Crossing the Line?

December 13th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

Katy Perry’s Asian-inspired performance at the American Music Awards spurs a debate: when does culture borrowing become insensitivity?

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The Responsibility Project

If you missed this year’s American Music Awards, you may have also missed the uproar that arose following Katy Perry’s performance of her new song, “Unconditionally.” Perry, wearing a tight kimono, lacquered hair and full geisha makeup, belted out her song underneath a parasol, surrounded by taiko drums and flower petals. Many were not amused. The Wall Street Journal’s Jeff Yang wrote, “This was a full-barreled Technicolor assault on a quarter-millennium-old set of traditions…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.”

Dr. Ravi Chandra agreed with Yang, writing in Psychology Today, “If you don’t think 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.”

But not everyone was horrified by the performance. Brian Ashcraft, writing in the Japanese gaming magazine Kotaku, didn’t see the harm, noting that the performance “mixed and matched Japanese and Chinese culture as if it were a Pan-Asian buffet.” Her outfit, in fact, was a combination of a Chinese cheongsam and a Japanese kimono. Ashcraft continued, “As someone who lives in Japan, I see a similar mix and matching with Western culture all the time as well as seemingly endless appropriation of foreign cultures for entertainment purposes.”

But what some found most disturbing was the fact that reporters watching the performance seemed to overlook the culturally insensitive overtones. The Associated Press, for instance, wrote, “Katy Perry opened the show looking like a princess out of a classic Japanese painting. Dressed in a traditional Japanese dress, Perry’s [performance] included dozens of colorfully class dancers who waved fans, shadow-danced in front of rice-paper screens, and played the drums.”

Was the performance innocently borrowing from Asian cultures, or did it cross the line into cultural insensitivity? Weigh in here.