Cultural appropriation is defined as adapting certain elements of another culture to your own. The act of taking credit for that culture and ignoring the origins of those elements, especially when members of a dominant culture are the ones appropriating is when it can be offensive and damaging. There have been many instances of mainstream celebrities who appropriate Asian culture by cherry picking certain parts of the culture and using them to appear more exoticized. However, some of these stars have explicitly come out as Asian culture enthusiasts, like Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, and Gwen Stefani. While their appreciation of Asian fashion, tradition, and way of life can be positive, their lack of research shows a superficial understanding of the depth behind the elements they are choosing to display in their performances.
At the 2013 American Music Awards, Katy Perry sang her song, “Unconditionally,” with an attempt at a Japanese-themed performance.
This song revolves around the unconditional love she has for a man while dressed as a geisha. Before further analyzing the rest of the performance, the fact that she equated this idea of devoting yourself to a man to being a geisha shows the “lotus blossom” archetype of an Asian woman having to be submissive and at the service of a man. This song has absolutely no references to Japanese culture, and her choice to shape her performance around it shows the ignorance and lack of foresight of everyone involved in it.
This ignorance is also apparent when noticing that her dress is not even fully Japanese–instead, it appears to be a hybrid of a kimono, a traditional Japanese garment, and a cheongsam, a Chinese dress. As someone who has marketed herself as a Japanophile, and in 2012 appeared on Jimmy Kimmel’s show saying,
I am obsessed with Japanese people…I love everything about them and they are so wonderful as human beings…I’m so obsessed I want to skin you [a Japanese person] and wear you like Versace.
I would expect that she would know the what kimonos look like. This overlook demonstrates her shallow level of adoration with Japanese people and culture and contributes to the Western notion that all Asians are the same.
Also appropriating Asian culture is Nicki Minaj, who refers to one of her personas as the “Harajuku Barbie.” This alter ego of hers includes a soft voice and girly appearance. On multiple occasions, Nicki has been shown to take from Asian cultures by dressing in oversexualized traditional clothing, portraying Asian people in stereotypical ways (see here), and exoticizing Asian customs and traditions.
Seen most prominently in her music video for the song, “Your Love,” Nicki takes from Japanese culture and strategically uses it to market an exotic love story.
She selects certain aspects of Japanese culture including karate, samurai swords, and the egregious use of silks, to sell this Orientalist image. The only line in the song that mentions anything Asian says,
When I was a geisha he was a samurai / Somehow I understood him when he spoke Thai
This line is altogether quite confusing as she carelessly jumbles together Thailand and Japan. Her apparent admiration of Japanese culture is shown to be superficial as well, akin to Katy Perry’s desire to love certain parts of the culture without actually learning about it.
Katy and Nicki were both at fault for grouping certain elements of different Asian countries’ cultures together because of their lack of research. However, the last offender of Asian cultural appropriation that I will be mentioning has not had that issue. Even though this is the case, I believe that she is the worst offender of the three because she has continuously used the Japanese Harajuku culture as cultural capital and profited immensely off of demeaning portrayals of Japanese Harajuku girls. Gwen Stefani came out with her album in 2004 titled, “Love. Angel. Music. Baby.” which were the names she gave to the four silent “Harajuku Girls” that she toted around as her back-up dancers and accessories.
While the entire album had many problematic messages and her music videos portrayed the four Japanese women as subservient to Gwen, one line encapsulated the incredibly offensive image she had of these women. In the song “Rich Girl,” she mentioned that if she was a rich girl, she would essentially use this wealth to buy these Harajuku girls.
I’d get me four Harajuku girls to / Inspire me and they’d come to my rescue / I’d dress them wicked, I’d give them names / Love, angel, music, baby
She seemed to consider them as pets who she dressed and named and continued to use them to further sales, creating a perfume line with mini versions of these doll-like women, and recently producing an animated show on Nickelodeon called “Kuu Kuu Harajuku” that features Gwen, known as “G” on the show, and a predominantly white, non-Japanese, voice cast of the four Harajuku back-up dancers, Love, Music, Angel, and Baby. Her objectification of Japanese women is appalling and her adoption of the Harajuku styles is a clear example of how members of the dominant class can succeed while demeaning another culture.
Although these artists have all tried to defend their stance by saying that they wanted to show their appreciation for this other culture, they were not able to effectively portray this because of their ignorant representation of what it actually means to be a person of that culture. In order for us to move forward, we need more meaningful portrayals of Asian culture than what has been given by these artist – portrayals that do not lump together vastly different histories of Asian countries and shed a negative light on Asian people.