An Appropriate Moment

Reading Time: 6 minutes

By Catherine Zou (17A01B)

Reading fashion magazines has always been, personally, a faintly confusing affair. Mostly for the seemingly-endless positions that models can contort their bodies into, or the niggling sense that all the sultry gazes and upturned chins are meant to express some sort of profound message. But all this is personal — the cries of “cultural appropriation” and of “fetishism” are not, in general, the first thing that comes to mind. But it seems I am mistaken.

Karlie Kloss for Vogue’s March 2017 issue. (Image credits)

While one would usually expect critique of magazine shoots to focus on style, innovation, or composition, the outcry that surrounded Karlie Kloss’ editorial in Vogue’s March 2017 issue was of an entirely different nature altogether. In response to a series of Japan-themed images where Kloss posed in kimonos and geisha garb, Twitter users and online publications alike denounced the “orientalist fetishism and straight up appropriation” and the “whitewashing” nature of the shoot. Kloss’ adoption of the traditional geisha dress was taken as an offensive intrusion into Japanese culture. More than this, the shoot itself was,  for many Twitter users, an instance of yellowface (a practice where white actors adopt the role of Asian characters, typically by exaggerating their facial features and caricaturing stereotypically Asian behaviours) that perpetuated harmful cultural stereotypes about the Japanese. At the centre of this, however, was the term “cultural appropriation”.

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Taken alone, cultural appropriation simply refers to the adoption of elements of one culture by another. In recent years, however, it has been unleashed from the relative obscurity of academia, and is now used to refer to situations in which a culture is appropriated for commercial or aesthetic purposes. This applies particularly to instances in which the original significance of the culture is disrespected or brushed aside. Its entry into common usage signals a growing awareness of the sanctity of each culture. It speaks to greater sensitivity and respect towards other cultures, and is a powerful agent in speaking out against culturally exploitative practices.

Needless to say that the growing awareness of the unintended, or even callous, disrespect displayed in the name of “cultural appreciation” is a welcome change. Yet you may not be blamed for thinking the opposite. If the merit of such an awareness is not immediately obvious, the Karlie Kloss hullabaloo might explain part of it.  

The discourse surrounding this controversy was conducted in much the same terms as most dialogues about cultural insensitivity and stereotypes: the editorial was clearly a “putrid revelry in offensive Orientalism” that advanced the stereotype of “the Dragon Lady…and the servile geisha doll” and continued a long tradition of “yellowface”. Yet a closer consideration of these accusations indicates otherwise.

The term “yellowface” is used to refer to the stereotypical portrayal of Asian characters by Western actors, often through the exaggeration of facial features and “Asian” mannerisms. (Image credits)

Let’s consider the allegations of cultural appropriation – Kloss’ getup is not intended to conceal her Westernness; the white makeup she is wearing is a nod to traditional geisha practices rather than to caricature a stereotype of Asianness. The shots do not make her out to be Japanese, and their style are arguably constructed to show a respectful engagement with different aspects of the Japanese culture. The editorial choice to focus on geishas is, if uninspired, far from being as harmful or stereotypical as its detractors would claim. Indeed, the most disrespectful comments in this debacle stemmed from the outraged, who complained about the “usual traditional Japanese shit”. Yet the online uproar seems to have taken a premature stance: most Japanese actually welcomed the shoot, and saw this as a beautiful act of appreciation. It would appear that the charges of appropriation have been largely mistaken.

“I read that ‘people who saw the photos called them racist’ or said ‘seriously?’ So if a white model dresses like a Japanese person, white people get worked up and call it racist. Makes no sense at all.” – A Japanese netizen.


The Karlie Kloss controversy is not unique. In recent years, similar objections have been raised: the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s Kimono Wednesdays, where visitors could try on authentic replicas of kimonos, incited a student-led protest. Never mind the fact that the activity itself was intended to enable visitors to better appreciate the Japanese culture, and took pains to ensure that the kimonos displayed were Japan-sourced and authentic. Air France’s 2014 ad campaign was decried for a “racist”, “orientalist” portrayal of different cultures, when the campaign was offering a French spin (especially given the haute couture aesthetics) to these destinations, and not seeking to encapsulate the entirety of the local culture.

Air France’s ad campaign was denounced for being racist. (Image credits)

Perhaps it’s the increased awareness of the term, or perhaps it’s the oversensitivity of diasporas. As more and more popular culture trends or performances are called out for being problematic, it is clear that “cultural appropriation” may often be a misnomer. Common arguments on the pitfalls of propagating “reductive minority stereotypes” and “orientalism” become a knee-jerk response, and fail to actually consider the actual issue at hand.

The instances above are an indication of how unruly culture-related debates can be. As general cognizance on such issues increase, so does oversensitivity and hastiness. The lack of discernment seen in Kloss’ controversy carries with it certain ramifications. The impulse to accuse any Western engagement with other cultures of “cultural appropriation” is dangerous. It conflates diverse race-related issues ( for example through the portrayal of particular minorities in the media, the focal points of a particular culture) or annoyances with cultural appropriation. This can dilute the importance of not just cultural appropriation but also other race-related issues in society.

Cultural appropriation is not a quibble of the self-entitled. It exists alive and well in society — as manifested in unethical profiteering off minority cultures, and the disrespectful use of sacred symbols, which commodifies minority culture while depriving them of their voices. An abundance of articles exist on these topics (see reading list below).

By contrast, the depiction of geishas may be problematic in its own right, but it is quite distinct from the problems of cultural appropriation. When “cultural appropriation” becomes a convenient handle for all issues of minority representation (or even rails against any adoption of other cultures other than one’s own) its articulation becomes increasingly incomprehensible.

The concept of cultural appropriation acknowledges the active process of exchange and evolution across different cultures, and seeks to account for the excesses and unequal positions latent in this process. Erroneously ascribing “cultural appropriation” to instances of genuine appreciation acts against the very concepts of diversity, sensitivity and respect that these well-intentioned detractors advocate. Kloss’ own apology seems to highlight this fact — policing the adoption of cultures other than one’s own is far from the point.

Kloss’ apology for her participation in the Vogue shoot. (Image credits)

In accepting the gods of globalisation in the 21st century, cultural exchange has become an indelible part of life, and that is indisputable. The politicisation of cultural appropriation, then, has existed largely to regulate the harmful effects of this process. However, as the Karlie Kloss controversy indicates, issues can be paraded unquestioningly as “cultural appropriation” when it is really not. Of course, many allegations of cultural appropriation are complex and debatable, and even the practitioners of a culture themselves may not share a common stance on the issue. Still,  it remains that the online hate mill can quickly (and indiscriminately) generate “problematic material” for popular denouncement. As it is for cultural appropriation, so too is this threat of jumping to conclusions for other hot topics — the question is of cutting away the instinctive reactions and paring down to the issues that are truly important.

Reading List: If you’re interested, here are some of the sources that I have made reference to. These links provide more detail and insight into the definitions and examples raised in the article.

What is cultural appropriation

What constitutes cultural appropriation

A few contentious debates over cultural appropriation

200940cookie-checkAn Appropriate Moment


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