Tag Archives: cultural appropriation

On the Seduction of Proenza Schouler’s Act Da Fool**

Somewhere in my future is a book – or at the very least a longer blog post – on the phenomenon of fashion films. I don’t mean films like Tom Ford’s A Single Man or documentaries like Seamless and The September Issue. I’m talking about the cinematic shorts that are increasingly being produced to help launch luxury fashion lines. I’ve already written about the Chanel film, Paris-Shanghai:  A Fantasy but there are many others.

In addition to Paris-ShanghaiChanel has commissioned a number of other short films (several directed by Martin Scorcese), and so has Missoni (directed by Kenneth Anger). Both Dior and Gucci have shorts directed by David Lynch (one featuring the most fabulous Marion Cotillard); Louis Vuitton has one directed by Zoe Cassavetes; and Alexander Wang employed Craig McDean to direct his. Most are little more than extended commercials or music videos with really expensive clothes. But some, like Paris-Shanghai and Proenza Schouler’s recent video Act Da Fool (2010), strive to be something more artistic.

Act Da Fool, directed by Harmony Korine (writer of the cult classic Kids [1995]), is not overtly commercial. We might even describe it as an audiovisual lyrical poem. Its narrative isn’t quite linear but neither is it nonlinear. Instead, it’s an episodic series of vignettes about a group of young black women who represent, as Korine puts it, “the greatest living delinquents.” Like another one of his films, Trash Humpers (2009), Act Da Fool is shot and based in Korine’s hometown in Tennessee and again like Trash Humpers, the production value of the video is intentionally low and gritty.

Act Da Fool, like all good media events, is seductive. The images are visually arresting in the same way that Jamel Shabazz’s 1980s Brooklyn street photos are beautiful to me. (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Korine was somehow influenced by Shabazz.) The monologue is haunting and downright poetic at times, balancing on that knife’s edge between nihilism and hopefulness. Take, as just two examples, my favorite lines:

I believe that the earth is a big ball of shit – that’s why the dinosaur died out. And everyone gonna die sooner or later. That’s why I love cigarettes so much. I hope I don’t die for a long time though. I still got things I want to look at.

I ain’t going to church no more. Church can suck it. I think the stars hold the secrets.

Enough already with the telling, here’s the show:

Act Da Fool is seductive. (I know I already said that.) It’s an infomercial dressed in avant-garde cinema aesthetics (among Korine’s influences and fans are auteurs Jean-Luc Godard and Werner Herzog) and swathed in the luxury fashions of Proenza Schouler. It’s the turducken of fashion films. Its individual parts are good yet the sum of these parts is indigestible.

As a short film, I’m absolutely for Act Da Fool. But no cultural object exists in a vacuum. The cultural economy from which this film emerges is one in which the clothes worn by the young black women in the film, the very fashions around which this film revolves (Proenza Schouler’s Fall 2010 RTW collection), is in fact not available to the characters represented in the film. The working class black women whose life experiences and life chances are such that the narrator is forced to wonder, “How come God gotta be so violent?” could not afford the clothes displayed here – the high-waisted skinny paint-splattered jean that is the star of the film retails for $550. And if the characters lack the financial capital to wear these clothes, then the actual actor-models lack the social capital. It is important to point out that the models in the film the do not actually embody the ideal Proenza Schouler fashion subject on the runway. Of the 33 looks in the Fall 2010 collection, all but three were modeled by white models – two looks by Chinese-born models Liu Wen and Shu Pei Qin, and one by Lais Ribeiro, who is Afro-Brazilian not African American like the characters in the film. As we know by now, the fashion modeling world is a glaringly white one. The reality is that without playing the roles of “delinquents” in Act Da Fool, Michelrica Hughes, Elizabeth Smith, Kiara Smith, Miileah Morrison, and Rashaani Wilson – all models – would not have jobs modeling Proenza Schouler fashions.

(L) Lindsay Hoover; (R) Kate Kosushkina

The film reveals nothing about the lives of these characters. Their significance lies only in the difference they represent: the exoticism of their racially classed nihilism, the contradiction of their gendered optimism which serves to assure the viewer poverty is actually not too bad, and perhaps most importantly, their spatial and social distance from the luxury fashion world that excludes them even as they wear the clothes in the film.

The Korine-Proenza Schouler film invents in order to fetishize a subculture that is far removed from the elite white world that Proenza Schouler (the label and the designers) inhabit. Yet, the production of this racial spectacle enables Korine, Proenza Schouler, and their supporters to culturally tour without actually engaging with the racially classed experiences of these young black women. Their bodies, unlike the bodies of white models, do not represent a cultural standard of beauty but serve instead as screens onto which romantic and racist ideas about working class black women (“greatest living delinquents”) are projected and appropriated to symbolize and sell a brand.  The lives of these characters matter less than the fetish they activate.

In criticizing the film, I don’t mean to negate my own pleasures with regard to the film. In fact, its aesthetic beauty and its ideological problems are deeply interconnected – the former seducing us to forget or deny the latter. But as I’ve already said, cultural objects do not exist in vacuums – not even beautiful ones, and certainly not “avant-garde” ones.

**A huge thank you to one of our favorite tipsters, Jennifer Ayres, for cluing us to Act Da Fool!

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THEORY FLASHBACK: Richard Fung, “Working Through Cultural Appropriation” (1993)

Those who advocate against cultural appropriation often assume the definition of this term to be self-evident; those who disparage the formulation make it into something ridiculous. The critique of cultural appropriation has suffered precisely due to a lack of clarity which leaves it open to misapplication. Initially propounded as a concept to explicate and justify cultural self-determination, the term has itself been appropriated by opposition to discredit any attempt at redefining the status quo through anti-racist activism. Thus, in discussing cultural appropriation, it becomes necessary to unpack the various meanings, emotions, and agendas with which the term is invested, and to sift through and foreground the different contexts within which positions have been drawn up.

The primary dictionary meaning of the verb appropriate is “to take and use as one’s own.” Despite the rhetoric of various nationalisms, there are no unique, pure cultures today; people have steadily learned the ways of others and taken them as their own. By this definition, most of what we think of as culture involves some degree of appropriation. Foods, religions, languages and clothes all betray contacts with a larger world, which includes our closest neighbours, as well as distant imperial centres. There are no clear boundaries where one culture ends and another begins. But while some of this fusion may be celebrated as exchange, a larger proportion is the result of domination. The task of establishing cultural hegemony in the colonial context, for instance, entails the supplanting or harnessing of the social, economic and cultural systems of the subjugated, by those of the dominant power. For Native people in Canada, this has meant an often violent process of assimilation, coupled with the marketing of superficial difference either for profit (the tourism industry), or political gain (official multiculturalism). Those who raise the issue of cultural appropriation see it as a process that is not only wrong, but also incomplete—thus as one which is necessary and possible to organize against. The critique of cultural appropriation is therefore first and foremost a strategy to redress historically established inequities by raising questions about who controls and benefits from cultural resources.

In working through the question of appropriation, it is crucial to remember that all oppression does not express itself through the same means. Even within the category of racism, there are significant differences in the ways that the various racial others of the West have figured, both within representation, and in the economics of cultural production. Colonialism operated differently in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, and varied also according to the colonizing power concerned. To enslave and uproot the population, it was convenient that Africa be represented as a place without a culture or a history of its own—requiring, of course, the excision of Egypt from that continent. On the other hand, the aesthetic contributions of India, China, and Japan had long been valorized in Europe, and it is the products of their culture and agriculture that motivated and justified colonialism in those parts. Diasporic Africans and Asians in the Americas have different histories from each other and, in turn, from those of Native peoples: slavery is not indentureship is not internment is not head tax is not residential schools. The ways that we various “others” are integrated into and excluded from contemporary commercial culture may be related, but they are also marked by crucial differences.

As a person of Chinese West Indian heritage, I feel the need to preserve what I know, and to make that knowledge and history an acknowledged component of Canadian identity and Canadian culture; this is, in part, what motivates my work to eradicate the underlying Eurocentrism of our systems of cultural funding. It also forms my interest in developing art that is relevant to the Canadian context. Having a sense that my “source” cultures follow their own paths, that the cultural forms of China and Trinidad can and will accommodate, appropriate, repel and resist the pressures of western cultural imperialism in their own ways, means that for me (here in the Diaspora) it makes no sense to freeze Chinese or West Indian cultural expression according to some nostalgic idea of what it was “truly” like. For one thing, these forms were always changing even as I experienced them in my childhood, and further, this effort to fix and fossilize “other” cultures, in opposition to the continuously developing modern and now postmodern culture of the West is, after all, the central and most insidious trope of multiculturalism.

There is, however, a special urgency to the preservation and autonomy of aboriginal cultural resources, which I think makes the issue qualitatively different from those of diasporic people of colour. As Tuscarora artist Jolene Rickard said recently at a conference I attended, “this is all there is; if this goes, that’s the end!” Aboriginal cultures are cultures deprived of a state; by definition they exist as “minority” cultures within a dominant national context—Thai culture in Thailand is not considered aboriginal, whereas the Dai (Thai speaking) culture of neighbouring China is. Given the systematic attempts by the Canadian state to destroy First Nations cultures, economies and social systems, the desire to preserve and reconstruct them cannot nonchalantly be dismissed according to mechanical and simplistic readings of the critiques of essentialism or authenticity. That is not to say that these ideas are invalid or unimportant. It must however be recognized that the anthropological gaze and the discourse of authenticity is not the only mode of othering Third World, indigenous and non-white peoples. This is accompanied by a total disregard for accuracy in the public images about these people. Further, the critique of cultural appropriation doesn’t necessarily require an essentialist understanding of identity.

–Richard Fung, Summer 1993, “Working Through Cultural Appropriation,” FUSE Magazine V. XVI n 5+6, 16-24, excerpted here to situate what is significant and specific to the indigenous “condition” of being historically subject to forcible alienability.

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Friday I’m In Love (With Your Blog)

I completely love this drawing from Hark! A Vagrant, a series of historical comics by K. Beaton, in large part because my girlfriend has tried on at least three of these looks (sometimes in the space of a week). Also, historical comics! Oh, Internet, you make working on my manuscript revisions, tapping away on this computer for sixteen hours a day, slightly less painful. Here is more proof of your glory!

There’s such smart commentary going on right now about Lady Gaga and whose gender and sexual deviance gets to be understood as performance “art,” and whose is read through racial or otherwise Other-ed “truth.” Isabel The Spy observes, “lady gaga is allowed to play at being grotesque because it’s understood that she is making a choice to be grotesque; fat, non-white, or otherwise atypical bodies already belong to the realm of the grotesque. the choice is made for them. whether it’s as unfuckable (fat women, women with visible disabilities) or inherently sexualized (black and Latina women) or some weird combination of fuckable but not sexual (asian women) or just grotesque and unworthy (trans women).”

This (and the continuing debates raging across the fashion blogosphere about cultural appropriation) reminds me all over again of Minh-Ha’s citation of what Nirmal Puwar describes as “the universal empty point,” which white female bodies are able to occupy precisely because their bodies are racially unmarked: “[Thus] they can play with the assigned particularity of ethnicized dress without suffering the ‘violence of revulsion.’”

Revisiting the question of “vintage color,” Jenny at Fashion for Writers shows Beyonce some mad love. In it, she cites a post called “Retro and Race” from Gertie’s New Blog for Better Sewing and another called “Retro Styles and Gender Play” by Latoya Peterson at Racialicious. I’m just gonna add that Jenny looks smashing in high-cut playsuits! I’m sort of wondering now if I should send her my red suede leather shorts…

Tiger Beatdown’s critique of the recent New York Times Magazine profile of M.I.A. is epic: “Is it really that surprising that a performer, signed to a major label, wants attention? Is it surprising or exceptional that such a person has money? Is it surprising that a person subjected to constant scrutiny from millions of people has crafted a public face, a version of herself that she puts on when she’s being observed by strangers that is noticeably different and more suited to mass consumption than the one she wears when she’s alone, or with her husband and child, or with her best friends? And: If you were trying to get attention at all costs, if you were coming up with a fake personality that was guaranteed to garner acceptance and approval from the largest possible number of people, would ‘radical woman of color allied with militant groups’ really be the one you’d pick?” Also check this piece from Change.org called “Who Gets to Define ‘Sell Out’? MIA Meets The New York Times.” Seriously, of the two I pick MIA over the newspaper that featured Judith Miller’s parroting of the Bush administration’s claims that Iraqi WMDs threatened us all.

I’ve also been following The Seventeen Magazine Project, an experiment by Pennsylvanian high school senior Jamie Kelles to spend one month “living according to the gospel of Seventeen Magazine.” Well-written and wry, I’m enjoying her often bemused efforts to comport herself like the supposedly “normal” American teenaged girl found (or more accurately perhaps created) in this magazine. Here’s her rules: “I will read the entire June/July issue of Seventeen magazine from cover to cover. Every day I will utilize at least one ‘beauty tip’ (hair/makeup/skincare/whathaveyou) and one fashion tip. I will follow all diet and exercise tips provided in the issue to a T. I will participate in every activity recommended by the magazine (i.e. host a fright night, score your hottest summer hookup ever, be confident in a bikini, etc.) I will apply for every single ‘freebie‘ offered by the magazine, every day. I will consume all media recommended by the magazine at least once. (books/movies/music) I will hang all provided pictures/posters of ‘hot guys’ in my living environment.”

A Dedicated Follower of Fashion notes that the all-too-common fashion terms “tribal” and “ethnic” are referentially empty (“What exactly are they describing?”), while also politically overburdened.

Meanwhile, Jessica Simpson claims that filming her VH1 series The Price of Beauty felt like “missionary work.” This may seem a far-fetched and ludicrous claim, but it does follow from historical precedents set by Western women journeying into “darkest interiors” to both study and “civilize” native peoples through the documentation and reform of indigenous corporeal and sartorial practices.

Racialicious’s Latoya Peterson ponders both the myth of “hybrid vigor” and the continuing salience of colonial mappings of beauty and ugliness in her examination of the New York Times‘ article about model-scouting in Brazil. Hysteria! delves further into the uses of anthropological knowledges for such scouting missions. Furthermore, “It’s old news by now that patriarchy, racism and classism work together, but it’s rarely illustrated so clearly: racist hiring practices in the fashion industry both prevent women of color from accessing career opportunities open to white women (which could, potentially, offer a better financial situation) and make white women less likely to view their own exploitation as exploitation (after all, this is an elite field they should be grateful to even be in, right?).”

Julia at A La Garconniere has the coolest and smartest friends ever, dammit. Does she exert some sort of gravitational pull that finds her in the midst of a constellation of awesome people? (She is pals with artist Teresa Chang, maker of the zine Dykes and Their Hair, as well as the women behind American Able.) Here, Julia’s friend Iris Hodgson guest blogs on cultural appropriation and in particular style blogger Gala Darling, whose signature sign-off is “Love Letters and Feather Headdresses, Gala xx.” Good grief. Hodgson points out that, “The hipster headdress is perceived by others as being ‘fierce’ or ‘exotic’ or ‘creative’ or ‘bohemian’ at the same time that Indigenous people who might want to dress similarly would be perceived negatively for doing so.”

Meanwhile, Racialicious correspondent Andrea Plaid tackles the insidious racial politics lurking behind a teacher and principal’s expulsion of a young black girl from an advanced-placement classroom, because “her Afro was making [the teacher] sick.”

From Shake Paper, a tumblr subtitled “Smash the White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy,” this smart rebuttal to some of the more familiar responses to critiques of cultural appropriation:

Why, for example, are people of colour speaking English and wearing “western clothes?”, you may ask. In many cases, COLONIZED countries were forced to adopt the culture of the colonizer while their own culture was violently removed. Residential schools, for example, forced indigenous children to speak English, adopt christianity, and were forced to wear European clothes and adopt a European culture. Therefore, it is important to understand the history of colonialism and to understand that what you see as a parallel act of “cultural appropriation,” is really the product of colonialism. To equate those things is to deny the historical and continued violence produced by colonialism, and it is also a huge reflection of privilege.

Forced assimilation does not equal the appropriation and the commodification of another person’s culture. Furthermore, forced assimilation does not have to be as black and white as putting people into residential schools, but it can also be an epistemic and ideologically forced assimilation such as “business suits* = a necessary uniform to gain access into the white collar workforce,” therefore, in turn, what this also produces is the idea that the “native dress” of someone else’s culture is devalued and “uncivilized.” Therefore, in order for a person of colour to have a white collar job, they must then wear a business suit.  We have the social and cultural understanding that “business suits = employment,” but we never interrogate where that comes from and what that means.

Let me just say this,

White supremacy works so that white privilege goes unnoticed.

And on that note, don’t skip out on Julia’s call for critical fashion lovers to be more deliberate and strategic: “i think we, as critical fashion lovers, need to think about and share more productive ways we can challenge oppressive systems when we see them at work, wherever we see them happening. if you have any suggestions, now is the time to share them.” Thoughts? My response, in her comments,

Great post as ever, Julia. I think one of the things we have to do you’re already doing, which is making “fashion” legible as a tangled complex of industrial-capital-state imperatives, underpinned by colonial and imperial structures as well as gender and sexual maps for making meaning, that together operate to determine not just how we as individuals wear our clothes or bodies, but that also dictate how we as social beings are assigned degrees and tiers of value and humanness via our clothes or bodies. The cultural appropriation debates are a perfect example of how these macropolitics are brought to bear upon the micropolitics of a hipster in a headdress. This is hard, hard work, as you know.

A black-clad Asian woman and "critical fashion lover" prepares her Molotov cocktail for the fashion-industrial-state complex.

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