Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What If the Girl in the Asian Princess Costume, IS Asian?

"Girls Asian Princess Child Costume" sold by Target for Halloween 2014 [image source]

cos·tume noun
: clothes worn by someone (such as an actor) who is trying 
to look like a different person or thing
Merriam-Webster Dictionary
by Sharon H Chang

Is it still racist? Is it still cultural appropriation? Hell, is it even a problem at all? I mean, isn't she celebrating her ethnic heritage and showing ethnic pride? Aren't those supposed to be good things for her as a girl of color?? Anyways, it's just a kids costume at the end of the day. Totally not a big deal. She's just having fun. Let live and let it be, right?


The Asian princess costume is still a massively big problem even when the girl wearing it is Asian. A BIG problem. In fact, ethnic princess costumes overall are deeply problematic whether or not the girl wearing them "ethnically matches." Why? It's very simple. Costumes like this (a) propagate racial stereotypes which then (b) fuel racial biases resulting in (c) discriminatory behavior towards people of color. The biggest difference here being if the costume-wearer racially matches the stereotype, she not only participates in propagation but then also becomes a target of that very same stereotype. Look what happened when I Googled "African princess," "Asian princess," and "Native princess":

Google search: "African princess"
Google search: "Asian princess"
Google search: "Native princess"

And then look what happened when I Googled "European princess":

Google search: "European princess"
You should be able to see in a flat second how women and girls of color suffer stark exoticization, fetishization, and hyper-sexualization. These are themes women of color have faced for hundreds of years at the hands of the ruling class. Meanwhile white women and girls are portrayed as human beings of dignity, poise, elegance, and grace. This disparity and yawning difference in racial framing is known as gendered racism. Race-based stereotypes of Asian women have historically included (among other things) the image of the China Doll who is quiet, demure, and shy, at the same time she is exotic, and the picture of desire. These traits, writes Patricia Williams in her essay China Doll, Geisha Girl, and the Asian American Woman, stem from a long history of orientalism and colonialism between the West and Asia:

The Orient, which is now regarded as an antiquated term stirring up sentiments of racial discrimination, painted a picture of exotic locations and equally exotic women. Conquering Asia became a priority for the West as an attempt to spread their influence over these new lands. Conquering Asia meant conquering its women...This created the image of desire for the sexual conquest and exotification of [Asian] women which lingers in the perceptions of Asian women today.
Madame Butterfly (1932) [image source]
Sayonara (1957) [image source]

China Doll (1958) [image source]

In the particular case of Target's Asian princess (top) it would appear not much has changed. Notice how our young model, by being put in makeup and positioned demurely as she looks away from the camera, is sexualized in a way that immediately invokes racist imagery from the not-so-distant past. And look who profits from the purchase and wearing of said costume. For starters, here's Target's new CEO, Brian Cornell:

Brian Cornell, CEO, Target [image source]
Here's Target's Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, John J. Mulligan:

John J. Mulligan, Executive President & CFO, Target [image source]

And here's the rest of Target's highest paid corporate executives. Correct me if I'm wrong, but while our little Asian princess is being made-up to look as "Asian" as possible to sell an age old stereotype, the roll call at Target's corporate offices is looking awfully white and entirely non-Asian. It is not a stretch to say her race paired with her cis gender are being commodified to benefit those in power who appear to be, unsurprisingly, majority white men. I know this is all very difficult to discuss. It is profoundly uncomfortable to imagine children being framed and targeted this way. But it is far more uncomfortable to find that we ourselves might be the ones putting them in harm's way. And that is precisely what we do when we allow costumes like this to exist and our Asian girls to wear them. Even though the roots of racism were planted deep and long ago, we must remember that it's our every day acts as every day people that can still feed them so they continue to grow. In a world that remains divided by race and in which racial inequities obstinately persist, it is incumbent upon us to resist and refuse to move through our lives ahistorically. If dismantling racism can mean doing something as straightforward as explaining to our Asian girls (and all girls) that the Asian princess costume is inappropriate and we would prefer they pick something else - why wouldn't we?


  1. My initial reaction was, "Yes, what can be the big deal if the wearer IS Asian?" because as a Chinese American, I questioned what it would be like if I could feel comfortable wearing an 'Asian costume' (I chose to be the Pink Power Ranger when I was six). Your simple image searches showed me the answer. Thank you for your article and the visual additions, which hit it home for me. Still, there has got to be a way to appreciate and respectfully incorporate aspects of cultures and histories that are not European in a way that doesn't draw immediate rage and negativity. What are ways our society can celebrate more inclusively? Halloween is not going to go away. In fact, I think this season regularly beings up these topics, which I'm grateful for, too. And as gentrification hits in stronger waves through the United States, the questions around appropriation are increasing in frequency and magnitude, but I am so tired of being upset with things we can probably take actions other than rhetoric to help start changing. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't once wanted to be an imperial Chinese princess as one of my costume ideas, but what I had in mind was the costumes I saw on TV my whole life in shows produced in China, by Chinese people, with ornate hairstyles and decorations. Considering how that would be interpreted by any coporation for children apparel, I hesitate to say the Target costume is very far off. We learn nothing of these histories in school. How do we pretend to be things we actually admire without doing it wrong by accident? There is so much more to be discussed and done by us as a community at large. When I was 10, Mulan was my favorite Disney movie. I didn't think of her as a princess, and as little as I liked her showing up in the Disney stores as such, I was always glad to have her show up with Pocahontas because they were still outnumbered by Belle, Aurora, Snow White, and Ariel, who isn't even human (but was a great example of being a feminist, in my young perspective). Maybe when the generation of my currently nonexistent children come around, I can be part of the generation of parents that offer to make more ideas available if my child wanted to be a "princess" in costume. We don't all grow up with blogger moms who craft our dreams with their luxurious free time to just build love for their families, BUT we can always DO as much as we intellectually dissect.

  2. You really got me thinking here Sharon! I hear everything you are saying and I agree.

    Here are my questions: The goal is to eliminate all costumes of Asian, Native, and Black princesses so that only White princess costumes remain, correct?

    I'm wondering if a Google image search is telling of systemic oppression or only telling of which images have a lot of links and have good search engine optimization?

    I'm also thinking the photographers are to blame for how they tell the girls to pose. If the girls look into the camera that would fix one issue.

    Also, European women (and all women) deal with exoticization, fetishization, and hyper-sexualization. Google 'Dutch costume' for example.