"You Can Never Be Too Rich or Too Thin": Popular and Consumer Culture and the Americanization of Asian American Girls and Young Women

Article excerpt

First- and second-generation youth of color are vulnerable to racialized images of gender and sexuality as reflected in and perpetuated by dominant forms of popular and consumer cultures. These popular images inform the process of Americanization, including racialized sexualization, for first- and second-generation Americans. This paper examines the way first- and second-generation Asian American girls and young women interpret and reinterpret popular representations of their positions in the United States. Data from two qualitative studies on Asian American young women will be presented.

Scholars from various fields have written about the powerful impact of popular and consumer cultures on youth identities and cultures (Appadurai, 1990; Giroux, 1992, 1994; Pyke, 2000; Silverstone, 1994). For youth from immigrant families, popular and consumer cultures are significant sources of information about "America" and being "American" (Olsen, 1997; Pyke, 2000). First- and second-generation youth of color, in general, are affected by the dominant messages of Whiteness, which pervade popular and consumer culture (Olsen, 1997; Pyke, 2000). Young women, in particular, are vulnerable to racialized images of gender and sexuality as reflected in and promoted by dominant forms of popular and consumer cultures. Gender, race, and class inform the process of Americanization, including racialized sexualization, for first- and second-generation Asian American young women. This paper examines the way first- and second-generation Asian American women interpret and reinterpret popular representations of their positions in the United States. It includes a review of the literature, a brief description of two qualitative studies, data from a sample of Asian American high school girls and a sample of college students, and discussion of the implications of the findings.

POPULAR AND CONSUMER CULTURE AND THE GENDERED RACIALIZATION OF ASIAN AMERICANS

Research on immigrant students of color (Lee, 2001b; Lei, 2001; Olsen, 1997) reveals that students undergo a process of racialization as they are incorporated into the existing racial hierarchy of the United States-one that places White people at the top and defines them as the only true Americans. While the formal curriculum and organization of schooling are implicated in this process, popular and consumer cultures, operating both within and outside of schools, leverage considerable power in the creation and re-creation of this racialized notion of American identity (Hall, 1995). As cultural studies theorists like Thomas Nakayama (1994) have observed, "It is as if there is a natural-as opposed to cultural, social, historical-relation between whiteness and Americanness" (pp. 168-69). Whiteness, in consumer culture, is both pervasive and invisible as the unmarked norm. Significantly, unmarked Whiteness is a classed racial category, determined by an equally unmarked middle class status, such that the norm for Americanness is both middle class and White (Kenny, 2000; Ong, 2000).

Of equal significance is the multiple ways in which Blackness is constructed in popular cultures and by students as the readers or consumers of those cultures. While Whiteness is constructed in dominant popular culture as all that is quintessentially good and right with Americanness, Blackness is constructed as the Other which defines that goodness-it functions to maintain the dichotomy of good and bad in American culture and society (hooks, 1989, 1992). As julia Koza (1994) points out, Black rap music is discursively characterized in mainstream media as rejecting what is right and legitimate about dominant American (read: White) values. It is portrayed as violent, resistant, sexist, and dangerous. Simultaneously, White families are portrayed as the normal American family; while Black families, with few notable exceptions, are portrayed as either absent or dysfunctional and deficient. This elaborates Nakayama's point that the collapsing of Whiteness and Americanness is achieved through the construction of a Black-White binary. …