As home to the strange and obscure, our city's restaurant and nightlife scene has given plenty of fodder for the "only in New York" saying. But, the new Maid Café trend, which started this summer on Centre Street in Chinatown, introduces a concept in dining that had us questioning the limits on boundary-pushing establishments — even in New York. The all-female waitstaff at Maid Café are beautiful, young Asian women dressed in pinafores and petticoats — the stuff of a little girl's wardrobe. And, the décor is super girly, too, featuring pastel walls and brightly colored everything. The staff greets customers with a "Welcome home, master" and generally act cute, servile, and far younger than their actual age.
Though this is new idea for Manhattan, maid cafés like this can be found across Japan, where they cater to otaku, nerds obsessed with manga and anime. And, before these cafés became popular, café waitresses in Japan — known as jokyū — dressed in kimonos and aprons and served a male clientele. In Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times, history professor Miriam Silverberg explains the history of the eroticized café waitress in Japan. The jokyū was "a type of sex worker who provided erotically charged services," but did not have intercourse with clients and was not a prostitute. Now, before you make any assumptions about the nature of the women who work at Maid Café in Chinatown, customers aren't allowed to touch the waitresses, nor are they allowed to speak to them before or after shifts. Additionally, they cannot solicit any contact information from them.
We're admittedly a bit confused about the appeal of such a place, but Gothamist's Cecilia D'Anastasio's investigation makes a valid point: Similar Lolita-style establishments "originated as a backlash to the overly sexualized objectification of women." If the Maid Café is set up with the idea of rebelling against a objectification of women in Japan, why does it now have a presence in New York? And, how is it really any different than Hooters? The key contrast we can spot is that this particular kind of café plays to a fetish with some seriously concerning undertones, namely the use of "master" during service, and turning childlike activities and outfits into something suggestive, even sexual.