The Imaginary West (i.e. Cultural Appropriation Is Not Just a White People Sin)

I just saw a post on Facebook about a little white girl in a kimono who faced heavy criticism for hosting a Japanese-themed tea party. I don’t know for sure if it’s a global trend because I don’t have clairvoyant vision of every monitor on earth, but Buzzfeed’s #woke posts and Xiaxue’s recent tirade against “libtards” seem to be indications that the topic of cultural appropriation is picking up speed among the internet savvy.

This post is going to be about said cultural appropriation. I know, the horse has already been beaten to death, but today I’m going to bring another horse out of the stable to beat. No one else knew there was another horse in there (and incidentally, no one could have expected such a long-winded and poorly constructed analogy right at the beginning of a blog post either.)

Okay enough with the beatings and the misplaced equestrian references. Here is my point.

Cultural appropriation isn’t a sin exclusive to the hegemonic West because other cultural spheres have appropriated and misrepresented Western imagery in their own capacities, contributing to the growing cloud of an imaginary West. I’m not familiar with the political or social landscape of South America or Africa and so I have to, regrettably, leave them out of the equation for now. But I am very familiar with Asia, being an Asian myself, and I know this hypothesis isn’t entirely bonkers.

Let me break it down for you:

Cultural appropriation tends to happen when a powerful cultural entity dwarves a less powerful entity. What is power? Power can be drawn from various extensions of influence. For example, an entity is more powerful if its language is more pervasive, its philosophies are believed by the majority, it has greater stores of financial and natural resources, etc. As of right now, academia and journalism are still pre-occupied with investigating and revealing the ramifications of Western colonialism (rightfully so, because these things do need to be discussed if we want to move on from such horrors in a civil manner). But this also means that nobody is freed up to write about cultural appropriation from a different point on the globe. Ironically, the conceptualisation of Western cultural appropriation took place on the sacred grounds of Western academic writing. It was almost as if individual white people (shout out to Linda Nochlin) were atoning for years of European pillaging and plundering. Sociological terms were developed and set against the West, and so it continued.

largerJean-Léon Gérôme, The Snake-charmer, (1870). Cropped image of it appeared as the cover for the Edward Said’s seminal piece on Orientalism. Now the incriminating poster for Western pillaging in the Near East.

This drew our attention away from the fact that Asia is amassing power in the present. To begin with, thanks to India and China, there are more Asians on earth than any other race. According to this infographic, the Chinese family of languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, etc) is more widely spoken than any other language. Seven out of ten of the top spots on the Pisa education ranking went to Asian states (Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and three Chinese states). China and Japan clinch the second and third spot on the global GDP ranking. Somehow, against the backdrop of WWII and recent political strife, Asia is prospering. There exists a world that’s entirely written in Chinese/Japanese/Vietnamese etc., and in that world, the soil is fertile for cultural appropriation of the West.

I’m not suggesting that things in the East neatly mirror the happenings in the West. This is not an essay about equivalence, nor is it a manifesto to instigate the Asian takeover of the world. Memories of a colonial past/Western superiority still exist in the psyche of Asia. The cultural appropriation of Western imagery in Asia doesn’t ignore or counter those memories. Instead, it processes and transforms conceptions of Western superiority to suit the needs/benefit of Asia, and this process could be damaging to the West.

How does it suit the needs of Asia?

Cultural appropriation goes hand in hand with consumerism, because perceptions of certain cultures spread primarily through consumer products. Consumer products are available even to the lowest common denominators in society. You don’t need an education or a noble upbringing to have access to advertisements and plain ol’ everyday objects. Everyone is a viewer because images are everywhere thanks to consumerism. Asian companies benefit when their branding espouses Western ideals and transforms them to appeal to consumers. This influences Asian perceptions of the West. From here on I’m going to use the specific example of the image of Marie Antoinette and its re-imagination in Japan’s romanticised/glamourised France.

swjKpEFan wallpaper of the 1972–1973 The Rose of Versailles manga series

The Rose of Versailles (or Berusaiyu no Bara) was a popular manga series that started its run in 1972. To the best of my knowledge, the series’ narrative didn’t really rose tint Antoinette’s fate. She ended up guillotined all the same, no head and all. The aesthetic legacy that this manga left behind, however, is arguably more influential towards contemporary perceptions of France.

To the uninitiated, Marie Antoinette was an icon of French excess in the years leading up to the French Revolution. She married into the French monarchy when she was 15, was portrayed in elaborate Rococo paintings in flowing satin and lace, and is most remembered for telling commoners to “eat cake” when the economy was crashing and the commoners were starving. For the record, I don’t think she actually said the cake line, but it is a useful distillation of what she represented to the French public. Wealth, a detachment from the common folk, ignorance, idleness. It’s an ugly facet of French history, and a story that inspires present-day French nationalism.

Today, her portraits are historical documentations of the monarchy’s lavish spending. Rococo paintings are seen as kitschy ghosts of the pre-Revolution past and seem only to be celebrated in cutesy “French-themed” cafes.

vlbmarose3Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette with a Rose, (1783). She won’t be smiling like this any longer. A bit hard to smile without a head.

In The Rose of Versailles, Antoinette’s bouffant hair and equally bouffant bows were resurrected to convey glamour. The new manga Antoinette is adorable, pretty, unabashedly elaborate, romantic and pink. She now sports curly blonde hair instead of the historically accurate powdered white wig. This image of a romantic and rose-scented France pervades East Asian advertising, especially for products marketed toward women.

The manga image of Antoinette lives on in the branding of Isehan’s Heroine Make line of cosmetics. Antoinette’s historical significance is left completely out the picture and she appears as a dismembered aesthetic, a figure that only serves superficial decorative purpose. She has the same 1700s court attire on, but decked out in pink, and it looks like she has gotten a white kitty cat with luscious eyelashes. Note that there is no mention of where this image came from. If we take The Rose of Versailles‘ portrayal to be an intermediary, then the Heroine Make advertisement is the finished product.

10294968_510138862465204_2952821205769443809_oAn advertisement for an Isehan Heroine Make gift set of eye makeup. I don’t know what year this is from but I bought mascara from this brand a few days ago and the packaging looks pretty similar.
laduree-makeup-lm-harajuku-store-blushA delectable assortment of makeup products from Les Merveilleuses de Ladurée. Took this pic from Universal Doll.

Such a transmutation of pre-Revolution French imagery isn’t isolated to manga and Heroine Make cosmetics. It persists insidiously in other companies as well. It’s a pretty widespread phenomenon all over East and Southeast Asia. The above image shows a collection of cosmetics from the brand Les Merveilleuses de Ladurée. Ladurée is itself a macaron brand that originates in France, but these Merveilleuses are a sister brand that only markets itself in Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It profits from the appeal of the fictional romantic France.

The Antoinette Café in Singapore adopts the same imagery for its branding. According to its website:

Antoinette invites you to share our joie de vivre in our beautiful surroundings reminiscent of an elegant boudoir with an excess of meticulously crafted cakes, pastries and fine food as the Queen descends on Singapore’s shores. Marie-Antoinette, the last Queen of France who was so often revered for her extravagance and fine taste opens her humble abode and presents a tantalizing treat for the senses both savoury and sweet.

This quintessential Parisian pâtisserie and salon de thé will set the benchmark for the pastry and dessert scene not only in Singapore, but also in the region with her takes on time-honoured French classic desserts. While our restaurant promises a savoury celebration of Chef Pang’s culinary prowess with an excellent selection of classical regional French fare.

Incontestably, L’élégance â la Française at it’s best!

Doesn’t this sound like cultural appropriation to you? It sells the Antoinette lifestyle to an Asian audience. Pink, powdered, perfect.

How on earth could this be detrimental to the West? Doesn’t this reinforce Wester superiority?

Well, a fantasy is a fantasy. It does encourage tourism from East and Southeast Asia. I don’t think Paris would be as popular a tourist destination if we didn’t believe in its supposed inherent romance (their public transport is really shitty and there’s dog poo everywhere). But at the same time, it erases actual struggles in France from the East and Southeast Asian consciousness. When we think France is beautiful and scattered with rose petals, we don’t hear about the centuries old racism against Romani people, we don’t hear that France also has a large black and Arab population, we don’t hear that the current unemployment rate rests at 9.5%, and we don’t care about the Syrian refugee crisis hitting Europe. An airbrushed, culturally appropriative image of Antoinette might indirectly benefit the upper echelons of French society (especially if they are young blonde women with a penchant for pink bows), but it directs our attention away from the real problems. What happens when an excitable Chinese tourist goes to Paris and sees a homeless family? Are they stains on her perfect holiday? France is a complex country. A homeless beggar in Paris is as French as the quaint little cafe next door.

So? Now what?

I’m not proposing that we persecute everyone equally and that we impose some sort of tariff on cultural exchange. It’s inevitable that ideas mix and meld together to produce a new melange of values. That’s how cultures evolve in the first place, and that’s how populations communicate across borders.

What I do propose, however, is that we read a little more, ask a few more questions, and try our best to glean a more accurate picture of any culture we are considering. Humanity is complex and nothing is as simple as an image.

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