Intermarriage & Sexual Domesticity in Mitski’s “Happy”

( content warning: gore, violence )

Indie-rock star Mitski has risen to fame in part due to her powerful treatment of Asian American themes, including her experiences of being the ‘forever foreigner’ and the unattainability of white beauty standards. “Happy,” the opening track on her fourth album Puberty 2, explores an Asian-white intermarriage and comments on white men’s perceived ownership of Asian women’s bodies – which are seen as sexually ‘exotic’ yet domestic and docile. In the accompanying video, a troubled relationship between a Japanese woman and her white, adulterous husband unfolds. Ultimately, Mitski’s “Happy” illustrates how Asian American women in interracial relationships can be cast by their partner into the archetype of the domestic and sexually available ‘lotus blossom’—highlighting the role of the global sexual economy, racial fetish, and gendered power differentials in forging interracial marriages.

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First, Mitski explores how Asian-white intermarriages can be built on the exchange of sex for economic security, with power conferred on the white partner. The video opens on a Japanese American woman embracing her white, uniform-clad husband who has ostensibly just returned from war. What begins as a loving marriage quickly disintegrates into an unequal partnership, with the woman forced into sexual and domestic subservience. She is shown delivering a tray of tea to her husband, a scene coupled with the lyric “I told him I’d do anything to have him stay with me; so he laid me down and I felt happy come inside of me.” This scene depicts a relationship in which sex is traded for emotional and economic security—the latter implied by the woman’s role as a stay-at-home wife. Furthermore, the video underscores how Asian-white intermarriages are often marked by fetishization, commenting on a long legacy of white American soldiers at war in the East finding “exotic” and “Oriental” lovers. Chen and Takeuchi (2011) suggest that the ‘lotus blossom’ stereotype itself was “produced by the discourse on military brides and mail-order brides”[1]—commenting on a sexual economy in which white men come to ‘own’ Asian women’s bodies through intermarriages, reinforced by legacies of imperialism.

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Beyond demonstrating how Asian-white intermarriages are implicated in the global sexual economy, Mitski’s “Happy” highlights the culture of domesticity which Asian women are subject to. In the second verse, she sings “I was in the bathroom, I didn’t hear him leave; I locked the door behind him and I turned around to see; All the cookie wrappers and the empty cups of tea; Well I sighed and mumbled to myself again I have to clean.” In the accompanying scenes, the woman—while performing domestic labor around the house—finds tufts of golden hair which she takes as evidence of her husband’s infidelity. The husband’s treatment of his wife mirrors the relationship of a domestic worker and employer, her sole purpose is to serve him. Furthermore, her husband’s infidelity is a burning reminder that she is a ‘forever foreigner’ who, in spite of her devotion to him, will never conform to American beauty standards. This sentiment is underscored when, upon inspecting a handbag her husband gave to her, she finds an inscription on the inside which reads “for my blue-eyed cookie,” and then looks up into her own brown-eyed reflection in the mirror.

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Ultimately, Mitski’s “Happy” and its accompanying video serve to portray how Asian women in intermarriages can experience a loss of agency as they are cast by their partner into sexual and domestic subservience. In the climactic scene, the woman descends the stairs into the basement late at night, where she finds her husband dismembering the corpse of one of his lovers with an axe. Importantly, the husband is soaking his victim’s blood-stained jewelry in ammonia, revealing that the gifts he uses to secure his wife’s devotion have come from the white lovers he murders. In a final show of defiance, the woman bludgeons her husband with the axe as he tries to choke her to death. In this moment, the woman liberates herself from a loveless and exploitative marriage, though at a great cost. This video is not meant to suggest that all intermarriages are built on an unhealthy foundation, but rather to draw attention to the power differential which exists in particular among Asian women partnered with white men. Ultimately, popular media like Mitski’s “Happy” video helps us better understand the global sexual economy through which Asian American women are oppressed.

[1] Chen, J., & Takeuchi, D. (2011). Intermarriage, Ethnic Identity, and Perceived Social Standing Among Asian Women in the United States. Journal of Marriage and Family, 73(4), 876-888.

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