Saturday, December 14, 2013

Thoughts on Katy Perry's "Geisha" performance at the AMAs

So, since Katy Perry felt compelled to open the American Music Awards with a tribute to Japan through her song "Unconditionally" and people are compelled to criticize, I feel compelled to write about it.

I watched the performance - and didn't see the overt "sexualization" that was so prominent in the criticisms. Was her kimono altered with hip-high slits so she could walk and move? Absolutely. If you've ever been in a yukata (summer kimono) or winter silk kimono, you know that it is impossible to move around in one. And it would have been deathly hot on stage. I'll also give her credit for wearing opaque tights. But did Katy twerk or dance provocatively during her number? No. From the photos I've seen of the AMAs, I'm more offended by Christina Aguilera's push-up outfit or other scantily-clad performers than Katy Perry (which is too bad, because I really like most of their songs).

Others will say that dressing up as a "geisha" automatically sexualizes her performance. The term "geisha" (芸者) means artist. The younger ladies-in-training are called maiko. It is tragic that at a certain time in Japanese history, these artists were sexualized and exploited due to the country's economy. And I recognize the fact that the geisha image conjures up that historical reference. But the bottom line definition is "artist".

In my opinion, her stylist could have taken the maiko/geisha image a lot further with complete white-face, white-neck and starkly contrasting red lips. They didn't. Katy has appreciation for Japanese people because of the exchange students that have lived in her home, according to a Yahoo article. Also, some of the critics probably don't know that when Japanese women turn 20, they dress in the traditional long-sleeve kimono on the second Monday of each January to celebrate Coming of Age Day (Seijin no Hi). This is a tradition that is practiced today. That style of dress is not exclusively reserved for maiko/geisha.

I will also state that Katy's performance IS DIFFERENT than dressing up as a "geisha" for Halloween. To respond to a re-post on one of my favorite blogs Lost Daughters, I wholeheartedly agree that race is not a costume - but after watching a video of her performance (twice), my opinion is that Katy was paying tribute to Japan not trivializing it. Would it have been a better tribute if the song she performed was the Japanese National Anthem or "Sakura"? Perhaps. But... a Japanese-American woman, East Asian Studies major who lived in Japan for twelve years, my question is this: how does a non-Asian person pay tribute to an Asian country or culture WITHOUT being seen as racist? Why do people always have something to say when a white person loves Japan and Japanese culture? Does it automatically mean they are fetishizing Japanese women? How can they express this appreciation without seeming weird or creepy to Asians or Asian-Americans?

What about my neighbors in Western Mass who participate in a taiko drum group (most of them white)? Are they being racist? Or if a white man wants to travel to Ghana to study traditional dance and drumming - then perform here in the U.S.? Is he racist for performing authentic Ghanaian arts?

Especially in the visual and performing arts, it's a fine line and a slippery slope, folks. As usual, I'd love to hear your thoughts.