“An Homage to Geisha Culture”?: The Racist Practice of Yellowface

If you were shooting for “diversity,” it would seem like an obvious choice not to feature a white model in yellowface. But that’s exactly what Vogue did for its March issue, which was ironically supposed to be a celebration of diversity and inclusion. Yes, this is the year 2017, and we’re still dealing with the racist practice of yellowface in everything from films to fashion editorials. Is there a shortage of Japanese models in the world? How does a randomly placed sumo wrestler pay “homage to geisha culture”? In what world did an entire editorial staff think this was okay? These are all questions I asked myself while looking through photos of Karlie Kloss dressed up as a Japanese geisha. I’m beginning to realize how culture is not a costume and why cultural appropriation is problematic (I’ve also made ignorant Halloween mistakes in the past and am owning up to them—I seriously cringe when I think back and can only apologize and continue to learn how to support my fellow POC—sorry for my bad decisions!). Yellowface relies on the Orientalist gaze, which imagines Eastern cultures as exotic, mysterious and ultimately dangerous, perpetuates harmful stereotypes and continues to contribute to the simultaneous hypervisibility and invisibility of Asian American figures today.

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In its introduction, the editorial spread “Spirited Away” briefly mentions Japanese bathing traditions and then proceeds to call itself “an homage to geisha culture.” Sure enough, the photos feature white model Karlie Kloss, dressed up in the traditional face paints and Shimada-style wig of Japanese geisha, before backdrops that perpetuate the exoticized image of a “mysterious East”—untamed wilderness, jungle growth, communal baths, etc. How exactly do these elements celebrate geisha culture? They don’t. Geisha, which literally means, “art person,” are traditionally female and Japanese entertainers who provide dancing, singing, conversation, companionship for clients. It’s a profession with a long and rich history but in this case was reduced to a mere costume to be worn by a white body. Even more baffling is the decision to place a sumo wrestler next to Kloss in one of these photos. Rather than appreciate Japanese culture, Vogue’s editorial direction assumes the orientalist gaze and creates a hodgepodge of its most “iconic” and “foreign” aspects—fantasies to please Western eyes.

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In Indo-Chic: Late Capitalist Orientalism and Imperial Culture, Sunaina Maira says, “Consuming orientalist style becomes a way not just of accessing ethnic culture but also being drawn into the globalization of consumer culture.” Maira suggests that there are strong ties between between capitalist consumer culture, neo-liberal globalization and orientalism. While we’ve seen that the exclusive fashion industry has become increasingly fixated on the idea of “diversity”—perhaps because multiculturalism and globalization are intrinsic to free-market expansion—we should question what this term means exactly. Vogue’s idea of diversity is superficial at best—a college brochure type of diversity where image doesn’t match reality and institutional racism is still at work. The magazine’s inclusion of POC models this issue was hampered by the fact that it gave Kloss a six-page spread in yellowface and only a single page to Chinese model Liu Wen. A white supermodel in Geisha costume is not diversity.

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The Vogue photo shoot was not a singular lapse in judgment; the racist practice of yellowface, in which white bodies are placed into roles formed from reductive interpretations of East Asian culture and character, continues on to this day in Hollywood and American mass media. Beneath yellowface lies a long history of erasure, stemming from the desire to exclude Asian Americans as “perpetual foreigners.” In films from “Hollywood classics” like Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) to the soon-to-be-released Ghost in the Shell, white actors are cast to play Asian characters, and while Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of cyborg cop Major Motoko Kusanagi doesn’t rely as much on harmful stereotypes as Mickey Rooney’s bucktoothed pantomime, it does perpetuate the simultaneous hypervisibility and invisibility of Asian Americans. While Asian Americans continued to be racialized and exoticized, or hypervisible, they continue to be denied the same opportunities in certain industries such as film. As I’ve mentioned in my previous blog post, according to a University of Southern California report, only 1.4 percent of lead characters in a sample of studio films released in 2014 were Asian. If there’s a lead role for a character that’s ethnically Asian, why not cast an Asian actor? The same can be said for this Vogue photo shoot. There isn’t a shortage of beautiful and talented Japanese models, so please, stop practicing yellowface, Vogue.

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