Cultural Appropriation

By Emily Lu ’23 for Fall 2020 Issue

Layout by Madelyn Yow ’24

“Cultural Appropriation” hit peak interest in Google World Trends in May 2018; it was not a coincidence that around the same time, Keziah Daum, a high school student from Utah, was under fire for wearing a traditional Chinese garment—the qipao—to prom. People had mixed opinions on whether this was an act of cultural appreciation or appropriation.

Some—including people of Chinese descent—believed that Keziah meant no harm, that she wore the qipao to appreciate its beauty and the Chinese culture. Others—including people not of Chinese descent—asserted that the qipao is meant for special occasions only. Both arguments are valid to a certain extent. Qipaos are form fitting dresses—imagine the silhouette of a bodycon dress today—with high collars, pankou knots, and side slits (East Meets Dress). These unique details must have caught Keziah’s eyes for her to choose it as her prom dress, and this perhaps sparked her curiosity to learn about other elements of Chinese culture. However, the qipao is held with high regards in China: unlike when the zeitgeist of the 17th century made qipaos acceptable for everyday wear, they are nowadays symbols of auspiciousness and celebration, exclusively tailored for women to wear at formal events (ThoughCo.). For this reason, Keziah probably should have thought twice before wearing a qipao to an event completely irrelevant to Chinese culture in any shape, way, or form. 

While this incident stirred up public debate, other cases were irrefutable instances of cultural appropriation. 

In 2013, Selena Gomez wore a bindi as part of her “makeup look” to perform “Come and Get It” at the MTV Movie Awards. Hindu groups were offended by this poor “styling” choice—righteously so—because wearing a bindi to perform a rather suggestive song undeniably disrespects the important cultural and religious significance behind it. The bindi—a colored dot worn in the region between the eyebrows on the forehead—is placed exactly where the sixth chakra is. It is believed that the bindi symbolizes the third inner eye, which allows people to see through the world’s many facades and falsities and perceive things in their truest states (Hindu American Foundation).

In June 2018, Kim Kardashian wore cornrows to the red carpet for MTV Awards. What was once a protective hairstyle worn by members of the African American community instantly became trendy box braids overnight. The long history of cornrows should not be overlooked either. Having originated from Africa, cornrows’ history can be traced all the way back to 3000 B.C., when this braided hairstyle was analogous to a badge of prestige that only warriors and kings could wear. In our twenty-first century world, it was infuriating for members of the African American community to see that white mainstream society co-opted the same hairstyle that caused them to experience alienation, microaggressions, racial profiling, and racism, thereby erasing their experiences. 

In October 2019, country singer Kacey Musgraves wore the traditional Vietnamese dress áo dài for her concert in Dallas, Texas (Insider). The traditional garment has slits all the way up to the waistline on both sides, but it is meant to be worn with long pants underneath. Musgraves, however, chose to forego the pants, at once turning the modest traditional gown into a sexualized costume donned for attention. 

Cultural appropriation has always been and always will be divisive. Most netizens, fashion editors, and cultural critiques are quick to cast the blame without considering the nuances that distinguish cultural appropriation from appreciation. 

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Take the fox eye trend for example. The look—achieved by using eyeliner to create uplifted wings at the outer corners of the eyes and to sharply accentuate the inner corners of the eyes —became widely popular after Euphoria star Alexa Demie wore it for an editorial photoshoot. It did not take long for beauty gurus and influencers to recreate the look and cement it as a social media trend.

This makeup look is controversial for creating the illusion that its wearer has upturned eyes, which is a facial feature that many people of Asian descent naturally possess. What further infuriates people is that this makeup look also popularized an insensitive pose of pulling one’s eyes upwards, the same gesture that racists use to mock people of Asian descent for having naturally upturned monolids. As such, beauty gurus and influencers received mixed feedback for recreating the fox eye. People of Asian descent have also made countless TikToks that call out the makeup look and eye-pulling pose as blatant acts of racism. Their tens of thousands of likes and shares validate seeing the fox eye as cultural appropriation. Yet, comment sections often brim with viewers that argue that the fox eye is a makeup look and nothing else. Is there truth to both sides of the argument?  

Raoúl Alejandre, the makeup artist who created this look, most likely had no ill intention. According to an interview by Rose Inc., “the photographers that Alejandre admires and references throughout his work” are “Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Guy Bourdain.” One common theme among the three is their novel portrayal of nature that ranged from flora and fauna to mundane life—to people. In the case of the fox eye, Raoúl Alejandre may have simply used makeup to enhance Alexa Demie’s natural features with no intention of appropriating natural facial features possessed by people of Asian descent. However, that the pose is problematic is less debatable. To clarify, the pose is not always identical to the aforementioned racist gesture: the fingers are oriented like those of a ballerina, placed at the temples instead of right next to the eyes, and do not actively pull them upwards. Though, in other cases, this pose can still be used to slightly tug on the skin and pull the eyes upwards, thereby wrongly appropriating natural features that people of Asian descent are mocked for having. 

Using makeup to imitate Asian features is rooted in yellowface. Because Asian representation in Hollywood was practically nonexistent throughout most of the 20th century, white actors and actresses were given ‘special’ makeup to make them look ‘more Asian,’ where their facial features were transformed into ones that perpetuate harmful stereotypes against Asian people.

For instance, Katharine Hepburn’s portrayal of an East Asian lady in Dragon Seed (1944) exemplified the Western belief that all Asian people have upturned monolids, “flat” faces, and thin eyebrows. In an excerpt from “The Indianapolis Star” (1946), Gloria Bristol, presumably a then-renowned makeup artist in Hollywood stated that, “[Katharine Hepburn] was playing a Chinese woman in ‘Dragon Seed’ and they used to put fish skin over her eyes to make them look Chinese.”

In the musical Miss Saigon (1989), Jonathan Pryce played the role of a half-French, half-Vietnamese engineer. In an interview on Wagon, a popular talk show at the time, Pryce revealed that he wore latex prosthetics to alter his eye shape in mimicry of what was thought to be “Asian eyes.” In fact, there are direct connections between the racist past and the (still) racist present: In The Mask of Fu Manchu, Myrna Loy wore a makeup look that strongly resembled the now-popular fox eye look while portraying an Asian character in the film.

As evident, cultural appropriation is a complex issue that often lies in the gray area. It’s difficult to draw definitive lines between cultural appropriation and appreciation or to come up with heuristics to determine whether something is an example of the former or latter. However, it is not impossible through using good judgment. Is it okay for a foreigner to go to a traditional market to be professionally fitted for a tailor-made hanbok in Korea? Probably yes. Is it okay for an entertainment company to use a Ganesha statue in their artist’s music video as a prop solely to fit the aesthetic theme? Probably not. On this note, anyone who intends to “borrow” an element from another culture should always educate themself on the cultural significance of that particular element—be it a garment, hairstyle, or facial markings—and ask themself if their actions will even slightly disrespect the culture from which they are “borrowing” from.   

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