Hanna Kim '21
For many adolescent children of Asian descent, Hello Kitty seems to be an emblem of childhood. I was definitely no exception. When I was 4 years old, I loved Hello Kitty. In fact, I was obsessed with Hello Kitty. My most prized possessions were my Hello Kitty stuffed animals. They were about five inches tall and each had a different costume. Each week for show and tell, I would use my short and fleeting block of time to share each Hello Kitty from my flourishing collection.
One day I was coloring in my Hello Kitty book at the counter while my mom prepared dinner for me and my siblings. While searing a cast iron pan full of tofu, my mom turned around and said, “why doesn’t Hello Kitty have a mouth?”
At first, I was puzzled. Why was Mom questioning my favorite character? Why is she attacking her? I tentatively flipped through my coloring book and saw that she was right. Hello Kitty might have walked to school, hung out with friends, ridden horses, and eaten ice cream, but she did all of this without expression. I decided to take matters into my own hands. With a black sharpie, I drew mouths on all my dolls, every page of my coloring book, my backpack, my lunchbox, and, lastly, my pillow.
As an eighteen-year-old Asian-American girl, I now can truly understand why my mom was concerned with the portrayal of Hello Kitty. Throughout grade school and high school, my peers thought they knew me because they had internalized the stereotypical prototypes of Asian people: shy, emotionless, passive, and quiet. My mom saw Hello Kitty as an encapsulation of all these stereotypes and felt uncomfortable that her young daughter idolized her so much. Surrounding myself with all things Hello Kitty could have led to my own internalization that I should embody the role of the Asian girl who has never spoken aloud. For my mom, Hello Kitty was not a risk worth taking. Hello Kitty has continued to flourish into an empire. Jewelry, comics, music, video games, TV shows, merchandise, even credit cards, have Hello Kitty’s face on it. In 2014, Avril Lavigne released a song entitled “Hello Kitty” with a music video alongside it.
In the video, she parades around with four identically dressed expressionless and robotic Asian women in the background as she plays guitar, eats sushi, and goes to the candy store. The monotony of the submissive background dancers makes them seem to be interchangeable, forcing the viewer’s attention to Lavigne in the foreground.
She made it pretty clear that she doesn’t share this view. She took it to Twitter, posting “RACIST??? LOLOLOL!!! I love Japanese culture and I spend half of my time in Japan. I flew to Tokyo to shoot this video specifically for my Japanese fans, WITH my Japanese label, Japanese choreographers AND a Japanese director IN Japan.”
For me, this is the equivalent to someone saying” “I love Korean culture. I love K-POP”. Familiarizing oneself with a culture’s surface level stereotypes by no means makes someone an expert on that culture.
In conclusion, I want to thank my mom for being mindful of these harmful stereotypes at such an early age. Media, like the Hello Kitty shows and movies I constantly used to watch, possesses the ability to form young minds’ understanding of the world around them.
My mom, took it upon herself to protect my highly impressionable four-year-old self against the detrimental effects of cultural appropriation before it was even a coined term. Now it’s my turn to do the same.