In the iconic 1986 movie, “Pretty in Pink,” actress Annie Potts’ character, Iona, dons a white and black patterned qipao — a traditional Chinese dress — along with a blond wig and dramatic eye makeup designed to make her look Asian. At that less enlightened time, no one complained about Potts’ cultural appropriation of Asian culture. Instead, Potts was praised for her fabulously quirky role.
A decade later, Madonna wore an elegant red Kimono, dyed her hair black and also wore makeup like a Japanese geisha for her music video for her chart topping song “Nothing Really Matters” — a song that had exactly nothing to do with Japan. Yet instead of condemnation for appropriating Asian culture, Madonna received high praise. Reviewers called the video “deliciously subversive,” “daring,” "surreal," and "angular" (whatever that means). One reviewer gushed that the American (of Italian descent) singer is “…a modern-day Geisha.” The video was even nominated for an MTV Video Music Award.
Kind and eccentric Iona and Madonna’s beautiful geisha interpretation could not survive in today’s humorless and quick-to-anger culture. To understand that more fully, one only need consider the reaction to Utah teenager Keziah Daum’s “racist” dress.
It all started after Daum posted pictures of herself and her friends on Twitter before heading off to their school prom. One triggered tweeter named Jeremy Lam replied to Daum with this:
Sometimes these sorts of virtue signaling tweets pass by unnoticed. But Lam’s condemnation of Daum’s choice to wear a traditional Chinese qipao dress had a quality that made it go viral. And it did. As of this writing, the post has 42,000 retweets and 179,000 likes, as well as 20,000 comments. Astonishingly, and perhaps sadly, the man's eight-word tweet also generated thousands of words in opinion pieces and media stories, and obviously the count continues.
In subsequent tweets, Lam defended his attack against the teenager, saying he’s proud of his culture but that, “…for it to simply be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience, is parallel to colonial ideology.”
Yet, in a story for the South China Morning Press, reporter Louis Moon found that instead of outrage at this case of American “colonial ideology,” the Chinese people felt honored by Daum’s choice of dress, saying they view it not as cultural appropriation, but as cultural appreciation. One person interviewed even suggested the Chinese government invite Daum to China to display her dress. No one seems interested in meeting Lam.
And, as the Telegraph reported this week, Chinese Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) users have overwhelmingly supported Daum’s dress choice. One Weibo user wrote, “It means that she thinks our culture is beautiful,” while another pointed out the that the logic can be reversed, saying:
“And if Western people are saying that she can't wear Chinese clothes, does that mean Chinese people can't wear Western clothing — such as a wedding dress? That would be stupid."
So, there’s really nothing to defend. In fact, they don’t seem to care, and rather recognize that Daum’s choice of dress was a show of respect. Moreover, they seemed shocked and a little confused that the American media and the American people would waste so much mental capital on such a silly issue.
Considering all this, it now appears that instead of Daum supposedly practicing “colonial ideology” for wearing a traditional Chinese-style dress, it’s really her critics who practice colonial outrage for having the arrogance to speak on behalf of a culture and a country made up of over a billion people, who apparently have a lot more sense that those living in the West.
The outrage over this dress and Lam’s response embody the newest version of the embarrassing American. No longer the fanny pack and white sneaker-wearing, loudmouth, know-it-all tourist. It’s the perpetually outraged millennial on Twitter looking to be offended, and wasting everyone’s time in the process.