Dear Cibu: Orientalist stereotypes aren’t cute

Content notes: anti-Asian stereotypes, media racism and sexism. 

My friend Nikki drew my attention to a line of hair products marketed by Cibu International with names that are, shall we say, really freakin’ racist and sexist against women of East Asian ethnicity (Nikki’s response to this is posted below). The company’s current position is that these names are harmless “wordplay,” but um….

Well, let’s take their hair detangling product named “Miso Knotty.” Sigh.

“Me so naughty” jokes? Are not clever branding. But they are a) gross, b) a play on racist stereotypes about how people of Asian ethnicity speakEnglish and c) also an example of gendered racism that sexualizes East Asian women and is seriously misogynist. These kinds of images are sadly common – cf Victoria’s Secret’s recent “Go East” lingerie line, complete with a “sexy little Geisha” outfit.

It might seem a little thing, but these kinds of messages add up (and it’s worth noting that Cibu’s products are being sold at The Hair Cuttery, which is a huge franchise).  Good news is, companies like Victoria’s Secret and Cibu do respond to negative feedback about their branding – VS, for example, ended up pulling their “Go East” line.

Nikki and a few others have been in contact with Cibu through their Facebook page, and they seem somewhat receptive to a dialogue about this line. A few more polite but firm messages letting Cibu know that their line is offensive and inappropriate may be effective in getting them to reconsider.

So if you have time and are so inclined, please consider dropping Cibu a line on their Facebook page to let them know that Orientalist stereotypes aren’t cute.

A version of this post was originally posted by Nikki at Irene’s Daughters.

I apologize for writing about something so inconsequential, but this happened, and it’s still kinda bugging me, so here we go.

Conversation at our house, a couple of weeks ago:

Husband [arriving home after getting a haircut]Did you know there is an “Asian-inspired” line of hair-care products being sold at the Hair Cuttery?
…I did not.
With product names such as “Geishalicious shampoo” and “Spring Roll Hydrating Cleanser” and “Shang High Mousse” and “Miso Knotty Leave-in Detangler.”
Yeah. It was problematic for me.

[My husband is kind of a master of understatement, which is one of the reasons we are such a good match. I never understate anything. Opposites really do attract.]


The company selling the products — which are currently on the shelves at Hair Cuttery and Bubbles salons, and perhaps more; I’m not sure — is called Cibu International. Go visit their website. Really, go check out the product names. Be sure to look for the “Take Out Clarifying Shampoo” with A PICTURE OF A TAKE-OUT BOX ON THE BOTTLE. I’ll wait.

That stuff is ridic, am I right? And think how many people had to sign off on those product names before they hit the shelves! It’s mind-boggling. I thought, as a society, we’d learned a thing or two about cultural misappropriation, and how even if you’re a white person who thinks it’s cute/harmless/even flattering, it’s not a good way to actually sell the products. But no. No: apparently we have not learned much about that at all.

I emailed the company, of course, but got no response. My friend left a comment on their Facebook wall, and got a reply. Here’s what someone wrote to her:

I have been pondering on how to best respond to this post for several days. Cibu is in no way, shape or form in the business of cultural misappropriation and racism. The word “Miso” in Miso Knotty Leave In Detangler refers to the soy protein found in the formulation, “knotty” refers to the unpleasant hair condition it aims to correct. Our creative director Sharon So came to the United States from Seoul, Korea just shy of 20 years ago. She has been instrumental in the creative and functional development of the Cibu brand since day 1. Nearly 50% of our Stylist force is of Far and Middle Eastern descent. They have say in naming as well and function as our market research control group. For example, I pitched to name a shine spray “Seoul Glow” and was vetoed pretty quickly. Point is its word play. My sincere apologies for any offense. Cibu Loves all skin and hair types.

Yes, stand down, my fellow Far Eastern minions! This person has explained the origin of the “Miso Knotty” detangler so well! It never would have occurred to me that they were trying to make a clever play on words, or that “detangler” is supposed to untangle knots in hair. I’m glad to see they knew where to draw the line at “Seoul Glow shine spray” (but “Shang High mousse” somehow made the cut?)."Miso Knotty," Cibu International

In my limited experience as the employee of an international corporation (Gap corporate pawn, circa 1999/2000), I don’t think it’s really all that typical for the people making and profiting from the products to ask the people using and selling them if they think the names are offensive. But, okay, let’s take them at their word and assume that some number of the “Far and Middle Eastern” stylists at the Hair Cutterys and Bubbles salons were actually asked, and said they were fine with these names. (It’s what I’d be tempted to say, too, since I like being employed.) We don’t decide what’s racist or offensive by popular vote. Not every Asian person has to be offended by you calling them “Oriental” for the term itself to be offensive in reference to people.

Maybe you’re thinking that there are bigger fish to fry. You’re right. That doesn’t mean that these things, which are easily avoidable and quite obviously wrong, ought to happen in this day and age. Whatever the intention, these product names are highly offensive. And since we’re tallying votes here, all of my liberal and conservative, White, Black, and Asian acquaintances agreed with me when I told them about it.

So, it’s obviously not a protest we need to take to the streets, but if you’re bored and you want to tell Cibu International what you think of their ridiculous, racist product names, again their website is right here and their Facebook page is here. (I’m all for Facebook comments, personally — because it’s published automatically and therefore public.)

Update: Now we’re into it on a comment thread. Some person [eta: probably a random fan of Cibu, not an employee] just wrote: ”The word geisha itself literally means ‘person of the arts’ – indeed the earliest geisha were men – and it is as performers of dance, music and poetry that they actually spend most of their working time.” Oh, well. We’re all good, then.

Update #2: I’ve been Facebook-messaging with an individual at Cibu International. As she tells it, there is some openness to rethinking one of the product names. I don’t think this gesture is sufficient, given that the entire line is based on “cutesy” mocking/reduction of Asian cultures — but at the same time, I have to give this person a great deal of credit for having the conversation with me at all. I have no idea if this can or will go anywhere, but it would be one very small but important step in the right direction, and should be respectfully encouraged.