cultural imperialism/(neo)colonialism

A month or two ago I commented on the New York Times Upfront magazine for high school kids. I recently came across their latest, which features a cover story titled “What We Eat.” The story is really just an interesting collection of photographs of families from nations all over the world, but with each family sitting with all the food in their house.

However, although the title of the article inside the magazine is “What We Eat,” the title listed on the cover of the magazine is “What They Eat.” The picture selected for the cover is not one of the family photos, but is, instead, a photo apparently selected to elicit the maximum negative visceral response possible from American kids:


So the cover separates an “us” and a “them,” and shows the American high school students how gross and weird “they” are.

Check out the issue that preceded this one by just two or three weeks:


Here American high school students learn that people around the world with dark skin are violent, dirty, and poorly dressed.

No wonder American kids grow up to be American adults whose voting habits reflect the view that American foreign policy should be paternalistic.


Missives from Marx is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Over at Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, I found a page about depictions of the Jezebel stereotype, which included a number of fascinating/horrifying images. The Jezebel was, of course, a sexually promiscuous African or African American woman, wanton and lustful. Here’s a topless grass-skirted Jezebel ashtray:


According to the website, this license plate with a pregnant Black woman came out after Lyndon B. Johnson won the 1964 Presidential election (he used the phrase “All the way with LBJ” in his campaign):


A Virgin Fishing Lucky Lure:


This is a set of swizzle sticks shaped like African women:


I found an image of a full set for sale at Go Antiques:


Note that the swizzle sticks supposedly show the woman at different ages; the age is in that cutout area in their butt. The text next to the figures:

Nifty at 15, Spiffy at 20, Sizzling at 25, Perky at 30, Declining at 35, Droopy at 40

If you look carefully you’ll see that their boobs and butts sag as they age. I wonder if this same aging scheme applies to White women? At 33, apparently I’m just about to leave the last decent stage of my life and enter my declining years. Of course, in modern America we have cosmetic surgery, so I guess I could stave off droopiness for at least a few years.

Anyway, they’re good examples of the way Black women’s bodies have often been sexualized, and how people were comfortable showing them naked even when the idea of women’s sexuality in general wasn’t considered appropriate for polite company. The Jezebel stereotype reemerged in a slightly different form  in the 1980s with the idea of the “welfare queen,” a poor black woman (on public assistance, of course) who has lots of kids with various men just to get more welfare payments, an image President Reagan used to further reduce public support for the welfare state.

Inspired by a recent post about a T-shirt where an Asian stereotype was saying I SPEAK ENGRISH, I thought of the perennial online popularity of “Engrish” in general., one of the oldest such compendia on the Web, offers a selection of photos from clothing, packaging, menus, signs, etc., largely from Asian companies. All of these photos have been collected for their supposed humor value because they contain text poorly translated into English, English text that seems incongruous with whatever it’s describing, and/or place names that sound taboo in English. Examples below the cut [some taken from the Adult Engrish section and thus possibly NSFW].  more...

Ben O. sent in this poster (from Found in Mom’s Basement), which uses images of Native Americans (or First Peoples) to encourage Canadians to contribute to the Canadian Patriotic Fund, which was set up during World War I to support wives and children of enlisted men:

It’s a great example of the white/non-white dichotomy, where whiteness implies morality while darkness/blackness is associated with evil or immorality. In this case, his heart is “white” (i.e., he’s a good, moral being) because he does the right thing by caring for war widows. I guess the morality of his act overpowers the misfortune of his skin tone.

Thanks, Ben O.!

On a side note, I’m off to Oklahoma for the next 12 days. I’ll still be posting–Verizon’s internet access program means I can get a weak signal even at the farm–but I won’t be able to check in on comments as often as usual or update posts with information commenters or readers send in.

You will most likely not notice any difference. Just be aware that when you insult me, it’ll take a little longer before I know about it.


From AdGoodness come these three print ads for a new digital camera, the Nikon S60, which apparently has a feature that allows it to auto-detect and focus on faces. The three examples include a bunch of people rubber-necking at two young “porn lesbians” [the top one of which has a horribly Photoshopped head!], a bunch of people of color sneaking up on a white safari dude, and a bunch of ghosts looking at a woman in a hotel room.  Of all the possible examples that could be used to highlight this face-finding feature, who thought it was a good idea to use some hackneyed stereotypes about sexual orientation and race?

MissCegenation (see her take over at Reciprocal Crap Exchange), Miguel E. (of El Forastero), Breck C. (also of Reciprocal Crap Exchange), Rachel N., Laura M.D., and Z. (of It’s the Thought that Counts) all sent in links to Burger King’s “Whopper Virgins” viral video campaign (we’ve never had so many people send in the same thing; clearly it touched a nerve):

There are several interesting things going on here. One is the exoticization of the “whopper virgins.” The taste tests were conducted in Thailand, Romania, and Greenland. We’re clearly supposed to find it charmingly cute that they’re unfamiliar with hamburgers. They don’t even know how to eat them! We get to see people taking their “first bite of a hamburger,” and wonder at their unfamiliarity with how to pick one up and eat it. This short video about the Thailand taste tests illustrates this with the dramatic voiceover about people who have “never even seen a burger. Who don’t even have a word for burger.”

There’s also a certain level of ethnocentrism here; note the comment that these are people who “really live outside of things.” That all depends on what you mean by “things,” which here seems to be defined by exposure to TV and hamburgers. The implicit understanding, of course, is that these are people who live in a backward, “traditional” culture, which is fascinating to outsiders but, ultimately, very bizarre. However, I am sure that if asked these people would feel they live “inside of” many things, just not the things considered important to this marketing team.

You might also use this to talk about the pervasiveness of advertising. As the video makes clear, they went to Thailand, Romania, and Greenland in hopes of finding people who hadn’t been exposed to Burger King or McDonald’s advertising, since it would be “impossible” to find such people in the U.S.

I also think the documentary element to the video is fascinating. I’m assuming the teams did travel to these areas, and the video claims they are all “real people,” not actors (who are, apparently, imaginary). But I have a suspicion that some elements were staged. Of course the taste-tests were staged, but I notice that almost everyone in the videos is wearing “traditional” clothing. I might be wrong, but it doesn’t strike me as the type of clothing people would wear every day–they seem like pretty fancy clothes that you’d wear for special occasions, but maybe I’m wrong. If anybody knows more about how people in these areas usually dress, let me know. Of course, it’s entirely possible that people dressed up in their fancier clothes entirely on their own because they wanted to look nice when being filmed. But I wonder if they were encouraged to dress in clothing that would make them seem more exotic, rather than showing up in a t-shirt (which is, by now, fairly universal, though I’m certain there are still groups who have not adopted t-shirts).

The second half of the video, where the Burger Team goes to villages in each country and makes them Whoppers, is also interesting in the way it portrays the team as philanthropists giving these communities a unique cultural experience. I mean, I guess they are, and I don’t want to fall into the trap of romanticizing “traditional” groups and implying that they should be shielded from “modern” innovations because it would ruin their culture. And it doesn’t seem like the marketing team is really trying to build brand loyalty, since it’s unlikely they’re going to be opening stores in any of these areas (although they do make sure to wrap the burgers in Burger King wrappers). It does, on the other hand, make the video seem more like a documentary and less obviously like a commercial, which adds to its effectiveness as a viral ad. I dunno. Maybe this is just an example of a corporation doing something nice, and I can’t get over my general distrust of marketers.

Another interesting angle you might bring up in discussion is the spread of fast-food culture and standardized, relatively cheap production processes in general, often referred to as “McDonaldization.” There’s also an entire book on the subject of McDonald’s in Asia, called Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia (edited by James L. Watson). I sometimes assign the chapter “McDonald’s in Hong Kong: Consumerism, Dietary Change, and the Rise of a Children’s Culture” in my intro classes to talk about cultural change; it’s fascinating how McDonald’s is to some degree undermining parental authority by appealing directly to children and empowering them to demand their favorite meals.

Laura sent us a link to a story about criticism of the campaign, found here.

And just an aside here: What’s the difference between a “village” and a “small town”? The word village seems to bring up certain assumptions about both quaintness and backwardness (and cultural isolation). I grew up in a town of slightly less than 300 people. Nobody ever called it a village. Is it a village if you don’t have paved roads, and a small town if you do? I’m just askin’.

Thanks to everybody who sent the video in!

Breck C. sent us this link to a collection of photographs of Harajuku Girls.  Harajuku is a style for teenagers in a region of Japan (here is the wikipedia entry).  I can’t think of a way to describe them that does them justice, so here are some pictures (found here, here, here and here):

In 2004, Gwen Stefani began touring with four women posing as Japanese Harajuku girls.  Stefani’s Harajuku Girls serve as her entourage and back-up dancers. Here she is with four (Japanese?) women that she hires to be her Harajuku Girls (found here and here):

In the comments, Inky points out that Stefani says this about them in her song, Rich Girl:

I’d get me four Harajuku girls to
Inspire me and they’d come to my rescue
I’d dress them wicked, I’d give them names
Love, Angel, Music, Baby
Hurry up and come and save me

Stefani also has a Harajuku Lovers clothing line and a series of perfumes, one for her, and one for each Harajuku Girl:

I think that Stefani’s use of Asian women as props (they may or may not be Japanese) fetishizes Asian women and reinforces white privilege.  The Harajuku Girls serve as contrast to Stefani’s performance of ideal white femininity.  It makes me think of both this poster on colonial-era travel and this fashion spread.

Yet, Stefani’s been at this for four years and I can’t remember hearing any objections to her Harajuku Girls, even in feminist and anti-racist alternative media.  Further, if her fashion line, perfume, and continued employment of the Harajuku Girls are any indication, people seem to think the whole thing is awesome.  In the meantime, I bet she’s making bank on her clothing line and perfume.  Where’s that money going?

Do you think my reading is fair?

And, if so, why do you think there’s been so little outcry?

For good measure, here she is performing with her “Girls”:

In our comments, SG asks that we include the following clarification:

This article is really misrepresenting a whole fashion scene and I would like to ask that you correct it- It is just perpetuating the idiocy and ignorance surrounding these styles. “Harajuku is a style for teenagers in a region of Japan”. “Harajuku style” Is a term coined by western media because they are too ignorant to actually research the names of these actual styles. Harajuku is not a style. It is a location. The females you have pictured are in Decora (and two in Visual Kei). The only “harajuku style” that exists is the fictional one made up by Gwen Stefani and the western media.

Thanks SG.

See also our post featuring other examples of ads and artists using Asians as props.

These ads, for a “fashion brand for teenagers” (according to Adverbox), use the trope of colonial taxidermic collection, to promise death to the tween love of Hello Kitty, Snoopie, Minnie and Mickey Mouse, teddy bears, unicorns, Bugs Bunny, Pinnochio, and more.

As a kid who hated Hello Kitty more than life itself and as an adult who just doesn’t get a life-long love of Disney, these ads appeal to me.  As a sociologist, their colonial trappings disturb me.   I’d love to hear your thoughts.