Up until recently, I was a very angry person. I was outraged by so many things, especially relating to the way people treat other people who are different.
Recently, I was so upset about racism, inequality, and lack of multicultural representation in our community that my blood pressure actually spiked and I started to feel ill. Fortunately, I have some beautiful people in my life who understand why I feel the way I do, but seek to help me not feel that bad. Instead of just seething in this instance, Vivien Victory (writer, feminist, pinup) encouraged me to shoot a photo set celebrating my cultural heritage and submit it to Pinup Life Magazine for their May issue on Diversity. To my delight, I was accepted! So not only do I now have some beautiful photos that remind me how proud I am of my ancestry, but I am now going to be a published pinup in an international magazine.
I thought some more about my anger and realised that it exists to prevent being hurt again. With this in mind, I decided that I could either say something about why I was upset about things with a view to awareness leading to prevention, or that I would have to let it go. On the issue of cultural diversity in pinup, I decided that I would say something, and Mickey was kind enough to let me say this something on her blog.
Let me begin by saying that I’m by no means a formally educated expert on issues of cultural appropriation. I can only provide a perspective as an Asian person living in a western society. My narrative is quite different to an Asian person living in an Asian country. I expect that, because of my feelings of isolation, I feel more strongly about the portrayal of Asian women in western culture because I don’t have the opportunity to return home to a place where I am one of the majority; where I might feel I belong.
Instead of lecturing you about why some behavior is “wrong,” I’m going to try to explain how it makes me feel. If you want to continue to do something that you know upsets at least me and probably some others in our community, you’re an arsehole, but you can definitely go right ahead! However, I know that most of you are actually really lovely, considerate humans and would be mortified to think that something you’re doing is upsetting or oppressive so do read on.
I feel as if there are levels of severity to these types of damaging behavior: cultural appropriation, cultural misappropriation and perpetuating racist stereotypes.
Cultural appropriation: Imagine that you grow up in a place where you look different to everyone else except your mother. The beauty ideals that you see have different coloured hair, eyes, and skin to you. You’re encouraged to look as much like everyone else as you can but you can’t quite because of your genes. When you consider wearing a dress like your grandmother wore when she was young, you’re discouraged from doing so because you will draw attention to your difference. The penalty for being different can range from being rejected by boys who aren’t into your race, or being threatened with violence on a bus because you aren’t welcome in this country.
And then you see a white celebrity wearing a cheongsam. Seeing someone who is already part of the dominant group wearing clothing from your cultural heritage that you can’t wear for fear of discrimination is upsetting. The message this portrays is Chinese dresses are fashionable on us but are a symbol of being an outsider who won’t assimilate when you wear them.
With respect to wearing traditionally Chinese clothing as a non-Chinese person, I feel that it is hard to articulate a line. There are many places and occasions where it is helpful and/or respectful. For example, at the Chinese Garden of Friendship in Sydney and at a pop up stall at the Newcastle Chinese New Year Celebrations, customers are invited to have their photos taken in traditional dress. At the gardens, a fee is paid for the upkeep of the costumes and the gardens. Wearing a traditionally cut (rather than slut cut) cheongsam for a night out is relatively benign. And even better if you bought it from an authentic supplier who doesn’t abuse their employees! Exploiting the look to make money, win competitions or wearing the race as a costume (such as in modelling, pinup shoots/pageants) is where I feel it verges on uncool. Sexy Asian lady is not a concept for a pinup shoot like naughty baking housewife. If you want a Chinese theme to your shoot, maybe try a Chinese model? When you’re in a position of influence, what you wear matters more. With great power comes great responsibility.
|At the Chinese Garden of Friendship in Sydney
Some questions to think about to prevent cultural appropriation:
- Do I identify as a member of this cultural group?
- Is this cultural group a minority?
- Has my own cultural group oppressed this cultural minority in some way?
- Would I get a different reaction if I wore/used this item and I was a member of this cultural minority?
Cultural misappropriation: Chinese New Year is the highlight of the year (especially food wise). It’s a holiday that your contemporaries thought was a bit weird when you celebrated it as a kid but now everyone’s into it because Asian food is now mainstream.
One of the big fashion brands is also using the new year as an opportunity to celebrate (getting more sales) with their range of dragon-printed clothes. Except it is not actually the year of the dragon, but you know, who actually cares about the Chinese zodiac when celebrating Chinese New Year?! The designs also feature white, which is a bad luck colour because it has connotations relating to death… But who actually cares about Chinese cultural symbolism when celebrating Chinese New Year?! And none of the models are Asian (probably because there are only a handful of customers who would identify as being Asian cause it is the pinup scene after all), but who actually wants to empower Asian models by giving them jobs and promoting their image when celebrating Chinese New Year?!
When the group in a position of power misuses an artifact or concept from the minority group, especially when they are making money from the exploitation and aren’t even providing an opportunity for anyone of that cultural minority to benefit from the misuse, it is offensive and upsetting. The message this portrays is that some of your culture is useful to us for the purposes of making money, but we don’t actually respect you as people or want to understand you (or employ you).
|Ruby & Cousin at the Newcastle Lantern Walk
Some questions to think about to prevent cultural misappropriation:
- Do I know how this artifact is actually used? (for example, note that chopsticks don’t actually go in your hair)
- Do I understand the symbolism surrounding this practice?
- Am I taking an opportunity away from a minority cultural group?
- Am I using the ideas/items of a minority cultural group without them benefiting or being credited?
Perpetuating racist stereotypes: I feel like this is pretty obvious one to avoid and yet I still attended a version of Avenue Q where Christmas Eve was played by a white woman. It was abhorrent, deeply offensive and really upsetting. The message this portrays is you’re not actually people and your appearance, customs and culture are a joke.
Some questions to think about to prevent perpetuating racist stereotypes:
- Are the people of this cultural minority being portrayed in positively and/or accurately?
- Has someone told you that this might be offensive and you’ve dismissed their concerns because you are ‘an artist?’
There’s no need to get defensive about this. I don’t really need your justifications or your apologies about what you did in the 90s (a cringe-worthy time for western appropriation of eastern culture). I also don’t need to be told that I am beautiful because I am exotic; I just want people to understand why I get upset by some things which may not be even be on the radar for those who belong to the cultural majority.
One of the other things I want is for other aspiring girls in our community who might be POC is to feel as if they won’t be alone if they want to join us; that we are a safe community who embraces difference and that there are people with whom they can identify who have been successful rather than excluded because they don’t fit western beauty ideals.
Thanks very much to Ruby! If you have questions or comments for either of us, please leave them below and we’ll respond. If you’d like to follow Ruby, she’s on Facebook here, Instagram @ruby_corvette and her website is: www.rubycorvette.com
You can grab a copy of the Diversity issue of Pinup Life Magazine, it’ll be on sale here.
If you want to see Ruby’s awesome burlesque, then her next performance is as part of Curves & Claws’ Nerdlesque Special on May 26 at The New Globe Theatre. Tickets and more information available by clicking here.