Hey Pop Stars, Culture is More Than Skin Deep

KPI’m beginning to think pop stars should be required to take a course on cultural appropriation.

Katy Perry’s recently added herself to the list of celebrities who make insulting displays of cultures that aren’t their own. At the recent American Music Awards, she sang “Unconditionally” in Japanese-inspired wardrobe, hair and makeup. And that performance followed her 2012 interview with Jimmy Kimmel in which she spoke about her obsession with Japanese culture.

“I’m so obsessed I want to skin you and wear you like Versace,” said the 29- year old singer, referring to a Japanese person.

Therein lies the problem: When culture is treated as a garment purchased at a boutique (or literally skinned off a human) to wear for the evening, it’s cultural appropriation—the process by which members of a privileged group steal the traditions or expressions of marginalized groups. This removes the tradition from its cultural context and often strips, devalues and redefines its meaning. Appropriation becomes especially problematic when it reinforces harmful stereotypes, as in the case of Perry’s performance.

As critics suggest, the singer’s powdered face, paired with frequent bowing while performing such lyrics as “I will love you unconditionally,” once again bonds Asian women to a submissive, man-pleasing stereotype.

I don’t think Perry could have paired this song with just any culture, as other oppressive stereotypes (saucy Latina, angry black woman) just wouldn’t fit the mold—unless she went with the voiceless and submissive Muslim woman stereotype. But that one’s already been taken by Lady Gaga with her offensive display of “Burqa Swag.”

The list of current pop singers who have used others’ culture as backdrops for their personal images becomes longer and longer, currently including Gaga, Gwen Stefani, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Iggy Azeala and Lily Allen.

Feminist scholar and social activist bell hooks describes this trend as “eating the Other,” explaining that

The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.

This tactic helps celebrities reinvent themselves, acquire more media attention and ultimately gain financially. This was the case with Miley Cyrus, who attempted to shed her plain-but-privileged Disney Channel image, promote her latest album and assert a hypersexual image by surrounding herself with the twerking bodies of black women.

This sort of misstep isn’t limited to celebrities. We see this appropriation play out every Halloween when the Pocahontas costumes come out and people assume it’s acceptable to wear blackface or dress up as geishas. It also occurs in the fashion industry when designers and clothing stores fail to acknowledge that their clothes are inspired by a specific culture’s traditional dress.

Unfortunately, the watered-down, appropriated version of cultures reinforces the Otherness that marginalized groups have battled for years. It’s the reason many Native Americans continue to fight to change the name of the Washington Redskins; the reason some Latina women are fed up with  being called “fiery;” why Asian Americans still have to prove their American status; why I constantly have to explain to people why I’m not the “stereotypical black girl” they expected to meet.

Appropriation reduces people and their traditions to caricatures. They’re a way of saying, “Yes, we’ll take your traditions and make them our own, but we will not accept your status as full human beings.”

Photo screenshot of Katy Perry’s American Music Awards performance.

Ms Pic


Shae Collins is the creator of A Womyn’s Worth, a social commentary blog that addresses interests and cultural issues of black women. Follow this current Ms. intern on Twitter.


  1. What did Lily Allen do to make this list? I can only think of it having to do with her latest music video. However, I thought she did that to prove a point about Miley Cyrus? Please clear this up for me. I wouldn’t think she’d be the kind of person to do so, especially when throwing shade at another celeb for it.

  2. Are you serious? That had to be one of the worst articles I have read. There was nothing wrong with Katy Perry’s performance. Maybe the sound wasn’t the best. As far as creative interpretation, using culture. please. What reality are you folks living in? Have ya been to a Native American Reservation lately? The folks could care less about The Washington Red Skins. If anything it keeps them pertinent along with the Halloween costumes. Political correctness destroys diversity.

  3. Casey, there’s a Tumblr called “Your Fave is Problematic” that you should look at. It tends to answer questions like yours with links to whatever incident the author or contributors are referencing.

  4. Rita Shae, this is an incredible article! As much as I hate to admit the part about my idol… You’re right, these cultural stereotypes have been taken too far I’m recent pop culture and, although I personally didn’t find Katy Perry’s performance offensive, it was definitely a play on the submissive Japanese culture, as you so keenly pointed out. I am so proud of you and I look forward to reading more of your articles 🙂

  5. jane allan says:

    There’s something disturbing about this articles attack on women ….again! Only women are lambasted here, because they are white and ‘priveleged’, which seems to make them a target. It doesn’t sit very well with the subject pf the blog, somehow!

  6. I have to err on the side of art, not being p.c. Sorry. I don’t identify as a victim because I’m female, but I could according to some feminists. I respect that people need to go through the stage of identifying with victimhood and allowing an HPA axis response to perceived insults, but I will stand up for art and self-expression. We can’t all take on everyone’s unresolved issues! We have to stop seeing ourselves as victims and attacking others. Better to acknowledge and work on our shadow issues and embrace and support self-empowerment for all. If you are offended, explore the wound and heal it because you deserve healing. But shadow projection just makes everyone miserable: “My victimhood’s bigger than your victimhood” HAS to end. You don’t know what ANY individual has suffered. As a woman, I know there are men who had it far worse than I have–and if a man wants to express himself in a female way, and it’s authentic to him, bless him. I know I’ll get slammed for this by people who have no idea what I personally have survived–that’s what happens when we’re honest about the destructive nature of shadow projection. Light, not darkness. Rhetoric like “we will not accept your status as full human beings” is destructive and dishonest.

  7. Angela White says:

    We COULD look at it like you say, OR, we could be tolerant with the Young! Especially performers, they are always trying on something new: an accent, clothes, hair, shoes, etc. It’s NOT a “slam” or an “insult” unless your make it that. I’d like to think that we’re MUCH bigger than that, aren’t sitting in judgement on each and every little thing. Other cultures are interesting and sometimes we do want to try them out. There is NOTHING wrong with that! We usually learn more about it and can get a different perspective of other cultures when we study them. I somehow think that it’s American’s who are bothered by this more, and that’s because we ARE becoming more INTOLERANT. To purposely MAKE FUN of a different culture is NOT right but this imitation is HER way to honor it, because it’s something she has decided she likes. She’s NOT laughing at the Japanese culture, she feels that she’s embracing it in the only way she can, by trying the “look”. There is so MUCH worse going on, this is really nothing. She’s a kid, a beginner. Having fun in life.

    • Exsugarbabe says:

      Who is that shocked at Miley?How long can you be a pretty, virginal goody goody before you want to rebel? She’s just like the middle class good girls getting a year off uni and spending a year drunk on various party resorts and twerking like crazy? It’s just Miley has done this in public. We want Miley to be Hanna Montana for every mother, so our daughters may grow up to be hard working good girls well lovely thought but our daughters have minds of their own and while finding themselves they will do things the grown ups don’t like.

      The fact the dancers were all black is a little cringey, again, have the conversation.

      As for Katy, she appeals to very young girls, this is dress What a dull world it would be if we never tried new things, dressed up and the artists were shut up in any form. We need the conversations with our daughters about these things but never to shut these people up, if we like them or not.

      Let’s not forget male stars do offensive things all the time, we shrug our shoulders. Bibber has been caught being a bad boy and nobody makes a fuss. Robin Thike joined in with Miley and that’s hardly noticed.

      Feminists seem to fall into the same trap as sexist men, double standards. I don’t want every woman’s action to be graded by the sisterhood, doesn’t like while the boys go on the rampage, seems pretty sexist to me. If we judge women we need to judge men or better still laugh at the circus and make it the start of some very interesting conversations, self expression please.

  8. Have you seen the way some japanese manga portray other cultures? Americans are usually over-the-top caritures who nearly always resort to violence and wear thier flags on their head how shallow is that interpretation, or the simpsons when they did there speal on my own country australia or black panther “where evary wun talk liike dis”. People always stereotype and take elements from other culture without understanding the context, and as long as it’s not with contempt or malice or reeaally degrading, most cultures don’t mind. Was a majority of japanese people shocked or outraged by this. No. I agree with angela people have a sense of humor and people probably take no inerest. I like miss but sometimes its way to sensitive. with that mentality you won’t be able to not be offended for 5 minutes.

  9. Pop stars are not always the brightest bulbs. Many of them will do anything to keep their names on our tongues and their images “fresh” on our minds. Marketing and controversy seem to prevail over intelligence, promoting justice and fairness and good taste. It seems they would rather keep their star shining even if it means contributing to the denigration of people who are already fighting against dehumanizing images of themselves. It’s extremely challenging to fight racism, misogyny and homophobia when they are set to a catchy tune and hypnotic beat.
    It would be great to see more examples of talented people who don’t have a price on their ethics.

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