20 September 2016
If you’ve been paying attention (and, frankly, even if you haven’t), you’ve heard about the furor surrounding Lionel Shriver’s keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival.
Shriver is a classic example of someone who rails against something she never bothered to fully understand. In her speech, she characterized the objections to cultural appropriation as “efforts to ban references to ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation from Halloween celebrations, or to prevent artists from drawing on ethnic sources for their work.”
Let’s look away from Lionel Shriver for a second, and take a look over at the world of popular music, where Gwen Stefani is bringing her series “Kuu Kuu Harajuku” to Nickelodeon. For those of you who don’t know, Harajuku is a neighborhood in Tokyo that’s a center of a particular brand of fashion and culture, and has originated many of the fads that have garnered the attention of the rest of the world. Stefani has long professed admiration for the Harajuku aesthetic, going so far as to hire Japanese women to follow her around as she promoted her first solo album.
But take a look at the Kuu Kuu Harajuku creators and cast. There are no Japanese people. There is one Asian man and one Asian woman working on the show as a whole. Stefani says “We do something American, and [Japanese people] take it and they flip it and make it so Japanese and so cool. And we take it back and go, ‘Whoa, that’s so cool!’” Except that much of Harajuku culture didn’t come from America in the first place. It’s just Stefani taking someone else’s culture and making it her “brand” and cashing in on it.
Quick detour: when I was a little kid, I liked playing by myself. I would have my imaginary game and I would play all the parts of every imaginary drama and I had a great time. Then other kids would see me having a great time, and want to get in on that. But when they started playing, they didn’t always know the rules, so they changed the game. Often, I got pushed out of the game entirely, and the other kids went on playing my game, but denying me a turn.
That’s appropriation. See why it’s not cool?
Here’s what happens when someone who doesn’t know the rules takes over your game and cuts you out of it: they get to make that game into whatever they want, including making up rules that ensure that you lose. Think of little kids playing “cowboys and Indians,” and the Indians are always the bad guys who lose. They grow up to be the kind of people who hire themselves out as mercenaries and attack the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe for protesting the pipeline being laid through their land. Think of people who wear sombreros and sarapes to Mexican-themed parties, and go on to vote that the US should build a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants.
Or worse, they re-write the past so that the people they’ve enslaved, oppressed, and subjugated are happy and content with their lot, and see it as the natural order of things. In her Comedy Central special “Tongue Untied,” Wanda Sykes talks about being pitched on a television show where she would play a maid who won the lottery, but loves her employers so much that she continues working for them. Wanda wanted to meet the group pitching the idea “so I could slap that dumb-ass idea right out they heads. What makes you think people want to work for you like that? That’s ridiculous.”
It doesn’t even take crossing a racial divide to make an appropriation misstep. If you’ve ever seen “Downton Abbey,” you’ve seen the Granthams and the small army of staff who work for them and live on their land. In episode after episode, the family does ridiculous, self-absorbed, idiotic things, and the servants clean up after them and remain loyal and silent. Mr. Carter, the head butler, staunchly defends the family and the “traditions” they stand for, including the “tradition” of oppressing the people who live on their land and exploiting their work. The creators of Downton Abbey have appropriated the experience of the English underclass and turned it into an embarrassing minstrel show where all the servants are happy and love their employers and would do anything for them, even as those employers can’t remember their names.
But no matter how distasteful these examples of appropriation and exploitation are, no one is stopping Lionel Shriver or Gwen Stefani or anyone else from producing whatever kind of art they want to produce. If Lionel Shriver wants to write about a Black woman being led around on a leash, she’s perfectly free to do it. If Gwen Stefani wants to pay Japanese women to pose and dance around her (but also to never speak), she can. If you want to incorporate two-dimensional, damaging stereotypes of people in your work, no one will stop you. But don’t be surprised when people get angry and don’t want to buy your work, either.
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Publisher, Zoetic Press