A simple to understand example of cultural appropriation is Katy Perry’s use of geisha and Japanese imagery in her performance of “Unconditionally” at the 2013 American Music Awards. This is obviously wrong because, while she claims she did it because she appreciates the culture, all her performance does is take one aspect of the geisha lifestyle and elements of Japanese culture, namely the visually arresting clothing and makeup, to sexualize herself in a new way. Furthermore, it illustrates Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism quite well, as the performance uses the European perception of the East, Japan specifically, to perpetuate the idea of the exotic East as a vehicle for the pleasure and entertainment of the West. Then there is also the long and complicated history of the geisha and female Japanese entertainers; it was a role which often included both performance and, also, during WWII for example, sexual services. Overtime, this exoticized and eroticized version of the East has led to perceptions of Asian women as being servile, submissive, sexual creatures (and Asian men as weak and ineffectual) to be dominated by the stoic, strong and moral West. In this way, the essentialist portrayal of Japanese women by a clueless popstar carries with it centuries of colonial and racist baggage.
That is one of the keys to understanding why ethnic costumes are so offensive: the outfit, the makeup, the accessories, are all just ONE part of the identity. When you don’t honor or understand the significance holistically, you dismiss that identity as being nothing but a hollow prop – just a means for you to please and benefit yourself at the expense of that culture’s historical identity. Plus, Katy and others continue to benefit financially from these performances on the backs of women who continue to face ostracism and are stereotyped on the basis of these same portrayals.
Katy’s is a clear cut example, but sometimes it is not so easy to determine if your brilliant costume idea is toeing the line or not. While some may say that, “if you think it may be offensive, it probably is,” I disagree. Life is not black and white, culture is mired in ambiguity and shades of grey. So, while it would be nice and simple to say that a certain costume is always offensive and racist, this is just not true. Cultural appropriation can be more ambiguous in intention and outcome as well.
So, how does one avoid being appropriative? How do you appreciate something without offending? Due to personal experience and expertise, I will use the “Indian woman or princess” as the costume exemplar.
“Sexy Indian Princess”: A Case Study in Cultural Appropriation and Orientalism
The costume does not offend me as much as I think it is stupid and poorly researched, which also tells me that she probably doesn’t care about who or what she is dressing up as, just that she is peripherally aware that Indian women, princesses, or goddesses look like this. What does offend me is what she is doing with her hands. The technical term for what she is doing is called a mudra. It is a hand gesture used in Hindu and Buddhist spiritual and religious practice. You can often see Hindu religious icons depicted with mudras. As well, it is a very significant aspect of Indian classical dance, and there are hundreds of mudras meant to tell a story through the dance (I had to learn many of them as a child in classical dance; it was hard, so I’m particularly bitter and biased). So, again, why is she doing that?
Because she thinks it is “Indian”. Her costume, then, is a confusing mishmash of Indian symbols used incoherently so that she can appear as sexy and exotic as possible. Consequently, there is also another layer of the sexualisation and exoticization of women of color, and a reduction of the “Indian woman”, into this romanticized exotic/erotic trope, by an affluent white woman. So, it becomes a clear example of orientalism lurking in the guise of an unfortunate costume choice. Thus, it is ignorant, inappropriate, orientalist and culturally appropriative. And there are others like it all over instagram! I found this in the “top photos” under the “Halloween” tag, and looking up “indianprincess” only led to more outrage and face-palming. That tag was populated with all sorts of parodies of Native American, Aboriginal, American Indian, Indigenous, and “tribal” outfits, along with Indian, Arabian and “Gypsy” costumes. It is a cesspool of racism, political incorrectness and stupidity. There were even a couple of images where individuals mixed references of “Native Indian” and “East Indian” traditions because, apparently, googling is hard.
Doing it right
But, say, for example, that you wanted to do what the model (above) did? Dress up as an Indian woman or princess for Halloween? Well, unless you are dressing up as a historical character of note or popular cultural icon, who has been well-researched and recreated to the best of your ability, with as much knowledge about the person and their context, then you should probably avoid doing so. There are lots of fascinating Indian historical figures like Queen Jodha Bai and Rani Laxmibai (a warrior queen no less!) with fascinating stories and beautiful looks.
(But, chances are, if your intention is to be “sexy Indian princess”, these won’t float your boat, because not only were these women dressed conservatively, in many layers of heavy clothing and jewelry, they are also not well known to most outside the Indian diaspora. And, dressing up as an Indian woman is kind of stupid too, because, in a population of over 1 billion, the average Indian woman is a poor labourer and likely has little education. So, obviously she will not be bedecked in gold and lavishly embroidered clothing. Besides, most Indian women, working class or not, do not walk the streets like this because, y’know, it is likely that they will be sexually assaulted. But, carry on with your sexy Indian princess costume anyway because, yay, ignorance!)
Now, here are some examples of PARTICIPATING in Indian cultural dress done right:
This doesn’t mean that you only have to be invited to a million dollar celebrity event to be able to dress this way. The point is that Ashley and Oprah did it right, they did it well, and they did it with respect.Their intention was to honour the culture. So, even if you wanted to dress up, say, as an Indian bride for Halloween, consider your intentions and the roots of your desire to do so! Go all the way and understand the significance of the “dots” and the jewels and the henna and the colors. Everything is of some significance. I think if I saw a non-Indian person fully dressed in Indian bridal regalia that is well done, informed and well researched, I would be impressed more than anything else. Doing so would require the help of someone of the culture anyway. But, I would still wonder about the wearer’s intentions. And, perhaps, after all that, it may still offend the sensibilities of other Indian folk; I only speak for myself.
Also, while I’ve used the term liberally here, recognize that if you are dressing up as an “Indian Bride” you are only dressing up in one type of bridal or Indian-inspired outfit that is common to one region, culture or area in a country of hundreds of religions and cultures with their own style of dress, with small or large variations.
Kylie Jenner dressed up as an “Eskimo” this Halloween! Of course, cleverly and quickly, she changed the costume name to “snow princess” when the outrage began to simmer. But, the internet doesn’t forget! Congratulations, Kylie, for continuing the tradition of ignorant Halloween foolery.