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asleep at mal 9/09
cultural appropriation and halloween 
11/1/09 18:17
asleep at mal 9/09
something that's been on my mind all week, and i have a serious question to ask...

friday's festivities the theme was demons - as i do not believe in the xian idea of hell, i am uncomfortable dressing as a xian demon, plus to be honest i knew several friends would be doing it, and much better than i could hope to with the amount of energy i have to put toward making a costume

so i did some thinking and some research and wound up dressing as a japanese ghost/demon - i have (and know how to properly wear) a beautiful period kimono thanks to sca and other historical events and a friend taking the time to teach me how to tie an obi, and after reviewing the stories on my bookshelves and online (many of these involve wronged women who come back to take revenge) it was a fairly simple task to apply ghostly makeup, modify the wig i already had, and approximate the descriptions and images of female ghost/demons

but i worried even as i was dressing if this was an unacceptable costume as i am not japanese

in the end, i decided to go ahead because i knew that i was wearing the appropriate clothing and hairstyle in the proper way and while the makeup was imperfect it was a decent approximation (i adore the blithe spirit professional makeup for it's ghostly blue/white glow, and other than that some red lipstick was all i used - no eye makeup/eyebrows because they were missing in some of the stuff my research turned up and drawing oriental features on my face... )

so my question to you out there in lj land is: i know i chose to use an image from a culture that's not mine when chosing this costume (i empathize with why these ghost/demons exist and the message they drive historically - that treating women badly can lead to an ugly death), but is that an unacceptable, hurtful appropriation? what is the cutoff point at which using an image or idea from another mythology becomes wrong?

i tend to find the "ethnic" costumes available at the halloween store disgusting at best; but then again, i bristle at the fact that the styles i wear and spend so much time making become cheap, easy costumes for the mundanes this week - and when they decide hey, i'm going to a "gawth" club with friends, let me break out that "sexy witch outfit" from last halloween, that's black and shiny and then i'll look like i belong i get really irritated - better to wear jeans and a black t-shirt or that nice jewel-tone cocktail dress in the back of your closet than look like a slutty fool

ETA i didn't get any negative responses to the costume friday, and from my pov the appropriation was respectful

however i sometimes think maybe i spent too much time doing theatre, sca, and costuming to have a clear perspective on acceptable vs. unacceptable appropriation - for instance, i love the musical the king & i (i appeared in my hs production and can still sing most of the songs), but i know it's a racist, sexist mess in too many ways to count

but when i'm watching a good performance, especially live, i tend to do my best to immerse myself in the world that's being presented and suspend my disbelief/critical thinking until it's over - then i begin analysis and critique of the work (and i can be a really harsh critic) - so for example i can love a play that is disturbingly violent and triggery (marat/sade) even when i hate the acts depicted onstage (otoh, really bad performances, live or otherwise, will see me silently cringing, covering my eyes, watching the lights or other technical aspects, and perhaps leaving at intermission - but i know the performers are putting themselves on the line, so i won't walk out in the middle unless it's uber uber offensive)
11/1/09 23:21 (UTC)
I personally support respectful cultural appropriation, and I do think your appropriation was very respectful. I feel like cultural appropriation is necessary to a certain degree, because it exposes us to fascinating, beautiful, or thought-provoking concepts. If I could only observe or dedicate myself to my cultural gods and cosmology, I would only be able to work with Italian, Romanian, Russian, and Hungarian mythology. I enjoy Greek, Egyptian, and Celtic too much to stop working with those three pantheons.
11/2/09 0:10 (UTC)
It might not be 'your' mythology but then what is? Greek and Roman myths seem to be fair ground for white people but we're not all Greek or even Mediterranean. I've got no Norse blood to speak of but I don't think it would be offensive if I dressed as a Viking. You weren't dressed as a 'Japanese Person' as if all of Japan is some weird feudal-era theme park.

Generally it's my view that it's not really up to 'outsiders' to decide what's offensive and what's not for other people. But in this case I think somebody that took offense at your costume would be over-reacting. You were not a real person, you were a figure from a myth, a fairy tale. It would not bother me if a Japanese person dressed as some character from the Brother's Grimm even though those stories are more 'mine'.
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11/2/09 1:07 (UTC)
no worries about babbling, and i do find the heated discussions of this topic sometimes go way too far

my time in academia featured overreactions on this front by some of our professors, so it's interesting to see that you've also run into similar spots (the most glaring of which i think i've talked about before - that because all but one of the students in our grad seminar were not african american we didn't have the necessary cultural background to understand the african american theatre movement from primary sources, so instead we read reviews and critiques by white writers of the time without reading the original plays - insulting and ridiculous, and calling the prof on it got me into a lot of trouble even though i did so privately)
11/2/09 1:48 (UTC)
On this subject, I feel a bit odd about Malediction's 'Oriental Ball' theme that they have every year. I don't think it would be OK if some club held an 'African Ball' and encouraged guests to bring spears and wear hide clothing, I'm not really sure how telling people to dress as samurai, ninjas, and geishas is really better.
11/2/09 2:03 (UTC)
that's very true - but i think that event is held in conjunction with an anime/otaku convention, and that's what they're trying to encourage participation in (although the convention itself will i'm certain feature shining examples of cultural (mis)-appropriation as well)

Edited at 2009-11-02 02:04 am (UTC)
11/2/09 3:39 (UTC)
that does make it a bit different then...though i still feel a bit weird about it.
11/2/09 4:28 (UTC)
I think our country has a different history with African culture than with Asian culture, and the social perspective would reflect that. I personally find it sad that we're all so scared to celebrate or emulate or encourage delving into another culture at the risk of being offensive or crossing some sort of (completely relative) PC boundary. We'll never learn anything about each other if we're too scared to insult anyone during the learning process.
11/2/09 18:23 (UTC)
i agree with that - but there are ways to explore other cultures without it being negative

the image that partially prompted this was a halloween pic of 4 white people in horriffic "native american" costumes complete with streaky body paint, strips of faux fur and feathers; but the last few weeks have featured blackface on aussie tv, blackface in french vogue, and tyra banks dressing the candidates for america's next top model in "multi-ethnic" clothing complete with body paint to make them no longer appear white; all of which make me go wtf?

dress in costumes from another mythology yes, sure, if it's done without stereotyping, and in a way that's well thought out and respectful; turn another cultures' sacred ceremonial clothing into a bad costume, or paint yourself black/brown as a costume, no
11/2/09 21:45 (UTC)
What I find unfortunate about the particular event I mentioned is the smashing together of all things 'Asian' . Some attendees might take it upon themselves to research a costume from a specific country and time (and I have seen some really impressive ensembles so I'm sure they do) but I never felt that it was framed as anything but the usual fetishization of Asians by Americans. There are a lot of different countries with different cultures, and different histories in Asia. An 'Asian' themed event isn't celebrating or emulating anything - there is no 'Asian' culture. It's just reinforcing the same old stereotypes without bothering to differentiate Indian from Chinese from Indonesian from Japanese.
11/2/09 14:04 (UTC)
I think that the sheer act of putting as much consideration as you have into it shows respect and appreciation that makes it appropriate.
11/2/09 18:54 (UTC)
I tried to avoid an epic fail on that level this year for one of my costumes (multiple parties get multiple costumes!) by going as Ghandi's wife, the English one. Yes, it means I can appreciate/wear the abosolutely gorgeous silk outfit complete with silver embroidery (the real stuff, woot!) while hopefully avoiding the issue.

The cynic in me thinks that if someone wants to really go to town on this issue, you can't avoid it no matter how sensitive you are attempting to be.
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11/2/09 19:55 (UTC)
i agree; and thanks for dropping by - i hope i didn't handle this wrong
(Deleted comment)
11/2/09 20:17 (UTC)
i wouldn't even dress as a greek god or goddess for halloween in spite of that being the largest part of my cultural background (otoh, i have played the oracle in a production of oedipus when i was in college - chitons are easy to make but i found it as difficult to drape as an obi is to tie)

i am absolutely an atheist, but i fully respect any mythology people chose to adhere to as long as they don't "preach" at me endlessly or try to take away my rights because of their beliefs

and i don't always comment, but i really want to thank you for the things you write - you make me think, which is a very good thing