Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Trendwatch 2011: When Kawaii Girls Grow Up

kawaii wallpaper by ~cupcake-bakery on deviantART

Before I start, let me make it very clear that I, as an Asian woman of a certain age, have no problem with cuteness in general, and everything that's considered kawaii in particular. In fact, if it were up to me, all of my bed linens and office supplies would be decorated with tons of tiny, happy, smiling Japanese cartoon characters, and be generously shameless about it as well.

I do, however, have a bit of a problem with the image of the Asian woman as the perpetual kawaii girl: slim build, pale skin, tiny high-pitched voice with matching giggle... and, yes, in certain instances, the occasional short skirt or low-cut top.

On one hand - and from an academic standpoint - there are some situations where the kawaii-ness actually works, especially when it involves a discussion of Asian culture. (I once had to use this line of reasoning to defend a colleague of mine who used her high-pitched kawaii voice in teaching Japanese.) That doesn't mean it can't be a problem for a grown woman; it's one thing to speak in a cutesy, high-pitched voice for cuteness' sake... but when you're, say, a news anchor in Honolulu reporting on a raging fire that has left several casualties in its wake, THAT might be a problem.

(No, I'm not naming names. For that, you will need to go to Scribey; just make sure to offer a week's worth of free babysitting in exchange for the information.)

Which is why I love watching the kawaii archetype getting turned on its own head by Asian women in mass media.

Take, for example, Janet Hsieh.

Hot? Yes. Tiny voice? Yes. And yet, smart and funny as all get-out; in fact, I once caught an episode of Fun Taiwan where her observations about Taiwanese hot springs were delivered so insightfully that it was positively Bourdain-esque. I know that she recently returned to Manila to shoot Fun Asia (note to media: she's been here before, for an episode about Christmas in the Philippines) so I'm looking forward to watching her spiked-cupcake insights on our fair country.

(Also, and for what it's worth, I saw some pictures in the paper last year of her at a Travel and Living event in Hong Kong, with Bob Blumer - which led to those awesome station IDs that the channel ran over the holidays - and all I can say is that I would have more of a problem if my smug Canadian boyfriend did NOT make an effort to hit on her. That's how much of a girlcrush I have on that woman.)

(Which reminds me: Hello, Travel and Living promo monkeys! I think I need to talk to you about those Glutton for Punishment promos featuring "Bohb Bluuumaaahhh" with the last vestiges of his less-than-kitchen-safe haircut. C'mon, folks, you do know that he doesn't look like a stoner any more, right?) 

And then there's Malaysian-Aussie TV chef Poh Ling Yeow:

Yet another reason why TV trailers can be so, so deceiving. I was scared to watch my first episode of Poh's Kitchen because the early promos showed her laughing and drinking wine like a WOO! girl; here we go again, I thought, another show hosted by a cutesy Asian woman. Then she starts introducing the show and her guests, and suddenly I'm watching the Asian-Australian incarnation of Nigella Lawson. (Or Giada de Laurentiis, if G. was a singleton and had to say words like roti and kangkung without beating her audience over the head with the real pronunciation.) The fact that she was a runner-up on the original Aussie version of Masterchef surprises me even more, since her on-camera presence comes across quite naturally. Nothing kawaii or overly fetishistic about the whole deal at all, at least from my end.

Now, I know that this is not a new trend; many others have come down this road before, especially in the travel-and-foodie field of television. And, let's face it, there are still tons of more pressing issues for many Asian women to work through when it comes to working in mass media, especially in terms of being taken seriously while still showing a lot of pride in one's own culture and traditions. What I'm seeing here, though, is one of many baby steps towards breaking the mold for Asian women in popular culture, especially the ones in my generation who are too old for cosplay and too young to operate on full Tiger Mother mode. And it's definitely a good start.

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