Hey Pop Stars, Culture is More Than Skin Deep

I’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.



Shae Collins is the creator of A Womyn’s Worth, a social commentary blog that addresses interests of black women.