Big Issues

Unpacking Gwen Stefani’s Decades Of Cultural Appropriation

Gwen Stefani

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Gwen Stefani’s obsession with ‘Harajuku Girls’ has seeped into every part of her career: music, videos, fragrances, fashion labels and most notoriously, her entourage. When will she admit to the “unequal power relationship” she’s had with Japanese culture?

It’s not been a great start to 2023 for Gwen Stefani, who’s doubled down on her historic appropriation of Japanese culture. In a recent interview with Allure celebrating the launch of her new beauty brand, GXVE Beauty, the star was asked what she had learned from her ‘Harajuku Lovers’ beauty era “considering its praise, backlash and everything in between”.

Stefani responded with a quip about her first trip to Japan. The trip, she said, left her thinking: “My God, I’m Japanese and I didn’t even know it”. Gwen’s comments stunned her interviewer, journalist and first-generation Filipina-American Jesa Marie Calaor, who wrote about the experience and sparked another round of conversations revisiting Gwen’s troubling history of cultural appropriation.

Stefani has introduced many looks and aesthetics over her decades-long career (she so kindly relayed her favourites to us all in her 2021 single music video, ‘Let Me Reintroduce Myself’). The most problematic and notorious of Gwen’s transformations? ‘Harajuku Stefani’.

After nearly a decade with effortlessly cool rock band No Doubt, Gwen Stefani’s first solo album, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. hit shelves in 2004. It was an iconic album, one that Billboard retrospectively noted “helped lay the foundation for millennial pop girls to confidently dive into hip-hop and R&B” thanks to production from legends like André 3000, Dr Dre and the Neptunes.

The widely popular album also ushered in Stefani’s newfound obsession with Japanese culture, with her ‘Harajuku Girls’ fascination permeating her music, videos, fragrances and fashion labels. And then there was Gwen’s entourage. 

The ‘Harajuku Girls’ were four Japanese and Japanese-American backup dancers, Maya Chino, Jennifer Kita, Rino Nakasone and Mayuko Kitayama, who followed the singer everywhere — her live shows, red carpets and music videos — scenes that are now extremely uncomfortable to watch. There were murmurings that the performers were obliged to only speak in Japanese in public, and were literally renamed “as if they were pets — “Love,” “Angel,” “Music” and “Baby” after her album title”.

Stefani’s ‘Harajuku Lovers’ fragrances were sold everywhere back then, too. “So I actually first saw the ‘Harajuku Lovers’ back when Myer was like a thing and everyone used to go to Myer’s fragrances,” Punkee writer Rebekah Manibog said.

“I thought they looked like me and obviously representation of Asian women back then wasn’t a massive thing. So I begged my mother to get it for me and she got me the full collection with the Dollhouse. And for a birthday someone had bought me a separate one by itself, saying they got it for me because it looked like me.”

Many people — overwhelmingly white people — welcomed the star’s new aesthetic as stylish, edgy, and cool. Love.Angel.Music.Baby sold millions, rocked the charts and broke records; single “Hollaback Girl” became her first solo No. 1 on the Hot 100 and was eventually dubbed the first track to sell one million downloads on iTunes. (Yes, iTunes was a thing then.) 

Others had a different reaction. Comedian Margaret Cho wrote in a 2005 essay following Gwen’s solo debut that the group of ‘Harajuku Girls’ were kind of like a “minstrel show”. It was a “weird time for Asian Americans”, Cho wrote, sharing that she didn’t know where she fit in, and lamenting the lack of Asian representation in popular culture and media.

Punkee’s Rebekah Manibog agrees, remembering the time her dance studio performed a concert with an ‘Around the World’ theme. “Instead of using an Asian song, they decided to use Gwen Stefani’s ‘Sweet Escape’ and use the Harajuku dancers in the background as the Asian kind of representation for our concert,” she recalled. “It was really weird and I knew something was off when I was a kid because, you know, there’s a lot of Filipino bangers out there.”

In the Allure interview, Calaor said she gave Stefani plenty of time to correct what she really meant when she said she was Japanese. Instead the singer continued to put her foot in her mouth, and said if people are going to criticise her “for being a fan of something beautiful, and sharing that” then that doesn’t “feel right”.

Gwen said that it “should be okay to be inspired by other cultures because if we’re not allowed then that’s dividing people, right?” Wrong, Gwen. 

Allure’s journalist Calaor isn’t Japanese, but she is an “Asian woman living in America which comes with sobering realities during a time of heightened Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) hate”. Calaor pointed to two important factors to consider in the discussion of what constitutes cultural appropriation: commodification and an unequal power relationship. She detailed the one billion dollars that Stefani made from her Japanese-inspired brands, and the “more than 50 million units (one album or approximately 10 songs) worldwide” she’s sold.

Fariha I. Khan, Ph.D., codirector of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania spoke to Calaor for the piece, too. “When a group has been historically marginalised and/or racialised by another group, the issue of power is central to cultural appropriation,” Dr Khan told Allure. “The dominant group has the power to take (or appropriate) the marginalized group’s customs and practices and give these traditions meaning — without the original context or significance.” 

Read Jesa Marie Calaor’s piece for Allure here.

Claire Keenan (she/her) is a Senior Producer for Junkee. She is on Twitter.