Who’s Guilty of Appropriation? Only Males Get to Decide
Cultural appropriation refers to the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture. This can include things like clothing, symbols, customs, music, language, and art.
Society, especially marginalized society members, often see cultural appropriation as an offensive error. It is indeed offensive when members of a dominant culture cherry-pick elements from a marginalized culture without understanding or respecting the significance of those elements. It is also offensive when they use them in ways that are exploitative or primarily for financial gain. Not only that, but it is especially egregious when the thievery comes for a culture that is both marginalized and economically disadvantaged.
Cultural appropriations highlighted by marginalized cultures because previous generations were robbed of material wealth, advancements, accomplishments, dignity, respect, and even life. Calling out cultural appropriation is a marginalized community’s way of saying, “no more.”
Now that said, …..Gwen Stefani.
In 2004, Stefani released her first, much anticipated solo album, “Love. Angel. Music. Baby,”.
Now, Gwen Stefani has always been quirky, so fans were prepared for something different. Stefani delivered. Her promotion included a brand new and unique branding style. A style that belongs to Japanese culture.
Her beautiful, fun, and energetic Japanese back up dancers were called Harajuku Girls, named for the young-and-stylish district. The Harajuku girls were her back dancers and offstage entourage.
According to Time magazine Stefani, “renamed them — as if they were pets — ‘Love,’ ‘Angel,’ ‘Music’ and ‘Baby’ after her album title.” They were “reportedly contractually obligated to only speak Japanese in public.”
Stefani went on to launch Harajuku Lovers fragrance. The visuals were beautiful. And nearly all the visuals came from Japan’s Harajuku subculture.
Now, this isn’t a defense of Gwen Stefani’s clear cultural appropriation, but something does smell like sexism around here.
We must note that Stefani was not the first person in the music industry to “rename” paid entertainers or place strange restrictions on them for the benefit of a label or project. Music has a history of changing nearly everyone’s next door neighbor sounding names to something that fits nicely on a marquee. This antique practice has been in place long before silent films and the phonograph.
That doesn’t give Stefani a pass to keep on perpetuating but there have been plenty of previous opportunities to call this out when it was male label owners and producers.
Anyway, If you were expecting Gwen Stefani to have an enlightened rebranding, you were sadly disappointed when she told an Asian reporter that she is not apologizing for her appropriation of Harajuku culture because she is Japanese.
I wasn’t shocked. This is the world that we live in. What shocked me was people’s reactions to it. It is very interesting that everyone knows what a boundary is when they want to keep a woman out of something.
I was told that people are what they feel and how they identify. The end.
In fact, all women, a historically marginalized demographic, have been told by society that we have no say on language, customs, and common practices. That our open discussions about our anatomy are hateful. And further, anyone can decide to identify as us or some variation of us any time that they get ready to do so. If women say something about it….hateful.
So, I have questions.
Why can’t Gwen Stefani identify as Japanese? Now I agree with the backlash, but I do wonder, why is it that backlash comes when a woman speaks about choosing her identity anytime that she gets good and ready?
Why is it exclusively wrong for women to make controversial choices? Choices about our identity? Whether or not we want to be parents? Choices about language that refers to us.
Why are males all over the world still making all the rules on which changes and choices an individual can make? Obviously, both males and females are making choices about sexual identity, but even that choice is primarily initiated and driven by males. It seems that Gwen Stefani will not get approval on changing her cultural identity at will until a male approves and leads the charge.
The truth is the truth, no matter who doesn’t like it, and the truth is this.
These days it seems that choices about existence and identity are only for males, approved by males, and driven by males. “Renaming”, “restricting speech”, and plagiarism of others’ identity is just fine if you are male. However, if you do any of these things as a woman there could be global wide backlash, de-platforming, companies refusing to do business with you, and firing.
If I may borrow a line from the poet Robert Frost, as women, we “still have miles to go before we sleep”, because we women are still nowhere near freedom.