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Orientalist Kitsch

Desperate never looks good on a preppie.

Clothing companies like Gap, J. Crew and Abercrombie & Fitch are facing a crisis of cultural and financial capital. Brands that once dominated the landscape of cool have seen their stocks and sales slump to embarrassing lows over the past few years.

But when Ohio-based Abercrombie & Fitch released a line of T-shirts in April depicting Chinese laundry workers and smiling Buddhas, captioned by groan-worthy puns, the company was launched into the headlines, thanks to media-savvy Asian American college students protesting the reproduction of century-old caricatures.

Activists criticized the T-shirts for denigrating Asian Americans and trivializing "an entire religion and philosophy." Even as company spokespersons claimed innocence and regret, activists staged protests outside the retailers' stores, organized boycotts across e-mail lists, and demanded "respect" for Asian Americans as a lucrative market. I have to confess I was hardly shocked by the "Get Your Buddha on the Floor" or "Wok-n-Bowl, Let the Good Times Roll -- Chinese Food and Bowling" T-shirts, which are only the latest splashes in the tidal wave of kitsch merchandising and "orientalia" that's been crowding store shelves for years now.

But what this particular instance does reveal is that the demand for realistic and "positive" images of racial and ethnic communities in popular culture is often an inadequate response -- one that fails to address the other, often more complicated messages involved in the transformation of racial caricatures into products and the meaning of the way they are packaged.

To accuse the company of misrepresenting Chinese or Asian men, culture, etc. or of "misleading [consumers] as to what Asian people are" does not suffice. The company's now infamous "Wong Brothers Laundry Service -- Two Wongs Can Make It White" T-shirt is not meant to function as an "accurate" representation of Chinese masculinity. (Although the correlation between "white" and "right" in the pun is both banal and striking.) The clothiers acknowledge these are not realistic images.

Protestors also claimed that Abercrombie views Asian Americans either as laundry workers or (as one angry editorial writer put it) as a "mass of consumers [so] full of self-hate and self-loathing that they will latch onto any negative stereotype of themselves and parade it around town like a yellow minstrel." But these arguments imply that images can belong to only one of two categories: stereotypical (negative) and realistic (positive); and Asian Americans themselves can only be either authentic (protesting) or assimilated (buying). The criticism that these T-shirts "sell Asian self-hate and shame," or that Asian Americans who might buy them are "whitewashed," ignores the possibilities for other kinds of consumers, images or interpretations.

Rub My Belly Buddha and Art's Auto Body tees are better understood within the context of the rise of kitsch as the hallmark of "cool." They mark the emergence of what could be termed "orientalist kitsch," in which a racist caricature is resurrected and marketed as hip or trendy. But we need to recognize that the use of a racist image a century ago does not have the same meaning as the use of the same image -- or a similar one based on the same racial stereotype -- today. If we understand these images as kitsch, we can understand them as a function of marketing strategies such as parody and irony.

The Abercrombie PR honchos claimed these T-shirts were meant to be funny. Ironic, right? But in this instance, irony is conservative in its operation. It implies that if a long enough view is taken, all history becomes insignificant, including the history of oppression. The Abercombie & Fitch executives do not mean to reinstate turn-of-the-century Chinese exclusion, legal discrimination or even the emasculation of Chinese men, as much as dismiss these histories as meaningless today.

The same effect is at work in the recycling of revolutionary iconography or heavy metal tour T-shirts. South American guerillas, heavy metal progenitors and Chinese laundry workers are divorced from history and transformed into commodities. Of course, what distinguishes the "Two Wongs" T-shirt from one featuring Che Guevara or Judas Priest is that it is an image of a racist stereotype. The gesture skittles between declaring a "postracist" state and resurrecting old ghosts and bad memories.

Nevertheless, this transformation process (turning a racist caricature into kitsch) is of a different nature than the faithful re-creation of racist images. The T-shirts derive their cultural capital precisely from their assigned "bad taste" -- witness their resale for as much as $250 on eBay as collectors' items. Nor has Abercrombie & Fitch been damaged by the controversy and the reams of bad publicity. Shares in Abercrombie sold at $33.30, a 52-week high, on April 18, the day the company apologized and pulled the T-shirts from store shelves.

In the language of kitsch, bad taste is a valuable quality that sells to the hip, urban consumer of tiki bars, wobbly-headed dashboard dogs, mullet paraphernalia and Buddha T-shirts. And because these items are typed as trashy or low class -- the (sometimes faux) detritus of thrift stores and garage sales -- their purchase as kitsch is accompanied by the necessary wink, which distinguishes the wearers of the T-shirts from those who, say, might really work at Art's Auto Body. In the case of Abercrombie, it's a wink with no concern for memory or history.

Contrary to its claims, Abercrombie & Fitch clothing is hardly funny, daring or even interesting. Have you seen the clothes? Strictly dullsville. I would rather wear plastic garbage bags and orange legwarmers than sport the sartorial remnants of Reagan-era preppie. Its reinvention of the elite classics -- polo shirts, chinos, whatever -- has for years balanced the brand image on the sensibility of a privileged whiteness steeped in hedonism.

The thick quarterly catalogs feature luscious models -- many recruited from college campuses and most of the Anglo-Saxon variety -- frolicking nude or lounging in stately dorm rooms and lush football fields in suggestive (and often homoerotic) poses. This provocative approach has drawn the censure of cultural conservatives. The rightwing fundamentalist Bob Jones University banned the Abercrombie logo from its South Carolina campus two years ago, while Michigan's attorney general pushed Abercrombie to shrink-wrap and slap "adults only" labels on the catalogs.

Unfortunately, recent criticisms of Abercrombie for retailing controversies like the "Wong" T-shirts too easily and quickly articulate a similar conservative leaning toward "good taste." An article in a left-leaning Asian American student newspaper accuses the retailer of "skirting the rules," and that the "Abercrombie & Fitch catalog stunts encourage behavior [like underage sex] that flaunts social conventions."

The pairing of an Asian American critique of racism with a social conservatism of sexual propriety and obeisance to "rules" is a dangerous strategy. What makes for good taste? Martha Stewart? High culture? What does a positive image look like? Middle-class? The good girl who doesn't kiss on the first date? And how would this look on a T-shirt? Wow, problematic much?

This complaint about "skirting the rules" is as disturbing as the suggestion that Abercrombie & Fitch "respect" Asian Americans as a target market -- which itself skirts dangerously close to a "model minority" argument.

We know by now that corporate management and market influence can assimilate even the most revolutionary -- or in this case reviled -- sorts of images or themes, and in the process often reproduces and repackages racial and social inequality. But because we already know these things, we can begin to ask other kinds of questions about how this happens.

At the very least, these controversies should remind us that all images and representations are staged -- stereotypical or realistic, negative or positive -- and, as such, we're only as authentic as our kitsch, which is to say, not at all.

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