Firstly, a definition of cultural appropriation may do us some good. In the Jezebel article, A Much-Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation, cultural appropriation is “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” As people with privilege, it is often white people who curate these replications of meaningful artifacts from cultures not their own. Privilege and Oppression are two of the defining factors that make up the very complicated subject of cultural appropriation. The artifacts I have pulled from the internet either discussing or exhibiting cultural appropriation all involve privilege as well, and how the ideas of cultural appropriation and privilege are inseparable.
This music video, Ride by Lana Del Rey has been critiqued already for cultural appropriation. Never mind the possibly nonsensical story-arc within this video already, Lana randomly dons a Native American headdress near the end. I may also add, it looked like a very nice, large headdress. Privilege makes itself known immediately here. First, she has the economic status to purchase the aforementioned headdress or have it made, so she can easily obtain an artifact someone of that culture would otherwise have to earn. Even if they wanted to purchase it, they may not have the money to do so. The display of the headdress on Lana Del Rey is cultural appropriation because as a white woman, she is not a part of that culture, and is not participating in said culture in the music video. Therefore, she is using the headpiece simply as an aesthetic and stripping it of its meaning. The taking from a culture to be used in fashion or as an aesthetic is not new. Many from non-marginalized groups either do not recognize their privilege or the effects this “borrowing” can have. Many times, the consideration of a subordinated people is merely an afterthought and a follow-up apology, like our next example.
Next, we have a few shots from the 2012 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. This particular “outfit” was eventually pulled from the actual television spot, with vehement apologies from both Victoria’s Secret, and the model Karlie Kloss. Like the Lana Del Rey video, this example is also cultural appropriation of Native American culture. Again, a white person is wearing the clothing, complete with stereotypical tassels, jewelry and headdress. Again, this is problematic because it strips any meaning away from the articles Karlie is wearing, but even from these two examples we can see emerging stereotypes about Native Americans, when realistically there are many different tribes in America, each with their own unique culture. It is important to point out as well, that anything pulled straight from the Victoria’s Secret Fashion show, is heinously expensive, so they are even marketing this essentialist outfit to very wealthy, and most likely white women.
This image is also problematic because of how sexualized it is. Rape statistics show that Native women are more likely to be raped than white women, 34.1% to 17.7%. Of course the oversexualization of women in general must be fixed, but using a white female body to represent a Native American female body that is overly sexualized is not okay. It is blatantly disrespectful to the inequalities that these women suffer, and perpetuating it further through hugely public displays such as this is wrong. Also, this also perpetuates the current, dominant cultural norm of valuing ultra-thin white bodies for women. This is problematic in any case, as it devalues anything outside that norm, but placing Native American cultural artifacts on a body that isn’t from the people the artifacts has come from, really shatters meaning in those artifacts and devalues those bodies in particular. So both the sexualization of already sexualized Native American women as well as the devaluing of their bodies forms a dehumanization of these women, further entrenching a power dynamic that already works against them. Dyer also explains the basic idea of this in Essays on Representation, “As in all other issues of representation, we must not leave the matter of power out of account any more than the matter of representation itself.”
In conclusion, privilege and cultural appropriation go hand in hand. In a consumption-based society, what cultures one may consume through ultra-expensive clothing can hinge directly on a person’s economic status, which may be dependent on a larger scale on being white. In both of these examples, the Native American headdresses and other artifact replicas such as jewelry were used solely for aesthetic without regard to symbolic nature or meaning to the people they come from. While people with privilege may have the power to rip these things from their culture and use them for their own means, it’s not okay. Bell Hooks describes this well in Eating the Other, within the context of black people and their lives being a sort of setting or aesthetic that instead revolves around white people: “Films like Heart Condition make black culture and black life backdrop, scenery for narratives that essential focus on white people.”
It is important to be informed about when thinking about taking from a subordinated demographic. Although one may feel that this should end at some point, history is never erased. And it comes from a place of privilege to feel entitled eventually to another culture’s property. There is important symbolism in many of these things, like headdresses, that may be separated if not treated with knowledge and respect. Even so, it’s better to tread on the side of caution, and give up some privilege rather than to disrespect and disadvantage an already subordinated group of people.
“On Reverse Cultural Appropriation.” My Culture is not a Trend. N.p., May 2013. Web. 8 Nov. 2013.
“Sexual Assault and Rape Statistics, Laws, and Reports.” Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine. SARSSM, n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2013.
Dyer, Richard. The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations. Second ed. London And New York: Routledge, n.d. 3-4. Print.
Baker, Katie J. “A Much-Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation.” Jezebel. Ed. Jessica Coen. N.p., 13 Nov. 2012. Web. 8 Nov. 2013.
Hooks, Bell. Black Looks: Race and Represent6ation. Boston, Mass: South End Press, n.d. 432. Print.
Rey, Lana Del, perf. Ride. 2012. Youtube. Web. 8 Nov. 2013.
K, Adrienne. Guess we can add Victoria’s Secret to the List. 2012. Native Appropriations. Web. 8 Nov. 2013.