Katy Perry’s AMA Performance Seen as Racist

From Chris Gayomali in The Week:

“Which is why we have to call nonsense like Perry’s out, until it’s dead and gone. Sure, America “has gotten better” about racism,”

From Ravi Chandra in the 2 Psychology Today pieces: 

Sounds wonderful. Until the image tangles with my own history and experience as an Asian American, as I’ve watched our cultures misappropriated and commodified time after time. Frankly, many of us feel used as props to glorify White artists.

If you don’t think Katy Perry was racist—let me ask you, what if she had performed in blackface?  Perhaps a costume isn’t the same as changing skin color to you, but it is agonizingly close for me—I remember Mickey Rooney in buckteeth for his role as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Jonathan Pryce in Yellowface in Miss Saigon; Gwen Stefani in her Harajuku phase. Every Halloween brings up the same issues. As I pointed out in my article, this kind of “costume” is a way of acting out a power relationship. “Whites have historically held power. Therefore Katy Perry has the right to use Japanese culture.” Racism is defined as prejudice plus power—I think Katy Perry’s performance meets the criteria for a racist performance. (An article by Jeff Yang linked below points out that her song, Unconditional, itself fits into the stereotype of the submissive, man-pleasing Asian woman–the fantasized “geisha”.)

I did turn off the comments section after about 24 hours. I got tired of reading the same things, over and over; one friend suggested I should draw up a flowchart of “typical reactions to an accusation of racismagainst a popular entertainer.” I think most active reactions were positive (judging by likes, shares and retweets), but those negative comments still sting. They reminded me of how sensitive the topic of race is, how dangerous and provocative it can be to even raise the topic; and how polarizing and negative the internet can be. “This is my opinion” triggers “you’re wrong as well as stupid, arrogant, narrow-minded, racist, and so on.” Dialogue becomes diatribe. Very few of the commenters seemed to try  hard to understand where I was coming from; and far too many of them resorted to insults and ad hominem attacks. You can see them here, if your eyes can take it.

As for the second question, I think the context matters a lot. Dressing up as a Geisha for an AMA performance isn’t just wearing a costume, it’s perpetuating a stereotype and a projection about a whole group of people. If you dress in a kimono to perform the tea ceremony then that’s probably being respectful. But if, at the same time, you’re stretching your eyelids with tape to make them look Asian, well, that’s not respectful, to me, anyway.  I’ll quote I Was Born With Two Tongues again: “Stop masturbating in my culture.” Why such strong language? Because it captures the sense of being violated, used, and bulldozed as the majority culture tries to “entertain” itself. (Using the art of spoken word to make a point about Perry’s “art” seems reasonable here, to me.)

From the Atlantic

“A Japanese schoolgirl uniform is kind of like blackface, I am just in acceptance over it, because something is better than nothing,” Cho wrote. “I am so sick of not existing, that I would settle for following any white person around with an umbrella just so I could say I was there.” At Salon earlier that year, Mihi Ahn wrote that “[Stefani] swallowed the subversive youth culture in Japan and barfed up another image of submissive giggling Asian women.”

Perry wasn’t appropriating the actual bodies of any minorities, just their likeness, but her performance shows that these issues still haven’t sunk in yet—or, worse, that some of pop music’s most powerful women hear these concerns but choose to dismiss them. Perry’s performance is not even the first case this year of a pop star parachuting in to Asian culture to play dress-up this year. Both Australian rapper Iggy Azalea and Selena Gomez drew ire when they donned saris and bindis for Azalea’s “Bounce” music video and Gomez’s liveperformances of “Come and Get It,” respectively. Despite backlash from Hindu groups objecting to her use of the religious symbol as just a decorative prop, Gomez continued to wear it—and defend her use of it.

To anyone who thinks the media has gone overboard scrutinizing pop for excuses to be outraged, look no further than the coverage of last night’s show. “Katy Perry Kicks Off AMAs With Beautiful Moment,” reads a since-updated headline on the Associated Press story. Subsequent paragraphs fawn over the performance, saying she looked like “princess out of a classic Japanese painting” (originally a “princess out of a classic anime drawing” in an earlier draft) without mentioning that someone might find elements of her performance objectionable.

Earlier this year, my colleague Svati Kirsten Narula wrote, “Whether people ‘should’ be offended by it or not doesn’t matter; the fact that some people areoffended by it does.” She wasn’t writing about pop music—she was actually writing about backlash to the Washington Redskins’ team name. But her point applies here, too: When Lily Allen says her music video has “nothing to do with race,” when Katy Perry fans dismiss criticism as overreactions, or when Gomez ignores those who say they’re hurt by her actions, it shows why talking about appropriation is still important—because for too many people, it’s still not an actual conversation.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in Link Compilations and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Katy Perry’s AMA Performance Seen as Racist

  1. Pingback: Esther for Advent: Act 1: the Seduction of the People of God | Leadingchurch.com

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