Tag Archives: cultural appropriation

why gwen stefani shouldn’t be your style icon

i originally published this on tumblr in response to a lot of gwen stefani love i’ve seen going around on my dashboard lately. i find it difficult to have engaging conversations on that platform, so i thought i’d repost it here.

gwen stefani in 1998

images not unlike this one circulate around tumblr and the web, often tagged as “inspiration” or “riot grrrl” and “hero.” tinged with a taste of nostalgia for the days of our youth, our budding critical thinking ways, and our need to look up to and admire someone who told people not to be shitty to her just because she was a girl.

i stumbled upon a gif of stefani singing in the “sunday morning” video, with the lyrics “sappy pathetic little me” in the caption. this is new radio posted it with this statement underneath:

I think the absolute best revenge on an ex-boyfriend is write songs about how he wronged you and then HE HAS TO PLAY THEM.

i had to chew on this for a second. yeah, i have to say that sounds like pretty sweet revenge. but… what about this situation? we’re talking about no doubt here, and the relationship between gwen and bassist tony kanal.

the thing is?

gwen stefani is kind of an asshole. i mean, what’s the worst thing tony kanal did? she’s the one who got famous, and he is always in the background (i mean he is the bassist and he is, from my recollection of teen magazines, shy and quiet). meanwhile, her stock kind of skyrockets. she profits from being an “it girl” in both the music and fashion industries, and ends up making bindis and saris popular for a hot minute in the 90s. i literally know nothing about their relationship/breakup other than the fact that it inspired the tragic kindgom record. am i wrong in wondering why she deserves “revenge?” correct me if i’m totally out of line here…

but you might be wondering… why do i think gwen stefani is an asshole?

let me count the ways. ananya mukherjea breaks it down in her essay indo-chic:

Somewhere around 1995, the band No Doubt, with its energetic, effervescent, cute lead-“just-a-girl” Gwen Stefani hit MTV (and North American hearts everywhere) hard. The story was this: the guitarist was this Indian-Californian boy named Tony Kanal and was the love of Gwen’s life for a few years until he dumped her (for being “too clingy”) just before the production of their mega-hit album, breaking her heart. Consequently, every song on the album is written about their break-up and her heart-break. She moved on, eventually, to that guy from Bush; but her sexual/ emotional brush with the East remained significant.

It was there in all these songs, in the interviews where she discussed her fallen relationship at length, and in the videos where she crooned at Tony (who remained silent throughout). Most visibly, it was there in her fashion— in her ever-present bindi and in the expensive sari’s she wrapped around her waist sarong-style, matched with a little bustier. No one ever talked about Tony being Indian (that would be strange and irrelevant, no?) or discussed the myriad complexities of inter-racial romance (again, a different story) or even articulated which subcontinent her fashion was borrowed from (but, why?)… her bindi and sari fabric were just quirky, “new,” and cute— like Gwen, herself. My much-maligned bindi looked attractive, it seemed, on Gwen’s racially different face; and the implicit message seemed to be that the dark and silent Tony had squandered his chance with this girl who featured fusion-sexy (white skin, American attitude, exotic style) so temptingly well.

there are countless other examples (let us not forget that fuckery around literally silencing asian women but using them as props with the harajuku girls) and i’ve definitely got other questions about no doubt (why were the black horn section players never seen as part of the band? why is it okay for a popular californian ska/rock/pop band to just jump from culture to culture to culture for musical and sartorial inspiration?) but in this case, this is the one that comes to mind.

i’m not gonna lie, gwen stefani was a big deal to me when i was a teenager. i blame it on the dearth of strong female musicians in the mainstream rock scene in the 90s – at least for a kid growing up on military bases and whose access to music severly limited. remember, we’re talking about the pre-internet days here. when i think back, i have a hard time remembering what it is i loved about her… i suppose she was one of the first people i saw mimicking style icons of the silent screen, and i loved that she was still boyish and tough while wearing makeup.

a screencap of no doubt lead singer gwen stefani with finger waved hair in the "don't speak" music video.

a screencap of no doubt lead singer gwen stefani with finger waved hair in the "don't speak" music video.

a screencap of gwen stefani in the "excuse me mister video," channeling cherubic silent film star lillian gish or mary pickford.

a screencap of gwen stefani in the "excuse me mister video," channeling cherubic silent film star lillian gish or mary pickford.

unsurprisingly, she was quickly de-throned when i discovered punk music and riot grrl… but still, in ‘96 she was super important to me. it wasn’t until she went solo/i got older that i started realizing how blatantly appropriative she was/is, and i still don’t feel like she’s been properly taken to task on it.

if this 90s revivalism shit keeps picks up any more steam, it looks like i’m going to have to be the one to do it.

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halloween 101 for critical thinkers

halloween is a tricky time of year for me, and for lots of critical folks. i’ve written about it many times over the years, and for the most part it often feels like my concerns and criticisms are ignored. but! this year i’ve found myself pleasantly surprised. i’ve been spotting these interesting articles and images around poor judgement around halloween cotumes scattered across countless different social networks, but thought i might pull them all together into one useful webspace.

consider this your syllabus, and the internet your professor. welcome to halloween 101: for critical thinkers.

firstly, let us conquer the unfortunately all too familiar problem of race drag as a halloween costume:

[Image: A young Native person holding a photograph of two white people dressed offensively and appropriatively in false Native costume holding a sign that says “Me wantum piece…..not war. The text says: “We’re a culture, not a costume. This is not who I am and this is not okay.”]

[Image: A young Native person holding a photograph of two white people dressed in stereotypical Native costume holding a sign that says “Me wantum piece…..not war. The text says: “We’re a culture, not a costume. This is not who I am and this is not okay.”

this is one of a series of posters put together by students teaching about racism in society (STARS).  even they seem surprised by how much attention the campaign has been receiving. it’s a clear message, clearly delivered, and i’m glad to have come across it more times than i can count.

two other good reads that go along the same vein of thinking twice before dressing as two other quite popular halloween costumes, moreso among even “progressive” folks. first, there’s Madeira‘s article, Appropriation of gypsy culture and settled privilege. in it, they address a whole host of issues that romani folks confront year round, but they pay particular attention the fact that while people are calling attention to the blantantly racist blackface/yellowface costumes, people forget about the all-too common gypsy halloween costume.

…People have commented on the problematic nature of “asian flower” and “indian princess” halloween costumes, but no one says anything about this goddamn nonsense (link to a costume called Gypsy Princess at Yandy.com). Do you fucking see that crap?  Yeah it’s called a “gypsy princess” costume. It would be one thing to call it a “fortune teller costume” but no, they went with “gypsy princess.” Not to mention that in traditional Romani culture the lower half of the body is considered unclean… no way in hell would a skirt that short ever be permissible… fuck this.

they do have a point. it is alarming the amount of time certain feminist websites have devoted to picking apart “slutty” halloween costumes (even calling it slutoween), yet paid little to no attention to this more serious issue. i’m with madeira on this one, hopefully we can begin having meaningful conversations and change attitudes around this as an acceptable halloween costume.

the second article that is aimed a bit more at “alternative” halloween costume crowd is the recent trend of white girls deciding to go as sugar skulls. Nuestra Hermana brings us that story with Dia de Los Muertos is not your Halloween:

Dia De Los Muertos developed out of over 2,500 years of indigenous ritual celebrating death and paying respects to loved ones who have passed away. Scholars state that the Aztecs originally held a month long festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the ruler of the afterlife.

After Spanish colonization and many attempts to eradicate the rituals & festival, a new merging with the Catholic holidays All Souls Day & All Saints Day developed over time to what is now Dia De Los Muertos.

the entire article is short and simple, and i recommend reading it yourself. as a general rule, if you’re wondering whether or not your costume is racist or insensitive… it probably is. and you can probably come up with something better.

and last but not least, some laughs. the ever talented jillian tamaki really struck a chord with her “have a sexy little halloween” drawings. i couldn’t choose just one, so i’m posting it here in all its glory… it starts out seeming not all that unreasonable… and gets increasingly hilarious as you scroll down.

what i particularly love about tamaki’s take on this issue is that it doesn’t fall into the all-too-well-trodden slut shaming path, and goes the hilarious route instead. personally, i have no problem with “sexy” halloween cotumes… as long as they are done in a way that is a costume, a character, as opposed to a  “sexy” version of something that isn’t on every other day of the year. especially because they tend to sexualize hard working, underpaid, under appreciated women, namely nurses. but i’m preaching to the choir here. that ends our crash course. here, have a present:

happy halloween.

LINKS:

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