Appreciation or Appropriation?

Sometimes when I’m wandering about the interwebs I get a poke with the clue stick that is too big to ignore. Like this [ETA] reblogged tumblr post from, sometimes Hoyden commenter and author, @jennifergearing.

There are two gifs on the site which I will quickly describe: the first is Katy Perry dressed up in a Hello Kitty outfit saying ‘The three of us look so very Japanse’. As if dressing in Hello Kitty outfits = appreciation of Japanese fan girl culture rather than just appropriation of the same.

The second gif shows a man in a brown suit saying ‘If there is such a thing as a loving version of racism, I think you’ve found it.’

Jennifer’s [edit] tumblr re-post also talks about Gwen Stefani’s fascination (fetishization?) with Yakuza[edit] Harajuku girls in Japanese culture, but she makes the very good point that these girls are never allowed to be heard, only seen. So again more on the appropriation side of the scales than appreciation perhaps?

A well written, sharp and to the point post often gives you that insight and makes you remember that these girls/women/people/cultures aren’t dressing up for our entertainment, this is how they live their lives and pursue their interests. To take something superficial away from that doesn’t feel like appreciation anymore.

Thoughts?

[ETA] thanks to Chally for pointing out the blog/reblog function on tumblrs. Thanks Tamara for setting me straight on Harajuku girls. All mistakes are my own.



Categories: Culture, culture wars

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29 replies

  1. I really like this post at The Long Way Home for talking about this stuff: What is cultural appropriation. And yeah, behaviours like that displayed by Stefani and Perry is really really creepy and exploitative.

  2. I remember someone criticising Gwen Stefani for this right at the beginning of her Harajuku phase and noting that the girls are silent. (As far as I can tell it is Harajuku Girls rather than Yakuza. Harajuku is a fashionable part of Tokyo). I can’t believe Katy Perry is doing this too (but even worse if that’s possible!) – actually I can.
    Being from NZ and aware of Maori culture appropriation issues I have a low tolerance for this. If you are not of that culture then it is almost impossible to express elements of it without it becoming appropriative (is that a word?).

  3. The gifs come from a recent Saturday Night Live sketch making fun of people who try to appropriate Japanese culture. I don’t recall the Versace thing- that sounds kind of gross and creepy!

  4. In context, the skit in which Perry is pictured in the “Hello Kitty” costume was making exactly this point, showing anime-loving white kids from America and their skewed view of Japanese culture crossing the line from fannish excitement into racist offensiveness.
    The actor commenting on “loving racism” is portraying a Japanese language professor who comments throughout the scene about all the things they’re getting wrong, saying wrong and screwing up. It’s a satirical critique, not a celebration, of that brand of appropriation.
    Whether Perry understood that critique, and what other issues of appropriation she may have I can’t say. But that might expand an understanding of the topic.
    Mind you, this satire takes place on Saturday Night Live, one of the few TV venues where Stefani and her Harajuku girls have been welcomed to perform, twice IIRC, so…

  5. That makes more sense, re: Katy Perry.
    The thing about “appreciating” cultures is that people are an inextricable part of culture. If your “appreciation” is hurting the people whose culture it is, that’s not exactly in keeping with the purported sentiment. Also, appreciating cultures or cultural elements doesn’t necessitate selectively taking it on for yourself.

  6. Yes I am trying to get to an understanding of how you can be a, for example, Hello Kitty fangirl without being ‘appropriative’ about it.
    Here’s a question: let’s say you go through the many years of training to become a Geisha, which a handful (maybe not even that many) of adult western women have. Can you be a real Geisha at the end of it, or do you need the cultural understanding that comes from growing up in Japanese culture?

  7. Well, one way is not to use it to make money from.

  8. To clarify, that was in answer to your first question, not the geisha question.

  9. I think the net-rage is side-stepping the context. Celebrity interviews are basically performances – often scripted, not much different from the SNL skit being cited. I do not like what Katy Perry said, but I can say that without making the argument that she actually wants to do those things. Celebrities say [redacted ~M] shit all the time, paying too much attention is the problem.
    (sorry Sam, you hit on one of my pet peeves. But I think your sentence still makes sense)

  10. Fair enough, but now I can’t remember what my bad word was… I guess that’s testament to the ranty-ness of my comment.

  11. Gwen Stefani not only fetished Harajuku girls but claimed them for her own, singing “I dress them wicked, I give them names.” I think they might have already had names, Gwen. The real Harajuku girls are known for their creative and individualist fashion and considered loud and rude by mainstream culture.

  12. If you are not of that culture then it is almost impossible to express elements of it without it becoming appropriative

    I think it’s a bit more complex than that, isn’t it? An Australian Star Trek fan who goes to a convention dressed in a Star Trek uniform is expressing elements of US culture, aren’t they? Yet I’d hesitate to call that appropriative.
    There are clearly elements of power and dominance coming into play that mean it’s not as simple as “you can’t express elements of anyone else’s culture”.
    Sorry if this is stating the obvious…

  13. I appreciate the link that Chally gave in comment #1, especially the point that cultural borrowing is not in and of itself bad. It is when it is part of a process by which a dominant culture oppresses and erases another culture that it becomes the bad thing we’re calling “cultural appropriation.” It’s when even the memory of a demolished people gets twisted to support their demolishers.
    My favorite contrasting examples are Highland Scottish and German culture. The whole “kilts and bagpipes” thing is IMHO an example of cultural appropriation, since what now is presumed to be “Highland Scots” is basically certain elements of highland culture mangled and taken out of context, and only popularized by the dominant British culture _after_ they had essentially exterminated highland culture (and exterminated or driven into exile most of the people.) On the other hand, the USA-an idea of German-ness — beer halls, lederhosen, and oom-pah bands — isn’t cultural appropriation, because the Bavarians are doing just fine and not really impacted by USA-ans’ stupid ideas of what Germans are like.
    In light of this, I question whether the sort of thing the “hello kitty” skit was satyrizing is actually “cultural appropriation.” It may well be racist, but is it contributing to the oppression and destruction of Japanese culture? I could go either way on it, so I’d be interested in what others have to say.

    • Good points, AMM. Perhaps a better term for what is happening with the “German beer” in the USA is more a particular kind of exoticisation? The quaintifying kind?
      Exoticisation is probably never free of problematic overtones of racial/cultural bigotry, even if it’s often a relatively soft bigotry of “appreciative” stereotyping, but maybe it’s not always appropriation.

  14. Modern popular culture is globalised. Hello Kitty is hardly a unique phenomenon anymore. Brand fetishisation is everywhere. Hello Kitty was first and gets dangled like a keychain off Japan so that the “we” can still be reminded about how “other” they are. Classic cultural baiting. This despite it being decades old and surpassed in ridiculousness and scale by western brands [see: Bumblebee Chevy]. I suspect there are Japanese people who experience cultural cringe and would happily see certain parts of Japanese pop culture appropriated to the point of being removed entirely. On that note, you can’t appropriate something that is for sale. Major swathes of Japanese pop culture exist as part of a profit motivated capatilist system. Hello Kitty’s owners are no doubt unconcerned about cultural appropriation – unless we are talking about copyright infringement. The discussion has moved on a bit from here, but the premise – on the rest of the tubes, not here – seemed to be more about people hating on Katy Perry for sport than it was about concern for the (somehow defenseless) Japanese.
    Something about this topic gets me steamed. I think it’s important to stand up and say when someone’s words are not OK – and why, but the post-mortem seems beyond that and somehow condescending. Maybe I’m I alone in this thought. Help and input appreciated.
    /fluey

  15. Modern popular culture is globalised. Hello Kitty is hardly a unique phenomenon anymore. Brand fetishisation is everywhere. Hello Kitty was first and gets dangled like a keychain off Japan so that the “we” can still be reminded about how “other” they are. Classic cultural baiting. This despite it being decades old and surpassed in ridiculousness and scale by western brands [see: Bumblebee Chevy]. I suspect there are Japanese people who experience cultural cringe and would happily see certain parts of Japanese pop culture appropriated to the point of being removed entirely. On that note, you can’t appropriate something that is for sale. Major swathes of Japanese pop culture exist as part of a profit motivated capatilist system. Hello Kitty’s owners are no doubt unconcerned about cultural appropriation – unless we are talking about copyright infringement. The discussion has moved on a bit from here, but the premise – on the rest of the tubes, not here – seemed to be more about people hating on Katy Perry for sport than it was about concern for the (somehow defenseless) Japanese.
    Something about this topic gets me steamed. I think it’s important to stand up and say when someone’s words are not OK – and why, but the post-mortem seems beyond that and somehow condescending. Maybe I’m I alone in this thought. Help and input appreciated.
    /fluey-rant

  16. Hope you are feeling better soon Sam, flu doesn’t sound like much fun.
    I’m trying to get at where the point of no return is – where you have gone beyond appreciating or borrowing into taking something that isn’t yours. There may be no clear line, but I think claiming something as your own that is nothing to do with you is over the line, see Gwen Stefani in lilacsigils comment @12. I’m sure that Harajuku girls did well both before and after Gwen Stefani found them.
    I think what Katy Perry said was pretty thoughtless and not meant to offend, but isn’t that the point though? That some white people say thoughtless things that aren’t meant to offend because we haven’t thought about how offensive it really is to tell someone you want to skin them so you can wear them?

  17. This is a good (slightly long) read on musical appropriation in relation to Paul Simon’s Graceland, that I found relevant to this discussion:
    http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2009/04/02/from-protest-to-collaboration-paul-simons-graceland-and-lessons-for-xenophiles/

  18. The interesting thing about the ‘kilts and bagpipes’ thing, though is that it is a phenomenon mainly exploited by the diaspora, many of whom are the descendants of the people who were ‘cleared’ from the Highlands. Its cultural resonance is extremely complex in Scotland, where it’s seen as something ‘for the tourists’, or as symbolic of Scotland (so kilts for sporting events and weddings) without ever capturing Scottishness (we don’t wear kilts 99% of the time and a tiny number of people play bagpipes). And, while the 19thc Romanticism of the Highlands was hugely significant in ‘othering’ and excluding Highlanders from political rights, this imagined tradition is so far away from reality then or now, it’s hard to imagine what is being appropriated. If anything, we are appropriating a lowland stereotype that was used to oppress, not the culture itself. It’s also interesting that those elements of Highland life (tartan mainly) that were repressed in the 18thC came to symbolise the nation and not just the Highlands of the nation. This could partially be because the Highlands used to hold half the Scottish population, many of whom moved into the lowland area during this period, but it is also no doubt because these exotic elements could be labelled distinctive, whereas lowland culture was very similar to English, so became difficult to hang an ‘authentic’ national identity on their behaviours.
    I guess my point is that in a history of such massive migration and movement (inwards to and across Scotland as well as outwards), as well as complexity of defining geographical (and so cultural) boundaries between very similar peoples, how do we decide who is ‘authentic’? At the same time, this is not to deny that cultural appropriation clearly happens.

  19. Feminist Avatar @20:
    I would argue that, since AFAIK the Highland culture from which kilts, bagpipes, clans, etc., are presumed to derive no longer exists, no one can at this point claim to be “authentic.” The people who could have claimed ownership are dead and gone, and their descendents have adopted the culture of their conquerers.

    while the 19thc Romanticism of the Highlands was hugely significant in ‘othering’ and excluding Highlanders from political rights, this imagined tradition is so far away from reality then or now, it’s hard to imagine what is being appropriated.

    The same could be said of the idea of the “Indian” in USA culture. The main difference is that there are still groups of Native Americans in the USA who are attempting to maintain a more or less traditional culture, so that there is still a living culture to appropriate more things from.
    BTW, one reason I choose this example is that the oppression, cultural genocide, and appropriation lie well in the past, so it is (AFAIK!) not a current political issue.

  20. AMM: I think “authenticity” may be highly over-rated, and is often used by white/dominant culture to dismiss other cultures’ right to change for themselves. For example, I saw a documentary about a Chinese painter who was collaborating with a group of Aboriginals in the Northern Territory. I didn’t care much for his work, but when the Aboriginals planned some paintings of their own, they invited him to incorporate his work (in a couple of ovals, from memory). The white administrators came down on this like a ton of bricks, it was no longer “authentic” Aboriginal art. That the Aboriginals themselves might like to explore this, and not be stuck in some museum exhibit of “authenticity”, didn’t count.

  21. AMM: I think “authenticity” may be highly over-rated, and is often used by white/dominant culture to dismiss other cultures’ right to change for themselves….

    Agreed. “Authenticity” isn’t the issue, domination, oppression, and destruction of cultures and peoples is IMHO the essence of the problem of “cultural appropriation.” And that’s a lot easier to define than “authenticity.” “Administrators” telling aboriginals who they can collaborate with makes it disgustingly clear who’s the zoo animal and who’s the zoo-keeper.
    There is a related sort of “authenticity” question: for some oppressed and assimilated group, who is considered to be a “real” X? This arises here in the USA with Native American groups.

  22. AMM, going back to the Highland clan example, I think the problem I have with this is that for many Scots that culture does still exist. It is part of our history and so it is part of who we are – so I don’t see ‘Scottish highland culture’ as a dead tradition, even if time as passed and behaviour has changed. It is fundamental to how we present as a nation. And, yet, it is also a part of us we don’t recognise or know what to do with, because it doesn’t relate to our present and it originates in an imagined past. So in a way this goes to Aqua’s point about culture not being something static, but something that constantly changes as it interacts with the world around it.
    Coming back to the Japanese example, there is also an interesting element here because Japan is not a powerless or oppressed nation. It’s a vibrant modern economy with a dynamic culture that has remained remarkably resistant to many aspects of Western influence. So, yes, the west appropriates their culture (through purchasing it from them) and, in doing so, reinforces the ‘East’ as ‘exotic’, so reinforcing their own sense of cultural superiority – but do the Japanese in Japan really care? Or, is this only about the implications for the Japanese diaspora? And, if Japan doesn’t care, what’s the power dynamic going on?

  23. Feminist Avatar @24

    going back to the Highland clan example, I think the problem I have with this is that for many Scots that culture does still exist. … And, yet, it is also a part of us we don’t recognise or know what to do with, because it doesn’t relate to our present and it originates in an imagined past.

    To be honest, it had not occurred to me that modern-day Scots (as a group) would consider themselves descended (in whatever sense) from the Highlanders of three centuries ago. Actually, to be even more honest, it had not occurred to me to ask the question. (Insert pause to wipe egg off face.) Not being Scottish myself (though family legend has it we’re descended from some undocumented and transported son of an Earl of Seaforth 🙂 ), I should have recognized that I am ignorant of how present-day Scots see themselves.
    This raises an interesting point: if present-day population X has a tradition that they are descended from ancient population Y, does it matter whether one can document an unbroken genetic and/or cultural line of descent from population Y to population X?
    Two examples come to mind: (a) modern-day Assyrians, who believe their are descended from the ancient Assyrians of biblical renown, but whose connection is disputed (at least, according to Wikipedia.) And (b) modern-day Druids, whose connection with ancient (Celtic) Druids is disputed.
    Aqua, is this what you were getting at with your comment about “authenticity” (@22)?

  24. if present-day population X has a tradition that they are descended from ancient population Y, does it matter whether one can document an unbroken genetic and/or cultural line of descent from population Y to population X?

    Try having a conversation with someone Greek about who gets to call themselves Macedonian, sometime. The non-Romany Romanians generally think of themselves as the last, true stronghold of the Roman Empire. And I had a really annoying argument once with a white, straight, able-bodied, English-speaking man, who told me he couldn’t be said to have privilege because his family was one of the ones pushed out of Scotland, as discussed above. The question is, matter to whom?

  25. Sorry, forgot my blockquote tags. [Edited them in ~ Mary]

  26. Yes, it’s not “does it matter” because there is no objective reality for that question to make sense in. It’s whose definitions are we using, who gets to say what matters? When there’s a power differential, I try to be very wary of the more powerful definitions mattering. When white people say “that’s not authentic Aboriginal art”, that’s a problem. When English-dominated mainstream culture says there’s no authentic Scottish Highland culture anymore and Scottish people say it’s more complicated, I want to hear more from the Scots.
    I can sympathise a lot with the Scots, I think. I’m an ex-Dane, I am assumed to be Yet Another White Australian, I know there’s a local active Danish Club but I’m not involved. I’ve been to one public event of theirs (unsuccessful quest for specific alcoholic beverage) and thought it would be too time-consuming for mostly activities and foods I’m not that desperate for. But if Campbell Newmann outlawed the Danish Club and killed or drove off its membership on the assumption no-one else would care – you betcha I’d be part of the new underground Danish Club, scrabbling to figure out what the club had been doing, and creating something both new, and in continuance with the previous Danish Club.
    the original Hello Kitty example is complicated – there’s more than enough exoticification and fetishisation of Japanese culture (and particularly young Japanese women) that the behaviour is in my opinion wrong. But I doubt any young Japanese women in Japan will be remotely adversely affected by it, let alone Japanese culture or the commercial enterprise of Hello Kitty. On the other hand, Japanese or Japanese-ancestry women (or East Asian in general – it’s not like white culture is good at the differences) living in the US, or the general white European cultural dominion, likely are affected negatively. Even if it’s “just” microaggresions, they add up. I think it is possible for white people to be Hello Kitty fans and not be so problematic, by engaging with Hello Kitty on their own terms, rather than for its Japaneseness, and treating Japanese Hello Kitty fans as fellow fans (with more seniority!) rather than dolls to dress up like – there’s that zoo or museum vibe again.

  27. Thanks Aqua, I think that is where I was trying to get to: by dressing up in Hello Kitty things they can be fans, but by pretending that dressing up in Hello Kitty things makes them Japanese is probably offensive. Obviously not being Japanese myself I can’t speak for them, but I’m guessing that having your entire history and culture brought down to dressing up in Hello Kitty gear might get old pretty quick for some people. Other people probably wouldn’t care a jot.

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