Another awards ceremony, another “controversial” pop star performance. This time around it was Katy Perry, whose appearance at the American Music Awards last night set the Internet afire with outrage because of its absurd depiction of Japanese culture: cherry blossoms, taiko drummers, kimono-clad backing dancers, and Perry herself dressed as a geisha. Sigh.
Whether you consider this flat-out racist is really dependent on what sort of definition you accept for that word — I’m sure Perry would argue it was a well-intentioned “homage” to Japanese culture, or something similarly woolly. Either way, though, more than racist, the performance was just terminally clueless. It was engagement with a foreign culture in the most superficial and vacuous sense — which is essentially pretty much all one can expect from a pop star like Perry, whose engagement with pretty much everything seems to extend no further than how it might look in her wardrobe.
Perry’s interest in Japan, such as it is, isn’t unprecedented; Spin‘s Christopher Weingarten this morning unearthed a quote from her appearance on Jimmy Kimmel last year, wherein she proclaimed that “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 [them] and wear [them] like Versace.” Ugh. And that’s essentially what this performance was — wearing a culture like a fashion accessory, just like those stoopid girls you see in Native American headdresses at Coachella every year.
Because as with anything fashion-related, Perry’s “obsession” extends only as far as her appearance. It certainly has nothing to do with actual contemporary Japanese culture, because the kimono-clad geisha is no more relevant to modern Japan than a stripey-shirted, beret-wearing, baguette-carrying villager on a bicycle is to France, or a gun-toting bandito in a sombrero and a poncho is to Mexico. These sorts of silly stereotypes exist for pretty much every culture, and you’d hope that in this brave new world of globalization, we might leave them behind. But no. Not yet.
In this respect, Perry’s just the latest in a long line of people to mine Asian culture for ideas. Most recently, there was Nicki Minaj’s spectacularly silly take on the same subject with “Your Love” and the roll call of Asian stereotypes she ticked off in the video for that song: geisha outfit? Check! Martial arts? Check! Samurai sword? Check! Ninjas? Check! And that’s before we get to the lyrics’ claim that samurai speak Thai, which … well, it must have just been because it rhymed? Right?
Then there was Gwen Stefani trotting around with a couple of Harajuku girls as fashion accessories, taking them everywhere in the same way that dotty rich old women do with foul-tempered chihuahuas. You can see aspects of the East-as-source-of-mystique in the mythology of the Wu-Tang Clan; in our enduringly morbid fascination with the Aokigahara forest; and, inevitably, in a Madonna video (in this case, “Nothing Really Matters,” where she appeared as, yes, a geisha). In all these cases, there’s no real attempt to engage with the underlying culture in any but the most superficial way (something that can occasionally backfire, with hilarious results).
This happens, to an extent, with every culture, but Asian culture has long held a special fascination for the West. For centuries, the East has been treated as a sort of mirror to our culture, something that exists in binary opposition to the West and is used to denote the mysterious and the exotic. Japan, in particular, has always been depicted as a place of mystique, of demurely beautiful women and inscrutable men, no doubt due in part to its isolationist sakoku policy, which was only lifted in 1853.
And really, nothing has changed, because how often do you see an actual Asian person in pop culture? According to the 2010 census, there’s about 1.3 million Japanese Americans in this country, along with 1.7 million Korean Americans, 3.1 million Chinese Americans, 1.5 million Vietnamese Americans, and 2.5 million Filipino Americans. All in all, that’s about 10 million people, and that’s before you count people who trace their origins to the Indian subcontinent. It’s enough, in other words, that Asian culture isn’t exactly foreign to this country, something that you can confirm empirically by taking a walk around any major American city.
But in popular culture, the representation of Asians remains depressingly familiar, characterized by a bunch of reductive stereotypes: geeks who are good with computers, alluringly submissive women, martial arts, Hello Kitty, geishas, and, um, that’s about it. (Just look at the collective cultural meltdown that happened in NYC a couple of years back when an Asian turned out to be good at basketball.) It’s the same story with South Asian stereotypes: yoga, spicy food, spirituality, saris, call centers.
“Cultural appropriation” is a somewhat controversial concept; it certainly exists, but if one views all cultural exchange between East and West in those terms, you’re arguably disempowering the former and reducing them to the status of inevitable victims. Still, there’s definitely an imbalance here, one best exemplified by the fact that if people of Asian origin do appear in American pop culture, they’re usually cartoonish, one-dimensional figures: the most recent example is Psy, whose “Gangnam Style” sold gazillions of copies to people who saw it as an amusing novelty. Jackie Chan’s fame exploded when he traded serious martial arts movies for self-referential physical comedy. Ken Jeong is a fine actor, but look at the parts he gets to play — either satirizing Asian stereotypes on Community, or, um, just playing them out in The Hangover franchise. And so on.
This is ultimately why performances like Perry’s are unhelpful. They’re not necessarily flat-out offensive in the way that, say, blackface is, but they do the same job of reducing a culture from a multifaceted entity with a rich history into a series of simplistic tropes from which you can pick and choose the same way you assemble an outfit: a Japanese-inspired kimono here, a henna tattoo there, a kabbalah wristband and yoga three times a week.
It’s a depressingly superficial way of approaching culture. If Perry is really fascinated with Japanese culture, you’d think she might understand that it extends much further than the century-old stereotypes she trotted out last night, and hope that she might actually engage with real Asians and real Asian culture. But ultimately, that’s not what pop stars do — they exist as blank slates onto which aesthetics are projected, depending on what’s fashionable at any given time. And that’s as strong an indictment on our popular culture as any other.