Saturday, August 2, 2014

Get Off My Culture!: Should Black Women Really Be Offended By Katy Perry's Mummy Bubble Butts?

Oh no, here it comes again! More politically correct white-on-white policing on matters that are supposedly of the utmost importance to another minority group. The latest main multiple offender: Katy Perry, who once again has been charged with "cultural appropriation," this time for populating the stage show on her current Prismatic World Tour with dancing mummies with big butts, big boobs and big red lips. "How racist!" her detractors are shouting in unison because, you know, those traits just scream "BLACK WOMEN!" And haven't black women suffered enough?

I guess Perry was already an easy target, since cultural appropriation seems to be her professional specialty. She borrowed from lesbians and bisexuals for "I Kissed a Girl," her 2008 breakthrough hit, and more recently, during her performance of "Unconditionally" at the American Music Awards last November, she dressed like a geisha and shoved a hodgepodge of influences from various Asian cultures and countries into her routine. The verdict: Guilty as charged!

But has she actually committed a crime? Perhaps only against good taste, which, the last time I checked, was hardly a capital offense, or even a particularly serious one. While I can get behind scoffing at Perry's cluelessness for apparently not even knowing which cultures she was appropriating at the AMAs, it's hardly a reason to call in the cavalry. She's not the first Westerner to regard Asia as a country rather than a continent made up of multiple countries, or to mistake Asian cultures for Asian culture.

I recently scolded someone for describing something she noticed in China as an Asian trend. People do it all the time with Africa, too, and often South America. Only Europe gets the benefit of generally being regarded as the confluence of numerous political and cultural entities linked by location rather than by race. Perry probably never would have dressed like a Swiss milkmaid while performing a Portuguese fado, but if she had, would anyone have considered it an affront to the Swiss?

I'm more concerned about the hypocrisy of the objection to Perry's cultural appropriation than the cultural appropriation itself. After all, cultural appropriation has been driving Western music since the beginning of the rock & roll era. And it's not as if female pop stars haven't been borrowing from other cultures and playing dress-up for decades (see and listen to Cher, right, in the early '70s, aka her "Half Breed" years). Yes, many of them have done it with more finesse than Perry (see Madonna's "La Isla Bonita" video, or her clips for "Nothing Really Matters" and "Don't Tell Me"), but there's a big difference between poor execution and a blatant disregard for the feelings of people from other cultures.

Does this mean it's no longer OK to appropriate anything that's not your birthright? No more culturally informed fashion on the red carpet or on album covers? No more saris, kimonos and turbans if you're a Westerner? No more playing with wild wild Western culture by dressing up as a cowboy or cowgirl? No more kilts if you're not a Scottish Highlander? No more religious imagery if you're not a believer? No more animal print because that belongs in the jungle? On the plus side, this might protect us from ever having to suffer through a trend as drab as Amish chic.

Does it only matter when the culture being appropriated belongs to a race or some minority that is viewed as being generally disadvantaged and/or persecuted? Should the cultures being appropriated stick to their own traditions, too? Should slender black women start wearing prosthetic asses and boobs, and should all so-called "African-Americans" dress only in hip-hop or traditional tribal clothing so that we can appear reasonably "black" at all times and avoid accusations of appropriating European culture?

But seriously, I'm not giving all cultural appropriation critical immunity. It's not inherently bad, but it's not always OK. You have to tread carefully and be certain you aren't crossing the fine line that separates celebrating another culture from the realm of lampooning it, which is why blackface will never be funny. But that doesn't even seem to matter anymore to the scores of white liberals who wear their superiority on their righteous indignation. They show their commitment to fairness and equality by scouring the media, looking for anything that could possibly be perceived as white people plundering non-white cultures solely for their own entertainment or the entertainment of other white people.

I could be wrong, but I can't imagine that many black people even care about Katy Perry's big butts. I'm not sure when having a big butt became synonymous with being a black woman anyway. Furthermore, Perry's explanation of the oversized butts, boobs and lips on her mummies sounds perfectly reasonable. "I based it on plastic surgery," she said in the August 14 issue of Rolling Stone. "Look at someone like Kim Kardashian or Ice-T's wife, Coco. Those girls aren't African-American. But it's actually a representation of our culture wanting to be plastic, and that's why there's bandages and it's mummies."

Speaking of mummy bandages, aren't they usually white? I actually find the idea that a big butt, big boobs and big lips would make anyone automatically think of black women to be far more offensive than anything Katy Perry has done. Do you look at the picture at the top of this post and immediately think, Oh, Katy Perry and her black female posse?

It's not like she's Iggy Azalea, a white girl from Australia who moved to the United States and started picking and choosing bits from black hip-hop culture to spice up her act. There's nary a trace of an Australian accent on her recent No. 1 hit, "Fancy." Iggy replaced it with her best approximation of black rap speak, at least for the records. Meanwhile, she retained just enough of her whiteness to base the "Fancy" video on the 1995 film Clueless, which, grunge and NBC's Thursday-night must-see TV aside, might be as white as the '90s got. Stars back then certainly didn't come any whiter than Alicia Silverstone, whose Clueless character -- fittingly named Cher -- Azalea revives in the video. (To her credit, she did get a dark-skinned black girl to assume Stacy Dash's BFF role!)

The result? An instant hit, one of the songs of the summer! Sure it feels contrived and artificial, and it certainly lacks authenticity, but doesn't a lot of pop music? Then again, it's not every No. 1 single that's performed by someone who has nothing to do with the cultural movement that it represents. It's like when another Australian-bred singer, Olivia Newton-John, scored a string of country hits in the '70s, with some degree of resentment within the traditional country community, but more for being an outsider than for committing any crime against Appalachian tradition. Is it the racial angle that makes Azalea's and Perry's cultural appropriation controversial?

If it's about race, should we also start targeting non-black performers who sing and dance "black"? Should white acts past and present (including Eric Clapton, UB40, The Police, Culture Club and MAGIC!, whose single "Rude" currently sits atop Billboard's Hot 100) have all left reggae alone? Should Mike Chang be watching his moves on Glee, lest they get too hip hop? (And what about those Thai breakdancers who so entertained and impressed me in Pattaya three summers ago by busting a move, ironically enough, to Perry's "I Kissed a Girl"?) Should we be damning Sam Smith instead of praising him for daring to sound like a black man (or James Blake for trying)? Should we start targeting drag, which would certainly qualify as a sort of cultural appropriation?

Why are some forms of it acceptable while others aren't? Is Iggy Azalea more offensive than RuPaul's Drag Race or blue-eyed soul because drag is funny (if you're into that sort of thing, and I generally tend not to be) and plenty of black artists already have succeeded by singing soulfully? Would Azalea's "black"-tinted act be more acceptable if she weren't doing so much better commercially than most black female rappers?

If we're going to start policing performers and telling them to stick to their own lanes, what would be the implications in Hollywood? Would gay actors only be able to play gay characters and straight actors straight characters? Would black actors only be able to play black characters with traditionally black characteristics? How ridiculous does that sound: "black characteristics"? What are "black characteristics"?

Oh yeah, big butts, big boobs and big lips! The way I see it, automatically linking certain unattractive qualities to black women and ignoring the diversity of "Asian" and "African" are the everyday crimes here. That's the racism we should be fighting, not a bunch of silly mummies at a Katy Perry concert.

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