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Japanese Gothic Lolitas Doll-like Aesthetics and Sensual Glamour

Japanese Gothic Lolitas Doll-like Aesthetics and Sensual Glamour
© Photograph by Meyer Yu

In contrast to their representation of females, the media tend to emphasise male aggressiveness. Music journalist Stuart Berman, for instance, argues that American music reflects wider gender stereotypes in that male singers are assumed to be aggressive while female singers are assumed to be coquettish and fragile.Compared to GothLoli, Western Goths are generally defined by their embrace of darkness and gloominess. The undertone of dark, gloomy aesthetics are also prominent in GothLoli, as many of its fashions feature symbols of bats, coffins, skulls, crosses and blackness. However, as the name Gothic & Lolita itself indicates, it also emphasises sweetness, girlishness, and elaborateness. GothLoli is not only considerably distinctive from the Western Gothic in terms of style but also conceptually. There is a sense that Western Gothic often symbolises the rejection of and rebellion against mainstream culture. According to rhetorical and cultural studies scholar Joshua Gunn, Western Goths often see themselves as darker counterparts to mainstream culture, as they: “Choose to embrace the gloomier aspects of life that (they perceive) mainstream society seeks to suppress (death, melancholy, depression, the non-transcendent sublime of confronting the realities of postmodernity).”1

As a consequence, those who self-identify as Goths often oppose the media’s representation, and its inclusion of such mainstream gothic cultural icons as Marilyn Manson.2 Sociology scholar Amy Catherine Wilkins, in her study of American Goth women, indicates that they often attempt to reject/oppose mainstream portrayals of passive femininity through celebrations of active sexuality.3 Sociologist Paul Hodkinson notes that the cultural environment of Western Goth subculture is a suitable environment where women challenge the existing, mainstream media’s portrayal of passive femininity because the distinction between male and female is blurred by subcultural style.4 From these studies, we can draw the idea that Western Goths often function as models to oppose, reject and rebel against existing fetters imposed by mainstream culture and society, perhaps especially those to do with gender.

The concept of “Lolita” is perceived quite differently in the West than in Japan. As media scholar Debra Merskin states, it is named after the preadolescent heroine in the novel ‘Lolita’ by Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (1958) and is often used to describe young girls dressed and posed in a highly sexualised way, or middle-aged males’ paedophilic attachment to such girls.5 Debra Merskin expresses her own concern over the current trend in Western media (especially in advertisements) of portraying young girls with highly sexualised looks, as well as the trend for more mature-aged women to dress and look like baby-dolls. She argues that this “Lolita” look is indeed a multimedia phenomenon. Debra Merskin cites author Judy Steed who argues that this trend is likely to fuel the fantasies of paedophiles who find that their predilections are “reinforced by mainstream culture, movies and rock videos that glorify violent males who dominate younger, weaker sex objects”.6 In this sense, she claims that the concept of “Lolita” operates exclusively for an objectifying male gaze. As a consequence, “Lolita”, or women dressing to achieve “babydoll” looks, represents the objectification and sexualisation of women in the mainstream media. This indicates the limitation of media representation of women in the West. Media and communication scholars Karen Ross and Virginia A. Nightingale, for example, cite media studies scholar Marian Meyers who argues that women are often represented by the media as either “Madonna” or “Whore”, for “women are either innocent victims of male lust and violence or guilty of incitement by their own behaviour and conduct”.7 This dichotomy is also mentioned by Debra Merskin who argues that the concept of (American) “Lolita” in fashion advertising, and in other media, is to “appear vampish, but be virginal”, which means, she argues, to appear sexually provocative (“Whore”), but remain non-threatening to men (“Madonna”).8

In contrast to their representation of females, the media tend to emphasise male aggressiveness. Music journalist Stuart Berman, for instance, argues that American music reflects wider gender stereotypes in that male singers are assumed to be aggressive while female singers are assumed to be coquettish and fragile.9 Thus, it can be seen that in mainstream Western media, this limited “Madonna-Whore” representation of women and girls as well as the representation of masculinity as aggressive still strongly persists. This limited representation of gender in mainstream media seems to impose a negative conception of femininity and in turn the qualities such as elegance and sweetness that are associated with it.

In contrast to these points, subcultural aspects of GothLoli have been fading as Japanese youth who dress in GothLoli increasingly perceive it as part of acceptable mainstream fashion, rather than a way to express their resistance to mainstream culture. It is important that despite the emphasis on sweetness and demureness, GothLoli does not endorse “passive” femininity or objectification of women. As the Avant Gauche website indicates, GothLoli has no direct reference to Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov and his novel, and generally, in relation to the fashion, it has no sexual connotations.10

This idea is credible because although those who dress in this fashion style often overemphasise demureness and sweetness, which conceivably appeal to some men, Japanese Lolitas also tend to endorse the egoism and cruelty associated with childhood rather than its innocence, naiveté or submissiveness. Thus, they do not seem to endorse passivity or vulnerability. Moreover, their emphasis on sweetness and cuteness, both in fashion and manners, does not, at least not intentionally, evoke vulnerability, availability, or willingness to fuel male fantasies as Debra Merskin argues American “Lolita” does. It should be noted that many Lolitas differentiate themselves from maid cosplay fashion where young women dress in similar, but distinctive styles from GothLoli (or French Maid). One possible reason is that the maid style which is strongly associated with maid cafés11, tends to operate for the objectifying gaze of men, particularly those who are considered to be an otaku12, and often connotes emphasised (superficial) submissiveness (after all, they are dressed as maids).

The concept of “Lolita” is essentially aesthetic as it is applied to the lacy, elaborate, and girlish doll-like sweetness of the fashion. This idea is reinforced by the interviews with GothLoli followers, who refer to its cuteness and sweetness, and its suitability for their taste, as the main reason for dressing in the style.13 Also, the magazine ‘Gothic & Lolita Bible’ provides a catalogue for clothing brands that distribute GothLoli-style clothing. This indicates its mass-marketed nature and its aim to encourage casual participation and enjoyment if it suits an individual.

In order to understand GothLoli in the context of cultural globalisation, it is useful to refer to the theory articulated by scholar Okamura Keiko.14 According to her theory of “format” and “product”, historical European fashion styles (the “format”) became transnational, and then “localised” in Japanese culture. When the “format” is then hybridised with the local aesthetic notion of cute, it engenders a fashion form peculiar to Japan. The “product” of this transcultural flow reflects the emphasis on the fusion of elaborated sweetness and cuteness, a quality unknown in Western Goth subculture. However, this may support the commonly held notion of cultural globalisation as localisation and subsequent homogenisation of Western culture. This point is summarised in anthropologist Jonathan Friedman’s claim in relation to similarities between cultural globalisation and European colonialism in the eighteenth-century. Jonathan Friedman contends that “the things and symbols of Western culture have diffused into the daily lives of many of the world’s people […] yet still, their mode of appropriating these things is vastly different from our own.”15 In this idea, the differences between “global” (our) and “local” (their) cultures, and possibly their hierarchical relationships (i.e. global/ dominant, local/ subservient) are sustained even after “global” cultural forms are localised.

What theorists like Jonathan Friedman tend to disregard, however, is “countercurrents — the impact non-western cultures have been making in the West”.16 Those who affirm the direct correlation between cultural globalisation and Westernisation do so by assuming the sole dominance of Western culture, and hence assuming the centrality of Western culture against peripheral non-Western cultures. This idea is challenged by Arjun Appadurai who argues that neither the centrality nor the peripherality of culture exists any longer. Moreover, the idea of the countercurrent or “reverse” flow of culture indicates the potential of cultural forms to circulate in multiple directions. Consequently, this suggests the potential of various cultures to become active components of cultural globalisation. One of the ways to compare these impacts or “reverse” flow of GothLoli on the West is via different aesthetical conceptions of “cuteness” in the West and Japan. White argues that there is a tendency in the United States of America to encourage even small girls in elementary school to dress in mature, sexualised clothes. In Japan, in comparison, high school and college-aged girls, and even young women and men are allowed to associate with cute styles without much social objection.17 Debra Merskin’s concern over the American trend where women “dress down” to achieve a baby-doll look also indicates that in the United States of America the concept of “cuteness” should only be applied to small children. Moreover, Wilkins cites Sarah L. Thornton who argues that participants in youth culture denounce femininity as passive, undesirable, and unhip.18 In other words, American youth tend to reject forms of femininity and demureness as undesirable. If these sentiments can be read as reflecting the West in general, it can be assumed that the association of youth/adult with cute and sweet styles may be generally considered inappropriate and unfavourable in the West. On the other hand, Kinsella claims that the Japanese cute style has, directly and indirectly, influenced Western youth culture since the 1990s, most notably in the “Riot Grrrl” style, where “radical, assertive young women began to wear baby-doll dresses or old-fashioned frilly frocks, with Dr Martin [sic] boots and other macho accessories”.19 According to her: The tough but infantile “Riot Grrrl” style in the United Kingdom has been directly and indirectly influenced by Japanese cute culture, especially the sophisticated infantile styles developed around Tokyo’s Cutie For Independent Girls magazine.

Kinsella’s point is further reinforced by the growing popularity of GothLoli outside Japan. For instance, Baby The Stars Shine Bright, one of the most well known Lolita clothing brands, opened its first overseas store in Paris in 2007, indicating the fashion’s potential to become accepted outside the context of Japanese culture and aesthetics. It is easy to denounce GothLoli as mere mimicry of Western fashion. However, its hybridised qualities in which European classic fashion styles interact with Japanese aesthetic concepts, and its subsequent counter-currents in the West, demonstrate that non-Western culture also influences Western culture. Social and aesthetical differences between the West and Japan mean there are different interpretations of cuteness in those societies, which explains why this aesthetic concept was accepted without much resistance in Japan while it was, and still is, perceived in a rather negative light in many Western societies. In the next section, I turn to GothLoli followers outside of Japan with particular attention to their perceptions of the fashion trend and look at some of the issues in the context of cultural globalisation that surrounds it.

Joshua Gunn, ‘Marilyn Manson is Not Goth: Memorial Struggle and the Rhetoric of Subcultural Identity’ p. 426.
Ibid., pp. 418-9.
Amy Catherine Wilkins, ‘So Full of Myself as a Chick: Goth Women, Sexual Independence, and Gender Egalitarianism’.
Paul Hodkinson, ‘Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture’, p. 53.
Debra Merskin, ‘Reviving Lolita? A Media Literacy Examination of Sexual Portrayals of Girls in Fashion Advertising’ p. 120.
Judy Steed, 1994, quoted in Debra Merskin, p. 127.
Marian Meyers, 1997 cited in Karen Ross and Virginia A. Nightingale, ‘Media and Audiences: New Perspectives’, p. 80.
Debra Merskin, op. cit., p. 125.
Martin, Brough, & Orrego, ‘Get It On’.
Avant Gauche, op. cit.
A Maid café is where young waitresses are dressed as and play the role of maids. The maids and their customers engage in a pseudo master-servant relationship with “definitely no sexual overtones about the whole situation.”
According to Orbaugh and Buckley (2002), the word otaku has connotations similar to “nerd” in English though sometimes it is used to suggest unsociability, and even psychopathy. Outside Japan, the term is generally used to describe devoted fans of manga and anime. In recent times, the word akibakei (Akihabara-style) has increasingly been used to describe the (otaku) subcultures that emerged in the district of Akihabara, and the followers of these subcultures.
‘Gothic & Lolita Bible, vol. 5’, pp. 83-86.
Okamura Keiko, gurobaru shakai no ibunka-ron.
Jonathan Friedman, ‘Cultural Identity & Global Process’, p. 100.
Nederveen Pieterse, ‘Globalization and Culture’, p. 69.
White, op. cit., p. 172.
Sarah L. Thornton, cited in Wilkins, op. cit., p. 333.
Kinsella, op. cit.

Also published on Medium.


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