How Olivia Rodrigo Defies Asian American Stereotypes as an 'All-American Bitch'

Christopher Polk/Getty Images

In this essay, writer Livia Caligor explores how Olivia Rodrigo dismantles stereotypes as an Asian American pop star in celebration of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

In early 2021, I and countless others watched as Olivia Rodrigo captured a certain kind of quintessential American girlhood with “drivers license.” A coming-of-age story with an Asian American girl of Filipino descent at the center, she drove through the suburbs “alone past his street,” past “white cars, backyards.” She sang, “You’re probably with that blonde girl/ who always made me doubt, she’s so much older than me, she’s everything I’m insecure about,” unapologetically conveying simple yet devastatingly relatable emotions — the vulnerability, confusion, and perpetual self-comparison to the status quo that taint our teenage years especially.

Three years later, I watched Rodrigo come into her own at the GUTS World Tour at Madison Square Garden. The sea of mostly Gen Z and younger girls belted their hearts out to every word of “brutal” — an diaristic number that meditates on the challenging world of adolescence — and “enough for you,” a simple yet heart-wrenchingly painful song about never feeling enough for her ex. As she transitioned into her angstier, more rebellious GUTS hits, I realized that she has not only rewritten herself into the “American girl” experience that has historically excluded Asian Americans: her honest, soulful, and rebellious spirit directly dismantles racial stereotypes around Asian American women.

<h1 class="title">Olivia Rodrigo Sold-Out GUTS World Tour - New York – Madison Square Garden</h1><cite class="credit">Kevin Mazur/Getty Images</cite>

Olivia Rodrigo Sold-Out GUTS World Tour - New York – Madison Square Garden

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Growing up on the cusp of Millennial and Gen Z, I recall few Asian American figures in the media who felt relatable (although shoutout to the aspirational London Tipton, played by Brenda Song). I remember when the new American Girl Doll Julie Albright, a blonde, white California girl, came out in 2007, and I was ecstatic that she came with her best friend Ivy Ling. She was the first Asian girl in the cohort of side characters, though her fairly flat portrayal (she loves gymnastics and dumplings) didn’t resemble any of my Asian friends’ or my own experiences, only the socialized norms constructed around us. I distinctly remember that she failed to understand Julie’s determination to change the world. Though more subtle than her cut bangs or qipao dress, this aspect of her character conveyed a more deeply-ingrained expectation of Asian American women — deferential to the status quo and invisible on the sidelines, even when inevitably nicknamed Ling Ling. Most Asian American characters were portrayed this way – and in the media, they were even more peripheral, often a painfully stereotypically, two-dimensional filler character.

Rodrigo, on the other hand, is anything but voiceless, directly challenging the notion of the invisible and irrelevant Asian woman. Her debut album SOUR (2021) bluntly unpacks the perils and discoveries of being 17, a rallying cry to her generation. Of course, being largely white-passing (as a half-Filippina), that definitely makes her more “relatable” to fans who look like and feel like her. But regardless, as Rodrigo told Teen Vogue, “it was cool to see girls of Filipino heritage DM me and be like, ‘Oh, it’s so cool to see someone that looks like me, and that’s really empowering.’” In a society where pop stars are heralded for their ability to connect with and represent universal experiences amongst their fans, she is one of the first AAPI women who represents the zeitgeist of the American “everygirl,” which has historically excluded Asian Americans.

Rodrigo’s more pop rock sophomore album GUTS (2023) continues to convey the messiness of adolescence with an additional layer of intuition and confidence amidst strife — “trusting your guts.” Songs like “love is embarrassing” and “bad idea right?” embody the chaos of venturing into your early 20s, sure to resonate with millions of her listeners, in classic Rodrigo fashion.

Olivia Rodrigo performs onstage for the kick off of GUTS World Tour at Acrisure Arena on February 23, 2024 in Palm Springs, California.  (Photo by Christopher Polk/Billboard via Getty Images)

Olivia Rodrigo GUTS World Tour at Acrisure Arena

Olivia Rodrigo performs onstage for the kick off of GUTS World Tour at Acrisure Arena on February 23, 2024 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Billboard via Getty Images)
Christopher Polk/Getty Images

By being a voice for “female kinship” for the next generation, she is breaking the racialized confines of being Asian American, but her unapologetic angst, vocalization of her vulnerabilities, and outspoken activism further defy racial tropes. Punk-rock numbers like “obsessed” and “get him back!” are imbued with undulating rage that is far removed from the racialized construction of Asian American women, besides in a highly stereotyped manner, like Lane from Gilmore Girls or Tina from Glee. In “pretty isn’t pretty,” she sings, “I bought a new prescription to try and stay calm/ ‘Cause there’s always somethin’ missin’/ There’s always somethin’ in the mirror that I think looks wrong,” evoking the insecurities of being a young woman while alluding to anti-anxiety medications, and specifically challenging the stigma of mental health struggles in Asian communities.

Her consistent and increasing civic engagement further subverts the model minority myth and expectations of apoliticality from Asian women. For example, at Glastonbury in 2022, she joined forces with Lily Allen and performed Allen’s “F*ck you,” dedicating the number to the Supreme Court after Roe v. Wade was overturned. “I’m devastated and terrified that so many women and so many girls are going to die because of this,” she said. “I wanted to dedicate this next song to the five members of the Supreme Court who have shown us that at the end of the day, they truly don’t give a sh*t about freedom.”

Her political activism has only grown increasingly prominent since, with a portion of the GUTS World Tour ticket sales going toward her Fund 4 Good, a global initiative committed to building a more equitable future for people seeking reproductive health freedom. During the US leg of the tour, the organization specifically partners with local chapters of the National Network of Abortion Funds. Rodrigo’s outspokenness about reproductive health directly challenges the trope of Asian demurity, while also repositioning herself in the center of political discourse, which often invalidates the legitimacy of Asian American voices.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 05: Olivia Rodrigo performs onstage during the Olivia Rodrigo Sold-Out GUTS World Tour at Madison Square Garden on April 05, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation)

To me, her song “all-american b*tch'' especially embodies this paradigm. In the song, she introduces herself as a docile, accommodating woman, singing “I pay attention to things that most people ignore,” “I'm alright with the movies that make jokes ’bout senseless cruelty,” and “I feel for your every little issue/ I know just what you mean,” as she gently strums her guitar and smiles earnestly to the crowd with a wide-eyed grin. Tongue-in-cheek lines riddled with swear words like “I’ve got sun in my motherf*cking pocket” and “I’ve got class and integrity/ like a goddamn Kennedy” suggest the satirical undertones beneath the facade she portrays. The folk hymn then transitions into a punk-rock thrasher. As she enters the chorus she sings with rage, completely shattering the image she paints in the beginning of the song.

In Rodrigo’s SNL live performance in December — where she dons a pastel pink babydoll dress with a scalloped white collar — she sings with a doe-eyed expression and sweet smile, gingerly places sugar cubes into her teacup on a table full of pastries, before abruptly breaking into the chorus, where she starts breaking glass and throwing tableware. She continues this throughout the song with delicate lyrics like “I am light as a feather” and “Cocacola bottles that I only use to curl my hair,” painting the archetypical, highly fetishized Asian woman, before revealing her rebellious spirit. On the GUTS World Tour, she encourages her fans to scream alongside her in the dark.

Belting “I’m a perfect all-American b*tch/ with perfect all-American lips/ and perfect all-American hips,” she rejects the commodification and sexualization thrust onto her and shatters the imprisoning confines of not just femininity but specifically Asian femininity. She re-asserts her agency as an all-American: as she screams herself, “I know my place, I know my place, and this is it.”

Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue

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