Sadly, Gwen Stefani Has Been Problematic This Whole Time
I didn’t realize Gwen Stefani had a legacy of cultural appropriation until I got older. And for this, I am no longer a fan.
Photos by Getty and Interscope Records
"Cold Takes" is a column in which we express our passionate beliefs about insignificant events and Internet discourses at least several months too late.
Growing up as an adolescent in the late 1990s, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera dominated mainstream pop-related discussions. Their perfectly packaged music and looks appealed to tweens and teens who wanted to be like the pretty, chart-topping pop stars plastered everywhere. While I indulged in the shared fascination, Gwen Stefani intrigued me like none other. Not only did Stefani have a different sound, but as the front-woman of SoCal rock band No Doubt, she cultivated a look that was sweet yet rugged.
As I transitioned into a young adult, my fascination with Stefani turned to criticism once I became old enough to grasp what was truly happening: cultural appropriation.
This week, Stefani’s debut solo album Love. Angel. Music. Baby. celebrates its 14th anniversary and I can’t help but think that optics surrounding Stefani’s early branding would be considered highly offensive by today’s standards. Despite her allure and accolades, Stefani’s co-option of different cultures for a white American palette goes back to the beginning of her career and must be dissected.
In 1995, after putting out two studio albums through their label Interscope, No Doubt released Tragic Kingdom. The ska-punk album was heavily influenced by pop, rock, grunge, and reggae, and solidified the band's place on the music charts with hits like “Don’t Speak,” “Spiderwebs,” and “Just a Girl.”
As lead vocalist, Stefani’s fashion choices quickly became infamous. In the mid-1990s, the singer of Italian and English descent started wearing a bindi and commercialized the sacred decoration, originally worn by South Asian women for religious and cultural practices. Stefani, who once dated fellow No Doubt bandmate Tony Kanal, who is of Indian descent, was seen in the group's music videos sporting the cultural symbol as a part of her distinct look. Failing to recognize and process the gravity of Stefani’s actions as a youth, I continued to support the pop star and anticipated the release of her solo project without questioning her problematic aesthetic.
After informally splitting with No Doubt in the early 2000s, Stefani embarked on a fascinating solo run that catapulted the singer into superstardom. In 2001, Stefani collaborated with Eve for "Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” which earned a Grammy Award for best rap/sung collaboration. Deviating from her traditional rock origin, Stefani would spend the next few years experimenting with her sound and her ever-changing look. In 2004, the singer released her debut album Love. Angel. Music. Baby. that featured significant contributions from Pharrell Williams and collaborations with rappers Eve and Andre 3000. Flirting with synth pop, rock, and hip-hop, the album produced Stefani's first and only U.S. number one hit, "Hollaback Girl.”
At this point, despite her noticeable success, Stefani’s knack for cultural appropriation was becoming hard to ignore. No stranger to pulling inspiration from minority cultures and replicating their likeness for profit, Stefani's harmful antics were able to evade judgment, in part, because it was before "cultural appropriation" became a national buzzword and also because we lacked today's social media platforms that ignite public conversation.
“Hollaback Girl” was a commercial success and topped the Billboard Hot 100 for four consecutive weeks. Despite the album debuting at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, the introduction of the Harajuku Girls, four Japanese backup dancers who accompanied Stefani in videos and promotional events, became a focal point in the singer's career. The group made numerous appearances in Stefani's videos and ultimately became a powerful marketing tool throughout her solo run. Introduced in the music video, "What You Waiting For,” the Harajuku Girls were strategically placed in the visual whilst Gwen sings the bridge: "I can't wait to go / Back into Japan / Get me lots of brand new fans / Osaka, Tokyo / You Harajuku girls / Damn, you've got some wicked style."
The second single, "Rich Girl" featuring Eve showed the girls once again being used as props to push Stefani's agenda of cultural relevance. In the catchy single, she even proclaims that she sees the Harajuku Girls as possessions: “I'd get me four Harajuku girls to (uh huh) / Inspire me and they'd come to my rescue / I'd dress them wicked, I'd give them names (yeah) / Love, angel, music, baby / Hurry up and come and save me."
In a 2005 Salon article about the Harajuku Girls, writer Mihi Ahn says, "Stefani fawns over harajuku style in her lyrics, but her appropriation of this subculture makes about as much sense as the Gap selling Anarchy T-shirts; she's swallowed a subversive youth culture in Japan and barfed up another image of submissive giggling Asian women." Ahn also notes that the Harajuku Girls were reportedly contractually obligated to speak only Japanese in public, "even though it's rumored they're just plain old Americans and their English is just fine. "
Unfortunately, her fetishization didn't stop there. The "Luxurious" video featuring Slim Thug found Stefani transfixed by SoCal Chola-influenced fashion and beauty. The video also has scenes where Stefani intentionally resembles Mexican painter Frida Kahlo while beating a series of piñatas and softly caressing herself while wearing a shirt of the religious figure, Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Somewhere around 2006 when Stefani was still traveling with the Harajuku Girls, I began to realize that the singer’s knack for cultural appropriation was a major problem.
But unfortunately, it wasn’t until I joined Twitter years later and became more aware of how pop-culture often sucks the life from disenfranchised communities as fodder, that I realized that various people shared similar thoughts about Stefani’s offensive actions.
When asked about the Harajuku Girls in 2014, Stefani brazenly told TIME that she doesn't regret her decision to hire and feature them, despite intense criticism. She went on to say, “There’s always going to be two sides to everything. For me, everything that I did with the Harajuku Girls was just a pure compliment and being a fan… Seriously, that was all meant out of love.”
It's almost as if Stefani paints a revisionist history where she sees herself as the bridge connecting American and Japanese culture, instead of owning up to exploiting Asian women for profit and notoriety. Despite her blunders during her solo career, Stefani has seen herself in more controversies since her days with the Harajuku Girls. In 2012, after reuniting with No Doubt, the group pulled their music video "Looking Hot" a day after its debut due to stereotypical portrayal of Indigenous people. In 2016, the singer was in hot water after her backup dancers dressed in African-inspired pieces pulled from Valentino's "wild Africa" themed Spring/Summer 2016 collection during an episode of The Voice.
Despite her missteps, Stefani has been able to maintain a thriving career without any major cancellations. In a culture where social media prides itself on putting a dent in high-profile careers, Stefani has somehow been able to remain unscathed without her cultural infractions being used against her.
Looking back, Gwen's earnest adaptations of cultures feel more like gimmicks made in an attempt to make her look more "cultured" than the next pop girl. What Stefani failed to understand is that co-opting entire cultures—especially as a white woman of privilege—never was or will be OK. The crux of appropriation is not just in the stealing of one’s likeness, it’s also in profiting from a disenfranchised community with utter disregard.
Like Fergie, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Iggy Azalea, and countless other white women in pop culture that came after Stefani, cultural appropriation is nothing but a formula for success that rests upon the likeness of people of color. Co-opting cultures has trickled down to regular people who see no problem in wearing somebody’s culture as a costume. Recently, white women who "cosplay" as Black women on social media confirmed the idea that white women forcefully position themselves in cultures/races they have no business in. Yes, this is apparently a problem for famous and non-famous white women.
While a sincere apology from Stefani would be a step in the right direction as it would show growth and courage, I doubt Stefani will admit defeat anytime soon. As long as the industry continues to reward white entertainers for “trying something new" Stefani's actions will go by the wayside. Luckily, I grew up, built a strong conscience, and walked away from Stefani with or without her recompense.