Does Katy Perry Deserve A Pass For Dressing Up Like A Geisha At The AMAs?

Katy Perry performing as a geisha at American Music Awards November 2013I truly can’t believe I’m writing this again so soon, but yet another celebrity is being accused of racism for doing something insensitive. Sigh. I guess this is just gonna be a regular thing for a while? I’m ready for it to stop whenever you are, famous people.

The newest offender, literally, is Katy Perry, who dressed up as some approximation of a stereotypical geisha to perform her song ‘Unconditionally’ at the American Music Awards last night. Was it the worst thing that’s ever happened? No. We’ve seen much worse from Paula Deen, Julianne Hough, and even Ireland Baldwin just this year, so there’s that. But I can’t tell if we’re being extra hyper-sensitive because of all the incidents I just mentioned, or if we’ve been numbed into an ‘at least it’s not black face’ state of mind because of them.

I honestly have no idea. And I can’t even figure out how I feel about this, except to say that if people are offended, then I guess it’s offensive. I’m not personally bothered by it on cultural grounds, but the fact that I have a little what-were-you-thinking bell going off in my head suggests to me that Katy should have known better. Since god knows, her stylist sure doesn’t.

Katy isn’t Asian herself, so to appropriate that culture is at the very least a little insensitive, if not racist. It’s not like she’s doing traditional Japanese Noh dance moves or wearing a real Japanese kimono and obi — she just took the parts that she liked, like the powdered face, the bowing, the parasol, and getting to wear socks onstage — and skipped the rest. She did stop short of taping her eyes to look more Asian, which I’m thankful for, but ‘dressing up as’ a race of people is a touchy subject, and one that could sooooo easily have been avoided, considering it has nothing to do with the song.

Bottom line — while I don’t think this makes Katy racist by any means, I would love it if people could stick to what they do best and leave the controversial fashion choices to Lady Gaga and her horse made of humans. Or barring that, maybe try to create material that doesn’t require all this extra showmanship? Just a thought.

(Photo: Kevin Winter / Getty Images Entertainment)

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    • whiteroses

      Speaking as someone whose sister-in-law is Japanese: dressing up like a geisha does not mean what Katy Perry thinks it means. It takes years of specialized training to become a geisha. Just because I wear surgical scrubs in public doesn’t mean I’m qualified to perform neurosurgery.

      If your music is good, it speaks for itself. And hasn’t Katy Perry already made a bit of a niche from having cupcakes strapped to/shooting fireworks out of her chest?

      • Alexis Rhiannon


      • whiteroses

        I suppose. I find it offensive on a lot of levels, one of which being that the costuming wasn’t even Japanese. It was some sort of weird amalgamation of a Korean cheongsam, a maiko’s hair ornaments and Chinese frog closures. She didn’t even care enough to get the costuming right.

        Realistically- she’s got more money than most of us will see in a lifetime, and even if she paid for it herself, she could surely think of something with high production values that doesn’t trade on racial stereotyping.

      • Alexis Rhiannon

        Yeah, agreed.

    • elle

      It took me a while to figure out how I wanted to respond to this article but now I think I’m ready. I must admit I was thrilled when this site took Ireland, and Julianne to task for their cultural appropriation and black face and I’m a little puzzled as to why you are giving Katy a pass with what basically amounts to a Kanye shrug and a pc people will be pc. While I it isn’t quite the same as blackface people in the US do have a history of costuming white people to look Asian…..Mickey Rooney, Jonathon Price, even Gwen Stefani during her tragically long Harajuku phase. It is still acting upon the racism dynamic of power plus prejudice. On top of that the song she sang played upon the old Asian women are demure stereotype of “me love you long time.” Basically what I’m saying is this performance was racist and I’m pretty disappointed you are defending it. Still love the site just don’t love the article.

      • Alexis Rhiannon

        Hmmm. Okay, sorry to disappoint you, but I think we do actually agree. I’m not intending to give her a pass — I’m just saying that I don’t think Katy herself is racist.

        What she did was racist, definitely, and I think I outline that in the post, I was just trying to get to the heart of why she’s probably being given a pass. I think it’s a scary thing when we’re stopping short of criticizing someone just because they didn’t do black face or tape their eyes. Like we should be grateful that they weren’t MORE insensitive when appropriating a culture.

        Sorry if that didn’t come across — certainly don’t want to pick and choose which cultures I defend from ignorance.

        Thank you for your comment! I’m interested in your opinion and want to make sure I’m not being insensitive myself!

      • elle

        I would never be disappointed if we didn’t agree on this! I do still think your original article comes across as perhaps a little dismissive but I think your comment makes your opinion a little more clear. Perhaps a misreading/misunderstanding on my part.

      • Alexis Rhiannon

        Oh okay hurray! I love dialogues, so seriously thanks for commenting!

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