Cultural Appropriation: Is Imitation the Sincerest Form of Flattery?

Angelo Franco


Recently, the Givenchy’s Fall 2015 show garnered critical accolades, as it could be expected from such a major and influential fashion house.  The collection also came under heavy fire for its seemingly careless disregard of the subculture it claimed to have pulled inspiration from.  In the words of the brand’s creative director Riccardo Tisci, the collection was dubbed “Chola Victorian,” borrowing from two distinctively different subjects to create a contrasted look that has become a signature of sorts for the brand.  The runway showcased models with heavy facial piercings, intricate braids, and gelled down baby hairs.  While the brand explained the inspiration behind this look to be the girl that is the “boss of the gang,” some were quick to point out that what this accomplished was yet another instance of purloining from a marginalized group, crossing the very fine line between appreciating and appropriating a culture. 


The etymology of the word “chola” is unclear, but it is likely a modernized form of an Aztec word meaning “dog” or “mutt,” and it was largely used as a derogatory term for Mexican-Americans, particularly lower-class immigrants, until the word was retaken and embraced by that culture as a positive label for themselves and their ethnicity.  Women who identify with this subculture will oftentimes wear bold makeup with dark lip liners and gelled down baby hairs.  This is the reason the Givenchy show raised a few eyebrows, as some felt that the inspiration behind the collection, however good the intention, would be completely lost when gelled down baby hairs can be chic on a white woman, but still be considered ghetto on a Latina or black woman. It is the copying of the aesthetics of another culture that is seemed as problematic when it is being used, in this instance, for financial gain, with a questionable case of celebration or exploitation.  


Cultural appropriation is a dicey subject, not least because there are no given parameters of what can be considered appropriation. This while some hold that it is impossible to “steal” forms of a culture in itself, and that the imitation of it is a human phenomenon that should, in fact, be celebrated.  The term has also become a point of origin for other, wider discussions, including those of race relations and even sexuality.   It is difficult to give the concept a succinct definition, but it is generally regarded as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission,” as author Susan Scafidi puts it.


The popular singer Iggy Azalea has been under constant scrutiny because of her music style since she began to gain notoriety in the industry last summer.  There seems to be a general consensus that Ms. Azalea possesses an undeniable talent for rapping, and her vocals lend themselves to the style characteristic of southern hip-hop.  The issue that is taken up is Ms. Azalea’s cultural background.  Born in Australia as Amethyst Amelia Kelly, she traveled to the United States at age 16 to pursue a career in hip-hop.  In her lyrics, Ms. Azalea raps about the southern experience and the struggle of being a female.  As a result, critics argue that the main reason for Ms. Azalea’s success is due in large part to the novelty of her race, creating a hard juxtaposition between her ethnicity and the southern black culture. 


Ms. Azalea has often handled these types of remarks with the same sort of backlash, arguing that the reason she is looked down upon is because of the sexism that permeates the hip-hop industry, which is dominated by African-American males.  Additionally, her supporters have weighed in that belittling Ms. Azalea simply creates more racial stereotypes, more specifically for blacks and their take on music. 



But by that same token, Ms. Azalea’s appeal can be seen as downright minstrelsy exactly because of that crossover.  There’s reasoning that says it is inappropriate to elevate her status as a true hip-hop artist when black females cannot get the same kind of attention and rewards within the same industry.  Ms. Azalea’s lyrics about the southern black experience may come across are insincere and fabricated because she had the privilege of her race to circumvent the hardships that come not only with being black, but a black female. When she raps, Ms. Azalea does so with a distinctively marked accent characteristic of black culture, while her speaking voice is exempt of these intonations.  While that trait may be seen as downright appropriation, it does beg the question of whether it is necessary.  In other words, if a white female wishes to rap in the southern hip-hop style, what else is she to do?   Should she, if given the opportunity?


Also last summer, the Daily Mississippian published a piece by Sierra Mannie that would then be republished in Time Magazine to a storm of criticism.  In her article, Ms. Mannie calls for gay white males to stop acting with certain respects and mannerisms that are common traits of black women arguing, in a nutshell, that black womanhood is not to be appropriated.  Her piece was met with mixed criticism, expectedly so.  Interestingly, it seemed that the gay community in general seemed to agree with Ms. Mannie’s call for white gays to refrain from appropriating blackness as a culture; it was the issue of womanhood that was at stake here.  Critics responded harshly to Ms. Mannie’s statement of homosexuality as a lifestyle that can be easily hidden—as opposed to the color of the skin—as a choice to be made in order to navigate a Western landscape that culls ideas and differences, both in culture and gender.


But all the instances mentioned above give way to a wide range of discussions about what exactly is being stolen, if that is what is happening at all.  In the case of the Givenchy show, it’s an example of physical aesthetics being repurposed.  Perhaps the use of the term “Chola” may not have been in anyone’s best interest, but the visual representation of their physical appeal may have brought those traits to the vanguard into being accepted as fashionable and, perhaps more importantly, common and normal. 


The issue may remain in regards of a subculture being marginalized because, in part, of their appearance while others of more privilege rejoice in the license given (or taken) to do so.  But it may have also opened a window into the intricacies and hardships of a widely misunderstood culture.  Further, it highlights an irrevocable problem with the issue of appropriation, and that is whether a culture that is in power, in this instance, Western culture, can also be stolen or simply assimilated for survival.  Thus, can or should a woman that identifies herself as “Chola” reject that label to become a more westernized, socially “accepted” model in behavior and appearance?



Similarly, the discussion about Ms. Azalea’s refusal to acknowledge the borrowing of her accent and lyrics from a long established black presence in music is shadowed by her gender.  Would her act be considered appropriation if it were being performed by a Latino musician, for instance?  Eminem and Macklemore, both extremely popular in the own rights, have claimed success while the topic of their race is generally subdued when compared to the criticism faced by Ms. Azalea; and it is for this exact reason that she can cite sexism in her defense.  Granted, it may be her use of Ebonics dialect and songs of the southern experience that calls for reproach, but it may indeed be her intonations that make her music much more “genuine,” even if the topics in her songs may or may not be drawn from personal experience.  After all, is every artist to be expected to sing within the limitations of their experience for the sake of authenticity, especially with a crowded industry of songwriters and producers to pitch in?  One of the singles of Ms. Azalea’s album, “Black Widow,” for example, was written by Ms. Azalea, Katy Perry, Sarah Hudson, and Benny Blanco, none of whom claim an African-American background.


For Ms. Mannie’s part, it must be noted that her article was directed specifically to white gay males.  Indeed, the question of race as a genetic trait that cannot be changed nor hidden can thus be established as far as the color of the skin goes, but not behavior – it may, as a matter of fact, be reprehensible for whites males to act a certain way in imitation of a black female, regardless of their sexual preferences.  But this brings to light a full spectrum of sexuality and femininity, putting in sharp contrast the reasoning behind what exactly is the trait being robbed.  Would a black or Latino gay man fall under this same category of cultural theft?  If not, then it can be said that the seized attribute is womanhood or, perhaps, femininity as a feature novel and specific to women.  This, of course, comes with distinctive repercussions within the dialogue about sexuality: who possesses femininity? Can womanhood be owned?  Given the wide gamut of people who may identify as feminine, from transgenders to gay men and lesbians and even heterosexual males who perceive themselves as less than masculine, this may prove impossible to determine.  


Cultural appropriation remains an eluding topic.  While it may be argued that Western culture demands assimilation, theft of a cultural trait is difficult to pinpoint at best.  It may take the form of hosting a Mexican-theme party or donning a green jacket and fake beard during a St. Patrick’s Day celebration.  In the end, the phenomenon may be working toward a rewarding human experience long in the making for the acceptance of our differences: to be able to replicate traits and features in a post-racial, post-gender political landscape that invites imitation for the sake of celebration rather than for accommodation and adaptation.   



Author Bio:

Angelo Franco is the chief features writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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