Last night, Katy Perry opened the American Music Awards with a performance of her song "Unconditionally." So far, so good.
As it turned out, though, her performance was in costume. Perry was dressed up in a kimono and make-up, made to look like a traditional Japanese geisha.
As the Wall Street Journal has explained, this costume was most likely intended to reflect back onto the song's content:
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.
One could interpret "Unconditionally" as Perry's declaration of unremitting love for her ex-husband Russell Brand. And while Perry is too much of a roaring, tiger-eyed champion to go the way of Cio-Cio, the performance last night clearly was meant to use Madama Butterfly's tired orientalist imagery as an ironic statement on her broken marriage.
But, as the writer also pointed out, the appearance was basically just reinforcing a Western "archetype of the exotic, self-sacrificing 'lotus blossom.'" [See also: Miss Saigon on Broadway.]
It's also not Perry's first foray with racial awkwardness. On her new album, the song "This Is How We Do" includes the lyric "Getting our nails all did Japanesy." When she appeared on Jimmy Kimmel's show last year, she definitely dropped a pair of quotes that make her relationship with Japan seem, uhh, interesting.
"'I am obsessed with Japanese people,' said Perry. 'I love everything about them and they are so wonderful as human beings.'"
"'I’m so obsessed I want to skin you and wear you like Versace,' she said, referring to a Japanese person she claimed to be obsessed with."
In general, 2013 has had its fair share of Problematic Content, from Lily Allen's "Hard Out Here" video to Miley's ass-slapping twerk parade to more explicitly objectionable garbage like Attila's chalkboard-scrape song "About That Life" and Alison Gold's obnoxious viral "Chinese Food." It's a little hard to tell sometimes if this is because the amount of offensive content is increasing in volume as more and more people decide to express themselves online, or because the Internet has created an industry that banks off of our clickable outrage. It's almost certainly a combination of the two.
There's a bit of a catch-22 involved. Sometimes, b.s. needs to be called out; other times, we're only reinforcing its presence as noise by covering it. In this instance, though, where one of the country's biggest pop stars is performing in cultural costume on national TV? That's a much larger stage than, like, the Migos dropping a suspect song called "Chinatown." So...
Is It Racist?: Well, it's certainly fetishization. It's definitely cliche, with an added element of racial stereotyping. Figuring out whether Perry is "a racist" is almost beside the point. Might not be a bad time to take a page from Ohio University's "We're a Culture, Not a Costume" campaign, intended to combat this kind of cultural co-option around Halloween.