Orientalism Is Not Kawaii

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What would Coachella be without music, drugs, alcohol, and a little bit of cultural appropriation? Coachella might be a music festival, but it’s also a place where rich kids and celebrities can dress up like hippies for a weekend. This year’s accessory of choice seems to be a bindi. Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, and Kendall Jenner all donned Bindis this weekend. Gomez has been criticized in the past for wearing a bindi by Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, who explains that “[t]he bindi on the forehead is an ancient tradition in Hinduism and has religious significance.” He explicitly states that it’s not suppose to be used as a “fashion accessory,” but that didn’t stop her from wearing one, again!

Bindis weren’t the only thing being appropriated this past week. Air France released a series of ads for destinations that Air France travels to. In the ad for Beijing, a white model is wearing a dragon head, one that you would see in a dragon dance performance for Chinese New Years. The ad for Tokyo shows a white model dressed as a geisha, because, if you didn’t know, you’re greeted by a geisha the second you land in Tokyo.

An interest in Asian cultures is not the problem, it’s the romanticization and ignorance of those cultures that’s frustrating. When somebody tells me they love “Asian culture,” what does that even mean? Korea is different than China, India is different from Japan, Indonesia and Thailand aren’t the same place. Each country has their own language (with multiple dialects), traditions, and histories. Despite this seemingly obvious fact, I keep seeing people mix various aspects of Asian cultures, as if the cultures are interchangeable. Back in 2012 Rihanna got dressed up as a “Gangsta goth geisha” for Coldplay’s “Princess of China” music video, where she plays a Hindu goddess, geisha, and the Princess of China. The video has samurai fighting, dragon decor, and a faceless Asian cast. This video has over 100 million views to date, and love or hate Coldplay and Rihanna, they’re both widely admired. Videos like this normalize the idea that Asia is this mythical land, where women are always dressed in kimonos, hanfus, and hanboks and men are running around with samurai swords or writing manga.

Although there’s always backlash against orientalism, designers, editors, directors, and photographers just don’t seem to care. Did no one inform Katy Perry that doing her set at the 2013 AMA dressed as a geisha is problematic? Her creative team, manager, the producers of the AMA, or the dozens of people that saw the rehearsals didn’t speak up? Perry’s performance also highlights the fact that when Asian people are included in these performances, they’re only in the background (like the faceless Asian cast in the Coldplay video, or Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls). If they’re not in the background, they’re completely excluded and replaced by white individuals, like in the Air France adverts. In 2010, Louis Vuitton (headed by Marc Jacobs) did a Shanghai-inspired collection, with virtually all white models. The collection encompassed a lot of Chinese clichés with mandarin collars, panda, and tiger prints. Tiffany Ap’s write up of this collection puts things in an interesting perspective, writing that it’s understandable that Jacobs’ wants to appeal to the growing Chinese market, but “Do Chinese people actually want to walk around looking like china dolls?”

You might think think that I’m blowing all of this out of proportion, and that the world will keep spinning even if Selena Gomez continues to wear a bindi, but microaggressions need to be called out. I’ve just listed multiple examples of well-known individuals appropriating Asian cultures, and it seems like every week the list gets longer. TC mark

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