Made in China
All three are Asian. All three are women. All three encounter similar problems when portrayed in the media, for entertainment and by society more generally.
Karlie Kloss’ new Vogue spread – titled ‘Spirited away’ – portrays her as the Geisha: her face is painted white, her lips inked red, and she wears a costume that resembles a traditional kimono. How ironic. The shoot was for Vogue’s diversity issue, which also featured a Chinese model (Liu Wen) inside its pages. However, Kloss got a six-page spread while Wen featured in one photo. Although a Japanese model would have been the best, Wen would have been a better choice than Kloss.
‘Culture is not a costume’ is a phrase that has been employed to describe the difference between appropriation and appreciation. Although there is no set distinction or boundary between the two, in this situation, it is clearly appropriation. This is not the first time that a white model or actress has been used to represent something that is definitively Asian. Emma Stone played the character of Allison Ng (Aloha) two years ago: Ng is supposed to be 25% Chinese and 25% Hawaiian. It is a slap to all of us – are we not good enough to represent our own culture? Are we too authentic for Western ideals of Asian beauty?
Trying on a kimono is not appropriation: you can respect, admire and take part in our culture. We rejoice in this. Ask us questions, discover our history, learn about the importance of traditions – I love people wanting to learn about my culture because it shows that they want to know me as well. There is a degree of responsibility that comes with exploring culture, however, and turning culture into something fun to perform is what should not occur.
Vogue is using a ‘Diversity Issue’ to hide behind their apparent thoughtfulness. There is beauty and enrichment in discovering new cultures and appreciating them, but it is disappointing that one of the most prestigious fashion magazines in the world refused to participate in true diversity – just the glossed over version that is as shiny and as shallow as the pages it is printed on.
I have come to realise that the when we stand back and look across all entertainment platforms, those who are ‘minorities’ in the Western World are treated as secondary and represented in a manner that is stereotypical. Misrepresentation is extremely harmful – there is already a lack of Asian people in these roles without them getting less airtime than those representing a pastiche of their culture. Asians who appear in entertainment are often portrayed in the same clichéd roles, reiterating this caricature.
There is also the serious issue of the lack of differentiation between non-distinct Asian cultures. The lead actress in the 2005 film adaptation of Memoirs of Geisha was played by a Chinese actress: although it’s a step in the right direction, she played a Japanese character. Japan and China: Two different countries, with two separate cultures, who fought on different sides of both world wars. This amalgamation of all Asian cultures into a watered down and Westernised version of ‘Asian’ perpetuates confusion.
Racial caricatures are still far too prevalent, and it’s important to break away from them. When you think of Asian women across entertainment, you will notice that many play similar roles. Cho Chang, of course, was in Ravenclaw, and was a secondary character that was discarded after Harry Potter realised that he liked Ginny. The problem is no longer simply about a lack of Asian representation, but about how Asians are portrayed in literature. Madama Butterfly, The Toll of the Sea, Miss Saigon: all three portray the lead (an Asian female) as docile, helpless and easily discarded. I want to see a character who feels real, rather than enforcing a stereotype – is that too much to ask?
Ultimately, what I find truly offensive are ‘sexy’ Geisha costumes in Halloween – slashed kimonos with fake blood and chopsticks for wearing in your hair. The oriental sexualisation is a disgrace to the traditional culture of Japan, and the styles of the kimonos promote general confusion about Asian identities. Patterns which show red and orange dragons (such as the ones you associate with Chinese New Year celebrations) are distinctively Chinese. The collars that you see on many ‘Asian’ costumes are also Chinese and come from the traditional qipao. Geta (which look like thongs) are Japanese. And chopsticks are for eating – you wouldn’t put a spoon or knife in your hair.
I am often unsure whether or not to be offended by the representations around me. In year six, at my primary school, our final year play was Mulan. Beautiful, heroic Mulan, who decided to take her injured father’s place to fight a war for China. Even though my primary school had plenty of talented Asian women – who, might I add, all auditioned – the lead roles all went to Caucasians. It’s not like Asian people couldn’t dance, sing or act, so why were none of the five lead roles given to them?
At times, I wonder whether I was reading too much into it. Perhaps the roles were given based on talent alone. Regardless, it’s exhausting to constantly be reminded that we can’t even represent ourselves.