Katy Perry and Her Fauxrientalism*: Yes, Her AMA Performance was Racist

Posted by Phuong Nguyen & filed under Current Affairs, Music, Pop Culture.

Katy Perry AMA geisha
Katy Perry performing "Unconditionally" this past Sunday. Photo Credit: The Guardian

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*This is a lovely phrase that I read in Jeff Yang’s article, “Memoirs A-Go-Go”.

Katy Perry’s AMA performance this past Sunday of “Unconditionally” was incredibly, amazingly offensive, but I am an optimist on this issue. I don’t think it’s asking too much to suggest that pop music artists, who make millions of dollars reaching and influencing legions of young people, should think about their artistic choices.

Others disagree, obviously. Patricia Park of The Guardian wrote that with all of the hype about Perry’s performance, when she finally saw the video, Park anticipated something much worse: “There was no eyelid tugging. There were no grating fake accents and cries of ching-chong.” She sees  Perry’s performance as an example of cultural pluralism, the natural result of mingling cultures in a “transnational America.” Hmm, it’s strange that Park could take a fairly modern view of America and match it up with only the most obvious (and older) signs of racism, as if racism only has one form: big and glaring, like a neon light garishly blazing on a seedy street. As if racism doesn’t burn slow, especially today.

Lady Gaga also defended Perry’s performance, saying that people who found it offensive were being “too sensitive.” I ask Patricia Park and Lady Gaga, that grand dame of subtlety, why is it so wrong to be “sensitive” to race issues? And have they considered that maybe their views on race are too blunt and abrasive?

Like Richard Delgado and Jean Stefanic wrote, racism is insidious because it occurs in the ordinary. It’s important to examine the subtlety of racism because it does have an impact on how you treat people of a certain culture. If you don’t have enough respect to understand a culture’s traditions accurately, then it’s not a stretch to say that you probably hold a similar regard for people of that culture.

In other words, Katy Perry and her team didn’t care enough to research and think about the visual choices of the performance, they would rather rely on stereotypes about Japanese/Chinese culture. The confused Asian fusion of Katy Perry’s kimono/cheongsam sustains the persistent Orientalist stereotype about East Asia and East Asians in general: that it doesn’t matter to identify “them” correctly, they all look the same anyway.

The performance also relied on stereotypical notions about Asian femininity – the prostitute, the submissive Asian female pining for love. Perry and her team should explain how they found the very creative pairing of visual design to the lyrics of the song acceptable, the complexities of which Jeff Yang of the Wall Street Journal very eloquently unpacks in his recent article:

“The juxtaposition of the song’s meaning and Perry’s geisha drag were hardly accidental: She’s invoking the iconic image of Cio-Cio-San, the titular “butterfly” from Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly — a young Japanese girl who takes a Western lover, is abandoned by him, and commits suicide upon discovering his betrayal.” –

Her performance was another reminder of who has power over public perceptions and images, especially of minorities. This is not about being oversensitive or too politically incorrect – a term which Caitlin Moran points out in her book, How to Be a Woman, has come to mean “all vaguely risky fun being ‘banned’ by the ‘politically correct’ brigade” when it actually means “formalizing politeness” (you know, being respectful and considerate of other people’s feelings and culture). This is about rejecting racist stereotypes about Asian culture that are perpetuated by one of the most powerful cultural forces in the world. No one’s demanding original ideas from the juggernaut that is the American pop music industry (though that would be nice) — just don’t keep repeating the old, racist ones.


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