Mixed Reactions to Katy Perry’s ‘Geisha’ Act

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Katy Perry’s performance at the American Music Awards program, broadcast on ABC on Nov. 24, has become a hot topic in the Asian American community, with some condemning it as racist and others giving it a pass.

In the show’s opening number, Perry sang “Unconditional” dressed in kimono, with kimono-clad dancers waving fans and a backdrop that included a torii, a stone lantern and taiko drummers.

Katy Perry at the American Music Awards.

Katy Perry at the American Music Awards.

The Japanese American Citizens League called it an example of “a persistent strain in our culture that refuses to move beyond the stereotype of Asian women as exotic and subservient.”

But on the CBS daytime show “The Talk,” co-host Julie Chen commented,  “I’m not Japanese, I’m Chinese, but as an Asian woman I found it to be a beautiful nod to the Asian culture. Katy Perry is a beautiful girl. She’s so talented … She’s traveled the world. She’s intelligent. And as an Asian person, I know if she had done something to take a page from the Chinese book, my family and I would have gone, ‘Oh wow, look at that.’ Kind of opening the rest of the world’s eyes to something about our culture.

“We would have taken it as a compliment. It’s not racist.”

Wall Street Journal columnist and author Jeff Yang had the opposite reaction, saying that the performance made his jaw drop.

“There was Perry, in full kimono, tabi socks, lacquered hair and geiko pancake, belting out her latest smash hit,” he wrote. “Her traditional outfit had been tightened at the bust with a triangular cutout designed to accentuate rather than flatten her generous bosom, and the sides cut to the waist to expose her pearlescent American legs. And she was surrounded by a throng of acrobatic maiko, their faces rollered with fat streaks of kabuki makeup, who provided energetic fan-flapping as backup — at least until they started flying and somersaulting through the air.

“In short, this was a a full-barreled Technicolor assault on a quarter-millennium-old set of traditions that would’ve given any self-respecting denizen of Kyoto’s Gion District a massive fatal heart attack. But Perry’s whiteface/yellowface performance was also a harsh reminder of how deeply anchored the archetype of the exotic, self-sacrificing ‘lotus blossom’ is in the Western imagination.

“You see, Perry’s new single is called ‘Unconditionally,’ and unlike her usual anthems to sassy pubescence, it’s a song that’s basically about being a doormat for the very special loutish Englishman in your life …

“The juxtaposition of the song’s meaning and Perry’s geisha drag were hardly accidental: She’s invoking the iconic image of Cio-Cio-San, the titular ‘butterfly’ from Puccini’s opera ‘Madama Butterfly’ — a young Japanese girl who takes a Western lover, is abandoned by him, and commits suicide upon discovering his betrayal.

“One could interpret ‘Unconditionally’ as Perry’s declaration of unremitting love for her ex-husband Russell Brand. And while Perry is too much of a roaring, tiger-eyed champion to go the way of Cio-Cio, the performance last night clearly was meant to use ‘Madama Butterfly’s’ tired orientalist imagery as an ironic statement on her broken marriage …

“The thing is, while a bucket of toner can strip the geisha makeup off of Perry’s face, nothing can remove the demeaning and harmful iconography of the lotus blossom from the West’s perception of Asian women — a stereotype that presents them as servile, passive, and as Perry would have it, ‘unconditional’ worshippers of their men, willing to pay any price and weather any kind of abuse in order to keep him happy.”

Ravi Chandra, M.D., who writes on psychiatry, spirituality and culture for Psychology Today, remarked that “as an Asian American … I’ve watched our cultures misappropriated and commodified time after time. Frankly, many of us feel used as props to glorify white artists.

“If you don’t think Katy Perry was racist — let me ask you, what if she had performed in blackface? Perhaps a costume isn’t the same as changing skin color to you, but it is agonizingly close for me — I remember Mickey Rooney in buck teeth for his role as Mr. Yunioshi in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’; Jonathan Pryce in yellowface in ‘Miss Saigon’; Gwen Stefani in her Harajuku phase. Every Halloween brings up the same issues.”

Media Action Network for Asian Americans, which has protested stereotypical depictions of Asians, did not agree. MANAA President Aki Aleong, said in a statement,  “We did not find Katy Perry’s performance … to be offensive. It’s not racist for a non-Asian person to wear Asian clothes. If it was so, the Beatles would’ve been criticized for wearing Nehru jackets back in the ’60s. By going to India, learning meditation, dressing in Indian clothes, and George Harrison taking a fondness to the sitar, the Beatles brought attention to Indian culture and enabled it to be considered and enjoyed by millions across the world.

“Likewise, we know from past interviews that Miss Perry loves Japan and its culture, so her performance could’ve been paying tribute to an aspect of that culture and could renew appreciation for it.

“Some have asserted that because her song ‘Unconditionally’ is about a woman giving total devotion to a man, performing it as a geisha reinforced stereotypes about Asian women being submissive. In fact, if you look at the lyrics of the song, it’s the total opposite.

“In it, she’s singing to a man who’s insecure about showing his true self to her. She reassures him that’s it’s OK because she’ll love him no matter what. In other words, she’s the strong one in the relationship.”

Citing the use of Asian costumes by such singers as Madonna, Nicki Minaj, Selena Gomez and Christina Aguilera, Reappropriate blogger Jenn Fang described Perry’s performance as the latest example of  Orientalism, or “the West’s rigid fantasy of the East … that bears only superficial resemblance to its real-life inspiration.”

“For artists performing in venues like the AMAs, Orientalist vomit is a short-cut for non-Asian artists to achieve easy (but lazy) ‘edginess,’” Fang wrote. “When Katy Perry dons yellowface, she may not be maliciously racist — but nonetheless she is willfully perpetuating the idea that Asia and Asians are a foreign thing to be stared at, gawked at, exoticised and dehumanized. With every knot tied into her wannabe obi, Katy Perry perpetuates the same Orientalism that says: ‘it’s okay to treat Asia like a foreign world, and Asians like its alien inhabitants.’

“In Orientalism, Asia is no longer a collection of varied cultures, or a people’s history, but a category of stage prop, a genre of sampled music, a superficial style of art design.”

A request for comments on The Rafu Shimpo’s Facebook page also produced mixed results. A sampling:

Shirley Mina Yamauchi: “Her ‘kimono’ looked like an ao dai without pants!”

Yoko Druten: “I wasn’t offended at all …  I saw her performance as a celebration of the Japanese culture and was happy the performance was brought to such a large audience.”

Rowland Kumamoto: “The issue here, as always, is the stereotyping, which leads to ignorance of a culture. ‘Ching-Chong!’ REALLY? Bowing, servicing, Asian women, dressed in fakey, sexy, furisode kimono (well, I don’t know what you call a Chinese cheongsam collar on a kimono with a slit up the side)? And, no actual Asians were used in the performance. The lyrics to the song are innocent. Until you sing it with the faux geisha (prostitute) performance.”

And on Twitter, “Sara” tweeted, “I like how my friend said Katy Perry’s dress was the bastard child of a qipao and a kimono. Not Chinese, not Japanese,” while “Miki” tweeted, “Katy Perry’s AMA performance was not racist. In fact, young Japanese girls are likely overjoyed that she gave a (stylized) nod to Jpn culture.”

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