Sunday, June 24, 2012

Good Taste and the Art of Knowing Better

I originally saw this video at the beginning of the month on the Angry Asian Man blog, where it was being lambasted by readers, not surprisingly. Now I finally know what I want to say about it.

Here's something that's always frustrating, for members of the Asian and Asian-American communities as well as people like me who work hard to study East Asia from an academic standpoint and help others understand it better. I am of course talking about Asian cultural misappropriation, with the latest and currently most prominent example being the music video for Coldplay's recent single, "Princess of China." If you haven't already seen it, here's the link. I invite you to try to watch the whole thing -- it's hard, trust me.

All right, so I am now assuming you've watched it. First of all, I'm not really sure why this song is called Princess of China in the first place, because the word "China" does not show up in any of the lyrics. I guess 'cause the song is sort of about breaking up and china is delicate and breaks and . . . whatever -- this isn't even the main issue. The problem here is the video itself. So it's possible some of you readers may not initially see the problem here. A flashy video, with traditional "Asian"-inspired imagery, well, hey, I've seen this before! It's all good! Why not, right? Well, if this were simply a video with traditional Chinese-inspired imagery (as the song's title indicates a potentially Chinese theme) maybe, depending on how said imagery was used, that might be all right. For example, I could imagine Chris Martin trudging through some Zhang Yimou-inspired countryside running on water and learning wuxia from some old bearded dude in a pagoda, à la Hero, and you'd have Rihanna decked out like Gong Li from Curse of the Golden Flower or some such Yimou film and Chris has to save her, or fight her, or whatever . . . I think I'm getting carried away here. The point is, I doubt I could find too much fault in such a project. It would be a sort-of homage to Chinese cinema. After all, getting mad at a white man for wearing a tangzhuang (traditional Chinese jacket) is like getting mad at a white man for blogging about East Asia . . . (ahem). There is nothing inherently wrong with it. However, the question must always be why and how is the white man wearing the tangzhuang and what does it mean?

Here we have the many-armed goddess motif prominent in a number of South, Southeast and East Asian traditions -- most commonly associated with Indian Hinduism in popular culture.   
Well, in this video the answer seems to be exploitation. That's right, I'm using the e-word. Though the video seems to apparently have been dreamed up as a tribute to kung-fu cinema, it ended up as an ill-conceived, offensive and nonsensical, culturally confused mess. The crime this video commits is not simply using traditional "Asian" imagery to tell its story but misappropriating Asian cultural and visual cues by grabbing at as many random elements as possible and throwing them in a visual blender. What we get is a mishmash of random traditional Asian visual cues that, because of the song's title, become immediately associated with China. Present in the video are ninjas and taiko drummers, which are rather well-known Japanese cues. Also old temples and a structure that looks curiously like the Forbidden City in Beijing are present, which are actually Chinese cues. However, later in the video we have Rihanna appearing as a sort of many-armed deity figure (above), which, though a visual motif that appears in cultural traditions throughout Asia, is especially associated with South Asia, particularly Indian Hinduism, in popular culture -- so, Indian cues, let's say. So what's so harmful about this mixing of cues? Whether or not this video meant it, it is suggesting, by mixing these culturally diverse cues under the label of "China," that Asian cultures are . . . get ready for it . . . ALL THE SAME. Just let that sink in for a moment . . .

Here's a perfect example of what's wrong with this video. This shot is near the beginning. Here we have a shirtless sentry (ya know, 'cause Asian people never used armour or anything) wearing a samurai's mouth guard (without a helmet -- no one ever did this), holding a nondescript spear, with a Chinese-inspired tattoo, standing in front of a Chinese structure . . . His expression says it all: "What the hell am I doing here?"
Yes, my friends, in case you haven't figured this out already, this video is harking back to the old and grossly outdated ideas of orientalism formed in those early days of European exploration, when what is now known as Asia was once considered an impenetrable and mysterious land of strange and exotic wonders. Diverse Asian countries, often with little in common, were grouped together under the label "the Orient" (derived from oriens, Latin for "east"). It represented a strange and backward place that was different from Europe and was full of unscrupulous people and hot and sweaty bazaars at which anything could be bought for the right price. So what's wrong with peddling this orientalist idea? Because IT'S THE 21st CENTURY, AND PEOPLE SHOULD KNOW BETTER. We have diverse Asian historical texts translated into myriad languages by scholars. We have international film festivals, we have multiculturalism, we have news networks, we have the Internet and WIKIPEDIA! There are now myriad resources that one can use to learn or at least fact-check about places like China. We can easily find out if something is Chinese or even how people lived in those days. So why did this video have to happen!? There really is no excuse. It's just a lack of cultural sensitivity and logic; the artists should have known better; the production team should have known better; EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER. So its no surprise that Asian-American communities have gotten pretty irate about this.  

Here we have Chris wielding a katana, a sword that is famous for coming from Japan, against a ninja adversary, also a Japanese element. Yeah! Ya know, China, right!? The scene takes place in hall chock-full of Chinese motifs.
Want to know why people are so upset about this kind of stuff? Imagine you're an educated white person living in New York (because you might be) and some famous Asian-American artist releases a hit song called "King of England." The video becomes famous and is a shameless mishmash of European, Canadian and U.S. white archetypes. The video doesn't make any sense to you because you know these countries and cultures to be totally different, and it offends your sensibilities. It frustrates you to be thrust into the same category as all those other people who have so little in common with you culturally and historically. Imagine a scene like the one above, except replace the shirtless dude with a man in a top hat and monocle, drinking tea and sporting a Bud Lite T-shirt while wearing Mountie jodhpurs (riding pants) and boots and a kilt while mounted on a moose. It would be pretty damn ridiculous, wouldn't it? And yet that is pretty much exactly what is happening here. What's more, this imaginary video is made by an American who likely comes in contact with white people on a daily basis, and therefore SHOULD KNOW BETTER. This video represents popular media's tendency towards regressive thinking -- going back to simpler times when people were more ignorant about other parts of the world, simply because there was less information available. Now we have no excuse; as people of the information age, it is our privilege, right and, I'd argue, responsibility to be informed. Because, really, who wants to be stupid? Being stupid feels awful -- we've all been there and it never feels good. It's important to foster cultural understanding and sensitivity because, like it or not, globalization and multiculturalism are realities, and they sure as hell aren't going anywhere. The sooner we all realize this, the sooner we can get over it and start moving on to greener pastures. The producers responsible for this video should have considered the cultural implications of and potential backlash from releasing this video, through such an accessible and popular medium as the music industry, to an unsuspecting public made up largely of people descended from the cultures they are lazily trying to emulate. Simply put, it was a pretty stupid decision and seems to suggest just how much popular media producers can be out of touch with their target demographics. At best this video is visually interesting although confused and ultimately unnecessary; at worst it is racist. Ignorance and insensitivity toward what is often considered to be intrinsically "non-American" cultures remains a major issue in North America, and anything promoting that ignorance is not good, not good at all.      

Well, this was quite a bit longer than I thought it would be. Hope it gave ya'll something to think about. 

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