Katy Perry's 'Geisha-Style' Performance Needs to Be Called Out

Her costume at the American Music Awards, and the reactions to it, show why conversations about cultural appropriation are still so important.
AP / John Shearer

Last night Katy Perry, dressed in a modified kimono with her face heavily powdered, opened the American Music Awards with a geisha-inspired performance of her new single, “Unconditionally.” Within minutes, complaints about her get-up as an offensive example of cultural appropriation and stereotyping flooded in on social media, as did reactions to those reactions: virtual eye-rolls, posts predicting the furious arrival of the PC police, and several comments along the lines of “Just wait till Tumblr gets mad at this!”

Ever since Miley Cyrus used black women as props to further sexualize herself at the MTV Video Music Awards, talk of subsequent, culture-appropriating offenses by her pop peers gets treated as beating a dead horse. But almost everything about Perry’s performance proved there are plenty of reasons why these discussions are as valid and urgent as ever.

Because stereotypes remain harmful. Almost a decade ago, Gwen Stefani, inspired by the street fashions of Japanese youth, introduced the Harajuku Girls, a foursome of backup dancers who doted on her from behind, never spoke in public, and whose names were taken directly from Stefani’s clothing line. Comedian Margaret Cho, in a 2005 blog post that’s still depressingly relevant, likened them to a “minstrel show”—the same wording New York’s Jody Rosen used to describe Miley Cyrus’s VMAs performance earlier this year.

“A Japanese schoolgirl uniform is kind of like blackface, I am just in acceptance over it, because something is better than nothing,” Cho wrote. “I am so sick of not existing, that I would settle for following any white person around with an umbrella just so I could say I was there.” At Salon earlier that year, Mihi Ahn wrote that “[Stefani] swallowed the subversive youth culture in Japan and barfed up another image of submissive giggling Asian women.”

Even without including any actual Asian women, Perry accomplishes something similar. She and her dancers spend much of their performance time putting their palms together and bowing, scurrying across the stage trying to be light on their feet, and hiding behind umbrellas and fans. Dainty, subservient, shy—though there are no Japanese schoolgirls here, the imagery of the performance is hardly nuanced. The performers’ make-up does little to combat Cho’s anxieties about blackface, and while Perry’s skin-exposing interpretation of the kimono could have been more sexualized, it’s these kind of stereotypical visuals that plays into white fetishization of Asian women—something Perry doesn’t have to deal with when she takes off her costume.

“I am in my 20s, and the shitbag boys who used to pull their eyes back and say 'ching chong' still hurt me,” the writer (and friend of mine) Crystal Leww wrote last night. “This sort of shit is not funny or artistic to me; it just reminds me that I am still not an American to a lot of people and that someone who looks like me still cannot be a Katy Perry of the world.”

There’s also something peculiar about her pairing of Japanese—and Chinese— imagery with the song “Unconditionally,” which was originally inspired by a trip to Madagascar. Maybe it’s just the track’s pounding percussion that inspired the theme and (what looks like) taiko drumming. But considering how Prism is Perry’s most spiritual album to date, the performance suggests Perry’s taken up an Eat, Pray, Love style reinvention centered on Eastern spirituality—with “Eastern” construed as broadly and monolithically as possibly, encompassing the Shinto-shrine imagery of her AMA’s performance, the karma shout outs on Prism’s “Legendary Lover," and on.

Because it was not a celebration. The fans who defend Katy Perry like to say that she engaged in cultural appreciation, that her performance was a harmless tribute to Japan. But it’s worth pointing out that few of her prominent dancers—wearing makeup to appear more Asian—are actually Asian themselves, and, as others noticed on Twitter, the awards show otherwise seemed to leave out Asians entirely. Exactly how pop stars can appreciate a culture by largely leaving its members out of that celebration—at a televised event that doesn’t really acknowledge their existence, no less—is a mystery. Additionally, considering the number of myths surrounding the historical roles and significance of geishas in Japan, Perry’s appearance felt like the performance equivalent of skimming a Wikipedia page, not a tribute based in any deeper understanding or desire for accuracy.

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Nolan Feeney is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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