Katy Perry as a Geisha - Yellowface?
November 24, 2013
(NOTE - my sequel to this blog post is here. Episode 2 - The Comments Strike Back.)
First of all, I have to say that the instant I saw Katy Perry performing on the AMA’s (which as a doctor, I would now have to call Against Medical Advice), I felt I got slapped by my TV. As an Asian American, I was appalled.
And then I knew the second strike was coming. I checked Twitter, again Against Medical Advice. Of course, there was a debate raging, and I quickly found that we “complainers” had been branded as “PC."
It’s fine for everyone to have their own opinion. However, upon matters of race—etiquette and empathy demand that we listen seriously to how members of that race feel about the situation before mouthing off.
The AP didn’t do that before it they ran with this description:
"Katy Perry opened the show looking like a princess out of a classic Japanese painting. Dressed in a traditional Japanese dress, Perry's show-starting performance of "Unconditionally" included dozens of colorfully clad dancers waving fans, shadow danced in front of rice-paper screens and played the drums."
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’ll close with the words of the Asian-American spoken word group I Was Born With Two Tongues, in their poem “Not Your Fetish,” available on their signature, groundbreaking album “Broken Speak.”
My lips, my teeth, my tongue are ready to scream,
I’m tired of this machine called American history
This sweet land of liberty has a canvas that was painted
In white over black, brown, yellow, red.
Cultural pride are seething and swelling
Underneath this paint, this pain
And words collect in my temple like a dammed up river…
Culture, pride, love—we struggle to keep our heads above water
We struggle to breathe air—
We struggle to breathe freedom
But your never-ending pitches of “Hello Sex Kitty”
And Disney ideals of making the foreign exotically strange…
Are pushing our heads back down…
Fashion trends and haute couture
Designed to appropriate my culture…
What is it that makes me “in” this year?
Movie stars enchanted with Buddhist themes…
Madonna seeks a spiritual high
Promoting album sales through trendy Asian culture…
Leading the way for mass-consumer markets
They display our culture in mannequin trends
In megamall windows…
Appropriate, appropriate, take, take, take—
Motherf-ers exploit my culture without context—
What is it that makes me “in” this year?
So you tell me you have an Asian fetish?...
Stop masturbating in your own glory.
Stop masturbating in my culture.
I hope this addition to the Social Network can add to empathy and understanding.
UPDATE: And I hadn't even listened to the song, I was so struck by the visuals. WSJ Blogger Jeff Yang takes it all up here: Memoirs of a Geisha: Katy Perry's Performance stirs Debate.
More: The Atlantic: Katy Perry needs to be called out.
Update 11/30/13: Japanese American Citizens' League press release on Katy Perry's performance. "The thoughtless costuming and dance routines by Katy Perry played carelessly with stereotypes in an attempt to create a Japanese aesthetic. The JACL believes it is important for all who are involved in entertainment production to understand that while audience approval is important, caution must also be the byword to avoid denigrating and marginalizing a portion of that viewership."
*** Perhaps Katy Perry's own makeup didn't qualify precisely for the definition of "yellowface". However, others have pointed out that her non-Asian backup dancers were made up to look more Asian, which might qualify. Also, it is with the utmost respect to African Americans that I refer to the term blackface. African Americans have inspired the whole world with leadership and vision; their experience in facing discrimination has many important lessons for all groups, including Asian Americans. (added 11/30/13)
UPDATE (4/24/14): Watch performance artist Kristina Wong send up Asian stereotypes and get reparations for yellow fever on MYX TV: "I'm Asian American, and..." The whole episode is about 30 minutes, and well worth it! Hilarious!
© 2013 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved. Sign up for a quarterly e-newsletter to find out about my new book Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, at www.RaviChandraMD.com. Facebook page: SanghaFrancisco-The Pacific Heart. Twitter @going2peace. Thanks for your shares on Facebook, etc.!