Published: Jan. 10, 1999 By

Bobby takes the little cuz to a T.J. beauty shop. Get rid of the pigtails. Get rid of the Chinagirl look. Get a cut looking like Rafaela. That's it. Now get her a T-shirt and some jeans and some tennis shoes. Jeans say Levi's. Shoes say Nike. T-shirt says Malibu. That's it.[1] By now the typical U.S. reader is familiar with Nike's track record of sweatshops in Asian countries and with how transnational electronics, garment, and sneaker industries exploit women workers overseas and in the U.S.1 Certainly less familiar is how Asian immigrant women consume or use global commodities. In the following passage from Tropic of Orange, however, Karen Tei Yamashita evokes both the production and the consumption of global commodities.2 by Asian immigrant women:

Border's nothing but desks and lines of people on linoleum floors. Bobby's in line like one more tourist. He's got the cuz holding a new Barbie doll in a box, like she bought it cheap in T.J. Official eyeballs Bobby's passport and waves them through. That's it. Two celestials without a plan. Drag themselves through the slit jus' like any Americanos. Just like Visa cards.

While little cuz, or Xiayue as she is named in Yamashita's novel, is being pulled into the U.S. for production purposes by a labor smuggling ring and is undeniably exploited by the operations of Pacific Rim capitalism, this vivid border crossing simultaneously foregrounds Xiayue's consumption of material commodities that are also representational texts. In fact, the material commodities that Xiayue consumes narrativize her body temporarily and are part of a beauty industry that signifies "Americano." Further, we learn from this crossing that global commodities of beauty, whether fashion trends in the form of name brand clothes, services in the form of hairstyles, or toys in the form of Barbie dolls, can be consumed or used as symbolic capital to cross the physical and ideological borders between Tijuana and the U.S.3 This is the essential point I will pursue in my essay; in particular, I will consider the consumption of global commodities of beauty by Asian immigrant and Asian American women as portrayed in the narratives of Jessica Hagedorn, Cindy Yoon, and participants in the Miss India Georgia Pageant. These narratives encourage readers to take consumption seriously, as meaningful signification, and they reveal how consumption can enable challenges to national identity and mobilize what I am calling here Asian American transnational feminism.4 But before moving on to my analysis, I will provide a critical and theoretical context for a consideration of narratives of consumption, rather than "less mediated" practices of consumption or production, through a discussion of developments in Asian American feminist discourse.

The Context of Asian American Transnational Feminism

[2] I analyze representations of Asian immigrant and Asian American women's consumption practices in narrative texts for practical and methodological purposes. First, there is little quantitative or qualitative research on either the material or non-material consumption of Asian American women, except perhaps for a few obscure market segmentation studies, which I do not want to rely on here for reasons that should become clear.5Second, while I want to promote a more materially-based critical focus on consumption, and I would employ findings on Asian American women's purchasing patterns if they were widely available, I would nevertheless use such research on a very limited basis, because I want to destabilize, following the most recent developments in Asian American transnational feminist cultural studies, notions of truth and authenticity in representational forms, especially those of academic discourse.6Therefore, I do not attempt to access "real" Asian immigrant and Asian American women in my research, and this representational or evidential distancing actually resists the naturalization of the Asian woman consumer because it does not insist on the embodiment of Asian women in the exclusive form of "real" research subjects and a bodily presence between research subject and researcher. Finally, looking at consumption through narrative underscores how consumption is always a signifying process; it is inevitably representational.

[3] Emphasizing the affiliations and coalitions that women are forming across national borders and other categories of identity on the basis of "resonant political-economic circumstances under global capitalism," activists and cultural critics are currently in the process of detailing and theorizing the parameters of a revitalized Asian American feminism. Much of the discussion focuses specifically on similarities in the relations of production, particularly those that rely upon racialized and feminized labor, for Asian women in the global economy.7 Resistant cultural production by Asian immigrant and Asian American women that references the global economy has become then, in many recent studies including my own, the evidence, the text, or the object of study in Asian American transnational feminist cultural studies. When we acknowledge consumption, however, we tend to refer either to the inability of Asian, Asian immigrant, and Asian American women to consume, especially those very commodities their labor produces, or to the organization of the anonymous consumer in campaigns to pressure companies to improve conditions for workers.8 Critics not only rarely acknowledge assimilationist cultural production or assimilationist elements of a text but also neglect to consider any consumption, whether conforming or resistant, by Asian, Asian immigrant, and Asian American women.

[4] The hermeneutical separation of production and consumption perhaps makes sense considering that the international division of labor is hierarchical, structured on the geopolitical separation of management and manufacture, as well as on differentiating people according to their function as consumers or producers of global commodities. But critics and researchers need to more fully recognize that epistemological borders, like the borders of national political economies, are flexible and permeable. And while privileging the production of culturally and racially marginalized groups is a part of any decolonizing project, critical practices also need to validate consumption, material and cultural, rather than only reverse the traditional split between production and consumption that is typically found in materialist-oriented discussions of culture and political economy.9 Unsettling the tidy analytical division between consumption and production is crucial because they are intertwined processes or practices involved in a single, complex process. Their separation also maintains binary divisions, such as American/Asian, civilized/primitive, culture/commodity, white feminist/Asian woman, that can be used to reinscribe First/Third World paradigms and systems which Asian American transnational feminism is trying to challenge. In short, a feminist analysis that considers Asian American women's production without considering their consumption can discursively consign "the Asian woman" to a "Third World" where neither meaningful production nor consumption takes place in the mind of a "First World." I propose and hope to demonstrate in my analysis an elaboration of Asian American transnational feminism that considers the processes of consumption in relation to the processes of production of material commodities and narrative texts, and, perhaps as importantly, reads consumption itself dialectically, both in the Marxian sense and the general sense of the word.

[5] The richest discussions of "consumption" in the literature on production have been concerned with feminist scholarship that appropriates Asian, Asian immigrant, and Asian American women's images, labor, and cultural productions as objects of knowledge on the overly consumptive side of the international division of labor. In the compelling essay "Si(gh)ting Asian/American Women as Transnational Labor," Laura Hyun Yi Kang theorizes issues of representation for the documentary mode and challenges mostly feminist researchers who have "uncritically" represented Asian women and played a part in thoroughly familiarizing a U.S. audience with an image of "the Asian woman" who is exploited by transnational corporations (410).10Kang explains:

I wish to trouble the positivist assumptions that such complexities [local and global inequalities] can be readily accessed through some truthful, objective language, and consequently, that 'uncovering' and 'reporting' about them are always empowering and liberatory gestures. Paying close critical attention to the metaphors, plots, and images by which Asian/American women workers are represented can help us to avoid mistaking our own discourse making as an ultimate political end.

Kang argues that documentaries, both linguistic accounts and visual representations, which feature the exploitation of Asian women workers, whether in assembly-line manufacturing, military prostitution, or commercial tourism-related prostitution, can participate in "fixing" the Asian woman as the "proper" transnational working body.11

[6] Gayatri Spivak's influence is evident in Kang's essay, since Spivak has drawn critical attention to the epistemic violence inflicted upon or the erasure of the female subaltern subject in academic discourse, and specifically in Foucauldian poststructuralism. In "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Spivak asserts that much of the theoretical discourse that supposedly deconstructs the sovereign subject reinstalls the Subject of the "history of Europe or the West" and is actually "complicit with Western international economic interests" (Spivak 285, 271). Kang's analysis of several documentaries makes a similar observation noting that "one particularly problematic aspect of this . . . production of knowledge is an implicit acceptance of the exploitative working conditions negotiated by Asian/American women workers as a necessary phase in some inevitable trajectory of capitalist growth" (Kang 410). Contending that there are representational and political limits in the documentary mode, Kang moves beyond Spivak by asking not only about the possibility of representing the Asian woman worker in academic discourse but also by asking what giving up the "dream of si(gh)ting the real Asian woman or women" would mean for understanding late capitalist realities (430).

[7] Along the way, Kang outlines strategies for avoiding exploitative representations in academic discourse, and she analyzes several documentary texts, most thoroughly those by Annette Fuentes and Barbara Ehrenreich, Cynthia Enloe, Swasti Mitter, and June Nash and Maria Patricia Fernandez-Kelly.12 First Kang observes that documentaries naturalize Asian women as transnational labor through a "logical" spatial and temporal distancing and through an embodiment using photographic and linguistic images. To avoid these two interrelated processes of naturalization, Kang usefully suggests that researchers 1) point to simultaneous and interconnected socioeconomic use of Asian women workers in the United States now and historically; 2) be careful not to reproduce an assumed "political cosmology" or a developmental narrative of global capitalism; 3) "be alert to how the language of describing Asian women and the global assembly line prioritizes–if it does not outrightly assume–the subject position of transnational capital accumulation" and desubjectivizes Asian women workers; 4) place the labor conditions of Asian women workers in manufacturing alongside those in international sex tourism to interrogate the mechanical and the eroticized construction of the Asian female body; and 5) investigate the embodiment of the Asian woman in contrast to other racialized, gendered bodies in the same sites (420, 427).

[8] Kang's explicit concern with how the transnational labor of Asian, Asian immigrant, and Asian American women is represented and with the discursive production of Asian women as "natural" transnational laborers is accompanied by a more implicit interest in the consumption of the image of the Asian woman as transnational labor by the various consumers of documentary texts. While it would be illuminating if the essay also identified strategies for consuming representations, the five questions with which Kang ends her essay are suggestive indeed and highlight the mutual imbrication of the production and consumption of these textual commodities:

Is the sight of Asian women's denuded or contorted bodies necessary to discuss these political-economic conditions? How can visualization further objectify this working figure? Is there an illusionary certainty about the 'materiality' of this particular body of women that displaces critical and sustained attention to the complicated and constructed terrains of global capitalism? Are there other possibilities for visualizing these political-economic phenomena without solely or even partially fixating upon the figures of the Asian women workers? Then, too, how are these bodies remade and circulated into an object of visual and epistemological consumption and exchange? (430)

Kang calls for more varied representations, new ways of making them, and a refreshingly skeptical approach to "evidence" that can avoid positivism and resist an appropriation that discursively reproduces "the Asian woman" who is assigned to the secondary place in a First World/Third World paradigm. Kang seems optimistic that while they have limits documentary accounts are not somehow inevitably complicit in the operations of global capitalism. Finally, the message to "Asian/American women" that "our own representational strategies . . . demand the same critical gaze that our analysis of others' representations has impelled" promises additional rigorous and more dialectical analysis (429).13

[9] I am arguing, following Kang, that one additional strategy of careful representation for those of us who engage in feminist critiques of domination, whether through the documentary mode or some other form, and despite their admitted partiality and complicity in academic systems of knowledge production, is a fuller critical focus on consumption. This strategy is not used to "truthfully" represent or know the "real Asian woman," but to acknowledge the complexity of subjectivity and to learn more about how people can and do live under and against global capitalism. Further, by using as "evidence" a range of representations, images, and narratives–both fictionalized and "real," filmic and linguistic, commodified and textualized–academic discourse can attempt to avoid the pitfalls of positivism or empiricism. In Immigrant Acts Lisa Lowe ambitiously argues for a critical practice that, while specifying differences, finds connections and moves between various forms of "evidence" or Asian American cultural production, such as testimony, personal narrative, oral history, literature, film, and visual arts, "to displace the categorizing drive of disciplinary formations that would delimit the transgressive force of articulations within regulative epistemological or evaluative boundaries."14 Lowe understands this methodology strictly in terms of reading articulations of Asian American production that are resistant and that specifically politicize the contradictions of capitalism for racialized Asian immigrant groups in the U.S.; she reads them using a historical dialectical materialism that attends to racial formation, although without including consumption or assimilation in her analysis. But the same methodology, it seems to me, can be used for understanding consumption practices, and consumption practices may be evidence of resistant subjectivity and community or they may not. My analysis, therefore, of narrative representations of consumption in fiction, documentary film, and autobiographical essay does not constitute a slippage between claiming to analyze "real" consumption and then analyzing "mere narrative representations" of consumption as much as it signals a methodology of feminist critique currently being developed in Asian American feminist cultural studies that resists both the truth value accorded empirical research and the ideal and symbolic (read unreal) value associated with cultural analysis.

[10] Besides challenging the conventional validation of knowledge claims, Lowe's major contributions to the field of Asian American transnational feminist cultural studies and her importance to this essay involve her theorization of Asian American subject formation under late capitalism. Not only are "cultural forms of many kinds . . . important media in the formation of . . . subjectivity," but "in the complex encounters between transnational capital and women . . . displacements produce new possibilities precisely because they have led to a breakdown and reformulation of the categories of nation, race, class, and gender and in doing so have prompted a reconceptualization of the oppositional narratives of nationalism, Marxism, and feminism" (158, 161). More specifically, the racialized feminization of women's labor by global capitalism displaces "traditional and national patriarchies" and re-racializes Asian women workers in relation to other racialized groups (161). These observations–that subjectivity, struggle, and community are formed through various media, that racialized and feminized subjectivities are being formed as a result of changes in capitalism, and that these formations of subjectivity, political struggle, and community will be new or different from previous forms–are extremely important theorizations of late capitalism that I use, along with a non-empirical materialist methodology, in my analysis of consumption practices. Certain critical skills that allow for resistance and politicization are part of a new relation to late-capitalist conditions for Asian, Asian immigrant, and Asian American women, but I will focus on those skills as they are demonstrated in consumption practices rather than in the production of culture.

Consuming Global Commodities of Beauty and Challenging National Identity

[11] A version of Janice Radway's "interpretive community" is useful for describing Asian American transnational feminism as it is made up of those who practice, elicit, promote, or study certain kinds of consumption practices, which are called socially created "literacies" or "cultural competences" in studies of popular culture. In a review of several films featuring Asian women and a discussion of her own reception practices, Jessica Hagedorn begins to elaborate these analytical and resistant consumption skills with the observation that "as females and as Asians, as audiences or performers . . . we have learned to view between the lines, or to add what is missing. For many of us, this way of watching has always been a necessity. We fill in the gaps." Similarly, in an analysis of the reception of Miss Saigon, Lynn Lu writes that "each of [the] active spectators critically calls into question the meaning of white actors in yellow-face, martyred women, and persistent sexual stereotypes through their self-conscious, self-referential, queer and raced inversions of those images."16 Articulating the skills or literacies of Asian American women consumers can help us understand more precisely Asian American transnational feminism's deep concern for the exploitative and the enabling functions of consumption.

[12] In proposing Asian American transnational feminism as an interpretive community, I draw upon a culturally specific understanding of interpretive community, like the one formulated by Jacqueline Bobo in her study Black Women as Cultural Readers, though it should be noted that she maintains a clear distinction between the consumption of non-textualized material commodities and the consumption of cultural commodities, which I, by contrast, want to question:

Black women's challenge to cultural domination is part of an activist movement that works to improve the conditions of their lives. Included in the movement are black female cultural producers, critics and scholars, and cultural consumers. As a group, the women make up what I have termed an interpretative community, which is strategically placed in relation to cultural works that either are created by black women or feature them in significant ways. Working together the women utilize representations of black women that they deem valuable, in productive and politically useful ways.17

Of course, not all Asian immigrant or Asian American women are part of the interpretive community that is Asian American transnational feminism, and not all of those who make up the interpretive community are racialized women. Consumers and cultural readers are "consciously politically committed, or…in the process of coming to consciousness….As cultural producers, critics, [consumers,] and members of an audience the women are positioned to intervene strategically in the imaginative construction, critical interpretation, and social condition of [Asian] women" (25-27). In Bobo's analysis and in my use of the concept of an interpretive community, there is no sense of a group homogenous in its racial, ethnic, national, sexual, socioeconomic, or gender identification. Rather, the community shares common interpretive skills which may be most often but not exclusively acquired through the late-capitalist experience of the racialized feminization of labor, anti-Asian racism, racialized sexism, and orientalist cultural imperialism. Finally, such a community is culled through the political desire to act on the injustices it readily sees.

[13] Hagedorn's 1990 novel Dogeaters is among those narrative texts that encourage readers to alter their critical focus by highlighting the consumption of global commodities of beauty, and an analysis of it certainly can illuminate the practices and the meaning of consumption by Asian, Asian immigrant, or Asian American women. Since this is a fictional account featuring a representation of the consumption of fictional characters, it may be tempting to read Hagedorn's text as a simple, idealized, or in some other way "unreal" narrative account of consumption. But readers should be assured that the representation has a basis in reality when they recognize the extreme materiality of the novel and when they recognize the ways the novel reveals itself as a representation of consumption practices, without making claims to a single or simple truth about the consumption of global commodities of beauty by Asian women. Inserted into Hagedorn's creative narrative are excerpts and quotations from, for example, a 1898 William McKinley speech about the colonization of the Philippines, and Jean Mallat's 1846 study The Philippines. The novel is then literally constructed through a combination of historical and fictional written documents, which underscores the material basis of the novel and other fictional texts and renders the mediated or representational nature of the novel transparent by revealing the "authors" of the text. The materiality of the novel is further confirmed by a detailed depiction of its setting in the Philippines during the Marcos regime. Material and social context is established by an elaboration in the novel's plots, themes, and characters of the legacy of Spanish and U.S. colonization, export-led industrialization and neocolonialism, the quotidian violence under martial law, and a portrayal of cultural practices such as the commonplace production and enjoyment of local beauty pageants. More importantly, perhaps, and relevant to the destabilization of conventional approaches to evidence in representational forms, Hagedorn's postmodern pastiche also emphasizes the mediated status of discourses, such as official histories, newspaper accounts, and government documents, that typically make claims to authentically representing truth or reality by putting them amidst fiction, film, radio drama, and gossip.18

[14] About halfway into the text is a narrative about the Young Miss Philippines annual beauty pageant and the archipelago's new queen, Daisy Avila. Ironically, Daisy is the daughter of a progressive senator who opposes the totalitarian Marcos regime (1965-1986) and the neocolonialism that underwrite the pageant. Immediately after the pageant, however, Daisy falls into deep depression and sequesters herself. When the First Lady of the Philippines (Imelda Marcos) appears on television to declare that Daisy has insulted the nation by not addressing the public, Daisy denounces the pageant as a farce, "a giant step backward for all women" (109). Moreover, Daisy accuses the First Lady of furthering the cause of female delusions in the Philippines, but her denunciation in the televised segment of the talk show "Girl Talk" is blacked out by censors. Daisy then becomes involved in underground resistance to the dictatorship, is captured and tortured, and finally released. Eventually, she becomes a communist guerilla working to overthrow the government.

[15] Placing the pageant's narrative at the literal center of the text and using it to depict a national scandal about how women can best help develop the Philippine nation, Hagedorn underscores how the gendered national identity encoded by pageant sponsors and the national identity performed by beauty pageant contestants are not necessarily coterminous. Further, Hagedorn elaborates a second layer of consumption by depicting how the audiences of pageants understand the performances as enactments of national identity. On the day of the pageant, the entire country is riveted to the television, and "everyone in the country is elated by the new and unexpected scandal" that Daisy's abdication and denouncements create (109). In fact, "Daisy becomes a sensation," and "[t]he rock band Juan Tamad records a song" dedicated to her (109). By enacting the oppositional consumption of the pageant's ideologies, Daisy, the new Miss Philippines, becomes the embodiment of national resistance. The resistance that Daisy performs and later lives and the resistance that the television audience applauds is specifically a rejection of the Marcos neocolonialist regime, which had as its cornerstone the expanding export processing zones that depend upon racialized and feminized labor and that are the economic backdrop of the novel19

[16] While it is obvious that beauty pageants are a tool of patriarchy and that much of what is being sold in beauty pageants via the cosmetics, clothes, body images, and competitions is a dominant European American standard of femininity for women, Hagedorn's novel, and the actual MAKIBAKA protest against a Miss Philippines pageant which Hagedorn fictionalizes, make it clear that such contests are as much about racialized national identity as they are about gender stereotypes. The editors ofBeauty Queens on the Global Stage, a collection of ethnographic essays, encourage this complex view of pageants by directing readers to consider how the international proliferation of beauty pageants, like the exportation of Hollywood films, functions as a tool of U.S. hegemonic culture and capital at the same time that pageants function as vehicles for contesting the ideological narratives that are intended to accompany them. Indeed, the construction of national identity in beauty pageants has been part of their purpose since they emerged in modern form in the United States in the early nineteenth century. Especially after 1951, when the Miss America corporation invented the Miss World pageant, and 1952 when the Miss Universe pageant was created, separate national contests became unified under international umbrellas, and the local, regional, and state or prefectural contests of most societies began to lead to national titles and international contests. Anthropologist Robert Foster notes that like "'folk festivals, theme parks, worlds' fairs, and sports competitions,'" both distinctive national culture and international membership are simultaneously signified in beauty contests.20 Thus, for industrializing countries beauty pageants became a means to signify modernity and civilization.

[17] At the same time, according to Colleen Cohen, Richard Wilk, and Beverly Stoeltje, beauty pageants are "places where cultural meanings are produced, consumed, and rejected, where local and global, ethnic and national, national and international cultures and structures of power are engaged in their most trivial but vital aspects." In other words, while sponsors may attempt to deploy a homogenous (inter)national identity, beauty pageants do not produce a single, coherent message largely because of the complexity of consumption practices. The MAKIBAKA protest against the Miss Philippines Pageant, for example, began the contemporary period of Philippine feminist nationalism, which holds that national liberation would be achieved "only with the elimination of the 'feudal,' or patriarchal, treatment of women, commercialization of women's bodies, and other discriminatory practices and structures that inhibit women's full development."21It is precisely this complexity that Hagedorn illuminates when she draws attention to Daisy's radical rejection of the ideologies in the Young Miss Philippines Pageant and the audience's celebration of her actions.

[18] To further convey a sophisticated sense of how multiple popular cultural commodities are involved in the formation of the subject, Hagedorn accompanies the oppositional consumption of the beauty pageant with Rio Gonzaga's negotiated and creative use of Hollywood films. One of the main characters inDogeaters, Rio is involved, like Daisy, in the struggle to construct a decolonized self using the limited range of representations she is offered. The magnitude of the challenge is indicated in several passages depicting Rio's negotiation of gender and sexuality in Hollywood films. As Rio and her cousin Pucha study the romance that unfolds in All That Heaven Allows, for instance, Rio remarks that Gloria Talbott's "casual arrogance seems inherently American, modern, and enviable" (4). Given the colonial relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines from 1898 to 1946, and the neocolonialism that still exists between the two countries, Rio's use of Hollywood films to construct a Filipino identity that mimics an American identity may be predictable.22 But just as she negotiates the gender and sexual identity encoded in Hollywood films, Rio finds the national identity simultaneously constructed in them inadequate.

[19] To locate a more expansive national identity, one which allows for her mestiza heritage, Rio also looks to performances outside Hollywood narratives. She surreptitiously watches Tagalog films and becomes an ardent fan of the Filipino radio drama, Love Letters. It is important to recognize here that Rio's consumption of devalued local cultural production requires resistance to the cultural hierarchies of her parents and neocolonial Philippine society in general. Moreover, Rio says she is addicted to the radio dramas and romances because she consumes "different things" through listening to Love Letters: "Just like our Tagalog movies, the serial is heavy with pure love, blood debts, luscious revenge, the wisdom of mothers, and the enduring sorrow of Our Blessed Virgin Barbara Villanueva" (12). While the concept of a collective national identity permeates her description of Love Letters, Rio discovers that her nascent notion of a hybrid national identity is not fully represented in either the global or the local commodities that she consumes. As a result, Rio finally decides that she will make her own movies and literally relocates to Hollywood.

[20] The representation of the consumption of beauty pageants as well as Hollywood films and local Filipino cultural commodities in Hagedorn's Dogeaters depicts how national identities are ideologically constructed through consuming global commodities of beauty, and how counterhegemonic subjectivities and social formations can also be produced out of the resistant reception of commodities. Three of the most important figures in the novel, Daisy, Rio, and Joey, a gay male prostitute who narrowly escapes the violence of the regime and joins Daisy in her insurgency, reject the hegemonic national identity with which they are faced. While resignification may be constrained, as possibly indicated by Rio's decision to relocate to Hollywood to produce her own films, and the long-term effects of resistant consumption by Daisy and Rio may be unknown, thanks to Hagedorn readers know that the consumption of global commodities of beauty has transformed these characters' individual subjectivities, the cultural production they participate in, and the social formations they choose to be a part of in order to change.

[21] Hagedorn's fictional narrative representation of the complex ways in which global commodities, particularly beauty pageants, are consumed in the formation of national subjects in late capitalism is paralleled by the statements and actions of four young women featured in Miss India Georgia (1997), a documentary produced and directed by Daniel Friedman and Sharon Grimberg.23 This text, like Dogeaters, is a representation of the consumption of beauty pageants, both global and local, and also self-consciously reveals itself as a representation of consumption practices through an obvious interviewing format and visible editing and filming techniques. In important ways, however, the film resists being understood as a mediated narrative not only because it represents "real" women but also because it details multiple practices without directly privileging or commenting upon any of them. In fact, this montage of interviews proceeds through a tension mediated by the producers between the contradictory and diverse motivations and preparations of four teenage contestants. As the brochure advertising the video states, these are "Four young women. Four ways of being American." While the voice of an interviewer is sometimes audible in the video, moreover, there is no self-disclosure by the producers/directors, which presents, particularly since they are not of Asian ancestry, another level of consumption and appropriation for some viewers.24 So while destabilizing the evidence of a fictionalized narrative such asDogeaters results in attention to its connection to material conditions and reinforces the notion that consumption of commodities affects national identity formation, destabilizing the evidence of a documentary film such as Miss India Georgia results in attention to its mediation and reinforces the point that consumption creates diverse national subjects. In both narratives then representations of the complex national subjectivity of Asian, Asian immigrant, and Asian American women are signified through highlighting consumption practices.

[22] Held annually since 1986, the Miss India Georgia pageant takes place in Atlanta, and the winner goes on to compete in a national Miss India America pageant, usually held in New York or Los Angeles.25 The content as well as the structure of the pageant echo the Miss America Pageant since it uses talent, evening gown, and question-and-answer segments of competition, though the swimsuit competition is not included. In addition to a trip to represent Georgia's South Asian community in the national pageant, the winner of the pageant receives modest cash and merchandise prizes (approximately $1300). Given the parallels between this and the Miss America Pageant, there is an implied reading of the mainstream pageant in the performances in, as well as the uses of, the Miss India Georgia pageant. The video begins with a shot of a contestant's high-heeled feet as she is being coached on walking attractively. Excerpts from interviews with the women punctuate the image and, as the scene shifts to a group of South Asian Americans, two statements prepare the viewer both for the different cultural meanings conveyed in the pageant and for the various ways this pageant is consumed by the audience and/or by the participants. One person comments that the "event educates kids born in America about India," while the next declares that "it's just showing that we are trying to change into the American ways."

[23 When the Miss India Georgia pageant is understood as an appropriation and rearticulation of the Miss America Pageant and other global pageants, the meaningful nature of consumption is obvious. All four of the video's subjects are 1.5 generation South Asian Americans who have spent a significant portion of their childhoods in either Georgia or South Carolina and all four interpret the pageant as a version of mainstream pageants.26 Of the four, perhaps Nisha Nizam's motive for entering the pageant is most explicitly a desire to express a non-European American ethnicity, for she believes that there is "a burden that comes with being different–you are almost always trying to justify your beliefs." To the question posed during the Q & A competition of which social problem she would most want to solve, Nizam responds "intolerance," because, she says, the tolerance of cultural diversity makes a stronger society. Nizam clearly sees the purpose of the pageant as a defense of South Asian cultural inclusion in American national identity.

[24] A second contestant featured in the video, Misty Seebachan, is in the process of becoming conscious of her ethnicity for while she doesn't "know much about the Indian community," she understands the pageant as a site of cultural identification. For example, Seebachan is anxious about her ability to compete because she is the only one with an "American name," she does not understand traditional dance, and she generally feels that the other contestants are "more Indian" than she is. Nevertheless, Seebachan thinks she "has a good chance," remembering that she "always got teased about being brown" in school and "enter[ed] this pageant because [she] always wanted to be in a pageant but . . . was too scared to compete against white girls or American girls." Embedded in these statements about participating in the Miss India Georgia pageant is an interpretation of mainstream pageants as contests of white European American femininity. While the performances in the Miss India Georgia pageant may at times appear quite similar to those in mass-produced pageants, there are some crucial discontinuities that also suggest negotiation of and resistance to global beauty pageants. Indeed, neither Nizam nor Seebachan resists the kind of cultural work that pageants are designed to do–construct national identity–but they do challenge through their participation in the Miss India Georgia pageant the narrow cultural and racial definition of U.S. national identity evinced in global pageants.

[25] The limits of appropriation or resignification in the Miss India Georgia pageant are most clearly expressed by the two other participants who are featured in the video, even as they also share an interpretation of global pageants as statements of normativity. Anu Yallapragada says that she entered the pageant because she likes to get on stage, "look at the audience and look gorgeous." For Yallapragada, in fact, the Miss India Georgia pageant is too different from its spectacular global model, for she's "embarrassed" that it's a "cultural pageant" with all women of color and prefers to see herself performing for the many white males who have told her that she is "an endangered species, kind of." Mini Rao says that she entered for a second year only because she "wanted to prove that she could win," and she studies her own "mistakes" in a video from the previous year. However, Rao astutely consumes beauty pageants as deliberate and self-conscious performances rather than as authentic displays of subjectivity. And, Rao strategizes to perform ethnicity when she hopes to be given a question about which country she most wants to visit. She plans to reply that she wants to "go to India to get back to [her] culture. They love that culture crap."

[26] The performance of ethnic and gender identity for Rao almost becomes parody when, to the question of who has most influenced her life, she responds with a culturally pious "my mother." The viewer may understand this as parody not only because of Rao's disdain for the ethnic identification encouraged in the pageant but also because Rao has candidly confided that she and her mother don't get along well. In the weeks leading up to the pageant, she tells the viewer, they have an argument that ends with Rao punching her hand through a window and needing thirteen stitches. After the pageant is over, Rao acknowledges to her mother that her answer to the question was completely insincere. Her awareness of pageants as performances of identity, within received categories of culture, gender, and nation, is echoed by her karaoke recital of Madonna's "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" in the talent competition. However, Rao appears to embrace the dominant cultural meanings encoded in global pageants through her participation in the local pageant, and I want to be careful not to mistake Rao's cynical parody of the pageant for a thorough critique of it since cynicism can be the sign of ideology at its most disabling rather than the sign of the demystification of ideology.27

[27] As my analysis of the interviews in the documentary indicates, the Miss India Georgia Pageant is a cultural site where the hegemonic parameters of U.S. national identity for women are negotiated, not entirely accepted or rejected, by the participants. Appropriating the global model, the Miss India Georgia Pageant enables its participants to articulate and enact their own versions of South Asian American female identity despite the confines of still another cultural form that tries to contain women by evaluating them according to how they measure up to rigid standards of identity. The participants are offered a chance, Lynn Lu would say, to become "beholders" of cultural products and messages.28 While their resignification may not always be a radical resistance to or rejection of racialized national identity, their consumption practices certainly indicate the diversity of Asian immigrant women's national subjectivity.

[28] Similar to mainstream beauty pageants that can be interpreted and reworked by participants and viewers into sites of resistance such as the Miss India Georgia Pageant, Barbie is a global commodity of beauty that can be but is not always used in transforming ways by Asian immigrant and Asian American women.29 Cindy Yoon's 1994 autobiographical essay "A Doll of Our Own" first recounts the author's childhood consumption of Barbie and then offers a compelling Barbie appropriation, or what Erica Rand would call a "subversion," that uses Barbie to specifically revise strict notions of U.S. national identity in terms of race and ethnicity. The piece combines, therefore, a first-person memoir of resistant consumption, a resignified commodity, and a fictional narrative representation of consumption practices. Further, by demonstrating, representing, and enlisting certain interpretive skills of some Asian American women, the article importantly elucidates the politicized consumption practices that are part of the interpretive community of Asian American transnational feminism. Once again, however, I am not examining unmediated evidence of consumption practices, for both Yoon's personal account of resistant consumption and the alternative dolls accompanying her short memoir are representational narratives, one autobiographical and the others featuring the fictional protagonist Bonnie. The hybridity of Yoon's text is reminiscent of Hagedorn's, and it similarly calls into question what counts as factual representation and what counts as fictional representation, but a critical methodology that deliberately destabilizes notions of truth and authenticity in representational forms would not privilege the autobiographical portions over the fictional portions of the text in an analysis of evidence. Moreover, just as attention to the bodies represented in Dogeaters and Miss India Georgia focuses on the complexity of national subject formation, a consideration of the various bodies that inhabit Yoon's text resists solidifying Asian American women consumers.

[29] Because Barbie is a material object she may be the clearest example of how global commodities of beauty carry with them symbolic narratives, even if such commodities are not immediately thought of as representations, narrative texts, or cultural products. Numerous feminists and researchers have studied Barbie as an ideological apparatus clarifying that the toy does, as Ann du Cille comments, "the dirty work of patriarchy and capitalism in the most insidious way." Or, as Rand observes in her 1995 study, Barbie's Queer Accessories, Barbie absorbs differences even as Mattel claims that she offers infinite and liberatory interpretive possibilities. Yet Rand maintains that the "queering" of Barbie, which includes either challenging the specifically heterosexual script Mattel provides or questioning any of the ideologies Barbie's producers attempt to deploy, can be considered subversive behavior. "If you find a great Barbie subversion," the critic advises, "check out its source because it's probably coming from a producer and subcultural context that are well worth your attention." The hegemonic meanings of Barbie as well as the debates around some of those meanings are widely understood; as a cultural icon of U.S. femininity she can make "an easy-access hook into issues besides Barbie" which can lead consumers to increased social awareness and possibly political activism.30 While Rand's study focuses on the subversions rather than the organized political activism resulting from Barbie consumption, Yoon's short text demands political consciousness and promotes its organization, even if its resignification of Barbie sometimes advances, like the Miss India Georgia Pageant, a politically liberal argument about inclusive national identity.

[30] Published in a special women's issue of A. Magazine, which targets a young adult, middle-class Asian American audience, Yoon's autobiographical essay provides a genealogical critique of Mattel's "Asian" Barbie doll family, both those produced as nationals of Asian countries and those who are presumably Asian Americans. While telling her story of Barbie consumption, which ends in cutting off all of Barbie's hair and throwing her in the trash, Yoon criticizes Mattel's refusal to make Asian Barbie dolls' physical features significantly different from white Barbie's. Like any of the dolls that are named "Barbie" and represent people of color, the slight changes in Asian Barbie dolls generally have to do with hair, skin, and eye color, which is what du Cille refers to as Mattel's "dye jobs."31 Further, Yoon slams Mattel's refusal to market their Asian American doll, Kira, which also has slightly modified physical features, as such. Nothing on the doll's packaging mentions her ethnicity. "The only Barbies which admit their Asian status," Yoon writes, "are the ones released in Mattel's Dolls of the World Collection–which have a sales lifespan of just two years before they're pulled, never to be sold again." In her autobiographical critique Yoon acknowledges the broadly held view that Barbie consumption has effects on subject formation and even national subjectivity, at the same time that she rejects Mattel's conflation of physical characteristics and ethnicities and the ease with which they essentially use one white image to represent millions of culturally different women.

[31] Yoon's question, "Is there a space for an Asian American in a Barbie World?" asks if there is a space for a culturally specific, racialized, and gendered Asian subject in Mattel's construction of U.S. national identity. While white Barbie has a racial and a cultural heritage, these aspects of her dominant culture identity are made invisible in the "All-American" world that Mattel deploys. Yoon reveals that white Barbie not only sells a gender identity but also a nationality that precludes any Asian ethnic or racial identity. To be Malaysian or Chinese, East Indian or Korean, one must be from and identify with another part of the world. Hasbro's recent release of the Nisei G.I. Joe, commemorating the valor of the 442nd "Purple Heart" Battalion in WWII, indicates that an explicit patriotism and masculinity is required before a multinational doll company will deploy even a liberal pluralism in the form of a U.S. national subject who has a specific Asian American ethnicity.32Modifying the feminist spatial metaphor of the text alluded to in the article's title (Woolf's A Room of One's Own), this consumption of Barbie insists that, although there is not room for an Asian American woman in Mattel's Barbie world, there is room in the human world.


[32] After demonstrating a consciousness of racialized and gendered U.S. national identity and citizenship, which is an interpretive skill associated with Asian American transnational feminism, Yoon offers two texts–cut-out dolls and a cartoon strip–that re-envision white Barbie into Asian 'Bonnie' for Asian America and the 1990s. The resignified commodity of the cut-out dolls contrasts "Perception Bonnie" (figure 1) with "Reality Bonnie" (figure 2) who dresses and appears to behave like many women living in the United States. The multiplicity of roles as indicated by Reality Bonnie's wardrobe reveals the cultural and racial stereotypes of Mattel's various Asian Barbies, which Perception Bonnie and her wardrobe represent. The cut-outs are the same, or actually mirror images on facing pages, but Perception Bonnie's dragon-lady outfit becomes Reality Bonnie's power suit, the peasant girl becomes a social activist, the fan a cocktail, the tea tray a briefcase, and so on. The metamorphosis references a relation to social production and commodity consumption that may be surprising given the popular understanding of Asian women's role in transnational labor or may affirm anxieties about Asian American women's consumption practices. In addition, though some details suggest that she is Chinese American, Bonnie's cultural identity remains unspecified. Indeed, as we move from Perception Bonnie to Reality Bonnie her physical features change a bit also so that she does not look, and I use this phrase advisedly, as stereotypically "Asian." She loses a beauty mark, her lips become less petulant, her face lightens, and her eyes enlarge. These physical changes can be read as the kind of absorption that Mattel's Asian and multicultural Barbie dolls participate in, but another reading might see Bonnie's transformation as resistance to racist ideology that categorizes people by observable and supposedly constant physical characteristics which then become stereotypes. 
 RealityReality Bonnie could fit within the range of any supposed racial category and be, of course, any ethnicity. Or, Bonnie can be Asian American, when it is defined as a pan-ethnic, multiracial cultural and political identification. Although leaving Bonnie's ethnicity and race ambiguous does not appear to insert a very specifically Asian subject into conceptions of national identity, the ambiguity highlights that a single doll or commodity cannot be marked in such a way as to stably signify complex and highly specific aspects of subjectivity. The uncertainty may also create a gap that provides a space for the heterogeneous population categorized as Asian American in conceptions of U.S. national identity. In any case, there seem to be assimilationist as well as resistant aspects to these appropriations and the consumption practices they signify.

[33] The two-page comic strip entitled "Daze of Our Lives" included with Yoon's article further elaborates a critique of the racist national identity that is deployed by white Barbie and provides a narrative representation of consumption practices for readers to consider. But the comic recognizes more than the cut out dolls the relation between hegemonic U.S. national identity and U.S. hegemony in global capitalism. The comic asserts the irrelevance of physical characteristics in determining ethnic and national identity, but it also enlists particular interpretive skills from its readers, similar to those used by the Miss Saigonspectators mentioned above, for understanding the economic contexts of racial formation for Asian immigrant and Asian American women. In the comic, we follow Bonnie around for what is supposed to be a typical day, starting at 5:59 am and ending around 6:00 pm, in corporate America. From the first song she hears on the clock radio–David Bowie's "China Girl"–to the cab ride home, we see Bonnie encounter standards, prescriptions, and stereotypes of physical appearance that impinge on her identity. These standards come from myriad sources including advertising, popular culture, both male and female white co-workers, an apparently African American male cab driver, a Connie Chung-type co-anchor, and Bonnie's mother. Yet, the sources have in common a presumption that Bonnie is not "normal," not "from here," or not "American" because of the way she looks. In the fifth frame, for instance, beauty standards and racist national identity converge in an advertisement to render Bonnie an exotic visitor from "the Orient" who needs to have plastic surgery on her eyes if she wants to be seen as a successful American.33 This is followed with a frame that invokes the model minority myth in a racial/ethnic comparison between Bonnie and Jamal, an African American male colleague (named after the Mattel doll), and an economic competition between Japan and the US; the final frames assume that all Asians in the U.S. are immigrants (read "suspicious aliens") rather than U.S.-born. Understanding the economic and political significance of Bonnie's typical day, which is evocatively set in a corporate atmosphere, demands literacy in the various modes of racialization–the lotus blossom/dragon lady dichotomy, Asian lumping, yellow peril hysteria, the model minority myth, the unassimilable alien–affecting Asian American women. In fact, the scant prose accompanying the comic leaves interpretation of the day's events almost entirely up to the reader, suggesting that Yoon addresses specifically skilled readers in her audience and recognizes an interpretive community of Asian American transnational feminists.

[34] Despite both assimilationist and resistant signification, Yoon's representation of her consumption of Barbie demonstrates and the Bonnie texts encourage the use of the interpretive skills of a politically conscious readership. By providing alternative Asian American popular cultural products for consumption and eliciting the cultural reading practices of the interpretive community of Asian American transnational feminism, the author reminds us that moments of negotiated Barbie consumption alone can not create fully resistant subjects nor can they politically challenge the national identity for which Barbie is meant to stand. Some seductive versions of popular cultural studies are satisfied to note informal cultures of resistance and have focused on rather socially isolated instances of critical reception, but I want to underscore that the mobilization into political movement is the final step in the process of resistant consumption.34Consumption constitutes political activism when its practices include the application of resistant analytical skills, the rearticulation of subversive commodities, and the collection of consumers into a politically active interpretive community.

[35] Of the few discussions that have started to consider the consumption practices of Asian American women in the context of a larger political movement, Lu's comments about the active spectators of Miss Saigon speak to the political potential of consumption practices:

[S]ubversive readings may do little more than temporarily disrupt the mainstream, but when this occurs on seemingly infinite levels with seemingly infinite responses and transformations, the effect can be dizzying enough to disrupt and change the terms of old debates forever. . . . Backed by a vibrant, sustained activist movement, [Asian women's cultural production] helps us to reclaim our history, shape our future, and envision the unimaginable. Meanwhile the development of critical perspectives places us in the crucial role of the beholder–not just the consumer–of cultural products and messages. As we produce both new images and new ways of reading critically, we expand our options and keep representations of Asian women from solidifying into rigid limiting roles.35

I repeat Lu's call for the development of critical Asian American consumption as part of the larger movement of a revitalized and active Asian American feminism. I suggest further that researchers analyze and study various consumption practices as part of an interpretive community and movement of Asian American transnational feminism to understand and strengthen a coalition politics that is concerned with, in addition to the racialized feminization of labor in global capitalism, material and symbolic consumption and hegemonic conceptions of U.S. national identity. The representational evidence used in my analysis ofDogeaters,Miss India Georgia, and "A Doll of Our Own" depicts Asian immigrant and Asian American women as complex national subjects through a discussion of racialized, female bodies and their contestatory consumption but without focusing primarily on "real" bodies, and, I hope, without participating in the epistemic violence of which academic discourse has more often than not been a part.

[36] To more fully understand consumption, resistant and otherwise, and therefore, transnational feminist politics, Asian Americanists can explore ways of combining qualitative research methods, textual analysis, and historical context. As a first step, closer attention to the cultural readers of texts is needed, and I am particularly interested in a response to Sandra Liu's urgent question, "What roles do films play in the lives of Asian Americans, socially and politically?" Researchers can certainly employ the audience ethnography that media studies and some feminist cultural theorists have developed. Television programming, including such "female forms" as soap opera (suggested by Yoon's comic strip title?) and beauty pageants, also needs attention.36 In addition, media research focusing on communication and computer technologies and the use of telephones, the internet, computer software, and e-mail can be useful in limited amounts in an exploration of consumption. Indeed, areas of commodity consumption that are less studied than playing with Barbie, including cooking, eating, dressing, and using cosmetics, should be just as illuminating as the transnational knowledge of commodity production. But as the most recent developments in Asian American transnational feminist studies indicate, all of this consumption will need to be considered through alternative approaches and multiple forms of "evidence."

[37] In an introduction to feminist cultural studies or what she calls "feminist contextualism," Suzanna Danuta Walters describes the kind of critique that is needed and that is beginning to emerge in the context of a more specific Asian American feminist cultural studies:

[A]n emphasis on some sort of (nonempiricist) empirical research should be part of the [feminist cultural studies] project . . . . Methodologically, this approach would entail a move away from the focus of either the isolated text or the aggregate viewer and a move toward an engagement with the lived experience of actual women, an engagement with 'material girls.' I want to stress that this engagement need not be seen literally, as interviews or ethnographies. Rather, the methods increasingly used by feminist cultural critics are refreshingly eclectic, merging sophisticated textual analyses with social history, genre criticism with object relations, interviews with fan mail. Indeed, these intertextual, contextual critics are redefining what we mean by 'audience' and what we mean by 'empirical research.37

Although this kind of critical apparatus gestures toward "actual women" and "'material girls,'" it does not require the "si(gh)ting" of "real" Asian women's bodies. Just as feminists now transgress national, cultural, racial, and class borders in order to practice anti-imperialist, anti-racist feminism, critics can cross the epistemological borders between production and consumption, between symbolic and material evidence, and between resistant and assimilationist readings to usefully contribute to the same anti-imperialist, anti-racist feminism.


Sections of this essay were presented to helpful audiences at the 1996 National Women's Studies Association conference, the 1997 Society for Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the United States national and international conference, and the 1997 Humanities Institute for The Futures of American Studies. I wish to thank the three anonymous reviewers at Genders for their thorough readings and for their suggestions for revision. For reading earlier versions of this essay and for generously offering illuminating suggestions for improvement I thank Andy Dephtereos, Kayann Short, Betty Sasaki, Christopher Breu, and Cynthia Franklin. For their kind encouragement of my work I thank Tarja Raag, Jodi Dean, George Lipsitz, and Katheryn Rios. Research for this article was supported by a 1997 Interdisciplinary Studies Division Research Grant (#01.2414) from Colby College and by the assistance of Oliver Griswold.


  1. While Kang uses "Asian/American women" to mark "the differential tensions and slippages between racial, ethnic, and national designations as well as the shifting separations and crossings between the geopolitical locations of Asia and the United States," and Lisa Lowe uses "Asian 'American' women" to "signal the ambivalent and multidirectional sets of identifications that both U.S-born Asian and Asian immigrant women have to the nationalist construction of 'American,'" I follow Lowe's more frequent use of the terms "Asian immigrant women", and "Asian American women," though I realize that many women of Asian ancestry do not self-identify with these terms. See Laura Hyun Yi Kang, "Si(gh)ting Asian/American Women As Transnational Labor," Positions 5.2 (fall 1997): 405; Lisa Lowe, "Work, Immigration, Gender: Asian 'American' Women," in Making More Waves: New Writing By Asian American Women, edited by Elaine H. Kim, Lilia V. Villanueva, and Asian Women United of California [Boston: Beacon Press, 1997], 273). See Annette Fuentes and Barbara Ehrenreich, "Women in the Global Factory," in INC Pamphlet 2, edited by Holly Sklar and Gloria Jacobs (Boston: South End Press, 1983); and Edna Bonacich, Lucie Cheng, Norma Chinchilla, Nora Hamilton, and Paul Ong eds. Global Production:The Apparel Industry in the Pacific Rim(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994) for background information on these industries. National media has also recently started to cover transnational labor practices; see, for example, Helen Zia, "Made in the U.S.A," Ms. (January/February 1996): 67-73, and, more recently, Bill Saporito, "Taking a Look Inside Nike's Factories, Time (30 Mar. 1998): np. back
  2. In this essay, the terms "consume" and "use" are synonymous, and I sometimes also employ the term "read" to refer to the act of consumption. Similarly, "consumption" and "reception" are interchangeable signifying the important point that representational texts are also commodities, often even material commodities. Finally, "cultural consumption" refers to the critical interpretation, reception, consumption, or use of both material and non-material commodities. I do not draw a fast distinction between material commodities and representational texts, though I recognize differences between different textual commodities. Following recent trends in popular culture studies, I do not eschew the term "consumption" because of its connotations of passivity and ingestion, as Janice Radway once suggested, since much of what I am arguing about Asian American transnational feminism has to do with recuperating cultural consumption from its placement as the diametric opposite of cultural production. See Janice Radway's "Reception Study: Ethnography and the Problems of Dispersed Audiences and Nomadic Subjects," Cultural Studies 2.3 (1988): 359-76, and "Reading is Not Eating: Mass-produced Literature and the Theoretical, Methodological, and Political Consequences of a Metaphor," Book Research Quarterly 2.3 (1986): 7-29. See also Lu's use of the term "beholder" rather than consumer (Lynn Lu, "Critical Visions: The Representation and Resistance of Asian Women," in Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breath Fire, edited by Sonia Shah [Boston: South End Press, 1997], 17-28). back
  3. Karen Tei Yamashita, Tropic of Orange (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1997), 204-205. For a discussion of the importance of the signification of the image and the use of social, cultural values to sell product characteristics in late capitalist advertising, see Donald Lowe, The Body in Late-Capitalist USA(Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), in particular his chapter "Consumption Practices." For a discussion of Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital, see Shaun Moores, Interpreting Audiences: The Ethnography of Media Consumption (London: Sage Publications, 1993), 118-124. What I call global commodities of beauty, O'Sickey refers to as "the vast American apparatus of industries that sell feminizing products" in a discussion of Barbie Magazine(Ingeborg Majer O'Sickey, "Barbie Magazine and the Aesthetic Commodification of Girls' Bodies," in On Fashion, ed. Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss [Rutgers: Rutgers University Press, 1994], 21-40). While I agree that the dissolution or weakening of national boundaries has mostly enabled capitalists to exploit workers more profitably, it is important to note, as Prasad does, that late capitalism depends upon borders precisely so they can be crossed, and I follow Smith in recognizing that labor should also "be 'planning something geographical'" in resistance to global capitalism (Madhava Prasad, "On the Question of a Theory of (Third World) Literature," Social Text 31/32 [1992]: 57-83; Neil Smith,Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space, 2nd ed. [Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell Publishers, 1991], 178). back
  4. I am not suggesting that consumption is always enabling or that consumption is necessarily liberatory in postmodernity, but I agree with Grewal and Kaplan who write in their introduction to Scattered Hegemonies: "Postmodern articulations of difference and global connections can be used to reify dominant social relations, or they can be used to oppose the hegemony of Western imperial culture" (Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, eds., Scattered Hegemonies:Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices[Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994], 7). Moreover, rather than being "for or against" postmodernism, Grewal and Kaplan argue that "the structure and dynamics of postmodernity is a necessity rather than a luxury or a simple choice" (21). Instead of interpreting postmodernisms or postmodern cultural production/consumption entirely in negative terms or uncritically celebrating them, I follow Marx's materialist dialectic, which regards the development of capitalism both positively and negatively, "without," as Jameson writes, "attenuating any of the force of either judgment" (Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism [Durham: Duke University Press, 1991], 47-48).Whereas the term "transnational" is usually a euphemism for "multinational" in the discourses of global economics, management studies, international relations, and sometimes geography, its use in feminist theory over the past fifteen years recognizes affiliations between women in various locations on the basis of their resistance to hegemonic culture and global capitalism. I use it to signal these affiliations as well as to acknowledge the various feminist influences on a current and heterogenous mode of Asian American feminism. The feminist works that have promoted a transnational feminism and most inform, although not always unproblematically, Asian American transnational feminism are numerous. They include the early works that revealed the highly exploitative nature of multinational capitalism in the Export Processing Zones (EPZs) of industrializing and industrialized countries: June Nash and Maria Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, eds.,Women, Men, and the International Division of Labor (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983); Maria Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, For We Are Sold, I and My People: Women and Industry on Mexico's Frontier (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983); and Fuentes and Ehrenreich. In addition, Chicana feminism, including Sandoval's theory of oppositional consciousness, has been important to feminist revisions of Enlightenment subjectivity (Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds., This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, 1981 [New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983]; Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza [San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987]; Chela Sandoval, "U.S. Third World Feminism: The Theory and Method of Oppositional Consciousness in the Postmodern World," Genders10 [Spring 1991]: 1-24). Also informative has been postcolonial feminism, including the work of Spivak, Mohanty, and Kaplan, whose excellent and influential essay "Resisting Autobiography" refers to the cultural production of international neocolonial subjects as "transnational knowledge" and asks, "What kinds of postcolonial writing and reading strategies intersect with feminist concerns to create transnational feminist subjects?" (Kaplan, "Resisting Autobiography: Out-Law Genres and Transnational Feminist Subjects," in De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography, eds. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992],135, 116). See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 271-313; Spivak, "The Political Economy of Women as Seen by a Literary Critic," inComing to Terms:Feminism, Theory, Politics, ed. Elizabeth Weed (New York: Routledge, 1989), 218-229; Chandra Talpade Mohanty, "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses," inThird World Women and the Politics of Feminism, eds. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991), 51-80; and Mohanty, "Cartographies of Struggle: Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism," in Third World Women, 1-47. Grewal and Kaplan elaborate: "We use the term 'transnational' to problematize a purely locational politics of global-local or center-periphery in favor of what Mattelart sees as the lines cutting across them. As feminists who note the absence of gender in . . . world-system theories, we have no choice but to challenge what we see as inadequate and inaccurate binary divisions" (Scattered Hegemonies 13). See also Kaplan's "'A World Without Boundaries': The Body Shop's Trans/national Geographics," Social Text 43 (Fall 1995): 45-66. back
  5. For a discussion of market segmentation research, especially ACORN or "A Classification of Residential Neighborhoods," which does not include a classification for Asian Americans among its thirteen neighborhoods, see Donald Lowe, The Body in Late-Capitalist USA. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 62-69. back
  6. I wish to make it clear, however, that destabilizing notions of truth and authenticity does not in any way mean that research needs to be disconnected from everyday life. back
  7. Kang 415. As Aguilar-San Juan points out, some discussions of current Asian American feminism disregard the activism of the last thirty years. I wish to emphasize both continuities and changes. For discussions of the "new" Asian American feminism, see Karin Aguilar-San Juan, "Foreword: Breathing Fire, Confronting Power, and Other Necessary Acts of Resistance," in Dragon Ladies, ix-xi; Alethea Vip, "Two Movements in One," Asianweek (28 Mar. 1997): 11-13; Elaine H. Kim, Lilia V. Villanueva, and Asian Women United of California, eds., Making More Waves: New Writing By Asian American Women (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997); Asian Women United of California, ed., Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings By and About Asian American Women; and Shah's "Introduction: Slaying the Dragon Lady: Toward an Asian American Feminism" inDragon Ladies, xiii-xxi. Research focuses on racist justifications for recruiting Asian women workers or even shifting production to Asian countries, on labor abuses based on racialized sexism, on similar forms of sexual harassment, on uses of cultural traditions and values associated with Confucianism and Buddhism, and on the forces creating female migrant laborers or the traffic of women globally. See Kang. Lowe uses the term "racialized feminization of labor" when referring to the exploitation of racialized females in transnational industry in Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics(Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 158. back
  8. One of the first critics to observe that women in the international division of labor are often excluded from consumption in postmodern commodity culture was Spivak in "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Asian Americanists theorizing Asian American feminism, such as Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts, 155; and Kang, 403-437, have followed this lead. For a detailed description of Asian American feminism that organizes around shared interest in changing the relations of production in global capitalism, see the essays inDragon Ladies, especially Miriam Chang Louie's "Breaking the Cycle: Women Workers Confront Corporate Greed Globally," which describes AIWA's organization against Jessica McClintock (121-131). David Paliumbo-Liu and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht's edited collection, Streams of Cultural Capital (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), attempts to trace the different currency of cultural objects or capital under transnationalism. The lack of attention to consumption is glaring in Asian American Studies more generally as well, though a conference held at New York University in November 1998, Public Displays of Asianness, devoted itself to Asian Americans and popular culture. back
  9. For background discussion on the now familiar move to problematize the opposition drawn by political economists and by Marx between consumption and production and the distinctions they make about the consumption of goods with exchange value and those with surplus value, see Radway, "Reading is Not Eating." back
  10. For this discussion of consumption, Spivak's critique of Kristeva's About Chinese Women in "The Political Economy of Women as Seen by a Literary Critic" is foundational, as Hattori observes (Tomo Hattori, "Psycholinguistic Orientalism in Criticism of The Woman Warrior and Obasan," in Other Sisterhoods:Literary Theory and U.S. Women of Color, ed. Sandra Kumamoto Stanley [Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998], 119-138). See also critiques of Western feminist representations of Asian women in Aihwa Ong, "Colonialism and Modernity: Feminist Re-Presentations of Women in Non-Western Societies,"Inscriptions 3/4 (1988), 79-83; and Kang. The critique of stereotypes of Asian and Asian American women, in both popular and literary culture, has been the focus of numerous documentaries, essays, and creative works since the late 1960s. For a selection, see Kim's An Introduction to Asian American Literature and its Social Contexts; Gina Marchetti, Romance and the "Yellow Peril": Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Janice Mirikitani,Shedding Silence: Poetry and Prose (Berkeley: Celestial Arts, 1987); Valerie Soe, dir., Picturing Oriental Girls:A (Re)Educational Video (San Francisco: National Asian American Telecommunications Association/CrossCurrent Media, 1992);Making Waves, in particular Renee Tajima, "Lotus Blossoms Don't Bleed: Images of Asian Women," 308-317; and Deborah Gee,Slaying the Dragon, Pacific Production (San Francisco: National Asian American Telecommunications Association/Cross Current Media, 1987). For a discussion of how Making Waves challenges stereotypes, see Cynthia Franklin, "The Making and Unmaking of Asian American Identity: Making Waves and The Forbidden Stitch," Writing Women's Communities: The Politics and Poetics of Contemporary Multi-Genre Anthologies (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), 81-109. See Sandra Liu, "Passion and Commitment: Asian American Women and Hollywood," inMaking More Waves, 258-268, for a discussion of how Asian American filmmakers and audiences have protested images of Asian Americans in the media. For a recent consideration of images of Asian Americans in popular culture, see also Darrell Y. Hamamoto, Monitored Peril: Asian Americans and the Politics of TV Representation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994) and Robert G Lee'sOrientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999). back
  11. Kang, 410. The attention to the subject position and motivation of the feminist academic, a project begun by lesbian feminists and further complicated by women of color feminists some twenty years ago, is an ongoing project, and the numerous contributions to this project cannot all be referenced here, but I direct the reader to several influential works, including This Bridge Called My Back, eds. Moraga and Anzaldúa; Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak?"; Mohanty, Russo, and Torres's Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, especially Mohanty's "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses," (51-80). See also Daphnie Patai, "U.S. Academics and Third World Women: Is Ethical Research Possible?" inWomen's Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History, eds. Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai (New York: Routledge, 1991), 137-153; Kaplan's discussion of Adrienne Rich's contribution to an elaboration of positionality in "The Politics of Location as Transnational Feminist Practice," in Scattered Hegemonies, 137-152; and Kaplan, "Postmodern Geographies: Feminist Politics of Location," in Questions of Travel:Postmodern Discourses of Displacement (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996). In calling for wider critical consideration of Asian immigrant and Asian American women's consumption, I am not suggesting that we turn our attention away from what is often called the feminist researcher's "location." This would not be useful for feminist critiques of domination nor would it be ethical for someone such as myself who, as a white, middle-class female academic committed to anti-racist feminism, considers herself an Asian Americanist. I am suggesting we extend the decolonization of the methods and focus of feminist analysis in order to more effectively break down a hierarchy of cultural activities. back
  12. Specifically, Kang critiques Cynthia Enloe's Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); Fuentes and Ehrenreich's Women in the Global Factory; Swasti Mitter'sCommon Fate, Common Bond: Women in the Global Economy(London: Pluto Press, 1986); and Nash and Fernandez-Kelly'sWomen, Men, and the International Division of Labor. back
  13. Kang clearly tries to disable the reading that she is only critical of feminists or women's studies when she writes, "Rather than making overly generic and dismissive judgments about an entire discursive field, whether it be named 'anthropology,' 'women's studies,' 'political economy,' or 'development studies,' I present these critical observations as a gesture toward new strategies for sustaining a critical attentiveness to how these historical conditions matter, not just to the Asian women workers, but to those of us invested in critiques of domination" (410). Regrettably, she does not specifically address the cross-racial nature of the dynamic she identifies, and she embeds in her essay a very specific, targeted critique of Asian/American women cultural workers located in the United States "who uncritically put the denuded Asian female body on display" in her essay (429). Finally, I would argue that there are important implications for Asian American transnational feminism if the only consumption under serious scrutiny is the appropriation that takes place within and through academic discourse. One of the dangers here is in defining Asian, Asian immigrant, and Asian American women against an unnamed and monolithic "white feminism." See Franklin, 104-106. See Teresa L. Ebert's Ludic Feminism and After: Postmodernism, Desire, and Labor in Late Capitalism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), 24-38, for a discussion of what she calls 'matterism' or materialism in poststructuralist feminism, which has theorized the body as an ideal site of resistance. back
  14. Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts, 157. In Immigrant Acts Lowe argues that rather than trivializing/attenuating the "real," such a strategy can help us understand the connections between the various forms through which new subjectivities, communities, and politics are signified. As Lowe explains, "Such a reading [practice] need not level the differences between evidential forms that gain meaning on the horizon of the 'empirical' and literary or art forms that are more commonly interpreted on the horizon of the 'aesthetic.' The aim is not to 'aestheticize' the testimonial text but rather to displace the categorizing drive of disciplinary formations" (157). Lowe's formulation is deeply indebted to Kaplan's notion of "Out-law Genres." For a more explicitly feminist version of this methodology, see Lowe's "Work, Immigration, Gender: Asian 'American' Women" in Making More Waves (269-277). The more general "Asian American" version of the argument appears in the final chapter of Immigrant Acts. back
  15. Nguyen draws attention to this selective use of cultural materialism in his review of Immigrant Acts (Viet Thanh Nguyen, "Asian America and American Studies: Aliens, Citizens, and Cultural Work," American Quarterly 50.3 [September 1998]: 626-635). While Lisa Lowe's Critical Terrains: French and British Orientalisms (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991) extended Said's concept of Orientalism to argue that close attention to specific historical, national, and racialized contexts will reveal different orientalisms, a comprehensive study of U.S. orientalisms has yet to be realized, though in some significant ways, that is precisely what Immigrant Acts accomplishes. back
  16. Popular cultural studies is the academic site where most of the work on consumption practices of narrative and material texts has been done. For background on Radway's concept, "variable literacies," see Janice Radway, "Interpretive Communities and Variable Literacies: The Functions of Romance Reading",Daedalus (Summer 1984): 49-73, especially 53-55. For an early discussion of cultural competences, see Charlotte Brundson, "'Crossroads': Notes on Soap Opera," Screen 22.4 (1981): 32-7. Hagedorn discusses Asian American film in "Asian Women in Film: No Joy, No Luck," Ms.(January/February 1994),79. Sandra Liu, in "Passion and Commitment: Asian American Women and Hollywood," in Making More Waves (258-268, interviews filmmakers who clearly recognize an Asian American female audience with specific literacies. See also Franklin's "The Making and Unmaking of Asian American Identity: Making Waves and The Forbidden Stitch" for a discussion of how editors of these two anthologies assume or don't assume cultural readers with particular skills. Finally, see Lynn Lu's study ofMiss Saigon's reception in "Critical Visions: The Representation and Resistance of Asian Women," in Dragon Ladies, 25. back
  17. Jacqueline Bobo, Black Women as Cultural Readers (New York: Columbia University Press,1995), 22. back
  18. For a discussion of local beauty pageant production and consumption in the Philippines, see Mark Johnson, Beauty and Power: Transgendering and Cultural Transformation in the Southern Philippines (New York: Berg, 1997); and Mark Johnson, "Negotiating Style and Mediating Beauty: Transvestite (Gay/Bantut) Beauty Contests in the Southern Philippines," inBeauty Queens On the Global Stage: Gender, Contests, and Power, eds. Colleen Ballerino Cohen, Richard Wilk, and Beverly Stoeltje (New York: Routledge, 1996), 89-104. For a discussion about how gossip in Dogeaters "interrupts and displaces official representational regimes" see Lisa Lowe's Immigrant Acts, 112-120. All page numbers cited in reference to Dogeaters refer to Jessica Hagedorn, Dogeaters (New York: Random House, Inc., 1990). back
  19. See Nerissa Balce-Cortes, "Imagining the Neocolony," Critical Mass: A Journal of Asian American Cultural Criticism 2.2 (Spring 1995): 95-120, for a discussion of how Dogeaters uses a postmodern idiom to re-write Philippine history in order to represent a more accurate but repressed neocolonial history. This argument takes a specifically feminist turn when we realize that, according to Kwiatkowski and West, contemporary feminist nationalism in the Philippines began with a protest against the Miss Philippines beauty pageant (Lynn M. Kwiatkowski and Lois A. West, "Feminist Struggles for Feminist Nationalism in the Philippines," in Feminist Nationalism, ed. Lois A. West [New York: Routledge, 1997], 152). back
  20. MAKIBAKA, the Free Movement of New Women, was formed in 1969. See Kwiatkowski and West, 152-153. See also the introduction to Beauty Queens on the Global Stage, which claims that although "the international spread of pageantry has remained undocumented by historians. . . , anecdotal evidence suggests that Hollywood films and newsreels helped spread the idea of beauty contests to different countries during the 1920s and 1930s" (Colleen Ballerino Cohen, Richard Wilk, and Beverly Stoeltje, eds.,Beauty Queens On the Global Stage: Gender, Contests, and Power [New York: Routledge, 1996], 5). Robert Foster is quoted in Mary H. Moran, "Carrying the Queen: Identity and Nationalism in a Liberian Queen Rally," in Beauty Queens On the Global Stage, 149. back
  21. Cohen, Wilk, and Stoeltje, 8; Kwiatkowski and West, 152. back
  22. In a fuller analysis of Rio's appropriation of Hollywood films, I would argue that because she returns the othering, splitting gaze of the colonizer when she imitates Hollywood stars and disrupts Hollywood narratives, Rio's mimicry constitutes what Bhabha calls the "menace of mimicry" (Homi Bhabha, "Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse," October 28 [1984]: 125-33). back
  23. Daniel Friedman and Sharon Grimberg, dirs. and prods., Miss India Georgia, Urban Life Productions, 1997, videocassette. Distributed by Urban Life Productions, Miss India Georgia was awarded "Best Independent Video" by the New England Film and Video Festival, the "Documentary Award" by the Athens International Film & Video Festival, and the "Award of Commendation" by the Society for Visual Anthropology/American Anthropological Association. back
  24. Electronic correspondence with Sharon Grimberg, February 2, 1999. back
  25. Telephone conversation with Anita Gupta, an organizer of the Miss India Georgia Pageant, February 1, 1999. back
  26. "1.5 generation" refers to immigrants who come to the U.S. before they are adults and signifies the different processes children go through when they immigrate. back
  27. This influential argument is elaborated in Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (New York: Verso, 1989), and I thank Chris Breu for making this observation. back
  28. In her essay, "Critical Visions: The Representation and Resistance of Asian Women," Lu provides a useful discussion of hooks's concept of "Eating the Other" in the context of the commodification of Asian American identities and cultures in popular forms (25); see also bell hooks, "Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance," Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 21-39. back
  29. Of the 25,000 workers Mattel employs, 19,000 work outside the U.S. and 11,000 are Chinese workers, mostly women, who make as little as 25 cents an hour (Eyal Press, "Barbie's Betrayal: The Toy Industry's Broken Workers," The Nation [30 December 1996]: 12). In 1993, Americans bought 1/2 of the over 50 million dolls sold, the average American girl now owns eight Barbies at an approximate cost of $10 each, and U.S. collectors will pay more than $3000 for a mint condition Barbie (Ann du Cille, "Dyes and Dolls: Multicultural Barbie and the Merchandising of Difference,"Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 6.1 [Spring 1994]: 49; Erica Rand, Barbie's Queer Accessories [Durham: Duke University Press, 1995], 24, 162). For the following discussion of Yoon's critique of Barbie, see Cindy Yoon, "A Doll of Our Own," A. Magazine(April/May 1994): 28-32. back
  30. du Cille, "Dyes and Dolls," 50; Rand, 179. An example of such activism can be found in Lois-Ann Yamanaka's 1996 novel Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1996), for instance, which uses its first person narrator's consumption of Barbie to challenge the notion of an official national language and to validate those who speak and write in Hawaiian Creole English. Although some of the text's revision of national identity may depend on the reader's knowledge that there is an indigenous Hawai'ian sovereignty movement which advocates teaching the Hawai'ian Mother Tongue and insists on the cultural value of Pidgin, most readers have heard of various English only laws enough to understand that Lovey's use of Pidgin, in her play, in her life, and in the story she narrates, challenges hegemonic national identity. See also Kiana Davenport, "Cultural Crossroads," The Women's Review of Books 8.10-11 (July 1996): 37-38; and du Cille's "Dyes and Dolls" for a discussion of the homogenization of difference. back
  31. du Cille, "Dyes and Dolls," 52. back
  32. See Cindy del Rosario, "Nisei Joe," A. Magazine[August/September 1998]: 12, which cites Hasbro spokesperson Holly Ingram as saying, "the doll is the first of its kind." back
  33. Just as skin color for African Americans has been correlated to employment opportunities, eye shape is constructed through medical discourse as an obstacle to success for Asians in the U.S. See Ann du Cille's Prologue to Skin Trade (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996); and Eugenia Kaw, "Medicalization of Racial Features: Asian-American Women and Cosmetic Surgery," in The Politics of Women's Bodies:Sexuality, Appearance and Behavior, ed. Rose Weitz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 167-183. back
  34. More to the point, I worry that merely locating, reading, and narrating these moments of individual consumption and subject formation, as so many observations of popular culture do, can inadvertently benefit Mattel by supporting its claim that Barbie offers consumers infinite and liberatory interpretive possibilities. See Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); and John Fiske,Understanding Popular Culture (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989), for background on how consumption of popular culture can be resistant behavior. For a critique of popular cultural studies that, following De Certeau, romanticize the everyday reception of popular culture as widespread populist resistance, see Moores, especially 103-104, and his final chapter, "On Cultural Consumption," in Interpreting Audiences. back
  35. Lu, 24-26, emphasis added. back
  36. Liu, 258. See Suzanna Danuta Walters, Material Girls: Making Sense of Feminist Cultural Theory(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 79-85, for a brief discussion of female genres. Walters provides a useful introduction to the field, though discussions of race and class are disturbingly absent. back
  37. Walters, 159. back