Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Jeff Yang declared the display "a full-barreled technicolor assault on a quarter-millennium-old set of traditions that would’ve given any self-respecting denizen of Kyoto’s Gion District a massive fatal heart attack." Yang theorized that the wardrobe choice was a nod to the tragic character Cio-Cio-San from the opera Madama Butterfly, and meant to complement the submissive tone of the song Perry performed, "Unconditionally." "While a bucket of toner can strip the geisha makeup off of Perry’s face, nothing can remove the demeaning and harmful iconography of the lotus blossom from the West’s perception of Asian women," Yang continued, adding that the stereotype presents them "as servile, passive, and as Perry would have it, 'unconditional' worshipers of their men, willing to pay any price and weather any kind of abuse in order to keep him happy."
For Natives, who witnessed a similarly controversial performance by Outkast at the 1997 Grammy Awards (see below), the New York Post's review of the show's low-lights suggested a change in attitude when it comes to redface: "She wouldn’t dream of black facing for a performance, nor is it very likely that she’d ever approve a Navajo-themed number. So why did Katy Perry think it was OK to dress up like a Japanese Geisha for the opening act of the night? ... the fact that Perry didn’t see anything offensive in her routine is astonishing. She’s no racist but clearly, Perry exists in a blissfully ignorant bubble."
Debate over Perry's performance on social media ran the gamut, with defenders of the show lamenting "political correctness" or demonstrating a lack of understanding of the concept (we saw numerous rebuttals to the effect of "it's not yellowface because her face isn't yellow"). One of the best comments, with which many Natives and Asian Americans would agree, came from Twitter user Christian Johnson (@NerdPoetics): "Cultures are not masks you wear just because you think they're pretty."
Geishas, Cowboys, Indians, and Skinning People for the Sake of Fashion: Katy Perry’s Racism Knows No Bounds
By Ruth Hopkins
Appropriation is a weapon of assimilation and is born of a conqueror’s mentality. Colonial empires express dominion over people by conversion. First they defeat the people militarily. Their lands and resources are taken. The people are made to assimilate or face termination. Then they try to break the spirit of the people by re-educating them, and forcing their religion upon them. Eventually, they come for what the people consider most sacred, and try to destroy it by making it illegal or making a mockery of it. Ultimately, whether consciously or unconsciously, they attempt to exercise control over the very identity of that group and cry foul when a member of that group dares to protest the offense. Only the voice of privilege has the arrogance to assume ownership over all things, even the spirit of a people.
Katy, I may not be Japanese, but I know what it’s like to be called a redskin. We’re not animals. You cannot skin us and wear us. Cracking a racist joke about filleting people and wearing them like a jacket is despicable and absolutely mortifying. You’re part of everything that’s wrong with pop culture in America. Refusing to apologize for last night’s geisha act and your “Cowboys and Indians” party reveals that these offenses were intentional. I hope you’ll prove me wrong.
For more on the subject, see Russell Brand as an "Indian Savage" and "A Sight for Squaw Eyes."
Below: Russell Brand and Katy Perry at her “Cowboys and Indians” 2011 Birthday Bash.