rina sawayama: there's a problem with the east asian women in madonna's beauty ad
Madonna’s MDNA Skin launched with a video of her and Josh "The Fat Jew" Ostrovsky being pampered by silent East Asian women. Fellow musician Rina Sawayama called her out on Twitter, and tells i-D why this trope must die.
Photography Maxwell Tomlinson
On Wednesday Madonna launched her skincare line, MDNA Skin, and honestly I couldn't care less. Fenty Beauty has already emptied my bank account (and I know I'm not the only one), and after KKW Beauty, another celebrity-endorsed beauty line is really just noise at this point. That was, before I decided to click on the full length video ad. Take a look at the over four minute long clip for yourself (if you can get through it).
As a skincare ad, the haute-clinical spa backdrop sets the perfect scene for Madonna's radiant face which, surgery or not, looks beautiful and age defying (mutually exclusive, by the way). The creative decision to include 'The Fat Jew', an Instagram comedian with 10 million followers who was accused of joke theft, is a strange one, but somehow works with the 'chatting shit in the spa' narrative. But behind them, did you notice the three East Asian women silently tending to the two? The women massaging the Fat Jew's shoulders while Madonna teaches him how to vogue (to the sound of swords clashing), the women filing his toenails, and the woman painting Madonna's nails? If you didn't, no worries -- that was the point. Aside from the eye-rolling Jamaican accent, the choice to cast three East Asian women to be the silent stereotypical accessories to the scene was totally deliberate, and to me, deliberately offensive.
Growing up in the UK in the 90/00s I saw my fair share of white celebrities and artists taking from East Asian culture and making it their own. It didn't really bother me at the time, because like many other immigrants I was trying to be white, and seeing people indulge in Japanese culture made me feel like I had worth in western society. It didn't really occur to me that Gwen's Harajuku human-Neopets was stereotyping and offensive, and at the time I didn't think much of Mickey Rooney's yellow face portrayal of Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's, aside from how annoying a character he was. I was too young, and the world was still in love with appropriation; we had something white people didn't and that made us damn cool, and gave us a 'way in' to western pop culture.
However, MDNA Skin didn't launch in the late 90s, nor in the crazy 00s. This is 2017, and casting matters. Yellow face is unacceptable, movies tank due to the miscasting of Asian characters with white actors and AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) fair pay cases make headline news. Giving POC a voice also matters: the biggest beauty launch of the decade was also the most authentically inclusive, and the biggest campaign failures were the ones who faked diversity to sell products. We aren't your funky Asian sidekicks, and we aren't your model minorities. So you know, actually, congratulations to Madonna and her team for concocting a true throwback -- an advert that goes against everything we expect to see in 2017.
You may not think that it's a big deal: "Why does it matter that the nail technicians in MDNA Skin are East Asian?" You might also think that that's quite an accurate portrayal of the types of people who you encounter at your local discount nail salon. And therein lies the problem.
"You might think that it's quite an accurate portrayal of the types of people who you encounter at your local discount nail salon. And therein lies the problem."
Let me get real with you. In major cities many E/SE Asian immigrants are often relegated to the lowest ranks in the beauty industry with little to no prospect for upwards mobility: in 2015 a New York Times article revealed that manicurists in New York City were routinely underpaid and exploited, and endure ethnic bias and abuse. I've been to salons where people who are paying next to nothing for a nail service (note: I used to be a nail tech and anything below £40 for a full set of acrylics is abysmal), yet the clients chat amongst themselves, moving their hands, touching their phones and ruining our work, not trying to interact with the technician other than telling them when something is wrong, joking about their lack of English, generally disrespecting their skill, and to top it all off -- not tipping. You may still think that this is an East Asian problem -- it's the East Asian business owners who charge the rate, and besides, it's their fault for not speaking English. Well it's not. Last year, the UK raided 280 nail salons across the country and found hundreds of victims of human trafficking and modern slavery. Modern slavery. If you knew that your cheap manicures (that you don't even care to tip the tech for) may be supporting a system of slavery in the UK then it's a humanitarian problem.
It's enough to see this scenario played out in nail salons in major cities, but to see the silent-East-Asian-nail-tech trope used as fodder to sell a ridiculously priced skincare range by the mother of all icons, is absolutely infuriating. Ironic that the MDNA range has already been popular for 3 years in East Asia (sold across 19 stores in Japan alone), that Madonna would choose to portray her main supporters as silent and passive stereotypes for the western market. More importantly, the East Asian women add nothing to the art direction; why not do a Gaga(yes I said it) and have three white nail techs in next season Calvin Klein? The problem is that wouldn't look as exotic, and Madonna wouldn't look as supreme.
And speaking of supremacy, Madonna is fast becoming a repeat offender of cultural insensitivity. Her 1998 appropriative performance of Shanti/Ashtangi at the VMAs led to the World Vaishnava Association holding a silent protest, and her more recent Rebel Heart album garnered significant criticism for the use of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King in its campaign (Madonna later explained that this was fan art that she shared). Her response? "Oh they can kiss my ass". Her I-don't-give-a-shit attitude is getting old in an era where giving a shit very much matters. You can scream 'Bitch I'm Madonna' from the top of the world, but the year is 2017 and young people care less about who you are, and more about what you stand for.
To be honest, I felt conflicted about writing this piece: reducing a woman's incredible contribution to culture and a lifetime's work to a few questionable incidents feels entirely anti-feminist. However, her latest campaigns are an epitome of white privilege, and that precludes feminism. I know that as a Japanese woman it's expected of me not to speak up about these things, but having been objectified ("You're so kawaii!"), fetishised, disrespected and appropriated all my life, plus being told that my concerns are trivial because of the 'model minority' myth, I'm now among a group of young creatives and activists standing up against it: Rebel Yellow highlights the news that affects AAPI people, @ESEAsianBeauty represents the myriad of Asian beauties around the world and also discusses important AAPI issues, photographer Elizabeth Lee created a beautiful project called @xi__ng exhibiting E/SE Asian trailblazers, and model Kiko Mizuhara is speaking up against racism within Asia, as well as fashion designers such as A Sai Ta of ASAI who lead the way in creating political fashion. My award winning nail tutor Anna Lee has worked tirelessly to turn the tide in opinions of SEA nail technicians, and is an important force in the industry that has wildly transformed since Tippi Hedrin first appointed Vietnamese refugees into powerful positions in the nail industry 40 years ago.
With this in mind, I re-watch the clip again and notice Madonna waving a fan as she jokes about all the questionable decisions she's made in the last 33 years. This is definitely one to add to the list, and let's hope no more POCs will be at the sharp end of her questionable decisions in the future.