by Diana Cristolţean
Two examples of globalization gone wrong popped into my sight in the past weeks. These misrepresentations cannot be overlooked by someone interested in other cultures as I am, and thus, I will try to analyze the aforementioned cases and point out towards the flaws in these media products.
First, let’s define globalization. From a cultural point of view, globalization is the exchange of ideas and customs across borders, so that in the end, we all form a single world. Being a recent process, it was promoted at its finest by McLuhan’s concept of “global village”. Due the progress in technology, the people around the world can now communicate easier and cheaper. This also lead to the flow of information, so that people feel a deeper social responsibility than they’ve felt decades ago. After ’89, ex-soviet countries have turned towards the Western political and economic systems, and have embraced “American” culture. Some see globalization as a two-way trade, with vibrant global cities as London, Tokyo and New York housing people of all kinds of nationalities and ethnicities. This is probably the most positive view.
Both a process and a condition, globalization sometimes is also considered to be a condition or an effect of cultural processes, such as imperialism. Some groups are thought to have more advantages during this process. McDonaldization is an example of cultural imperialism, where this fast-food company is dominating the American background as well as the international one. Photos of McDonald restaurants in China are a visual reminder.
Cultural appropriation is an effect of globalization and it refers to adopting practices and images promoted by other cultural groups than yours and bringing them into your own culture. However, once taken out of their original context and background, all these signs lose their original significations and gain others, since the situation is other.
But let’s go back to our outrageous examples which hurt my traveling heart. Air France released some flamboyant, eye-catchy banners which are meant to boost their ticket sales by promoting a luxurious, elitist image and flight services. (The traveling itself, by plane, is a striking example of technological globalization.) Their posters show handsome models in exquisite clothes and superb background. It reminded me of those French palaces’ gardens and fancy chambers. However, when they’re presenting you the poster with the destination Tokyo, New York, Brazil, Dakar, Beijing (Pekin here), something seems off, doesn’t it?
In the case of these posters, the models borrow cultural elements from the countries they try to represent. That’s it, we’re talking about representations. So, Japan is represented by a beautiful blonde (don’t tell me you didn’t spot the blonde eye brows) wearing a wig and some accessories and a kimono which don’t really resemble the original, traditional ones, but are a rendition of them. She portrays a geisha. The whole notion and essence of Japan is represented here by a geisha, which leads us to define stereotyping. This process refers to simplifying the whole characteristics of a group to a simple set of them, to the ones belonging to just one individual, in order to be representative of the whole. But Japan is not only made of geishas.
Furthermore, the way she is illustrated is offensive. She’s having a cloth which looks like a kimono, but in fact it isn’t – for the sole purpose that it shows her shoulders. Kimono are not supposed to show the chest, let alone the shoulders. Moreover, she’s holding a pomegranate which has no relevance to the Japanese culture. Because it looks like an apple from a distance, does it want to make a reference to the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve? Why would it? Exacly. It’s a nonsense for the sake of picturing another culture in uselessly vivant tones. Probably they wanted to make a hint to Twilight.
The same goes for Beijing, Brasilia and Dakar. Dragon mask for Beijing? Parrot and feather coat for Brasilia, really? Looking at the facial expressions of these girls another question pops into my mind. Why do they look so fierce, so inhuman, so cold and lacking sensibility? The rest of the girls representing Paris and Italy and the ones with no country name attached look all so joyful, so sensual and attractive. These ones, however, have lots of make-up on them, while the “European” women are natural, classy and chic.
Furthermore, the model standing for Senegal is the perfect example of the Whiteness concept. The media frowns at African people wearing Western clothes and acting Western, but White people can proudly put on a Senegal head wrap and casually dress a White bolero, without fearing of being criticized if only for this combination. White people can put on a kimono and adjust it to their style without fearing of being un-Japanese. The concept of Whiteness suggests that the common belief is that the dominant race is the White one.
The photo for New York, featuring the only Black girl in this set of posters, leaning next to a graffiti wall and laughing. I get neither the joke, nor the reason they misrepresented New York like that.
And since we’re living in a globalized world, the realm could not stay silent about this. Their reply? Remixing.
At the beginning of this post, I was writing about the existence of two such examples of cultural appropriation. As an East Asian culture addict, the next one almost gave me a heart attack. Avril Lavigne’s pronunciation and (later) singing of some simple Japanese words like “thank you” and “cute” made me bow to the deity that let me live in a country whose language has a certain structure and certain linguistic influences that allow me to properly learn Japanese without distorting it as terrible as she did. Apart from the fact that the song “Hello Kitty” and her performance are ridiculous, the way the Japanese girls are dancing and acting is more than sad, it’s disturbing. Just like the girls in the banners above, but worse, they show no facial features and they move like robots – mechanical and plain.
The only one human is Avril, the White, privileged girl, emphasizing not only the cultural appropriation (Avril acts like a teenage girl from Harajuku), but also the concepts of Whiteness (she’s white, she can act however she wants, she’s got the mobility), but also Otherness and Orientalism (They, the Japanese, the others, are different than us, they like cute stuff and they barely show any emotion, not like Westerners).
No kiddo, that’s not the proper way to show our love for Japan.
All in all, cultural appropriation should be done responsibly, bearing in mind that incorporating other culture’s elements in our dress code/lifestyle/work implies the need of knowledge of that culture, since it signifies that by adopting it, we also represent it. A careless usage of cultural appropriation can lead to misinterpretations of one’s dominant power and moreover, it could be offensive to the representatives of that culture.
There is a thin line between showing your passion and showing your lack of respect towards customs and practices unknown to you.