Why do performers feel it's OK to propagate dated stereotypes?

Yellowface at AMAs: Katy Perry's Geisha Act Recalls Outkast's Redface


Pop singer Katy Perry dressed in a "geisha" costume at the American Music Awards last night, and immediately elicited protests from Asian Americans and others for her "yellowface" act. Dr. Ravi Chandra wrote for Psychology Today that "I felt I got slapped by my TV.  As an Asian American, I was appalled." Chandra added that "If you don’t think Katy Perry was racist – let me ask you, what if she had performed in blackface?  Perhaps a costume isn’t the same as changing skin color to you, but it is agonizingly close for me – I remember Mickey Rooney in buckteeth for his role as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Jonathan Pryce in Yellowface in Miss Saigon; Gwen Stefani in her Harajuku phase."

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Jeff Yang declared the display "a full-barreled technicolor assault on a quarter-millennium-old set of traditions that would’ve given any self-respecting denizen of Kyoto’s Gion District a massive fatal heart attack." Yang theorized that the wardrobe choice was a nod to the tragic character Cio-Cio-San from the opera Madama Butterfly, and meant to complement the submissive tone of the song Perry performed, "Unconditionally." "While a bucket of toner can strip the geisha makeup off of Perry’s face, nothing can remove the demeaning and harmful iconography of the lotus blossom from the West’s perception of Asian women," Yang continued, adding that the stereotype presents them "as servile, passive, and as Perry would have it, 'unconditional' worshippers of their men, willing to pay any price and weather any kind of abuse in order to keep him happy."

Here's Perry's performance:

For Natives, who witnessed a similarly controversial performance by Outkast at the 1997 Grammy Awards (see below), the New York Post's review of the show's low-lights suggested a change in attitude when it comes to redface: "She wouldn’t dream of black facing for a performance, nor is it very likely that she’d ever approve a Navajo-themed number. So why did Katy Perry think it was OK to dress up like a Japanese Geisha for the opening act of the night? ... the fact that Perry didn’t see anything offensive in her routine is astonishing. She’s no racist but clearly, Perry exists in a blissfully ignorant bubble."

Debate over Perry's performance on social media ran the gamut, with defenders of the show lamenting "political correctness" or demonstrating a lack of understanding of the concept (we saw numerous rebuttals to the effect of "it's not yellowface because her face isn't yellow"). One of the best comments, with which many Natives and Asian Americans would agree, came from Twitter user Christian Johnson (@NerdPoetics): "Cultures are not masks you wear just because you think they're pretty." 

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Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
What about Madame Butterfly? Should it be cast with Asian singers only or the whole "stereotype" be rewritten? How about South Pacific? "Happy Talk"? How about the Mikado? You forgot the Marlon Brando portrayal, btw, in Teahouse of the August Moon? How about classic films like Pearl Buck adaptations? Paul Muni? How about Pearl Buck altogether? Breakfast at Tiffany/Rooney is just plain disgraceful. I was shocked when I tried to watch the film last year. Turned it off. Is it (the problem) one ethnic group member portraying another ethnic group/or the way in which that group is portrayed/stereotyped ? And do we "ban" such performances/especially from the "past" or do we view them as opportunities to raise awareness? And how do we approach then, "color blind" casting? An African American What does that mean in today's world? An African American Javert was not only one of the most powerful portrayers of the character, but brought with his skin color, some would say, a whole new understory to the struggle between himself and Jean Valjean. I'm just asking the questions. The answer surely must be complex.

briangwinn's picture
Submitted by briangwinn on
There are times I think the world has become too thin-skinned. This is one of those moments. Are only Japanese and Japanese-American women allowed to dress up like geishas now? This was only one of many portrayals of geishas. Instead of just only criticizing Perry's portrayal, maybe Jeff Yang could offer suggestions of "proper" portrayals to view, so that we may learn the true nature of geishas. Just only saying "No! That's wrong and bad" isn't enough. Alternative options must must be offered.