan and barfed up another image of submissive giggling Asian women. 

OK, it's a good bet that Ahn won't be buying a Harajuku Lovers handbag, panties, or hoodie.  But should others be able to?

After writing a book on the subject of cultural appropriation and most recently spending the weekend at an international intellectual property conference hosted by the extraordinary Professor Peter Yu at Michigan State, where we discussed (among other things) the possibility of using IP to protect culture, I find the answer as complex as ever.  Are the stereotype and the commercialization of culture by an outsider offensive?  Yes.  Should we prohibit it?  My usual (and evolving) answer is (1) to adopt strategies that allow members of a culture to designate what is authentic (yes, that's a tough one too) and what is an imitation, and at the same time (2) to allow borrowing except in limited cases of sacred or secret aspects of culture that would be significantly harmed by appropriation. 

In this case, the Harajuku district and its denizens will presumably endure Stefani's affection, much as Kyoto will will withstand the Western attention generated by the novel Memoirs of a Geisha (and the award-winning costumes in the movie version) or Lanvin's kimono-inspired spring fashions.  After all, even the most creative street fashion draws inspiration from somewhere, and the Harajuku Lovers products are more about branding than literal copying.  And who knows what the reaction of Harajuku locals will be -- perhaps Stefani's line will be embraced (or even knocked off).

Still, I think I'll take my culture without the pop packaging.

Comments

I think these questions about culture are so fascinating.

but.. have you SEEN harajuku style? what would it look like without pop packaging?

Seems like getting someone to speak up for authenticity depends on some kind of static definition of culture that I find hard to assign, especially the more cultures appear 'modern' and linked in with global economy and global imagery.

but that's a pretty uncomfortable dichotomy to rely on too (modern vs. nonmodern)

Also, seems to me like the issue of who is designated the speaker of a culture is going to depend a lot on internal power dynamics within a culture.

So while I'm grossed out by Gwenstefani's appropriation,and I agree that it plays into sexist and racist stereotyping, that doesn't mean that authentic culture can't be just as sexist.

Can assigning property rights solve those problems?

Good points, Larisa -- I completely agree re: both the potential "reification of culture" trap and the issue of submerged voices within a culture. (Prof. Madhavi Sunder, among others, has written on this problem.) My hope would be to encourage a multiplicity of culturally related, current, and evolving voices from within.

As for sexism within a culture, that's even harder to address (or sometimes even identify) -- but I too find the "Gothic Lolitas" and similar street styles disturbing. Then again, I'm sure that I don't fully understand the statement in context.

But surely you don't mean to imply that property rights aren't the solution to everything under the sun?! :)

heavens.. where would you get that idea --and me in a law school! don't blow my cover!

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