Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Artist Spotlight: Kawaii Dr. Meg Russell

Photo by Deerstalker Pictures

Can you believe its been almost a year since I started working on this blog and then GAVE UP??? Ugh. No one is more disappointed in myself than me. One of the things that I left undone was this wonderful interview I did with a great girl who has made her life about studying the Japanese fashion subculture. Dr. Megan Russell puts her degree to use studying kawaii fashion, Japanese culture and subculture and sociological implications around this fascination side of the world. I asked her a few questions and she gave me some brilliant answers that I wanted to share about a person who has turned her passion into something she can share. 

1) What first got you interested in kawaii/Japanese culture?

On my first day at university as an undergraduate, I went to the university bookshop and they had FRUITs [A Japanese street fashion magazine] postcards up on the walls. The style was so colourful, and I loved the classic lolita outfits featured. It appealed to me because I was into romantic goth fashion at the time, and had grown up with kid's anime (in Australia, the selection of anime was limited to Pokemon, Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z etc.) Slowly over the years I started to learn more and more about the fashion! 

2) How did you approach the area of study and were you met with any resistance within academia? 

My research has gone on  a bit of a journey, and has changed and refined itself over time. Initially my research was about childhood, the construction of innocence and age compression (the idea in our culture that children are exposed to adult things too soon). The blurred lines between symbols of  childhood and adulthood interests me because they reveal the tensions underpinning our cultural understandings of both states. Neither state is "natural," but is deeply embedded in our culture. Further research revealed that there was a gap in the literature on the reverse process, in which symbols of childhood are celebrated and extended into adulthood culture. Kawaii fashion started out as a potential case study along with others, but my supervisors and panelists were intrigued by the idea so much that we agreed that kawaii fashion was a great topic to research! Especially since little research has been done that respectfully and accurately represents the participants in Tokyo. My approach has refined itself to incorporate gender studies as well, but essentially seeks to find out what kawaii fashion means to participants and the public alike, and how this cute, passive subculture negotiates power. I've had little to no resistance in academia because my topic is original, rigorous and theoretically sound. It means a lot to young people and my interviewees.

3) Have you spoken to any members of the Japanese subculture fashion and what are their reactions to your research?

I speak to members of the Japanese subcultures on a daily basis for my research. So far the reaction has been surprise and excitement! I am mostly talking to street models, brand models, designers and bloggers, so they are already interested in the promotion of their subcultures and fashion style. A few of them have blogged about me as well!

4) What do you hope to accomplish with your studies? 

I hope to help people come to a better understanding of what kawaii fashion subcultures are, what the style is trying to say and what it means to its participants. I want unpack the complications behind the fashion style, but also give the participants a voice that will be respected. I have found that some of the publications out there aren't terribly accurate and some of the famous models I've interviewed have never been consulted! Also, my research will fill the gap in the literature on passive "feminine" subcultures- that is subcultures that do not actively engage in violence or aggressive behavior, but adopt a visual code that is gentle, cute and seemingly powerless.

5)Are there any things you could share about the impact of subculture fashion with contemporary views on women in society?

One of the most interesting things that has come out of my study so far is the complications around fashion and women's bodies. Subcultures are a microcosm for society at large, and the literature on subculture engages in lots of interesting ideas around gender. "Masculine" subcultures such as Punk and Goth provide space for men to engage in "feminine" practices, such as wearing makeup, skirts etc as well as exaggerated dress that emphasizes their "masculine" traits. This literature also suggests that in those spaces, women either have to be "masculine" or a sex object. They have to engage with this "masculine" subculture, but cannot shape it. And yet, with kawaii fashion, in which participants engage in hyper-feminine practices such as dolly-style makeup, it is suggested that they are simply reproducing the constraints placed upon them in society. It is read by some as an infantile fetish even. There aren't many options for women in terms of resistance, unless they cast off their femininity entirely in favour of masculinity. It suggests to me that no matter what is transposed on a woman's body, it will be sexualised or objectified. In this sense, think the concepts kawaii fashion subculturalists have to negotiate have implications for our understanding of what it means to be a woman.

6) Do you feel that participating in subculture fashion is a way of getting more authentic findings in your research?

I was a subculturalist well before the research started. While adopting the attire and approach of your field is common in ethnography, my style isn't staged or fake. I do believe that my age, gender and fashion style puts me in one of the best positions to negotiate my field on the ground in Tokyo though. I hear and see a lot of things that other researchers might not, because I blend in and am approachable. Participants feel safer talking to me seeing that there is a chance that I will understand them, and am not just a suit with a clipboard here to judge them. Plus my prior knowledge of kawaii fashion and my 24/7 immersion in the culture allows me to pick up nuances in dress in a way other researchers might not be able to. That said, I am a researcher above anything else, and I feel it's important to distance yourself at times to get an objective perspective.


7) Do you plan on publishing a book or going on tour to make speeches about kawaii culture? 

Yes, I hope to publish at least one book, have some conference papers planned for next year, as well as some academic journal articles! My main goal at the moment is to complete my thesis of course (80,000 words) so I can be awarded my PhD!

8) What do you think is the future of kawaii fashion and culture in the west? 

It's hard to say at this point. I think kawaii fashion will only get bigger overseas. Ambassador's such as Misako strive to make kawaii fashion a household term so it might get to the point where everyone knows what it is, just like how most people know what goth style is. But that will come at a price, I think. Maybe one day we will have a kawaii equivalent to Hot Topic! 

9) Do you have any messages to fans of kawaii culture who may also want to go into study? 

Good on you! Research is hard work, but do what you love! I think the number one piece of advice I would give is interview people in your field! Go to Harajuku! So many armchair researchers out there, we need more people on the ground!

10) Could you tell us about any plans or projects that you are currently working on? 

At the moment my main project is my field work in Harajuku. More information is on www.harajukudollhouse.com


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