My personal blog as a 'grown-up' Goth and Romantic living in the Highlands of Scotland. I write about the places I go, the things I see and my thoughts on life as a Goth and the subculture. Sometimes I write about music I like and sometimes I review things. This blog often includes architectural photography, graveyards and other images from the darker side of life.

The Gothic subculture is not just about imitating each other, it is a creative movement and subculture that grew out of post-punk and is based on seeing beauty in the dark places of the world, and looks back to the various ways throughout history in which people have confronted and explored the macabre, the dark and the taboo, and as such I'm going to post about more than the just the standards of the subculture (Tim Burton, Siouxsie Sioux and Anne Rice et al.) and look at things by people who might not consider themselves anything to do with the subculture, but have eyes for the dark places. Goth should not be limited by what is considered "goth", inspiration comes from all places, the key is to look with open eyes, listen carefully and think with an open mind..

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Gyaru: Looking At Other Subcultures And Ideals of Beauty

This blog entry is a response to a recent blog post by the wonderful La Carmina and to some of the comments and responses to that article. This is La Carmina's blog post: ::link:: and it is about a Japanese subculture called Gyaru.

This is the first time I have come across the subculture, and it intrigues me. The girls are genuinely pretty, even if in a way I would not personally like to emulate, and the soft and pale make-up styles give me inspiration for things to try with Dark Romantic outfits in order to have makeup that is still in keeping with the Romantic aesthetic, but does not distract from the outfit in the way heavier Gothic makeup can, but still emphasises the eyes, as I think my eyes (a dark slate-grey) are one of the nicer aspects of my face. The curls are very nice. I have had various hair-styles, and at the moment I have fairly "normal" looking real hair, for work purposes, and so that I can change drastically for my own time, have a series of wigs. The most recent wig was bought for me by my partner, and is a wine-red one with long hair and curls - quite different from my usual black, silver and purple braided hair wig that I wear pretty much everywhere. I'm thinking of applying some of the Gyaru aesthetic to outfits involving the curls, being a lot softer and feminine. I've come to wear a lot of Rivethead/Industrial outfits recently, and while I am far too old and too curvy to look childlike, being soft and feminine looking makes a welcome change.

My initial response was that the Gyaru girls look very pretty, but if the girls depicted in La Carmina's photos of photos are women doing this, the infantilisation is a bit... strange? Some of the girls look like they're about 11 years old due to the flawless skin and huge eyes and girly clothes. Japanese women have naturally a frame that seems more "childish" to westerners, because western women are usually pretty curvy. This straighter frame allows them to pull off a childish aesthetic better than most Western women (hence why there are so many Western Lolitas who simply do not look right because they try to wear outfits designed for a Japanese frame.) It's definitely adorable, and a kind of prettiness that isn't anything akin to the sexed-up kind I see a lot of western teenagers attempting, which I find really kind of worrying (when I see girls who ARE 11 wearing high-heels, mini-skirts and padded bras, I worry,) but did notunderstand (and I genuinely meant that I didn't understand - no criticism was intended) why they want to look like they're children if they're not. I would understand if they were wearing sweet Lolita clothes or similar, where the aim is to emulate a doll-like aesthetic, and it's all very "Alice in Wonderland", a sort of fantasy of a sweet world, but I was a bit confused about this one.

I wanted to know the thinking behind this look. La Carmina sent me the link to the Wiki page on the Gyaru style: ::link:: and I'm still doing further research. I'm finding it hard to find good resources that are not tutorials on how to achieve certain make-up or fashion styles, but actually explain WHY they choose this aesthetic.

In the Wikipedia article on Gyaru there is a photograph of some girls from the subculture being photographed. I think these are typical of the older incarnation of the subculture, which originated in the 1970s and but the term has since gradually drifted to apply to a younger group, who prefer a "childish" image and appears to have merged with the Kogyaru girls, although I hope this is not a mistaken conflation. The style in this photograph appears to be a Japanese emulation of Western young women known colloquially in the UK as Essex Girls (The Wiki article, for those not in the UK who may not know what an Essex Girl is: ::link:: ) especially in terms of bouffant wavy hair-style, very short shorts, and strapped high-heels (thankfully not white). Essex Girls are not exactly someone to emulate, they are seen by many as the lowest form of conforming to mainstream fashion - to do so in a way that tries too hard to be "sexy" and misses the essence of the style they are trying to conform to. 

I also noticed that they look like Western girls, not very Japanese. This has drawn some complaints, especially those saying that Western mainstream fashion offers little worthy of emulation, and that it seems wrong to emulate a different race in order to appear beautiful. It is not for me to go about trying to instil racial pride in people, but it does seem sad to think that anyone should be pressured into believing that looking Asian isn't right and that they must try and Westernise, possibly in the hope than in doing so they will be successful - strange to think so when you compare how Europe and America have such economic crises at the moment, and Asian economies flourish! Several comments on La Carmina's blog indicate that there is pressure from girl's families to westernise, some going as far as having plastic surgery to thin their faces and have their eyes altered! This to me, is not right. It is not "better" to have any one particular set of regional characteristics. The same works in reverse - the Japanese are not inherently better either, nobody is. 

Ladycaos said "I have a really pretty Asian friend. Her skin has this nice complexion and she looks a bit tanned all year around (she's from the Hakka tribe in Taiwan, their skin tends to be darker than many Asians' skin). I'm so envious of her because she looks so healthy, and yet she keeps on saying how much she loves my super white skin (that makes me look like I just came out of the graveyard yesterday)... her family keeps on telling her this too. I guess this is just a general pression [sic] on women from the whole society, which leads them to be something they're not, just to fit into an ideal model (which is usually far from their natural beauty because we tend to want what we can't have). I guess this happens all over the world and it's sad all over the world. Nothing wrong with using make up to look prettier and taking care of yourself, but having to do surgery (or starve yourself) to look "beautiful" in the eyes of the society just makes me sad."
I agree with her that such pressures, although not necessarily with the racial element, exist across the world and that it is sad that women feel pressured to be quite different from themselves and their natural beauty in order to appease an exterior standard, to the lengths of going through surgery or starving themselves.

While their may be pressure towards the Westernisation of appearances, I'm not sure if that is the reason why these girls try and look like Western girls. Maybe it's like the reverse of Japan-obsessed westerners who go around saying "kawaii" too often and are always eating bento food and being dressed lolita - not that any of the above activities are bad - I do them! I wouldn't have been reading La Carmina's blog otherwise. *smoothes her lace and thinks about the Skull Danger bento set she wants* The West has long had a fascination with the Oriental, seeing it as exotic and unusual, mysterious even. Within the Gothic subculture, some welcomed Lolita and Visual Kei influences, when they first started to appear on the scene, as something new and different to use as inspiration at a point where the subculture was possibly getting a bit repetitive. They still provide inspiration, and while some people become rather derivative with their outfits, it still provides a rich source of fashion inspiration, especially when it comes to garments with radically different cuts and types.

One of the complaints made against this style is that it looks inhuman, especially the eyes. I have very little knowledge of this subculture, and therefore do not know if this is intentional - an attempt to be like a manga/anime character, or a doll, for example, as can be seen in some other Japanese subcultures, such as the Lolita subculture; or if it is an unfortunate side-effect of using cosmetic contact lenses to give the appearance of different eye-colour or a larger pupils and iris and those contact lenses just not looking realistic enough to pull this off as an attempt to make the eyes look like they're "really" like that.

In the various sub-types of the Goth subculture, cosmetic contact lenses are rarely intended to look human, some are red or purple trying to look mysterious, demonic or vampiric, others, such as those with biohazard or radiation symbols, circuit designs, etc. being worn by cyber or industrial types usually trying to give the appearance of being inhuman - maybe being some lab project, android, or the result of futuristic augmentation. Both of these are deliberately inhuman, unreal. While, like with expensive fake fangs and tooth veneers, some of these contacts are trying to look convincingly real, most are either quite open about them being strange contacts with no attempt at all to have them look even vaguely convincing, or are actively trying to look like augmentations.

I don't look very human in my cyber gear , where I deliberately try to look like an android/alien/genetically engineered creature! But when I do that it's almost a costume, it's not an attempt to be a "perfect" version of a human or to try and present it as some kind of "innate" beauty - it's a synthetic aesthetic, and I'm well aware of that. I'm all PVC and corseting and plastic for hair and neon make-up and UV reactive glow everything. There's nothing wrong with looking doll-like or inhuman if it's in a deliberately inhuman way, where it's almost a costume. Another example, one I don't participate in, are the sweet Lolitas who really do look like animate porcelain dolls. I think both the people looking inhuman and the people looking at them understand that they aren't presenting an image of ideal human beauty. It's still beautiful in its own way, but it's a different kind of beauty.

That said, the saturation of inhuman beauty presented as ideal beauty in the West, with the photoshopped women with no pores and perfect hair and so thin, or with an augmented bust makes a lot of women, especially young girls feel insecure about their looks, not because they don't realise that these pictures aren't real, but because they feel pressured to live up to an appearance that they KNOW they can't attain, or at least not unless they spend a lot of time and money everyday on personal trainers, personal make-up artists and expensive hair salons, which is unattainable to pretty much anyone who isn't a celebrity, and even celebrities don't look magazine-cover gorgeous everyday (as the paparazzi and scandal pages love to get bitchy over). With the Gyaru look, I don't know what the media saturation and trend pressures are like in Asia, so I can't comment on that, but I do not think it is the mainstream. 

There is apparently a subsection of Gyaru, a subculture called Ganguro, which appears to be the reverse of Goth in its aesthetic, drastically lightening their hair, making their skin dark, wearing very bright colours, and gets the same pop-psychology explanation as Goth, that "Researchers in the field of Japanese studies believe that ganguro is a form of revenge against traditional Japanese society due to resentment of neglect, isolation, and constraint of Japanese Society This is their attempt at individuality, self-expression, and freedom, in open defiance of school standards and regulations." (Quoted in the Wiki article and from ^ Liu, Xuexin (2005). "The hip hop impact on Japanese pop culture". Southeast Review of Asian Studies XXVII. Southeast Conference of the Association for Asian Studies (SEC/AAS)) That to me sounds a lot like the reasoning usually applied to why Goths look the way we do - that we're deliberately trying to rebellious, that it's a teenage way of trying to be different, to forge an "own identity" by adopting a subcultural one- nobody seems to have asked the older goths who have long out-grown teenage rebellion and look like this because we think it looks nice! Now, never having talked to any of these girls, I can't say whether the research perspective is right (researchers tend to look from an establishment perspective) or whether it is like the Goth look, something they do because they think it is genuinely attractive or maybe not as "attractive" but as being a walking work of art (like some of the Club Kid outfits). Some of the girls look like a parody of Valley Girls/Essex Girls, so maybe it is a commentary on Western fashion, I haven't found an English-language article explaining the philosophy behind the style. Ganguro has not got anywhere near as much Western popularity as the Lolita look, and even the Gyaru look is starting to get a more significant western following, so I think English-language resources on Ganguro are hard to come by. There is apparently another variant on the Ganguro look with much darker faces, deliberately clashing neon outfits and white eye-makeup that has apparently drawn ire for looking like they're wearing black-face, although they're something to do with emulating a "mountain hag" character from Japanese tradition - really not an area I know anything about; it is something I came across in passing while trying to research the Gyaru girls.

Alyssa D Mallozzi commented on La Carmina's blog and the comment section with this: "I found a lot of the other responses here very interesting and thoughtful. Some very good points are made, especially the idea that women are being made up into almost a doll-like caricature, something to be posessed rather than being seen as a human being. I suppose it's amatter of how much one wants to look into this subject, whether to see it from a fun, girlie kind of trend or as a more serious issue of the de-humanizing of women." She then went on to talk about reconstructive surgery she had, and her opinions on plastic surgery, but I'm not sure if she'd want that to be quoted here as it involves her personal history, and also, I am not sure how much plastic surgery is relevant to the Gyaru look. Her comment on women being presented as "almost a doll-like caricature, something to be possessed rather than a human being" interested me. I am not sure if the childish aesthetic is the result of exterior pressure, or something they deliberately chose, and if so, what the girls who follow this wish to present to the outside world. For it to be a fashion born from a cultural infantilisation of women, it would have to be motivated either by cultural or societal pressure that idealises girlishness rather than adult female attributes, or be done to impress men. I don't think it is the second, but I am not sure about the first - something I would like to know more about before I comment on it.

The trend to portray women as childlike but sexualised is not just limited to the photos of girls in this style done to look topless/like "glamour" poses (I will note that a lot of the girls presented in La Carmina's article are seen in less "sexy" poses, and wearing dresses that don't make them look like they're "flaunting it", but I don't really know more about how this trend is portrayed in a wider context.) but has been slowly increasing in popular depiction of women. Think of that advert that was banned in the UK that had Dakota Fanning dressed to look childlike, sitting with an over-sized bottle of perfume between her legs! That has nothing to do with this subculture or any other, it's about the infantilisation of women and the virgin/whore dichotomy, which is still prevalent in the West. Having never lived in Japan, I don't know much about how that works in that culture, and I don't know enough about traditional Japanese ideals of beauty to say whether the infantilisation has been inspired by Western thinking, or was there before. Young girls being seen as fresh and beautiful in the West is very old, and historically girls used to get married off far too young) and virginity and youth were prized.

At least in some corners of the Gyaru world, there does seem to be some sense of external pressure. In one article I read these quotes:
Gyaru is nothing without this makeup!
I can’t show my boyfriend my face without makeup!
I can’t talk like this without this makeup!
Article: ::link::
Yes, I would say that the makeup is pretty intrinsic to the Gyaru style, and that the same can be said for the place of makeup in the Gothic style, but the other two quotes trouble me. This, to me, does seem like the girls feel protected under their make-up, that it without it they are ashamed of their looks without it, or at least, do not feel like they are themselves without it. I am fond of heavy and dramatic makeup, but I do not feel that I cannot show my partner my face without it on, or feel that without it I am any different. Today the BBC were filming at the nature reserve where I do conservation work, and they were filming us working. I was wearing scruffy, muddy trousers, probably pulling weird faces with exertion as we were doing fairly hard labour, not wearing any make-up, and my braids were in disarray, and I was wearing my least favourite bandana, but I did not hide from the camera or the BBC camerawoman - instead I was proud of my achievements, and the achievements of the group at the nature reserve, told her about what were doing and directed her to talk to the group leaders from BTCV. My makeup is a choice, the only time it feels necessary is when not wearing it would clash with my outfit, and that's more aesthetic necessity than actual necessity.

I do not want to be overly judgemental of any subculture, let alone one I do not fully understand, and while some aspects do seem of slight concern to me such as external pressure to Westernise, anyone feeling that they need to hide their true selves behind any aesthetic, and the infantilisation of women, I have not enough information to form a lasting opinion. The quotes of two girls should not be seen as representative of any subculture - I know all too well what happens when a subculture becomes tarred by the words of members who are not exactly representative of the majority. It is a very interesting subculture I would like to know more about, and if anybody has any good links or resources, I would love to know. The girls who participate in this subculture do look very adorable and pretty in their own way. I do not think it is a subculture I would ever join - it is far more feminine and sweet to match my personality - but I look forwards to learning more about it.


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