Merriam Webster says that to “appropriate” something means “to take or make use of without authority or right.” Cultural appropriation then is when a dominant race adopts the culture of a minority. This could include everything from fashion, religion, music or language, and it becomes an issue when the dominant race borrows these things without sensitivity to what these cultural symbols represent. In Hollywood, this has sparked an ongoing debate in which artists walk the line between what’s considered a respectful gesture of celebrating other cultures and what’s considered simply theft or offensive. These celebs have all caught heat for their artistic or fashion choices, and many of them have walked back those decisions.
Coldplay and Beyonce
For their music video for the song “Hymn for the Weekend,” Coldplay and Beyonce traveled to Mumbai for the annual Holi festival. The video shows the band performing and playing in the streets with children as colors are splashed on them while Beyonce appears on screen dressed as a Bollywood actress wearing Indian clothes and mehndi. Teen Vogue accused the band of using India as a vessel to “find themselves” and described the video as “a white person’s fever dream for what India looks like.” MTV on the other hand was kinder, saying that the musicians and the song were secondary to the ceremony they were representing.
Wes Anderson and “Isle of Dogs”
Wes Anderson’s most recent film, the stop-motion animated “Isle of Dogs,” was criticized by LA Times film critic Justin Chang for having Japanese characters all speaking in Japanese with English subtitles. The movie also heavily references Japanese cinema and even includes a white character voiced by Greta Gerwig who becomes a hero. Other critics joined in the assessment, despite the presence of Japanese actor Kunichi Nomura, who served as a producer and earned a story credit.
Iggy Azalea has been accused several times of cultural appropriation. Her music video “Bounce” shows Azalea leading a dance party in traditional Indian garb. Azalea also got in a feud with rapper Azaliea Banks. Banks tweeted at “Igloo Australia” “Black Culture is cool, but black issues sure aren’t, huh?”
Miley Cyrus said in an interview with Billboard that she had moved away from hip-hop music after previously embracing it and collaborating with other artists. But she faced backlash saying that Cyrus had “white privilege” and only adopted black culture when it was “convenient.” Cyrus was similarly called out in 2015 by Nicki Minaj, who said at the VMAs, “You’re in videos with black men, and you’re bringing out black women on your stages, but you don’t want to know how black women feel about something that’s so important?”
Actor Zac Efron was accused of cultural appropriation in July for sporting dreadlocks in an Instagram photo with the caption “just for fun.” Efron’s comment section was inundated with reaction on both sides of the debate. “Nothing about my culture is ‘just for fun,’” one poster said.
Katy Perry apologized and acknowledged that she “did it wrong” in regards to two separate performances where she was accused of cultural appropriation. Performing at the American Music Awards in 2013, Perry dressed as a geisha and wore a full kimono, tabi socks, lacquered hair, geiko pancake and heavily powdered her face. And in 2017 for her video “This is How We Do,” the singer sported cornrows in her hair. “I won’t ever understand some of those things because of who I am — I will never understand, but I can educate myself, and that’s what I’m trying to do along the way,” Perry said in a podcast interview.
In 2016, Marc Jacobs staged a runway show at New York Fashion Week in which a group of all-white models wore dreadlocks while walking down the runway. A hair stylist for Jacobs said he was inspired by rave and club culture and the acid house, and particularly a look sported by Lana Wachowski. But when critics on social media called Jacobs out for cultural appropriation, he responded and then swiftly deleted a tweet saying, “Funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair.” Jacobs added, “I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see color or race- I see people. I’m sorry to read that so many people are so narrow minded…Love is the answer. Appreciation of all and inspiration from anywhere is a beautiful thing. Think about it.”
As part of a series released on her Pottermore website, author J.K. Rowling explored the history of the wizarding world in North America by tapping into Native American culture, particularly “skin walkers” and medicine men. “You can’t just claim and take a living tradition of a marginalized people,” Adrienne Keene, founder of the website Native Appropriations, wrote on Twitter. “That’s straight up colonialism/appropriation.” Rowling clarified that her story was intended to stand apart from the real life history of Native Americans.
Victoria’s Secret model Karlie Kloss donned a leopard print bikini and a floor-length, Native American headdress while walking the runway during a show in 2012. The word “Thanksgiving” flashed behind Kloss as she walked along the catwalk. Following the backlash, both Kloss and Victoria’s Secret issued an apology and removed the moment from their broadcast.
During a performance at the 2017 MTV Movie Video Awards, Selena Gomez wore a Hindu bindi on her forehead as a fashion statement. While actress Priyanka Chopra defended Gomez, Hindu leaders called for Gomez to apologize. “The bindi on the forehead is an ancient tradition in Hinduism and has religious significance,” Hindu statesman Rajan Zed told WENN via Huffington Post. “It is also sometimes referred to as the third eye and the flame, and it is an auspicious religious and spiritual symbol … It is not meant to be thrown around loosely for seductive effects or as a fashion accessory aiming at mercantile greed. Selena should apologize and then she should get acquainted with the basics of world religions.”
Singer Pharrell Williams appeared on the cover of Elle UK wearing a Native American headdress. Those offended by the magazine cover tweeted with the hashtag #NotHappy in reference to Pharrell’s hit single “Happy.” Pharrell issued an apology, saying, “I respect and honor every kind of race, background and culture. I am genuinely sorry.”
In a YouTube video titled “Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows,” “Hunger Games” actress Amandla Stenberg called out individuals like Kylie Jenner and Katy Perry for wearing cornrows and “appropriating black culture” while “failing to help black Americans.” Jenner posted an Instagram photo of herself with cornrows with the caption, “I woke up like disss.”
Kim Kardashian has had both supporters and detractors in response to several of her Halloween costumes in 2017. In both cases, she portrayed late pop stars Aaliyah and Selena. Kardashian was also accused of appropriation when people on social media claimed that one of her makeup campaigns depicted her in black face.
Canadian pop star Avril Lavigne was accused of racism and perpetuating stereotypes during her video for “Hello Kitty.” In the video, she wore a pink cupcake tutu, danced with Japanese women and drank sake. Lavigne dismissed the reaction, tweeting, “”RACIST??? LOLOLOL!!! I love Japanese culture and I spend half of my time in Japan. I flew to Tokyo to shoot this video…specifically for my Japanese fans, WITH my Japanese label, Japanese choreographers AND a Japanese director IN Japan.”