By: Joseph Scott McCulty XIX
Gee Whiz! I surely didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I chose “cultural appropriation” as the prompt for my blog post. Nothing else encountered in the class thus far has caused me half as much inner turmoil as this – sometimes I can see the problem oh so clearly, and other times I find myself exclaiming “What a bunch of malarkey!” which was quite literally the case when the topic of dreadlocks was raised in my research. It physically upsets me that we are now ranking the importance of what something means to different people. Are we not inducing our own form of hegemony here by forcing conformity via assigning ownership of traits, fashions, etc. under this banner, especially while the rest of the world seems to be taking this with a melting pot mentality? Though, I do see how it could be annoying that people think they can identify with a culture with no real frame of reference. Perhaps that’s just my white privilege coming out – maybe I’m too used to being able to force my “own culture onto others and taking what [I] want in return.” Then again, it seems like a hard concept to grasp, so perhaps I’m not alone.
The term seems to vary in it’s usage from one person to the next: some seem to view absolutely everything as appropriation. And while certain people claim that it is only the “objects and traditions” that are valued as the commodities without any consideration for the people, others, such as Bell Hooks (Eating the Other) with her story of the Yale students, seem to disagree. Certainly, most examples of this cultural appropriation seem to focus on fashion or something else superficial and easy to note, but it is the issues with humanity more directly involved (that Hooks first brought to my attention) that I am more willing to see as problematic, and that I wish to discuss from here on out.
Presented in slow-motion to further exacerbate the agony of my readers, Miley Cyrus’s performance at the 2013 VMA’s upset a number of people and their tum-tums. And while the second part of the performance caused the majority of the projectile vomiting for its own reasons, I’d like to shift the focus to the segment coming before Beetlejuice appeared on stage. Evidently, Cyrus approached the writers of her hit “We Can’t Stop” and told them that she wanted “a song that feels black.” OK, I guess that would actually be a perfect example of someone quite literally and intentionally attempting to appropriate somebody’s culture for profit. But what happens in the actual performance is, while less overt in some ways, actually quite appalling. Here, you have to look at the more subtle things, such as the touching, which Hooks goes at great lengths to describe. While the casual observer may exclaim their admiration for the diversity, one must look at how the diversity is used. Yes, black people/bear people are set pieces. They are meant to represent something exotic or flavorful or however you wish to describe it. Their bodies are being appropriated so that Miley Cyrus can come on over, fondle them however she chooses, experience their blackness, and then literally send them away. I mean, is there a clearer example of cultural appropriation? Hooks might as well make an addendum to her “Eating the Other” piece. And this IS a problem. This is directly reinforcing the imperialism and white privilege and struggle for people of color. It is about as far away from appreciation and as close to appropriation as one can get. This is cultural appropriation at its worst.
Since I so approve of much of what Bell Hooks has to say on this issue, I figured I’d check out this United Colors of Benetton she spoke of in regards to appropriation in advertising. She described it as being evocative of primitivism in many instances, with white people always being the ones who touch the people of color. Essentially, the same stuff we had going on in the Miley Cyrus performance. I looked at their website, and, to be honest, I didn’t see any examples of what has been described. In fact, I didn’t see all that many people of color at all. Further research seems to suggest that much of the controversy from them was from the 90’s. I thought that maybe they switched gears or something, but a Google image search revealed a few new campaigns that seem to still apply somewhat. The photo above shows white hands all over the black body, with one tugging on the sweater around his neck – perhaps that could be read into a bit – but, even here, the touching is mutual.
This photo from one of their most recent campaigns illustrates the commoditization of primitivism that Hooks so richly describes. It is relevant to think of the production here. This image is being used (or misused) to sell a product by a guy who probably has no experience with or knowledge of the cultural artifacts with which he is dealing. This is more akin to the classical appropriation that I’m iffy about, but it is worth noting.
Cultural appropriation becomes an issue when human being begin to be used as props for one’s gain. This, like with most issues, seems to be most abused by the music industry. I can also see it as a problem when people misuse the meaning or significance, but not necessarily when they find their own meaning in whatever. “Cultural appropriation” still represents a leap forward in the tolerance and ENJOYMENT of difference. I think it’s important that we remember that and work through these offenses to build a stronger community – local, national, and global.
Baker, Katie J.M.. “A Much-Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation” Jezebel. 2012. http://jezebel.com/5959698/a-much+needed-primer-on-cultural-appropriation
Buzz! “Top 10 Controversial United Colors of Benetton Ads” Top 10 Buzz. 2012. http://top10buzz.com/top-ten-controversial-united-colors-of-benetton-ads/
Coates, Tyler. “Thought-Provoking Photos That Explore Cultural Appropriation in
Fashion” Flavorwire. 2013. http://flavorwire.com/413639/thought-provoking-photos-that-explore-culture-appropriation-in-fashion/
“Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation” Unsettling America: Decolonization in Theory & Practice. WordPress. 2011. http://unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com/2011/09/16/cultural-appreciation-or-cultural-appropriation/
“Cultural Appropriation” Wikipedia. 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_appropriation
Freeman, Hadley. “Miley Cyrus’s twerking routine was cultural appropriation at its worst.” The Gaurdian. 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/27/miley-cyrus-twerking-cultural-appropriation
hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Media and Cultural Studies: Keywords. Ed. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner. Revised edition. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. 366-380
Macleod, Ishbel. “United Colors of Benetton to launch a new fashion campaign with Fabrica and Macs Iotti.” The Drum. 2013. http://www.thedrum.com/news/2013/01/23/united-colors-benetton-launch-new-fashion-campaign-fabrica-and-macs-iotti
Mod, Asi. “Asian Models Blog” 2009. http://asianmodelsblog.blogspot.com/2009/02/liu-wen-ad-campaign-for-benetton.html
“On Reverse Cultural Appropriation” My Culture is not a Trend. Tumblr. http://mycultureisnotatrend.tumblr.com/post/781005138/on-reverse-cultural-appropriation
Rick Astley. “Never gonna give you up.” RCA Records. 1987.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQw4w9WgXcQ
United Colors of Benetton. webpage. http://en.benetton.com/us/index.html
Uwujaren, Jarune. “The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation” Everyday Feminism. 2013. http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/09/cultural-exchange-and-cultural-appropriation/
“We Can’t Stop” perf. by Miley Cyrus. Written by Timothy and Theron Thomas. Uploaded by Geoffrey Royce Rojas. RCA. 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZrHTUD7AVM