They say it's the highest form of flattery, but when it reveals complete ignorance, thoughtless entitlement, and inauthentic-seeming liberal values, fetishizing cultures that aren't our own can be both offensive and potentially racist. It seems like every celeb out there has been accused of cultural appropriation in the past few months. It's also probably fair to say that there is some confusion about what merits this damning label. Musicians, for instance, sample cultures in their videos as freely as they sample sounds. So what's the big deal? you may well ask. Someone is usually offended by pretty much every public gesture. Well, part of the cultural appropriation issue seems to be down to its very inadvertence. Naturally, appropriating another culture for your own purposes removes cultural context and diminishes the complexity and subtlety of that other culture. So although (like cat-calling on the street) it might be considered complimentary, cultural appropriation involves the reduction of a culture to the surface and reinforces stereotypes. This undermines inter-cultural awareness and reflects the ignorance of one group of people about the history, identity, and ways of life of another. Copycat behavior like this also closes down the individuality of the one being mimicked, transforming them from a human being into an image. Perhaps because we live in a globalized world where information is fairly readily available for those who seek it, there are at once fewer boundaries between different cultures and we are simultaneously less tolerant of ignorance. Our society grapples with itself to both tolerate and enjoy the differences between groups of people without necessarily understanding each other's points of view. Naturally, celebrities, as the figureheads of our culture have borne the brunt of this struggle. It’s all too familiar; a celeb makes a culturally insensitive blunder by “borrowing” the best parts of a culture for their own artistic (or sort-of artistic) purposes. Backlash ensues, and if we’re lucky, they apologize. So let's recap the top celebrity missteps of the moment:
15 Beyonce and Coldplay
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When Beyonce and Coldplay collaborated on "Hymn for the Weekend", the shocked response to the video accompanying the song was pretty immediate. Social media erupted into accusations of cultural appropriation, and a heated debate about the offensiveness or otherwise of Beyonce's Indian style dress and dancing. Fans took to social media to voice their discomfort with the culture-bending visuals, with posts like: "I don't even know what to say about this Coldplay video except can white rock bands please stop filming holi videos in India, thank you." another Twitter user wrote: "Coldplay makes music for affluent whites who travel around the world to shower poor black & brown kids in their performative tears x". What appeared to be most offensive about the video was the parodic feel of the overt reference to Indian culture, without any sense of the context of that culture or the meaningfulness of its iconography and symbols.
14 Michelle Williams
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That time when Michelle Williams wore "redface" on the cover of AnOther magazine is another historic moment in the recent trend for celebrities to face reprimands for cultural misappropriation. Michelle donned a braid, face paint, and feathers in the traditional style of a native American, which rapidly led to a widespread backlash and accusations of insensitivity. Ironically, the magazine is focused on the otherness that seems to be at the heart of cultural misappropriation. Whether or not the adaptation of another culture is offensive or not seems to depend upon the underlying tensions within a globalized world that nonetheless is broken down into groups of people with differing experiences and heritages. It is a part of the problematic form of democracy today, which struggles to embrace difference without also seeking homogenization. Michelle's Native American misstep is one example of innocent come ignorant obliviousness to the suffering and inequality still suffered by America's original people.
13 Lady Gaga
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If Gaga is known for anything, it is shocking, political fashion choices and uninhibited provocativeness. In the wake of the Iraq war, nothing could have been more provocative than her decision to sport a burqa in Philip Treacy's London Fashion week a couple of years back. She also hinted that she was going to release a song called "Burqa" on her Artpop album. It's probably a good thing she didn't, given the reaction to her fashion week appearance. The appropriation of the veil by a woman from another walk of life entirely was seen by some as a form of empathy and by others as a gross display of ignorance for women who wear the veil. Perhaps sensing the backlash, Gaga changed the song's title to "Aura" and changed the lyrics from: “I’m not a wandering slave I am a woman of choice; My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face” to the far less controversial: “Do you wanna see me naked, lover? Do you wanna peek underneath the cover? Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura?” Interestingly, in this case, it was a liberal society that censored Gaga's creative work, not the oppressive, misogynist regime she was critiquing.
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Riri can make almost anything raunchy. The bad gal definitely resisted towing the line when she posed for a photoshoot at a mosque in Abu Dhabi in her own, highly provocative version of a Niqab, and was reportedly promptly requested to leave the scene of the religious venue. But that didn't stop her sharing the snaps on her Instagram account though. Her followers had mixed responses, but the women who might have been most offended were naturally the ones who are literally shrouded in secrecy and silence in the country's culture. By resisting the pressure to conform to the country's rules and attempt to make Niqab swag sexy, was she stepping over the line, fetishizing a culture that represses women, or liberating the women of that culture through her free expression of this? Although the mosque's managers were less than happy with her choice to get snapped there, online reactions were mixed. What do you think?
11 Katy Perry
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When Katy Perry opened the 2013 American Awards as a Geisha, shiz got real. One critic, Phyllis Heithan wrote at the time for Mic magazine: "Between the lack of Asian women on stage, the heavy-handed use of bowing and shuffling around in the choreography, and the ethnic-confused set and costume design, Perry presented her viewers a one-dimensional Eastern fantasy drawn by a Western eye." This is a fairly accurate description of what actually went down on stage. But the reaction to the performance was to some extent more interesting than the "one dimensional" performance itself, which openly pastiched the traditional Japanese culture to the point of comedy. But some viewers weren't laughing and seemed genuinely offended by the "heavy-handed" parodic appropriation of an ancient and historic cultural phenomenon that was certainly not American. In a subsequent interview with GQ, Perry said (of the AMA performance), “All I was trying to do is just give a very beautiful performance about a place that I have so much love for and find so much beauty in. And that was exactly where I was coming from, with no other thought besides it.”
10 Katy Perry
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It’s not the first time Perry’s been accused of co-opting Asian cultures either – she’s a serial offender. In the video for Dark Horse, she is seen in the dress of the ancient Egyptians, though a thoroughly Disneyfied and definitely not historically accurate version. Although some might argue that the ancient Egyptian culture is ancient enough that its portrayal by a non-Egyptian is unlikely to offend modern Egyptians. But it certainly does precipitate a false and inaccurate version of the culture that they probably could do without. Part of the problem stems from the fact that more often than not, those with power and privilege are generally unaware of just how privileged and powerful they are, and the responsibility that comes along with their public voice and platform. Nonetheless, Katy's appropriation of an ancient culture is about as tongue in cheek as her "Hear Me Roar" video, which was garish to the extreme.
9 Katy Perry
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And one for luck: it seems that Katy can't hold back when it comes to co-opting other cultures. Her adaptation of many of them seems like the singer is more influenced by drag culture and the bathetic adaptation of femininity that it enjoys. Lighthearted playfulness is what pop is all about, but then Katy just went way too far and appeared dressed as a caricature of an African-American in her video for "This is How We Do" The characterization was pretty uncomfortable for many people, but we have to ask ourselves why that was. Firstly, in a time in which #BlackLivesMatter has to be a hashtag, a white woman dressing up as a black one has at least some of the offensiveness of blackface or a gollywog doll, both thankfully consigned to a racist past. Whatever Katy's justification for the portrayal, we beg to differ: white people stereotyping black people is definitely NOT how we do.
8 Taylor Swift
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Yet another white woman in the public eye who has been castigated for cultural misappropriation is Taylor Swift. Her characterization of hip hop culture in "Shake it Off" was pretty tasteless, but also classically "white" in this sense: white people are always going to fail typically "black" dancing unless they are really, REALLY good. Eminem was OK because he genuinely embraced the genre, but the sampling of a heritage that is not one's own because it is popular is always going to be reductive. And let's be honest, the video was self-consciously parodic. The problem is that Taylor, and probably a lot of white people out there in the world, have no idea what it's like to be non-white, and are therefore blissfully ignorant about the kinds of social injustice that still prevail for non-whites in many parts of the world. Leaning on cultures that are less privileged than your own shows both ignorance and insensitivity.
7 Karlie Kloss
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Sadly, another celeb who has fallen foul of cultural misappropriation recently is Taylor's best buddy, renowned supermodel Karlie Kloss. Kloss walked the Victoria's Secret runway in a full-length Native American headdress. The brand is repeatedly accused of not representing enough diversity on the catwalk, but this was definitely a misstep. The star-studded annual lingerie parade has been deemed offensive for numerous reasons besides cultural appropriation, including its objectification of female bodies and it's provocativeness. But the most famously insensitive moment was, without a doubt, Klossy's headdress, which left many of us wondering what on earth the brand's designers were thinking (or why they weren't thinking hard enough). The war bonnet that Karlie wore with almost nothing else had both spiritual and ceremonial significance. So it's appropriation in a lingerie show was pretty crass. Victoria's Secret apologized and avoided the outfit's inclusion in the final televised broadcast, while Karlie also apologized for the fashion faux pas.
6 Miley Cyrus
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Who could forget Miley Cyrus' twerk-tastic VMA's performance with the infamous Robin Thicke? Not most of us. And for many of us, the performance sticks in our minds for more than just where Miley stuck that foam finger. The world was shocked by the cultural appropriation involved in a white girl attempting to twerk, in a violent attempt to shake off her former, vanilla image. Twerking originated in black hip hop culture, so many prominent critics including Jay Z and Azelia banks were quick to call Miley out for using it, both onstage and in her video for "We Can't Stop". As many have pointed out that it's pretty problematic that the dance move is centered around showcasing the legendary "black girl booty", and Miley happens to be a slender white woman, and therefore twerking just isn't her jam. Miley also took heat for spanking a black dancer's butt onstage. But in a Rolling Stone interview in the following month, Miley defended herself, saying: “I don't keep my producers or dancers around 'cause it makes me look cool. Those aren't my 'accessories.' They're my homies.” Although Miley's use of "homies" does more too underline the validity of critics than justify her twerking...
5 Kylie Jenner
When Kylie Jenner posted this picture of her with corn rows on Instagram, what began was a maelstrom of criticism from the internet, including Hunger Games star Amandla Stenberg. The actress's reaction went viral: When u appropriate black features and culture but fail to use ur position of power to help black Americans by directing attention towards ur wigs instead of police brutality or racism #whitegirlsdoitbetter.” Kylie didn't sound too repentant when she hit back, “Mad if I don’t. Mad if I do.. Go hang w Jaden or something,” referring to Stenberg’s prom date, Jaden Smith. This led Amandla to lesson everybody in the essence of the cultural appropriation phenomenon online. She wrote: "Black features are beautiful. Black women are not. White women are paragons of virtue and desire. Black women are objects of fetishism and brutality. This at least seems to be the mentality surrounding black feminity and beauty in a society built upon eurocentric beauty standards. While white women are praised for altering their bodies, plumping their lips and tanning their skin, balck women are shamed although the same features exist on them naturally. This double standard is one string in the netting that surrounds black female desire...As culture shifts and racial tensions are tested through the vehicle of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it's important to question: Do female black lives matter too?"
4 Jennifer Saunders
Let's be honest, most people are fans of Ab Fab, a comedy series about two terrible yet relatable women who think that they are fabulous. Interestingly, the self absorbed attitudes of the characters that the series takes the mickey out of were reflected in one of the plotlines in the highly anticipated big screen adaptation. Jennifer Saunders' popular British TV comedy has not even been released yet, but after Scottish actress and comedian Janette Tough was spotted on set in the streets of London filming scenes dressed as a fictional Japanese fashion designer Huki Muki, prominent Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho took issue, tweeting: "#YELLOWFACE is racism. Sorry. It's unacceptable. Not now. I was thrilled about #abfabmovie but now I just can't be. I'm very disappointed." This was pretty disappointing all round, because both Jennifer and Margaret are freaking hilarious female comics who have done a lot culturally to disrupt and make fun of stereotypes.
3 Beyonce again
Bey has been in the spotlight so long that she's bound to have made a few missteps in her time, and make them she has. Although nothing was ever publicly confirmed, a report recently emerged that Beyonce was planning to both write and star in a film about the life of Saartjie Baartman. Baartman is an African historical figure, once dubbed “the Hottentot Venus”, she was paraded around Britain by showman Hendrik Cezar in the early 1800s. White audiences came to gawk at her unusually large buttocks. The outcry was swift from those who said that as a privileged, slender, wealthy and light-skinned American woman, Beyoncé had no place to tell this story. Jean Burgess, a South African chief of the Ghonaqua First Peoples, told South Africa’s News 24, "[Beyonce] lacks the basic human dignity to be worthy of writing Sarah's [Saartjie's] story, let alone playing the part." Although that seems rather harsh, what was a fair comment was Jean's suggestion that Sarah's story "wasn't [Beyonce's] to tell".
2 Iggy, Iggy, Iggy
Australian hip hop rapper Iggy Azalea has been slammed by celebrities and everyday music fans alike founding an entire career, and profiting from a culture that is not her own. Many critics say that the false sounding ‘blaccent’ she adopts on all her tracks is beyond parody, and even offensive. Once case in point was the rap that went completely viral of Iggy's bizarre "freestyle" rap, which was pretty much indecipherable to the majority of us out there. Did you understand what she was saying? We didn't quite catch it. And not content with just ripping off African American culture like a number of white recording artists in the game, similar to Beyonce, Iggy has also been accused of parodying Bollywood with her video for "Bounce". We can see why - she is a white woman in an otherwise Bollywood context. Oh, and then there was the video for "Black Widow", which really brought out the subtext of Kill Bill I: the white woman's assault on traditional culture. Does The Bride / Iggy stand for a mixed race society that still nonetheless revolves around white people?
1 Avril Lavigne
Avril Lavigne is the latest white female singer to be accused of cultural appropriation. What was her cultural mishap? Well, the singer recently released the video for her song “Hello Kitty.” It’s a three-minute-long clip that features Avril downing sushi, drinking sake, and swaying in front of backup dancers dressed in Hello Kitty–stylized outfits. The internet backlash was swift and YouTube even removed the video for a day due to the volume of accusations of cultural appropriation. Avril's response was less than apologetic. She posted on social media: “RACIST??? LOLOLOL!!!,” she tweeted on April 23. “I love Japanese culture and spend half of my time in Japan. I flew to Tokyo to shoot this video specifically for my Japanese fans, with my Japanese label, Japanese choreographers and a Japanese director in Japan.” The video conjured memories of Gwen Stefani's Harajuku girls in the "Looking Hot" video way back in 2004, which also caused a dialogue about diversity and the trivialization of different cultures.