Another day, another bit of accidental awards ceremony racism. This time the accusatory tweets are being directed at Katy Perry, who threw together a decidedly unappetizing Asian fusion mash-up for the yellowface rendition of her terrible new song ‘Unconditionally’ at last night’s American Music Awards.
The singer, an admitted Japonophile, wore a dress that featured elements of a Japanese kimono (print and sleeves) and a Chinese cheongsam (knot buttons and high collar). It also featured a large amount of cleavage and upper thigh, which are not normally featured in either. Also, umbrellas! White powder! Asian backup dancers with their faces painted to make them look more Asian! And, er, strobe lights.
I didn’t watch the actual show, because I don’t have a TV and I didn’t want to. But I did watch Katy’s performance on YouTube after hearing the inevitable cries of racism from Twitter. Yes, it’s as bad as people say it is, and not just because I don’t like the song — which, I’m pretty sure, previously had nothing to do with any part of The Orient, but now suggests that a good doormat-like Japanese woman will love you unconditionally. It goes like this:
I will love you unconditionally
There is no fear now
Let go and just be free
I will love you unconditionally
So come just as you are to me
Don’t need apologies
Know that you are all worthy
I’ll take your bad days with your good
Walk through the storm I would
I do it all because I love you
I love you l love you
Gross. It’s hard not to draw comparisons to Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku phrase. Stefani is an artist who could actually be called an artist rather than a pop diva, yet when she hired four Japanese women to silently shadow her on photoshoots and to public appearances, it was not art — it was racism.
Perry didn’t rename any adult humans for her performance, or, as far as we know, stipulate via contract that they were not allowed to speak English (as it is rumored Stefani did). But there are many things her Geisha “tribute” has in common with Stefani’s Love, Angel, Music and Baby. She slinks around the stage, prays meekly, hides behind umbrellas and acts like a proper submissive Asian woman, even if she does so while standing under a spotlight and screaming. Her backup dancers do the same thing, only with less cleavage and more Geisha-like lipstick. They’re the du jour accessories to her sexed-up Japonism garb.
The Geisha girls couldn’t be further from the furiously twerking black backup dancers at Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance, yet the two groups have a lot in common. They’re both minorities being paid to reinforce the stereotypes that marginalize them while reinforcing the dominance of their white ringleader.
And it seems particularly dumb of Perry to embark on this whole charade on the back of Lily Allen’s controversial new video for her comeback single “It’s Hard Out Here.” The song was initially construed by many as a feminist takedown, as the hiring of only black dancers as a parody of Miley’s decision to do the same for her “We Can’t Stop” video. But after Allen argued that the dancers were hired because they were the best twerkers, and that race didn’t come into play at all, she was doing the equivalent of saying “I’m not racist because I have black friends!” Swap “have black friends” for “love Japan” and this seems to be the argument of Katy Perry. Maybe Allen should have stayed quiet like an obedient Japanese woman.
I don’t feel personally offended by Katy Perry’s performance. I am not Japanese or Chinese or Korean or Taiwanese. Nor have I ever even been to Northeast Asia. But there are people who are from those cultures who are offended by it, and that makes it not okay. In the words of YouTube commenter VenusAD:
“This is some of the worst Orientalism I’ve seen in awhile. Just a mash up of random Asian culture. To those who do not live in America, it’s cool. You probably don’t think anything of it because you don’t have the same history we do in America. This hurts Asian-Americans though. Sure, there will be many who are okay with it, but there’s enough of a voice from those who aren’t okay with it and feel fetishized and belittled by it. Katy Perry is just exercising the full ignorance of her white privilege here.”
And comments to the effect of “I’m Japanese and I love this!” don’t put the matter to rest when ones like this exist:
“I know she loves Japan. But in the staging of this performance it’s not just Japanese. It has Chinese and Japanese elements. Just wish the designer would of stuck with one culture and not mixed them up. Just seems like a typical american thinking Japanese, Chinese or Korean it all the same but not true.” (bikinke)
Or this, from another Japanese Twitter user:
“I have no idea why she wore a kimono with a China dress,” wrote another. “For hairy, white Americans, I guess it doesn’t mater which is which.”
So no, we’re not becoming “too PC” about the appropriation of marginalized cultures. If something offends people, it’s offensive. End of story.
Watch the totes Geisha-Glam Chic performance below.