Feminism: The Many Faces of Appropriation

[Content Note: Liking Problematic Art, Cultural Appropriation, Discussion of Geekdom and Pagan/Wiccan Communities, Religious Discrimination Against Men and Trans People]

Ana's Note: This is one of my many "sounding out thoughts in my head" posts that a lot of people may well (and validly) disagree with. This is also going to combine a lot of extremely touchy subjects into a post that may not be as carefully polished as it could be on account of my throwing up All The Solid Foods Evah today. As a blogger, I get to choose between putting up Perfect Posts Only or keeping my schedule flowing, and for today I choose the latter.

As such, please remember that thoughtful disagreement is valued here, and accusations of bad faith are not. A good litmus test in this regard is the difference between "I respectfully disagree with the OP, and here's my personal viewpoint that makes me feel that way" versus "I respectfully disagree with the OP, because [personal attack on Ana's knowledge, experience, privilege, social status, nationality, gender]". I don't think it's inappropriate to request that the topic stay on the actual topic and not on me as a person. Thank you.

I've been thinking a lot about cultural appropriation lately, especially as I meaningfully eyeball a few animated films on the shelf and mentally poke at how I want to approach them for deconstruction purposes.

And here is the thing: Cultural appropriation is pretty much not a good thing. I don't think that's a controversial position to take, particularly in liberal feminist communities.

But one issue I'm running into again and again is that labeling something individually as "cultural appropriation" (or not) is not nearly as simple or easy as we would perhaps like it to be. And I'm starting to wonder if, outside the really egregious examples, some cultural appropriation ends up being "in the eye of the beholder" in the same way that Problematic Art sometimes is. By which I mean, reasonable people are sometimes going to have room to disagree on what is/isn't Problematic and/or Appropriation.

And now I want to make some clarifications, before getting too much farther in. 

I do believe there are egregious examples of cultural appropriation. The one that sticks in my craw the most, and most obviously (given the site you're on right now), is the appropriation of the real life Quileute people as a plot vehicle for Twilight. I'm frustrated to no end that an author, a publishing house, and much of an entire nation didn't see the downsides to taking a real tribe and, without their permission -- nor without a real, good faith attempt to repair the damage after the books took off if ways that probably no one anticipated -- using their culture and legends to perpetuate (again) the idea that American Indians are animalistic, violent, and not fully human. It grates my teeth to watch Breaking Dawn and see the entire tribe, minus three plucky outcasts, snapping, growling, and brawling over the vital importance of killing an innocent white woman and her unborn baby, with whom the audience is most certainly expected to identify.

On her blog, Natalie Watson makes an excellent point about the ups-and-downs of genuine, obvious, egregious appropriation:

With the Twilight Convention machine in full throttle, people from the Quileute Nation are often featured at these events. However, if my experience at Twi-Con 2009 was any indication, conference attendees have little to no knowledge of the reality of Native American disenfranchisement let alone an awareness of indigenous belief systems/mythologies. At Twi-Con, Anita Wheeler, the only Quileute speaker at the convention, emphasized there are not vampires or werewolves or shape shifters in Quileute legend. She shared that many Quileute people are not happy with the books. Despite her erudite presentation, during which she shared real Quileute stories, the questions from the audience were of the “are you sure there are no werewolves” and “do you have a cute grandson” variety.

Once the panel concluded, the audience (who were visibly frustrated that Wheeler’s stories didn’t include vamps or weres) rushed to take their photos with her. The attitude and actions of some members of the audience pained me in so many ways – most did not care about the true history of Wheeler’s people, they only wanted a FREE souvenir photo to share with their Twi-friends so as to brag “look at me, I met a REAL Quileute.”

The Quileute people are not fodder for the Twilight machine and we should not be celebrating the fact the only reason we care about their history is due to a white Mormon woman appropriating their legends. I get that some good has come of this, but, as thinking fans, we need to ensure more good comes of it – that more people learn more TRUE history about Native Americans and their continuing disenfranchisement in mainstream American culture. Loving a hot Were-boy is one thing, becoming aware of a history built on genocide that has resulted in the decimation of Native Peoples is another. I fully agree with Angela Riley that the “Quileute should be able to have a say in, and benefit financially from, outsiders’ use of their cultural property.”

So this is not a post that says that cultural appropriation flat out doesn't exist or that it's entirely subjective, any more than my Problematic Art post claims that problematic art doesn't exist or that it's entirely subjective. That is not my position. I think that both cultural appropriation and problematic art exist, and that there are egregious examples of both. But I think there are also a lot of complex, hard-to-define, and people-are-legitimately-going-to-disagree examples as well.

In my problematic art piece, I said:

Analyzing art can be less hard, but still not easy. There are some obvious checklists. Does the work contain any people of color? Does the work contain any QUILTBAG people? Does the work pass the Bechdel test? Does the work depict people of any social class other than Privilege McPrivilegeson? Does the work contain characters with a mix of religious and non-religious beliefs? Does the work depict people who have children, people who are childless by choice, and people who are childless not by choice? Does the work contain people who have pair-bonded in a romantic relationship, people who choose not to pair-bond romantically, and people who are romantically involved with more than one person? Does the work contain people of varying cultural backgrounds?

But once you have those lists, what do you do with them? If a work has someone from a non-white cultural background and yet they reject that background, are they a realistic depiction of a modern teenager who forges her own identity without clinging to a cultural heritage that doesn't contain personal meaning for her, or is she a white-washed minority whose background and heritage have been erased to make her easier for author and audience to connect with without having to grapple with multicultural concepts? More generally, if a work contains no people of color, surely that doesn't make the work automatically racist, does it? If a work contains no women, does it make the work automatically sexist? Have I not argued at length that the value in the Bechdel test comes not from scores for individual works, but rather the aggregate picture formed when we realize how few movies, total, barely pass the test, if at all?

These aren't just hypothetical questions; they're things that many of us struggle with on a daily basis.

I still believe that, and what's more, I think a lot of these issues overlap with understanding cultural appropriation and learning to discuss things respectfully across a spectrum where a lot of people are going to disagree.

This week, Melissa McEwan linked to this incredible piece by John Scalzi. But first, some background. At the recent Comic-Con, some women cosplaying as Slave Leia were photographed as a group, and the usual douchenozzery starting making the rounds over the internet as the photograph was circulated. Misty at Shakesville has a good roundup:

The other day, Courtney Stoker, who writes quite a lot on cosplay, called out Simon Pegg on Twitter for his obnoxious behavior regarding women who dressed as Leia-in-metal-bikini at Comic-Con. And what happened to Courtney was everything that always happens: "geek celeb" mocks critic, then sics horde of fans on critic, then horde inundates critic with abuse.

Then the usual thing happened whenever someone says something stupid about female cosplayers: CNN saw its chance and hosted a piece by an apparently Straight White Dude to complain about geek appropriation by "pretty girls" (not "women", you'll note, but never mind -- also the title of the article addresses "booth babes" but the substance of the article is directed at women who pay to attend Comic-Con, and not the other way around, so there's a lot of Fail here to go around) who are only interested in attention! Which we can tell because they are pretty and we are telepathic, natch.

There is a growing chorus of frustration in the geek community with - and there's no other way to put this - pretty girls pretending to be geeks for attention.

And then John Scalzi wrote a rebuttal piece that I agreed with so much I nearly got whiplash from nodding so hard.

Let’s take these women cosplayers, who Mr. Peacock is so hand-flappingly disgusted with and dismissive of. Let’s leave aside, for now, the idea that for those of this group attending ComicCon, spending literally hundreds and perhaps even thousands of dollars on ComicCon passes, hotels, transportation, food, not to mention the money and time required to put together an excellent costume, is not in itself a signal indication of geek commitment. Let’s say that, in fact, the only reason the women cosplayers are there is to get their cosplay on, in front of what is likely to be an appreciative audience.

So what?

[...] So what if her geekiness is not your own? So what if she isn’t into the geek life as deeply as you believe you are, or that you think she should be? So what if she doesn’t have a geek love of the things you have a geek love for? [...] What do you gain from complaining about her fakey fake fakeness, except a momentary and entirely erroneous feeling of geek superiority, coupled with a permanent record of your sexism against women who you don’t see being the right kind of geek?

[...] Geekdom is personal. Geekdom varies from person to person. There are as many ways to be a geek as there are people who love a thing and love sharing that thing with others. You don’t get to define their geekdom. They don’t get to define yours. What you can do is share your expression of geekdom with others. Maybe they will get you, and maybe they won’t. If they do, great. If they don’t, that’s their problem and not yours.

[...] Anyone can be a geek. Any way they want to. That means you too. Whoever you are.

I liked that. Alot. Obviously.

But! There were other people who didn't like it. Other people who have valid opinions of their own, other people who didn't appear to be steeped in misogyny and hatred of pretty women. Some of these people even claimed to be pretty women themselves while still concerned about "poachers" of geek culture. Geek culture appropriators, if you will.

Which brought me back to the topic of appropriation.

One of the main things that seemed to be a point of contention was the idea of "suffering" or "hazing" in order to really belong to a marginalized community like geekdom. The ones who felt the Pretty Girls were appropriating tended to put forth the idea that those girls hadn't really suffered for their geekdom in the ways that Real Geeks had. A comment that stood out to me was this one by Brad:

One of the biggest components of being a geek is ostracism. In the course of trying to live a normal life I’m a stranger wherever I go. There’s a cost associated with being true to oneself for many people.

I’ve paid that cost. I grew up emotionally stunted and socially withdrawn because I’d rather play strategy games than obsess over muscle cars, because I liked reading about leptons and bosons than talking about how many yards some dude passed a football last year. I’ve had to play serious catchup to the rest of the world in the last few years of my life, and I’m a much more well-rounded person now but I still feel an undercurrent of alienation wherever I go (except cons and internet forums, natch).

[...] So yeah. When someone adopts the label of “geek” because they’ve seen a couple of episodes of Doctor Who, or because they remember a TV show from the 80s, or because they sometimes play Madden or Call of Duty, it chafes. I paid a cost for the privilege of being true to myself, and my meager reward is that title. When someone adopts that mantle because it’s the chic thing to do nowadays it diminishes a large part of my life experience.

There are a lot of responses to this idea, and they're responses that I -- personally -- agree with. There's John Scalzi's initial point that, in his opinion, exclusivity of his chosen culture is a bad thing and that inclusivity breeds more "real" geeks than exclusivity ever could, and that that sort of base growth is only beneficial. (An argument that I believe applies differently to different cultures, and should not be construed here as attempting to be a blanket statement for other, non-geek cultures.)

There's Annalee who points out that different people suffer differently, and that presuming a girl hasn't suffered 'enough' simply because her suffering was different is deeply fallacious. There's MeiLin Miranda who reiterates Scalzi's "big tent" points very nicely. There's Samanthathyme who rightly points out that prejudice against geekdom has prevented "would-be" geeks from joining the club, and that they shouldn't be blamed for having to play catch-up. There's Revolver and Onna-Kohaku who dismantle the harmfulness of the hazing "pay your dues" mentality that our society enforces. And there's Daniel who rightly points out that presumed telepathy is a very bad reason to discriminate against people, yes, even Pretty Girls.

All fascinating points, and ones I agree with on this topic. I recommend them for reading; they brightened my day considerably.

But we're back to the original question: What do we do with cultural appropriation?

I do believe cultural appropriation exists. I do admit that I approach the concept a little differently depending on the actual culture being appropriated. For instance, I tend to let appropriation of geek culture bother me a little less (despite self-identifying as a geek myself) than, say, appropriation of American Indian culture (despite not being an American Indian). I suspect that's a question of relative marginalization and historical awareness; I don't think it's a controversial statement to say that American Indians have been (and continue to be) marginalized more as a whole than geeks have been.

But then I think also that part of my approach to cultural appropriation has to do with relative harm and relative power, as I subjectively judge it. For instance, as much as I'm frustrated that the people in charge of the Twilight franchise have persistently chosen not to work with the Quileute Nation in ways that will benefit them for the meaningful long-term, I tend to not really bat much of an eyelash if I see some Random Person at the local mall wearing a Twilight-inspired Quileute shirt straight from CafePress. Arguably, both instances are cases of the same appropriation, but I see the Twilight Franchise People as doing more harm than one Random Person, and I see the Twilight Franchise People as capable of doing more good (and yet choosing not to) than the one Random Person. Relative harm, and relative power.

I think an argument could be made, of course, that enough Random People wearing Twilight-inspired Quileute shirts are causing harm -- after all, where else are the Twilight Franchise People getting their money from? But I still can't find it in myself to be upset at the one Random Person; I don't know their story. Maybe it was a gift they didn't feel comfortable turning down; maybe they're poor and this is their only shirt; maybe it's laundry day and they had to wear something. Maybe they're going to look back on that shirt in a few years and feel ashamed for having participated in cultural appropriation back when they didn't even know what the word meant. Maybe a lot of things.

Of course, this is all just my personal opinion and rambles from my head. Welcome to the ride in between whatever godawful food poisoning I've contracted this week. And that brings me to a subject I love but rarely have the spoons to write about: my own beloved religion, Wicca.

Now, I've already written in the past, in one of my more controversial posts, that in my opinion, the defining factor of being Wiccan is self-identifying as such. I still believe that. And I still remain truly sorrowful that some people in my religion have dedicated so much time and effort into behaving in ways that I feel are divisive and exclusionary. I have read books by Wiccan authors who are intent on claiming the only "right" way to be a Wiccan -- often centered very precisely around details of gods or ritual. I have seen knock-down, dragged-out internet fights on the issues of Single Goddess, Dual Gods, Triple Goddess, and Polytheism and which ones are "allowable" in Wicca. I've personally known a very opinionated pagan who loved to tell the story about the time zie attended a handfasting and the couple invoked [X God] and [Y God] showed up instead and no one else noticed except hir. (Insert smug smile.) I have heard the phrase "fluffy bunny Wiccan" so many times that it now triggers my gag reflex.

I've seen communities insist that men can't be Wiccans because they can't form a real and meaningful relationship with the Goddess. I've heard of gatherings that refused to allow trans women to participate because they didn't really have feminine energy. And, of course, they hadn't suffered like the rest of us had. Having a 'male body', after all, always confers privilege in our society, even if you're a trans woman. Just like, I guess, being a pretty woman in our society always confers privilege and roses and sexual control, even if you're a geek.

I don't actually believe those last sentences. I think girl geeks suffer in ways that boy geeks often don't see or understand. I believe that trans people suffer in ways that cis people frequently don't recognize or imagine. And I think accusing trans women and girl geeks of cultural appropriation for having undergone the 'wrong' kinds of suffering for their chosen culture is a form of intersectionality fail. It happens, even from Marginalized Peoples.

But what do we do in the face of real cultural appropriation? The kind that the powerful people do when they make movies and television shows? The kind that isn't intersectionality fail or someone wearing a t-shirt that they got from their enthusiastic Nan and didn't want to turn down? The kind that has serious relative harm and serious relative power?

I'm not sure.

I've been watching True Blood all month while holed up in bed for recovery. I kind of like the show, as a nice antidote to Twilight. There's a lot of darkness, a lot of "it's not easy being a vampire or a vampire's girlfriend". I like that the protagonist is habitually in love with vampires but has no intention of being one. I like the complex relationship dynamics on display as they have to navigate the pitfalls of such a romance.

And then I hit Season Four. The one where the bogeyman for the season stopped being Vampires, or Werewolves, or Fairies, or Maenads, and started being... Wiccans. As I said to Husband, one of these things is not like the other. Not that Hollywood ever seems to note that.

It would be hard to describe my ambiv-irritation (which is like regular irritation, but with a heavy dash of resignedness) for the portrayal of Wiccans on True Blood. I disliked the fact that no one in an entire coven was willing to point out forcefully that most Wiccans are emphatically not in favor of necromancy, raising the dead, or hurting other people. I disliked the fact that the majority of the coven were not "serious" Wiccans, but openly only there for their friends or because they thought it would be cool. I disliked the fact that the Ancient Necromancer (who appeared to be the Big Bad) actually had more morals and more ambivalence about the Evil Plan than the modern, fluffy bunny Wiccan Medium (who refused to give up her taste for power).

I disliked the fact that Serious Wiccan and True Blood Waitress, Holly, is portrayed as an interfering busy-body (when she's not a ditz who carries around a giant can of salt in her purse because she might have to create a circle at any time!) who offers her boss an herbal remedy to lower his testosterone levels based on her seeing him lose his temper. (There's a reason why "do no harm" is the biggest rule in Wicca, and "do not freaking give people herbal remedies that they don't ask for" is a huge part of that in my opinion.) I disliked the fact that Serious Wiccan and True Blood Sexy Nurse, Jesus, pushes his boyfriend into being a part of the circle, even though he doesn't want to be. (Even going so far as to tell the others that he's joining, when he has no intention to. Full-on Twilight Tyler vibes.)

I heavily disliked the fact that all Wiccan magic in the show is accompanied with "sacrifice" and blood spilled. That is not what athames are for, and your average Wiccan athame is barely sharp enough to cut warm butter. (Child safety!)

I don't feel like it's incorrect (for me) to personally place True Blood's portrayal of Wicca tentatively into the Cultural Appropriation bucket. Subjectively-speaking, that's how it came across to me. And I don't really like cultural appropriation of Wicca and our underlying goddess traditions; our cultural has been so systematically destroyed and appropriated that it's still controversial to claim that we even HAVE a culture pre-Gerald Gardner. (I, personally, believe that we do, but I have to make do with belief. What goddess traditions and magic beliefs preceded us have been largely erased through conscious effort by their historical peers.)

But at the same time, I recognize that Cultural Appropriation is... complicated. I didn't like how True Blood approached Wicca (though I managed to enjoy the season anyway, largely thanks to Alexander SkarsgÄrd's acting), but I hold a soft spot in my heart for Charmed, very probably because it brought Wicca to my notice at a time when I needed to be introduced to it, and it portrayed magic in a positive light -- very probably the first television show I'd ever seen that did that. (Although Charmed did have its fair share of "magic messes things up" episodes, those episodes were far from the entire lineup. I have always detested shows where magic makes everything worse, all the time, to the point where you wonder why they even bother with it.)

Not all Wiccans share my positive feelings about Charmed, you'll note.

And this is where I think we leave off. Because Cultural Appropriation, like Problematic Art, exists. It carries the potential for both harm and good: a problematic or appropriative piece may well be allowed to impressionable children in a way that truly liberal pieces are not. (Example: Disney's Pocahontas was the only thing I was allowed to watch as a child that presented pantheism in a positive light and allowed American Indians to be the Calm Good Guys while White People were the hasty, greedy, impressionable assholes. Problematic as all get out, yes. A positive portrayal that would have been denied to me had it been even more liberal, unfortunately so. Seriously, we had Discussions At Church about Pocahontas being a Bad Influence, Because Pantheism and Anti-Patriotism and it just barely fell into the Okay For Children bucket. I do not know if Disney planned that. I doubt it, but I've always wondered.) But the good that an appropriative or problematic piece does for Bob doesn't strike out or render meaningless the harm that it does to Alice.

If Bob argues otherwise, and tries to invisible Alice's harm, he's an asshole. But if Bob acknowledges Alice's harm, surely there's nothing wrong with him respectfully sharing the good that he did receive, is there? I think not. I hope not. 

And somehow I think we're left in the same place as before. When presented with a problematic piece, I try not to deny or erase someone else's feelings, even while I cannot deny or erase my own. We make decisions on a day-to-day basis, holding up pieces of art like fabric swatches and saying Is this appropriative? Is this? What about this? and we respond, and recommend, and caveat, and discuss with the best intentions that we can.

Sometimes we step on each other's toes. We apologize, but we keep walking. I don't know how to do it any other way.


JarredH said...

Good post. I really have nothing of value to add. As for something of no value....

I've seen communities insist that men can't be Wiccans because they can't form a real and meaningful relationship with the Goddess.


Thousand said...

Good post. I agree with Scalzi's point of view - though myself I suffered during my adolescence for my interest in science and science fiction and fantasy over more typical past-times, I do not feel that allowing anyone else to identify as a nerd or geek or whatever they want to self-identify as harms me or infringes on any part of me, and would rather fewer people suffered from ostracism from any community; I disagree with pretty much all arguments against widespread acceptance to people in this particular subculture.

On the topic of Wiccan portrayals in fiction, I've been marathoning through the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series for the past while (for the first time; I only caught a couple episodes ever when it was first airing on TV). Initially (season 1) there was an episode with a witch, but it had basically no connection to wiccanism (instead hitting all the fairy-tale/disney-style tropes of evil witches) in that episode. Later in seasons 2-3 they seem to retcon in Wiccans as a major magical force, and have one of the major characters identify as a Wiccan. I haven't yet started season four, so perhaps it changes or improves, but as of now from my point of view the show portrays the religion quite badly, with it being solely a source of magical powers and spells and rituals rather than any sort of ethical teachings or theology, and it seems to be a majorly problematic portrayal as a whole. However, my point of view is that of an atheist who has only deeply studied the Abrahamic religions, with exposure to Wicca from other sources coming mostly through the medium of fiction; I'd appreciate any opinions from those who are more knowledgeable than I.

Dragoness Eclectic said...

And here is the thing: Cultural appropriation is pretty much not a good thing. I don't think that's a controversial position to take, particularly in liberal feminist communities.

It appears I am a contrarian, then: I don't believe that cultural appropriation, as defined by anthropologists and Wikipedia here, is a bad thing. In general, I think it is a good thing, because it encourages people to see other cultures as interesting and benign and even "part of us" instead of the Evil Other. Saying that "cultural appropriation" (as defined by anthropology) is a bad thing is saying that learning to cook Chinese food or even liking Chinese food if you are white is Bad. (Yes, I used reductio ad absurdem; hopefully it makes my point clear.)

Using a real live group of people (the Qilute Tribe, in your example) as stand-ins for savage beasts out to kill the white wimmens strikes me as libel, not cultural appropriation. This is more akin to the Blood Libel against Jews than "appropriation" of anything. Ditto for depicting Wiccans as blood-sacrificing, necromancy-using evil occultists (or demon-worshippers, depending on the work)--that's just plain libel (in the propaganda sense, not the strictly legal sense).

Ana Mardoll said...

FWIW, I would draw a difference (in my lexicon) between "cultural exposure" and "cultural appropriation", but then again I don't get to control how people use words.

Re: Buffy, We're still in Season 1, but I'm afraid I've only ever heard bad things about its portrayal of Wicca. Really, I can't think of any television shows that have handled Wicca reasonably accurately, but ah well.

Will Wildman said...

I would say (having seen the vast majority of the Buffy series, but some years back) that as I recall, they reference Wicca as a theology about as frequently as they reference Christianity as a theology - that is to say, religions are useful for the weapons they provide (crosses, holy water, magic) and there is an occasional but minimal awareness that there may be some philosophies and such acting as a foundation to the armory. (In terms of firepower, the Christian weaponry shows up more frequently - a cross is to a vampire slayer what a spoon is to a cook - but Wiccan magic gets more impressive day-saving impacts.)

So, yeah - extremely shallow, at the very least. And while it may be just as shallow for Christianity, there are a lot more people who already have an idea of what Christianity is, and more Christian people with platforms to explain the depth of their religion.

Gelliebean said...

I'm not great at discussing/recognizing cultural appropriation, as in: once someone points out something that he/she finds problematic, I can look at it and say "Oh, yeah, I can totally see why you would feel that way" and it makes sense.... But I don't often recognize a lot of these things until someone tells me explicitly what the problem is and why it's a problem. I'm slowly getting better at it with more exposure to different kinds of things that fall into that category.

Incluision v. exclusion: I have a friend whose interest in things lasts only so long as he can feel exclusive in enjoying them. Things that he previously loved, he will drop once they've gained mainstream popularity (almost always 'sold out' in his words). Most especially music - he looks for European bands that aren't well-known in the U.S. and gets upset the more of a following they earn.

To me, that indicates that the satisfaction he finds is due at least, if not more, to the feeling of being exclusive than it is in listening to music he really enjoys. After all, the more of a following a band has in the U.S., the easier it is to find CDs, concerts, etc. and the more accessible their product is - which also encourages them to keep producing music. He also doesn't recognize the irony in that if he really wanted a band to remain unknown, joing the group of people buying their product and creating a demand isn't really a way to discourage them from expanding in a particular market. :-P

Marie Brennan said...

Saying that "cultural appropriation" (as defined by anthropology) is a bad thing is saying that learning to cook Chinese food or even liking Chinese food if you are white is Bad.

That isn't just reductio ad absurdam; it's a misrepresentation of anthropology. Cultural appropriation, in your scenario, would be ripping off a couple of cosmetic ingredients or dish types from Chinese food without bothering to pay attention to the rest of it, then marketing yourself as a guru of Chinese cooking, in a fashion that makes it hard for actual Chinese cooks to market their own food, and winds up with them being accused of "inauthentic" cooking because their dishes aren't like the ones you invented.

I can make it even clearer by switching to, say, Egyptian cooking, or some other culture that is majority-Muslim, and then saying your "Egyptian" food features some culture-suitable spices . . . used to flavor pork. Or, y'know, Twilight fans being mad at Quileutes for not having suitable Native Legends about European concepts. That is what appropriation looks like.

(I say this as somebody who quit just shy of a Ph.D. in anthropology, and has a bachelor's degree in the subject. I also have a rant on what "cultural relativism" does and does not mean, but I'll spare everybody that one.)

Marie Brennan said...

And I'm starting to wonder if, outside the really egregious examples, some cultural appropriation ends up being "in the eye of the beholder" in the same way that Problematic Art sometimes is.

I tend to think that's self-evident. I discussed this at one point with a fellow writer, when I had an idea for a short story that would have been based on a particular Lakota concept. The other writer is herself Lakota, but as she told me, even if she read the story and said it was good and respectful and non-appropriative, that wouldn't guarantee that other Lakota would feel the same. If it isn't in the eye of the beholder, then we loop back around to one person being the Official Representative of Their People -- and the problems with that are obvious.

You also have me thinking about Scalzi's "Lowest Difficulty Setting" piece, and a response I saw that accused him of "appropriating" gamer culture for "speculative fiction" purposes. Which . . . um. I kind of have to take the politeness filter off for a moment here, because the problems I have with that statement are huge. It elevates "being a gamer" to the status of "being Native American" or "being black" or "being Chinese" or whatever, which I think is massively overstating the case. (One is a hobby sub-culture adopted by choice. The others are not.) It ignores the vast overlap between "gamer culture" and "speculative fiction culture." It assumes that Scalzi himself does not count as a gamer (in a piece that goes on to decry belittling somebody as a "casual gamer" as a horrible, horrible insult). It implies that there is some kind of horrible misrepresentation going on in the use of the difficulty-setting metaphor, one that erases the voice of Authentic Gamers, with tragic consequences for the oppressed gamer community.

I could go on, but I won't.

The term "cultural appropriation" is not without use, but I also want to be careful when and where I use it. Generally I'd prefer to skip the shorthand and get into the details: to talk about where a thing is inaccurate and what the consequence of those inaccuracies might be, to discuss the context of its production and reception and the problems (or good!) that might come of it. Not only does that give the audience more information, it helps avoid the pitfall of assuming everybody has the same reaction, which they very well may not.

Dav said...

Besides the issue with inappropriate comparisons, geekdom has *never* been solely its stereotypes. It's never just been young white middle-to-upper-middle class socially ostracized Nice Guys. Women were fans of the original Star Trek series (including fanfic). People of color watch anime. Attractive, popular people play games. What I've noticed is an increasing insistence that "geek culture" only extends to the stereotypical geek circa 1985 or so. That is, we're trying to make culture match what is, for many, the childhood image of geekdom. This includes such ridiculousness as trying to define "hard-core" gamers as those who play games most like those circa 1985-1996. (Now that FF3 is available as a mobile "casual" game, I hope that will stop, but more likely, Final Fantasy will just get recategorized as a casual game.)

The lack of attractive women in geekdom is an ontological truth, despite the fact that it was never true.

There should probably be a word for the insular, misogynistic, racist, homophobic sub-subculture that is one highly visible point of geekdom, but I don't know what it is.

Lonespark said...

Not to the end yet, but the Relative Harm, Relative Power, Relative Possible Good scale/rubric/multidimensional plot thingie is great, and reminds me of a thing candidate Obama said about environmentalism and environmental policy. Basically that personal/family changes are great, and important, and emotionally/spiritually healthy/satisfying, but that really doesn't have the impact of large-scale policy change enacted by a government or large corporation, just because of the scale considerations. It takes a lot of effort and energy to convince 10 of your neighbors to use different lightbulbs, but that doesn't make the same difference to energy conservation that a line-item in a regulation by even a state or local government could...

Ok, so Obama didn't say all that. He said, basically, "You want to know what I, personally do to be greener? I'm running for president to steer the US economy away from fossil fuels. That will make a huge difference. Who the f*** cares what kind of lightbulbs I use?"

But, yeah, so that. I think it can apply to things like racism, sexism, ablism, healthcare access, etc. What you do on a personal level matters, but the policies you do or don't support can have a massive impact on a lot of people, including the ones you personally interact with.

Lonespark said...

But if Bob acknowledges Alice's harm, surely there's nothing wrong with him respectfully sharing the good that he did receive, is there?

No, I don't think so. More speech is generally good, but...
There's a place and time. Having to hear about the Good Parts could be pretty terrible for Alice, so if it's supposed to be a safe-ish space for her, Bob might be out of line.

cjmr said...

On the one hand, Twilight is definitely on the cultural appropriation side of the line WRT the Quileute.

OTOH, the popularity of Twilight has sparked enough of an interest in the Quileute language that it might get at least ONE more generation of speakers before it goes extinct. Which would be a good thing.

Silver Adept said...

Re: Buffy treatment of Wicca - it does not get better. Even when we meet another Wiccan in a later season who's not evil, although she does talk to Willow about the nature of power corrupting. (We also get, in that same season, a demon that decides not to destroy Sunnydale and not to take the person that summoned him back to his dimension because, well, it's a guy. HomOhNoBro.)

Content note for derogatory terminology

Re: Geek culture and "pain" - I think this might highlight a facet of the idea of cultural appropriation - usually, when applied, at least when I've heard it, it indicates someone doing something that will cause active harm to the culture they are appropriating. The concept of (pardon the crude expression) "wiggers" (which is itself derived from an insult), for example, or the presence of certain Native American mascots and/or the "tomahawk chop".

For geeks, the perceived harm is that if mainstream people can be seen as part of the club, then mainstream people will not appreciate the depths of their knowledge and ability in their chosen geekdom, or will see them simply as obsessed people who need to "get a life" and discount them further. Which is bollocks, but I can see where people want a place to belong to and defend from outsiders.

I think that shared pain is one of the easiest ways of identifying with your group. And that the experience of shared pain makes you not want to have more of it done. At least, if you have time and spoons to do so, and you're not trying to fight twenty fronts at once.

Stellar quality as always, Ana. Even more so considering it's fighting off food poisoning, too.

Ana Mardoll said...

Thank you for the summary. This response is not in any way meant to pick on you, so I dearly hope it doesn't come off that way. I'm just hoping to use this line as a bouncing off point:

The college coven is pretty much a caricature, but then if Buffyverse magic existed, people who practised ineffective-to-undiscernible "magic" *would* seem pretty ridiculous.

This sentence highlights a very common misconception -- thanks to Hollywood, I do believe -- that most Wiccans come to Wicca for the spells. And if something better came along, 90% of the Wiccans would jump ship to go get on the better thing, with the other 10% being silly or foolish.

What most people do not realize -- and I don't blame them for this because very few people have positive, real world exposure to Wicca -- is that many Wiccans (possibly most) are not there for the spells. Wicca is also a religion and a belief system; coming to Wicca entirely for the spells would be like coming to Christianity because you believe prayers are magically effective and you can get that pony you've always wanted. I mean, I'm sure someone has done precisely this, but they're going to get disappointed and leave pretty quickly.

I rarely practice magic, and I'm not unusual in the Wiccan world for that. If Buffyverse magic came along, I might take that up as I can see it having a lot of potential benefits, but my essential Wiccan religion would probably not change. What is distressing about Hollywood portrayals of Wicca is that it usually focuses 100% on the magic and 0% on the religion and ethics, even to the point of discarding the latter -- if Buffyverse magic comes along, then that frequently becomes the New Wicca, with zero discussion of how the Buffyverse magic might conflict with the religion itself. ARGH ARGH ARGH.

(Example, in a world where the available Buffyverse magic is *only* aggressive attack magic, there would have to be A Great Many Conversations. That wouldn't just automatically become the new face of Wicca because, hey, it's magic!)

As noted above, this stereotyping absolutely happens to Christians as well -- they're co-opted as exorcists and vampire hunters on a regular basis -- but there are at least references to Christian beliefs here and there in movies as they struggle with conscience and doubt and concepts of forgiveness. I'd love love love to see Wicca accepted as something a character could struggle with.

Divya Jagadeesan said...

I found John Scalzi's post to be so reassuring on so many levels. I have always personally considered myself a geek. However I am not an american and I do not have any of the cultural experiences that people seem to typically associate with geekdom. I started of playing Mario on an old China made gaming system and never realized until much later that Mario was a cultural phenomenon. Later I started playing Age of Empires II furtively on my college computer lab machines and was pretty much hooked for life. I am definitely not a hardcore gamer, I still play on casual or normal at the most and pretty much stick to RPG games. (FPS's make me want to throw up). I have never been ostracized for my interests because in the culture that I come from, this is no big deal. In fact in my case personally, people have vastly overestimated my intelligence :) for being so well versed in weird foreign people culture. I have always worried about considering myself a geek because I am not a hardcore gamer and my fandoms are all popular fandoms (LOTR, Harry Potter etc) but John Scalzi put so much of my fears to rest. Maybe one day, I might even attend PAX :)

Silver Adept said...

@Ana re: vampire slayers and exorcists versus Wiccans - perhaps because in Hollywoodland, the power to exorcise or use the symbols is always based on inner strength and faith, where Wicca and other magic-type beliefs are always predicated on some sort of external power that fuels the magical ability, whether divine or demonic? Thus, one can have the powers sealed or taken away, but the exorcist has to find their inner strength again. Even when the documentaries take a swing at magic practice, they tend to focus on the external components of it, like ritual, rather than the inward-facing ones. Makes for better television and/or exoticising, I guess.

Still lots of Argh!, though.

Lonespark said...

Standing in line at the grocery I happened to see Entertainment Weekly's cover, featuring Big Bang Theory. I've never watched that (or, maybe like a teaser and a stray minute), but I get the impression from friends who do that it's a candidate for something that "appropriates" aspects of geekdom in a demeaning way.

Hollywood Science is pretty insulting to science, and Hollywood Religion tends to insult and/or erase a lot of beliefs and cultures and people who hold them and struggle with them... I am trying hard to think of a movie I have seen that really evinced respect for science. On the religion front I can think of a small handful, but must consult IMDB or something to look up the right names.

Lonespark said...

Also on Tumblr there's oppressedbrowngirlsdoingthings. I'd say it deals more with demeaning/dismissing POC culture and accomplishments in service of the Allegedly Feminist White People's Burden, but awesome anyhow.

graylor said...

The only recent movie I can think of that respects science (sort of) is the Star Trek reboot, when you go from explosions and chaos on board to the dead silence of space. I remember feeling very proud in the theatre that they got it right. ... Then a planet was turned into a black hole and time travel happened and probably other unlikely things I've forgotten. Er. *hand wave* Star Trek bows to physics on a case-by-case basis.

Lonespark said...

Cosign times a million on what Ana said about Wiccans and magic and spells and theology and ritual and religion. It applies to other pagans, too. And probably to diasporic and traditional religions to varying degrees.

Rikalous said...

There should probably be a word for the insular, misogynistic, racist, homophobic sub-subculture that is one highly visible point of geekdom, but I don't know what it is. The closest term I can think of is "neckbeard," which I tend to see used to mean "geeks who make the rest of us look bad."

Taryn Fox said...

I feel like any reason why cultural appropriation is bad would have to do with empathy, and how a person with functioning empathy should know it is Not Okay to talk over a less privileged group of people and make money from them and define them to others.

But at the same time, empathy is what makes other people's cultures and spiritualities and identities compelling. Empathy lets us know that the world doesn't have to be this way, that we don't have to be this way, that there are things out there we find sacred. Empathy causes cultural appropriation. And it's the reason I think more people need to write posts like yours and talk about how it's not automatically bad for someone to like something problematic, or how it's not automatically problematic to like or to claim to be something you're not "allowed" to.

I wrote more about this on my journal.

Loquat said...

a very opinionated pagan who loved to tell the story about the time zie attended a handfasting and the couple invoked [X God] and [Y God] showed up instead and no one else noticed except hir. (Insert smug smile.)

Seriously? That's hilarious.

It also fills me with questions. Like, do [X God] and [Y God] have similar/overlapping functions, such that Y might reasonably fill in for X if X happens to be too busy to respond to an invocation? And is Y the sort of deity who'll fill in as a favor to X but expect humans to notice and appreciate Y, or the sort who'll expect humans to carry on as if they'd gotten X and see it as a faux pas for anyone to point out that Y's filling in? Or is Y just something of a party-crasher who happened to be in the neighborhood and saw a gathering of friendly humans?

(Yes it's true, the "how does this work?" part of my brain never ever turns off.)

Ana Mardoll said...

If I recall correctly, X was a god of steadfastedness and thus the sort of person you would expect to call in a wedding, and Y was a god of tempests, anger, and sundering, and thus the sort of person you likely would not go out of your way to call as an officiant at a wedding. Zie saw this as something of an omen regarding the marriage, I believe.

But, really, zie was just very very VERY smug that no one else 'noticed' that Y was there instead of X. With the implication being that zie was the only True Believer capable of seeing gods.

I had... my own interpretation of the event, which I did not feel called upon to share with hir.

Loquat said...

Ah, so the individual in question figured the marrying couple was a bad match and was likely on the lookout for signs which might support that opinion, with a dollop of "I'm a better follower of this religion than all the rest of you people" on top?

I'm still having fun with the concept, though. I mean, who's to say Y doesn't get the occasional urge to take a break and chill out at a human celebration? Just because a deity oversees anger and sundering professionally doesn't mean it wants to do that 100% of the time, you know? It's like the divine equivalent of how some people meet a doctor at a party and immediately start talking about their weird aches and pains and fishing for free medical advice - the assumption that this person/deity has no interest in anything but their job. I just have this mental image of an annoyed deity going "No, seriously, I needed a break from anger and storms and X was swamped with marriage invocations, so, long story short, I'm what you get. Now, what does it take to get a drink around here?"

★☆ keri ☆★ said...

Lonespark: I get the impression from friends who do that it's a candidate for something that "appropriates" aspects of geekdom in a demeaning way.

I don't like Big Bang Theory, but my parents watch it, so I end up seeing episodes from time to time (I live with my parents). It comes across to me as though the creators of the show and everyone who laughs at it are demeaning me. Sheldon is a central character and is often the source of humor - laughing at his geekery, but also his social awkwardness (and now and then his absolute inability to not recognize his own White Male privilege is treated as a joke). I don't like the way women are treated in the show, either, speaking of... But basically, I see a lot of myself in the characters, especially in that I am a Know It All - I just learn facts easily and I get excited to share what I know, and sometimes that means I get a bit overbearing or whatever (which is something Sheldon does a lot? and I've tried to tone it down, but tbh, I'm Girl-Type on the autistic spectrum, so I have to work hard to be aware of how I'm coming across sometimes).

So, basically, I am a Know-It-All and socially awkward like many of the characters on the show, and I'm asexual/lesbian-leaning and not conventionally attractive... note that the 3 major female characters are 1) ditzy and attractive and not at the same level of geek/smarts as the men; 2) scientist, awkward, and not conventionally attractive (hollywood homely) (also she is potentially bisexual, which is often treated as kind of disturbing?); 3) scientist, more conventionally attractive (but dressed up as hollywood homely in a lot of episodes I've seen), but treated as dumb.

A lot of people think that I would like the show, because of the Know-It-All geekery thing and I like science (even if my work is in the arts), but in the first seasons especially, I came away feeling like less of a person. And the people (family) who recommend it to me or watch it when I'm around don't understand this. Or you have the fandom online who claim I'm completely misinterpreting things, to the point where I wonder if I am? and then I sit with my parents the next time they watch, and I still feel very uncomfortable.

But, then, they don't also seem to understand the misogyny and repulsiveness of 2-and-a-Half Men. Both are CBS series, and I don't think that's a coincidence.

storiteller said...

I've never watched [the Big Bang Theory] (or, maybe like a teaser and a stray minute), but I get the impression from friends who do that it's a candidate for something that "appropriates" aspects of geekdom in a demeaning way.

It's weird. The show swings wildly between being making genuinely funny geeky jokes and making fun of the geeks who "get them." It's like one of the "uncool kids" in high school making a joke to the "cool" kids that falls flat (but is funny to the geeks) and then saying, "But then, those nerds would think that was funny, but it's totally not, amiright?" It also occasionally touches on issues with some level of emotional depth from a nerd point-of-view, like whether your significant other must share your geektastic interests or if there's a point at which you're too old to collect "toys," but then skirts away from them immediately. It's too bad, because I think it could be a really good show if it was well-written and the characters were tweaked some. It's a show I want to like and sometimes find funny, but also find problematic in a very unenjoyable way.

There's also the issue that the character of Howard is seriously creepy and his tendency to completely objectify women is laughed off. That's one thing I like about The Guild - Zaboo is a very similar character, but his exaggerated objectification is both shown as deeply creepy and as the logical end-point of the "nice guy" attitude.

But, then, they don't also seem to understand the misogyny and repulsiveness of 2-and-a-Half Men. Both are CBS series, and I don't think that's a coincidence.

They're also from the same creator/production company, so that's far from a coincidence.

★☆ keri ☆★ said...

They're also from the same creator/production company, so that's far from a coincidence.

I didn't realize! "Mike and Molly" must be, too, then? It's another one that upsets me to watch. I'm glad that my parents have mostly given up on it so I don't even have to listen to it while I read in the next room. All the fat jokes were never, ever funny.

Mira said...

This is a really thoughtful post and respectful comment discussion, thanks. Too often, the issue comes up and people are like, "But why can't I do whatever I want if I mean well?"

I think appropriateness and harm are relative and context dependent, and I agree with Taryn Fox that the core of the issue is empathy. On that note, I think it is important to listen to critiques differently based on the background of the person making them, though. There are a couple of reasons for that.

First, in in majority, Anglo-influenced American culture there's a presumption that individual freedom is paramount and artists should have broad rights to recombine or reinvent what they want - but that is not the case in many indigenous cultures, where there is such a thing as sacred, privileged, or insider knowledge. Saying that an artist gets to use indigenous symbols in whatever way s/he wants as long as it's "respectful" is inherently disrespectful of the values of another culture. So what makes something "respectful" isn't the artist's intent, it's how their work actually takes into account the social context of the material. And you can't get that without talking to the people to whom it belongs.

Second, cultural appropriation affects people differently based on whether they're part of the culture being appropriated. I know Ana wants our comments to be based on substance and not her background - but I think it DOES matter that she's Wiccan, and it DOES matter that Anita Wheeler is Quileute, because they're the ones we should be more concerned about in judging whether appropriation of their traditions is OK. Thanks to histories of marginalization, we *should* pay more attention to the judgments of the people in those groups. And when people in those groups disagree, which they sometimes do, I personally think it's best to err on the side of just not doing it.

(Disclaimer: I'm a white anthropologist who studies mixed Native and African American communities and I worry about crossing this line all the time by saying something people in those communities disagree with, or merely appropriating their histories by making a living doing it, *especially* in communities with lots of internal divisions. So I recognize that sometimes this is messy and complicated and hard and if I screw up, the best I hope to do is beg forgiveness and not be defensive.)

MotherDemeter said...

I lead a pagan group for an airforce base group and one thing we try to talk about is how there is a deep and spiritual religion - many religions in fact - in paganism. That Wicca is one such, highly varied and personal, but still a religion with theology, values, a way of life. That isn't to say that the spell craft in Wicca isn't religious, but to be religious you don't need the spells. Many forms of witchcraft - divination, herbology, chants, etc - have divergent histories that are not necessarily part of an earth based faith practice.

I have had a couple people enter and leave the group because their focus was learning to cast spells. One was a young woman who wanted to have a spell to change her eyes to green. Too much watching the Craft for that one I think. We just recently discussed how while going through instruction for a first degree, one man recalled 4 of the 6 people studying with him dropped out after the first few months. I am not sure if Hollywood is fully to blame but it certainly isn't helping.

On somewhat another level, I also caution new people to neo-paganism (whatever brand they follow) to be careful of appropriating other cultures. Even their own - if they don't take the time and work to study thoroughly before incorporating symbols, stories and deities they won't have a solid foundation and may end up being quite offensive (to the gods they invoke and to other people). I especially have reservations about people who have an interest in Native American culture (with or without tenuous heritage). I tell them to study for sure, but if they truly have an interest to go to the tribe directly. I can't handle the neopagan white girl in a headdress stuff anymore!

A man who is a sort of Wiccan- Cherokee hybrid attended my group until he moved, but he is Cherokee and attends religious training with his tribe when he is able to. He was a good resource for people on what to do, and what not to do.

On Buffy's portrayal of Wicca, I just have to sigh and roll my eyes (like Trublood). I guess I am just used to it by now. One movie that I admit I love is Practical Magic, though I wish they could have interwoven a bit of Goddess worship at the least. It is such a fun female -centered movie even with the ridiculous zombie/ ghost plot. I thought the lesson of the story was true to Wicca though, and a good pagan story should really be lesson-focused. So it's not the lack of realism in 'cast-a-spell-wicca' in hollywood that bugs me, but that they don't even use the fairy-tale style magic to make a morality lesson. The only lesson they tend to give is that using magic is evil. Round and round it goes...

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