Katy Perry and Neo-Blackface

I don’t have television (by choice). But last night I knew something was going on when so many people kept posting on Twitter and romacebook talking about some big, questionable, weird event. This morning I leaned that the controversy related to Katy Perry’s performance at the 2013 American Music Awards.


Perry, whose career took off in c. 2007, belongs to a group of music artists that include the famous and infamous Lady Gaga and many others. These singers are known for incorporating a significant amount of dancing and costume, as well as numerous “extras” into their performances–both the live versions and the music videos. While this generation of pop artists has made many important contributions to the evolution of music per se (namely the definition of “music”) and they have been significant advocates in pressing society to recognize basic human rights, these pop artists have been highly controversial and “unusual.” (The first time I ever heard of Lady Gaga, I was watching a YouTube video, and she was wearing a spider outfit that was many, many times larger than the size of a typical adult.)

At the American Music Awards last night, Perry’s performance of Unconditionally immediately resulted in a viral spawn of comments across social media. Here is a video of her performanceLyrics can be found here. (While I was writing this article the American Music Awards association took down their copy. I posted the link from a different YouTube channel. If it is also taken down, I’ll try to post another link.)

As much as it might surprise those who know me, personally or through my writing, I do not automatically think that everything and everyone is racist. Of course, racism is rampant (very rampant), the primary force causing division today, and has many manifestations, some harder to detect than others.

One of the first questions I had about this video and accusations/possibilities of racism was: Do the lyrics and the meaning of the song, for any reason, necessitate these costumes? No. They clearly do not. Moreover, I see a huge disjuncture between the stage, the dancing, and the lyrics. The “music” is not at all related to “traditional” Japanese music. For one example of legitimate Japanese music listen to this.

Perry’s performance and the lyrics are indeed full of racism and perhaps even sexism. 

Perry is dressed as a Geisha wearing a kimono (although one highly sexualized). In Japanese culture, Geishas are “Japanese woman educated to accompany men as a hostess, with skills such as dancing, conversation, and music.” The stage is full of signs and symbols that match the West’s stereotypical expectations of Japanese culture. The lyrics, combined with the stage setup, are overtly racist in one place at the beginning when Perry speaks about still loving even with “all the dirty laundry.” “Laundry” is a note-worth word choice and fair game for criticism. Individuals racialized as Asians have been stereotypically associated with clothes, cleaning, laundry, and the like, and this immediately struck me as uncomfortable.

As Jeff Yang suggests in his review, the lyrics combine racism with sexism by promoting a stereotypical image that women, especially Asian women, are/should be submissive to men. This additionally perpetuates stereotypes of women being small, quiet, and subservient. While I agree the performance itself had sexist elements, I do not automatically see sexism in the lyrics. Nonetheless, despite the seeming progress society has made in recognizing the rights and autonomy of women, a sizable body of music by contemporary artists–both men and women–promotes messages that women are objects, that women belong to men, that rape is acceptable, that men are allowed to cheat on “their” woman, etc.

Mark Blackface 2Perry’s performance is ultimately racist because it is no different than when individuals racialized as Black were prohibited from being in films and White people would paint their skin black and pretend to be Black, for example. Looking at these performances today, we can clearly see how racist, discriminatory, and derogatory these really were. Perry’s performance is what we might call “Neo-Blackface.” Neo-Blackface because there is a significant chronological gap from the decades when Blackface was popular, widely used, and acceptable. But also because there is an additional very strong cultural element today, and a variety of cultures are targets of becoming costumes, so to speak. Perry is far from the only one guilty of such performances or cultural appropriation. This phenomena has become so wide-spread that this past Halloween, there were social movements starting around the Internet’s social media websites reminding people that it is offensive to “be” an Asian, Indian, or whoever for a few hours.


Why, specifically, is it considered offensive for Perry to dress as a Geisha? Several reasons off the top of my head. For starters, Japanese women wear pretty much the same everyday clothes as people in other industrial or postindustrial societies. Perry’s costume matches the stereotypical image society provides of Asian and Japanese culture; and therefore, it perpetuates representations that are wrong. Perry reduces not just Geishas but an entire nation and even hemisphere to a “visual sound bite” – and inaccurate one at that. Additionally, considering the United States both today and its long and terrible trajectory of not truly embracing or welcoming diverse performers, it would be basically impossible for such a woman from Japan, especially the particular cultural manifestation Perry uses, to have anywhere near the fame, status, and opportunity Perry has. Such an actual woman or music of her culture would not be welcomed. Perry also doesn’t have to deal with the very real discrimination Japanese women face: She dresses up and “enters” into a complicated, diverse, wonderful human world in the “safest” way possible and then “leaves.” Not only is she “safe” from discrimination she would face if she were actually a Geisha or probably any Asian woman, but she also shields herself, so to speak, from the real richness of the culture she mimics. Finally, throughout this performance the focus is specifically on Perry at least 90% of the time. We see the cultural signs and symbols surrounding her, but the focus isn’t on them. The Japanese culture portrayed, while very “in your face,” is secondary to Perry.

Looking at it from an audience point of view, with Perry’s performance, the audience (and audiences are notorious for wanting their world views confirmed, as has been established very well in film scholarship) has a similar kind of “Neo Blackface” or masks they are wearing. They immediately know that everything is pretend, they get carried away in the “exoticness” of the moment because they are able to “pretend” (even if unconsciously) perhaps that they are multicultural and are learning, but they do not, in general, actually embrace diversity or know anything about the true richness of diversity that occurs culture-to-culture, subculture-to-subculture. This parallels the “male gaze” and is arguably a kind of “White gaze” or “US-centric gaze”: The people and ideas in this music performance all become objects to viewers, objects that are devoid of any true cultural or human value. Japanese culture, a stereotypical version, is ultimately turned into a four-minute commodity that most certainly cost entirely too much money and even more in human feelings.

We need a culture that allows for actual diversity and truly embraces antiracism and multiculturalism.

Setting aside the racism and sexism for a second, this was a poor performance. There was too much going on and too many people running to or from their position on the stage all the time. The back wall of the stage was entirely too visible, as well.

I find it interesting that in the official version of Unconditionally on YouTube, the setting is one of stereotypical Victorian culture. Watch it here. In this version, there is an equal emphasis on men and women. Its historical representations in places would have been impossible. This version also makes use of magic realism. Overall, nonetheless, this version is more enjoyable and truly diverse.