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.
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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.

Because it keeps happening. When Lily Allen dropped her comeback single “Hard Out Here” a few weeks ago, early reactions praised her takedown of pop music’s over-sexed, materialistic music videos and swipes at Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus. But once viewers began to focus on the gratuitous shots of her black dancers thrusting, twerking, and dousing themselves in champagne while Allen sang “I don’t need to shake my ass for you ‘cause I’ve got a brain,” the shouts of Take that Miley! turned to Have you learned nothing from Miley? The day of the music video’s debut, I wondered if Allen’s use of her dancers was poorly executed parody, not a case of completely missing the point. But in her response to criticism, Allen revealed she was just as clueless about her exploitation of black bodies as Miley was.

Perry wasn’t appropriating the actual bodies of any minorities, just their likeness, but her performance shows that these issues still haven’t sunk in yet—or, worse, that some of pop music’s most powerful women hear these concerns but choose to dismiss them. Perry’s performance is not even the first case this year of a pop star parachuting in to Asian culture to play dress-up this year. Both Australian rapper Iggy Azalea and Selena Gomez drew ire when they donned saris and bindis for Azalea’s “Bounce” music video and Gomez’s live performances of “Come and Get It,” respectively. Despite backlash from Hindu groups objecting to her use of the religious symbol as just a decorative prop, Gomez continued to wear it—and defend her use of it.

To anyone who thinks the media has gone overboard scrutinizing pop for excuses to be outraged, look no further than the coverage of last night’s show. “Katy Perry Kicks Off AMAs With Beautiful Moment,” reads a since-updated headline on the Associated Press story. Subsequent paragraphs fawn over the performance, saying she looked like "princess out of a classic Japanese painting” (originally a “princess out of a classic anime drawing” in an earlier draft) without mentioning that someone might find elements of her performance objectionable.

Earlier this year, my colleague Svati Kirsten Narula wrote, “Whether people ‘should’ be offended by it or not doesn’t matter; the fact that some people are offended by it does.” She wasn’t writing about pop music—she was actually writing about backlash to the Washington Redskins’ team name. But her point applies here, too: When Lily Allen says her music video has “nothing to do with race,” when Katy Perry fans dismiss criticism as overreactions, or when Gomez ignores those who say they're hurt by her actions, it shows why talking about appropriation is still important—because for too many people, it’s still not an actual conversation.

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Nolan Feeney is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Entertainment channel. 

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