March 20, 2010

What's so wrong about Kesha?

In response to Outrage Over Kesha's Performance and Kesha in Headdress and Warpaint, someone on Facebook wrote:Thing is, I didn't know who Kesha is, don't watch American Idol--and my introduction is this political action.

I don't get the insult, as the pop star clearly was appropriating a cultural archetype for purposes of costume fashion and wasn't projecting any message beyond that. It's stupid, because the ideas invoked with the costume are non-sequitur to the song. It's not a statement about anyone but the lame pop star.

Is it that such a headdress is a 'sacred' thing and therefore using it in a costume for a pop performance is 'blasphemous' or culturally insensitive?
My response:

I don't watch American Idol either. About all I know about Kesha is that she's some pop star. I may have seen her on Conan O'Brien's show once, but I immediately forgot her.

Whether people feel insulted or offended is their personal response. My claim is that the headdress is stereotypical regardless of how you feel about it. It contributes to the pervasive view that all Indians are equivalent to the Plains Indians of the 19th century. In short, that they're primitive people of the past.

The nature of headdresses

I wouldn't say a headdress is "sacred," exactly. More like "honored" or "revered" because of its feathers. A feather is an honor bestowed only on someone who has done something noteworthy. A headdress of feathers goes only on someone--usually a man--who has achieved great things. A young woman wearing a headdress as a stage prop mocks the whole concept.

So the nature of the headdress is an additional problem. The main problem is the wrongness of appropriating someone's culture and using it for no good reason. If Kesha had dressed as a sexy Indian maiden without the headdress, I think people would be just as upset. It's wrong because it's stereotypical...period.

If this still isn't clear, imagine someone dressing as a stereotypical African of the 19th century. Grass skirt, spear in hand, bone through the nose, etc. Would this strike you as offensive, or at least objectionable? The headdress is the same idea--a 150-year-old stereotype--and it's wrong for the same reason.

Kesha makes a statement

What's your counterargument...that Kesha is making a fashion statement? Okay, if you say so. She's making a fashion a racist or stereotypical way.

FYI, the choice isn't "fashion statement" or "racist stereotyping." It can be--and in this case is--both.

What she's really making a statement about is her view of Indians. The statement is she doesn't consider Indians to be full-fledged people worthy of dignity and respect. To her they're merely objects to exploit.

She may not have intended to make this statement. She may not even be aware she's making it. Many racists and stereotypers are oblivious to the messages they send. But they send the messages anyway.

How ignorant is she?

I doubt Kesha even realizes Indians still live. If she does, she probably thinks they're uncivilized people who dress in funny outfits and do funny dances. That they're like the Indians in old cartoons: wild, crazy, barely-human creatures. In other words, savages.

The usual counterargument is that she's "honoring" Indians for being great warriors. Really? The Zulus who fought half-naked with spears were great warriors also. Why don't we take off our clothes, put on black shoe polish, and "honor" them too?

I trust this analogy makes the problem obvious. Most Indians didn't wear headdresses 150 years ago and they definitely don't today. They're doctors, lawyers, and teachers, not dancing clowns. They prefer to be known for their intelligence, compassion, or wit, not for their killer instinct. Stereotyping them as spear-chucking savages is no honor.

The politics of stereotyping

I went into what people are saying when they dress up as stereotypical Indians in No Politics in Chasco's Stereotypes? That lesson applies here, too. Read and learn.

Still not convinced stereotypes carry a political message? I wrote a long essay explaining how Americans have used Native stereotypes for political purposes. Again, read and learn.

Below:  Why didn't Kesha dress up like this and honor Africans? What would the reaction have been if she did?


Anonymous said...

I supposed one reason why this Ke$ha buffoon didn't want to dress up like a 19th century "Zulu" warrior, honoring blackfaces is probably because she didn't want to start another riot. Can't have that, so she chose Natives to insult. "Uncivilized" and "savages"? Well, at least we don't throw up riots in the streets nor unlike the tea party goers, we don't cause massive social discord at townhall meetings with nonsensical rants and paranoid screams. Instead, we confront these racist stereotypers with dialogue and through cultural correctness education. But is it possible to educate retrograded racists?


myk5 said...

If the Zulu were native American in origin, Ke$ha, as an American pop Star, could very likely have appropriated a Zulu icon for her outfit.

My counter argument, because I am a creative guy and believe I have the freedom to use American Indian themes in my work if I chose, is that the American Indian, both in reality and even in racist caricature, it is a part of the American identity and is now, in the 21st century, part of the American cultural commons. America puts American Indians on currency even. It's therefore blameless to take advantage of what is already of the American cultural commons.

This reality is not without controversy, how dare American Indian Culture exist as American culture!- but it is so. Sacajawea on the coin dollar no less, the Indian head nickel too.

Ke$ha's performance, I suppose I'm a retrograded racist - I don't understand the charge of racism in this context. I get 'cultural appropriation' perhaps, but that's what happens to cultures.

The headdress wasn't used in racist role play, as in 'blackface', because Ke$ha never stepped outside of her role as sexy white girl pop star.

The stereotyping charge: Ke$a's a girl in that headdress contrary to stereotype. The outfit alone is the basis for complaint and is limited to a headdress and 2 strokes of 'war paint'.

Adam Ant, back in the 80's used to strut around like a 1700's European dandy wearing American Indian war paint - was that just as offensive?

Blackface is an exercise in role play and caricature, it's clearly offensive and explicitly promotes stereotypes.

I mean, if Ke$ha wore an afro wig, while strutting around as a sexy white pop star - I don't see Black people charging her with racism or doing black face.

Rob said...

It doesn't matter if Indians are native to America and Zulus aren't. Kesha is free to appropriate any image from around the world. So why not dress up as a reasonably accurate version of a 19th-century Zulu warrior?

The "American cultural commons" is a fictional construct, not a tangible reality. Who says you get to determine whether it exists and what's in it? Not me.

If this "commons" exists, it includes Uncle Toms, Aunt Jemimas, and Little Black Sambos as well as Indian chiefs, braves, and princesses. If one set of stereotypes is okay, so is the other. If one is wrong, they both are.

If I'd been blogging before 2000, I probably would've criticized the Village People, Adam Ant, and Cher. I occasionally dip into history to criticize old TV shows such as Bonanza and Get Smart. If Adam Ant comes up in some context, I still may criticize him.

You say "blackface is an exercise in role play and caricature, it's clearly offensive and explicitly promotes stereotypes"? So is redface, the century-old practice of non-Indians dressing up as Indians. Same idea, same offense.