imomus (imomus) wrote,

Did Beatnik Grifter Play On Loathsome Hipster Negro Fetish?

Imagine it's 1957, and Norman Mailer has just published his essay The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster. White and Jewish hipsters in the Beat underground of the late 1950s, Mailer observes, are distancing themselves from mainstream white society. They're dressing like, talking like, and listening to the music of, negroes. Now imagine a counterblast to Mailer's booster for black culture. A black girl -- a con artist known as the Beatnik Grifter -- has been hoodwinking hipsters out of large sums of money. An article appears in the press headlined: "Did Beatnik Grifter Play On Loathsome Hipster Negro Fetish?"

WTF, you say to yourself. "Loathsome hipster negro fetish?" This headline couldn't happen today, when racism is taboo, and there's a black president. Alas, it can happen, and it does. All you have to do is replace "negro" with "Asian". The Jezebel blog ("celebrity, sex, fashion for women") ran a story headlined Did "Hipster Grifter" Play On Loathsome Hipster Asian Fetish? last Wednesday. It's a racially-angled take on the story The New York Observer ran earlier the same day, the tale of Kari Ferrell, the Korean-American con artist who ripped young Brooklyn bohemians off by telling them she had cancer (and other mini-scams).

The Observer told the story fairly straight as a crime tale. The Vice blog (Kari worked for Vice for a week) just mentioned that they made the mistake of hiring "a grifter". The blogosphere resounded with Kari's witty, direct pick-up lines ("I want to give you a hand job with my mouth" or "I want you to toss your hot dog down my hallway") and "I knew Kari" testimonials, both real and fake. Some naked photos turned up, featuring Kari's extensive chest tattoo. Kari herself even chimed in; on the lam from Utah cops, she emailed Gawker her apologies for the scams, which generally began with sex, developed into "terminal cancer" or "pregnancy", with check fraud and petty theft along the way.

The reason the story got so big is that the charming, self-assured confidence trickster -- the grifter -- is a central archetype in the American psyche, the dark correlate of the sell-you-anything salesman, the white-smiling politician, the human chameleon. On top of that, add some sympathy for the victims, and a big dose of Schadenfreude towards both "bitch" Kari and the "idiot" hipster clique she moved through. Which brings us back to the Jezebel piece, without a doubt the nastiest article I've seen on the subject.

"The most ludicrous theory attempting to explain why Kari managed to scam so many different people for so long despite the glaring inconsistencies in her money/cancer/psychotic ex/employment lies attributes her success to her being Asian (Korean, to be exact)," sighs Jen at Disgrasian, linking to the Jezebel piece. "While Asians are generally stereotyped as trustworthy... and some hipsters do have raging Asian fetishes, this little narrative convenience is completely fatuous. We've seen Asian fetishes rot many things--most notably a man's appeal--but common sense and a healthy dose of skepticism across the board? Continually? As Gawker's already pointed out, Kari got away with her crimes because of her charm."

So how exactly did Jezebel play the race card, and how plausibly did they make the argument that it was relevant? Here's what they said: "The fact that she's Korean-American is intriguing; as anyone who's been to a Williamsburg art opening knows, for a lot of these dudes, having an Asian girlfriend is some kind of weird fetish (to the point where one Chinese American friend of mine remarked once, "I can't go near those hipster neighborhoods. These guys just want to date an Asian, doesn't matter who, and it's racist and weird and really uncomfortable." Another friend adds, "It's obviously rooted in some racist stereotype of the 'exotic' or 'submissive' - I don't even want to know what.") Vice has never made any bones about its love of hot Asian women - see any "Dos" - so Farrell chose her targets well. One has to note that after writing a note to a stranger at a bar reading, "I want to give you a hand job with my mouth,"she signed it "Korean Abdul-Jabbar."

The piece ends with a quote from Jaemin Kim: "Unlike any other racial group in America today, Asian women routinely are dehumanized in popular culture as sexualized, meek and voiceless objects." Jezebel ends its piece: "Surely Farrell knew this too?"

The article (which misspells Ferrell's name) begs an enormous number of questions. Is to be sexual (or "sexualized") to be dehumanised? Was Kari Ferrell -- with her incredibly aggressive and direct sexual patter -- really playing on the stereotypology of being "meek and voiceless"? If so, she went about it in a damn strange way. As someone asks in the comments below, just exactly when, if someone has a girlfriend who is Asian, can we not assume that they have an "Asian fetish"? Does a white with a black girlfriend have a "Negro fetish"? Does a Jewish person with a Jewish girlfriend have a "Jewish fetish"? When do we stop persecuting people for their sexual choices, and their sexual orientation? Only when they've been proved to have no choice about it? Or, precisely, when they've made plenty of other choices (ie don't exclusively date people from one ethnic category)?

The thing I notice about the Jezebel article is the stuff I was talking about in The arrow and the frame: that if you switch your focus from the stated opinions in the piece and look instead at the framings, you'll find that the article exemplifies the very racist stereotyping it pretends to decry. How would Google AdSense read the Jezebel page? It would note only the proximity of the word "Asian" to words like "exotic" and "submissive". That the article projects this stereotypology onto hipsters is spurious (I've never heard anyone who actually dates or lives with an Asian partner using this terminology, or even implying it between the lines); it's the framing that counts. If you frame the framing of Asians as submissive, you pretty much frame them, yourself, as submissive. You make that the context for the whole discussion, no matter what sort of behaviour the actual Asian in the story is exemplifying. The stereotype, Jezebel, is in the eye of the beholder.

Let's end with Norman Mailer. Let's imagine that the reason hipsters in 2009 are frequenting (and dating) Asians is that Asian culture is as inspirational to today's cutting-edge subcultural kids as Negro culture was, back in 1957, to their jazz-loving, jive-talking grandfathers. And now here's some ultra-conservative publication coming along to tell us that one particular black girl, who turned out to be a bad egg, "played on the loathsome hipster negro fetish". You'd want to tell them exactly which hallway they could toss their hotdog down, right?

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