Cultural appropriation, as defined by Richard Rogers (2006), is “the use of a culture’s symbols, artifacts, genres, rituals, or technologies by members of another culture,” usually without their consent (p.474). For example, Caribbean voodoo dolls was used to tie people’s bodies and souls together. Today, however, voodoo dolls are often misconceived as a type of dark magic. Coincidentally, many people find dark magic appealing. In Japan, popular manga characters are sometimes made into voodoo dolls to be sold. This is an example of cultural appropriation from the Caribbean to Japan. According to Rogers cultural appropriation can happen in four ways: “cultural exchange, cultural dominance, exploitation, and transculturation” (p.474). Cultural exchange is a type of cultural appropriation that often gets mistaken to be cultural appropriation itself. However, cultural exchange is the ideal form of cultural appropriation; it involves a reciprocal relationship between two cultures, in which both cultures take and give from each other equally. Cultural dominance, on the other hand, happens when a subordinate culture is forced to accept some aspects of the dominant culture, often with slight resistance. Transculturation involves the merging of various cultures such that the culture elements’ origin cannot be identified. Lastly, cultural exploitation happens when the dominant culture mines resources from subordinate cultures and sells them solely for financial gain. The heritages of the subordinate cultures are often lost through the process.
Most people, including journalists and bloggers, dislike cultural appropriation because they understand it as cultural exploitation. However, cultural appropriation can be useful because it can spark artistic creation and is a great opportunity for culture learning.
An example is the Met Gala, a fundraising gala hosted in New York City by the Metropolitan Museum
of Art that invites costume designers to present their costumes through celebrity models. This year’s theme was “China: Through the Looking Glass.” The gala sparked controversy because many people were offended by the fact that most costumes did not reflect Chinese culture at all. That caused an outrage on Twitter that day. Twitter user, Jonathan Hsy,
tweeted, “this #MetGala trainwreck of cultural appropriation is so astoundingly bad I’m half-expecting someone to whip out a gong. MAKE IT STOP” (Hsy, 2015). “Stanford Daily” writer, Samantha Wong (2015), deemed the costumes as a part of cultural appropriation because most designers were Westerners creating Chinese costumes. She was concerned by the display of Orientalism, a word which means the depiction of Eastern culture through the lenses of Westerners. In particular, she criticized the use of kimono and hanbok because, although they belong to Asian cultures, they are not related to China. Other websites, such as “People,” also complained about the chopsticks worn by Emma Roberts and the headdress worn by Jessica Parker that imitates a Beijing Olympic mascot, neither items are part of Chinese culture (“Met Gala,” 2015). Moreover, Wong believes that by simplifying Chinese “culture, race and history” to a single caricature, such as a purse or a doll, the gala is actually mocking the culture.
While Wong viewed the gala as an exploitation of Chinese culture that degrades Chinese heritage, other bloggers embraced the costumes and appreciated the appropriation.
Ellie Krupnick (2015) highlighted Rihanna’s yellow and gold dress; she celebrated Rihanna’s effort to do her own research on Chinese culture and to honor the culture that is not her own by finding an authentic costume made by a Chinese designer. In addition, “The Details,” a blog-site, also praised Parker’s headdress by calling it a hat with suitable, interesting taste (“Everybody,” 2015). It defended the gala by saying all the negative cultural appropriation “hullaballoo” was not deserved (“Everybody,” 2015). It concluded its blog saying, “if you’re going to waste your time and emotional energy being offended by [the hat], at the very least square your disdain for it in taste, not in tasteless appropriation” (“Everybody,” 2015).
I believe that “The Details” was correct about Parker’s hat being a piece of costume with taste. Hsy and Wong viewed cultural appropriation as a negative process because they saw the costumes as exploitation of the Chinese culture. However, as demonstrated by Rihanna’s dress and Parker’s hat, cultural appropriation also allows individuals from a culture to explore another culture in depth and create beautiful pieces of artwork while at it.
Everyone needs to calm down about Sarah Jessica Parker’s Met Gala hat (2015, May 5). The Details. Retrieved from http://www.details.com/blogs/daily-details/2015/05/sarah-jessica-parker-met-gala-hat.html
Hsy, G. [JonathanHsy]. (2015, May 4). Ok this #MetGala trainwreck of cultural appropriation is so astoundingly bad I’m half-expecting someone to whip out a gong. Make it stop [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/jonathanhsy/status/595385487830941696
Krupnick, E. (2015, May 5). Rihanna’s Met Gala dress made a bold statement — and every other star should take notes. Identities.Mic. Retrieved from http://mic.com/articles/117456/rihanna-s-met-gala-dress-made-a-bold-statement-and-every-other-star-should-take-notes/
Met Gala 2015: the internet is already upset about cultural appropriation (2015 May 4). People. Retrieved from http://stylenews.peoplestylewatch.com/2015/05/04/met-gala-2015-emma-roberts-hair-chopsticks-gaga-sushi-shoes/
Roger, R. (2006). A review and reconceptualization of cultural appropriation. Communication Theory, 16, 474-503.
Wong, S. (2015, May 19). Chopsticks in your hair: cultural appropriation at the Met Gala. Stanford Daily. Retrieved from http://www.stanforddaily.com/2015/05/19/chopsticks-in-your-hair-cultural-appropriation-at-the-met-gala/