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 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 Skarsgård'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.