Cultural Appropriation in Burlesque
Hi everyone, I’m Ruby Corvette!
I’m a burlesque dancer of Chinese descent, based in Brisbane (traditionally known as Meanjin). My great grandmother was born in Sydney (Tumbulong) and I grew up in Townsville (Currumbilbarra), which gets its English name from a blackbirder (a slave trader of South Sea Islanders). For those who are unaware, Australia is made up of a number of former British colonies and the population and dominant contemporary culture largely reflects this.
Given the lack of Asian representation in Australian burlesque, it is very important to me to try to use my platform to highlight the contribution of Asian performers to traditional golden age burlesque and many of my solo acts draw on the mid-century “Forbidden City Nightclub” phenomenon or traditional Chinese myths as inspiration for this reason.
Figure 1- Ruby's Peking Opera-inspired costume for her "Return to the Forbidden City" act. Photography by Joel Devereux
Figure 2 Ruby's Ornamental Oriental act, a tribute to Noel Toy. Photography by Joel Devereux
Hand in hand with the celebration of historical Asian American burlesque stars is raising awareness of the challenges still faced by the “Slaysians” of today.
I don’t actually have a tik-tok account, but that didn’t stop me watching a thought-provoking video which addressed the topic of “offensive comments and behaviour”. When something is called out as being offensive it may not necessarily be that it is hurtful to that individual and that individual is weak for having feelings. It could be that the flawed ideology and the expression of such should not be shared in polite society.
Caring for others is what marks humans as being civilised. Anthropologists consider evidence such as broken bones that have healed as being the turning point for humankind where it means that others in a group have cared for, and advocated for, an individual who has been injured rather than just leaving them to die.
Disregarding the impact of your actions and words on the feelings of others just makes you uncivilised by this definition.
Let me begin by saying that I’m not a formally educated expert on issues of cultural appropriation. I don’t have any university qualifications on the subject. I can only provide a perspective as an Asian person living in a British colonised society.
My narrative is quite different to an Asian person living in an Asian country and I expect that because of my feelings of isolation, that I feel more strongly about the portrayal of Asian women in western culture because I don’t have the opportunity to return “home” to a place where I am one of the majority, where I might feel that I belong.
Being an asshole is not illegal.
You have the choice to do whatever you like with the garments, items and feelings of cultures that are not your own. I have become very heavy-handed with the block and delete functions to keep my feeds as asshole-free as possible because experiencing instances of cultural misappropriation and racism can sometimes have a massive effect on my mental health.
But I appreciate that this only helps me and doesn’t help offenders to grow, nor does it prevent other vulnerable people from being exposed to ignorant actions and/or hate.
It is my intention to share my perspective so that others can understand how particular actions can be interpreted by people of marginalised groups. I feel as if there are levels of severity to these types of damaging behaviour – cultural appropriation,
cultural misappropriation and perpetuating racist stereotypes. Cultural Appropriation
Imagine that you grew up in a place where you look different to everyone else except your mother.
The beauty standards that you are bombarded with have different coloured hair, eyes and skin to you.
You are encouraged to look as much like everyone else as you can but you can’t quite because of your genes.
When you consider wearing a dress like your grandmother wore when she was young, you are discouraged from doing so because you will draw attention to your difference.
The penalty for being different can range from being rejected by boys who aren’t into your race or being threatened with violence on a bus because you aren’t welcome in this country.
And then you see a white celebrity on a red carpet wearing a cheongsam and being photographed and praised.
They’ve copied the traditional style and made an expensive couture version that is this year’s trend.
Seeing someone who is already part of the dominant group wearing clothing from your cultural heritage that you can’t wear for fear of discrimination is upsetting.
The message this portrays is “Chinese dresses are fashionable on us but are a symbol of being an outsider who won’t assimilate when you wear them.” Some questions to think about to prevent cultural appropriation: Do I identify as a member of this cultural group? Is this cultural group a minority? Has my own cultural group oppressed this cultural minority in some way? Would I get a different reaction if I wore or used this item
and I was a member of this cultural minority? With respect to wearing traditional Chinese clothing as a non-Chinese person, I feel that it can be hard to understand the line.
There are many places and occasions where it is helpful and/or respectful.
For example, at the Chinese Garden of Friendship in Sydney, customers are invited to have their photos taken in traditional dress.
A fee is paid for the upkeep of the costumes and the gardens.
Figure 3 Ruby at the Chinese Garden of Friendship in Sydney
Wearing a traditionally cut (rather than a more provocatively altered) cheongsam for a night out is relatively benign. And even better if you bought it from an authentic supplier who doesn't abuse their employees!
Exploiting the look to make money, win competitions or wearing the race as a costume (such as in modelling, pinup shoots and pageants) is where I feel it verges on uncool. “Sexy Asian lady” is not a concept for a pinup shoot like “naughty baking housewife”. If you want a Chinese theme to your shoot, maybe try a Chinese model? When you're in a position of influence, what you wear matters more. As Uncle Ben said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Cultural Misappropriation
It is Chinese New Year, the highlight of the year (especially food wise); a holiday that your contemporaries thought was a bit weird when you celebrated it as a kid but now everyone’s into it because Asian food is now mainstream.
One of the big fashion brands is also using the new year as an opportunity to celebrate (getting more sales) with their range of dragon printed clothes.
Except it is not actually the year of the dragon,
but you know, who actually cares about the Chinese zodiac when celebrating Chinese New Year?!
And the designs feature white, which is a bad luck colour because it has conations relating to death…
But who actually cares about Chinese cultural symbolism when celebrating Chinese New Year?!
And none of the models are Asian (probably because there are only a handful of customers who would identify as being Asian cause it is the pinup scene after all) but who actually wants to empower Asian models by giving them jobs and promoting their image when celebrating Chinese New Year?!
When the group in a position of power misuses an artefact or concept from the minority group, especially when they are making money from the exploitation and aren’t even providing an opportunity for anyone of that cultural minority to benefit from the misuse, it is offensive and upsetting.
The message this portrays is “some of your culture is useful to us for the purposes of making money, but we don’t actually respect you as people or want to understand you (or employ you).”
I always feel a combination of amused and indignant when I see people wearing chopsticks in their hair when they want to “look Asian”. Hair sticks are used in traditional hair styles but they are actually different to chopsticks. One time I was particularly annoyed, I joked to a friend that the only situation where it would be appropriate to have chopsticks in your hair would be if you were a Disney Princess hybrid of Ariel (who thought forks were for hair) and Mulan. So for Asian Heritage Month last year, I composed an image to illustrate this unlikely scenario!
Figure 4 A Chinese mermaid styling her hair with spoons and chopsticks
Some questions to think about to prevent cultural misappropriation: Do I know how this artefact is actually used? (for example, note that chopsticks don’t actually go in your hair) Do I understand the symbolism surrounding this practice? Am I taking an opportunity away from a minority cultural group? Am I using the ideas/items of a minority cultural group without them benefiting or being credited?
Figure 5 From a series shot in protest to the cultural appropriation of the traditional Chinese game of Mahjong by misguided white influencers who didn’t think the historical tiles accurately reflected their personalities. Photography by Joel Devereux
There is another phenomenon which relates to cultural misappropriation where the actual action undertaken is not offensive in itself, but the accompanying social media or adverting caption is.
This could involve using outdated, racist or colonial descriptions of a culture as hashtags, treating all Asian cultures as a monolith or tagging anything remotely Asian as being #geisha.
Not all Asian gowns are kimonos. It could be a Chinese Hanfu or a Korean Hanbok, or any other of a number of other distinct national dresses. And not every woman wearing a kimono is a geisha.
If you’re not sure about the origin of the clothing find out what it is before you post about it, wear it or try to make money from it.
Perpetuating Racist Stereotypes
I feel like this is a pretty obvious one to avoid and yet I’ve still attended productions of Avenue Q where Christmas Eve was played by a white woman, and Anything Goes where the Chinese characters were portrayed in yellowface and seen a drag act were the queen was dressed in yellowface, lipsyncing to a broken Asian accent.
This is abhorrent, deeply offensive and really upsetting. The message this conveys is “you’re not actually people and your appearance, customs and culture are a joke.”
Figure 6 The Mikado: a production which should have remained in the 19th century
It is also possible to use racist language and behaviours unintentionally but still cause harm.
Some recent examples of this are the “fox eyes” trend on TikTok where people are using the “slanted eyes” gesture which was used historically (and is still used today) to mock Asian facial features and Cardi B referring to her daughter’s eyes as “chinky” on Instagram without realising it was a racial slur.
Figure 7 The Fox Eyes Trend
In the way that sexist jokes are a gateway to rape culture, jokes that perpetuate racist stereotypes encourage division, dehumanisation and uphold systematic racism in our society, even when the original intention is merely humour. Some questions to think about to prevent perpetuating racist stereotypes: Are the people of this cultural minority being portrayed positively and/or accurately?
Are you doing or saying something that has historically been used as a racial slur? Has someone told you that this might be offensive and you’ve dismissed their concerns because you are “an artist”?
Cheongsam FAQs (for those without Chinese ancestry)
I am often asked questions by those without Chinese ancestry if it is okay to wear certain Chinese clothes, such as a cheongsam, (a distinctive fitted dress with a Mandarin collar.) So, in order to save me some future emotional labour, I will share my standard answers with you:
Can I wear a cheongsam out socially?
Yes. Accessorise as if you are wearing a cocktail dress and avoid makeup that would make the outfit look like a costume.
Can I wear a cheongsam for a photo shoot?
It depends what the photo is for.
It is fine to be photographed in a cheongsam that is for your own for personal memory.
However, if you are undertaking a photo shoot to use the pictures for promotional purposes, advertising, entering competitions or submitting for publishing this could be considered using the fashion of a minority cultural group for your own gain without them benefiting or being credited.
Can I wear a cheongsam for a pinup parade?
Pinup parades are competitions and this would also be considered using the fashion of a minority cultural group for your own gain.
Another thing to note is that the cherry picking of Chinese traditions, items, fashion and food in the “tiki” subculture is deeply problematic.
Can I wear a cheongsam as a fancy dress costume?
This would be considered yellow face.
Race is not a costume.
Can I wear a cheongsam as a burlesque costume?
Under most circumstances, no.
Burlesque is based on parody and inherently undermines the subject. Generally, we want to punch up, not down!
However, there are some situations where you may be learning traditional Chinese dance techniques from an expert Chinese tutor and could be invited to wear an appropriate costume for this dance discipline, which might be a cheongsam.
In this case, listen to your tutor’s guidance to participate in cultural exchange in a sensitive way.
Figure 8 Cheongsam Wearing 101
For some of you, it may seem that issues of cultural appropriation could be an interesting topic to debate and ask “devil’s advocate” questions about, but I urge you to consider that while you may be having an academic, theoretical discussion, a POC could be having an emotionally laborious, deeply personal and frustrating argument advocating to have their feelings considered
and to be treated as human.
There is no need to get defensive about this.
I don’t really need your justifications or your apologies about what you did in the 90s (a cringeworthy time for western appropriation of eastern culture). I also don’t need to be told that I am beautiful because I am exotic, which seems to often be the response when I air grievances about western beauty trends being non-inclusive. I just want people to understand why I think some things are offensive which may not be even be on the radar for those who belong to the cultural majority.
It is my dream that aspiring POC ingénues in our community feel as if they won’t be alone; that we are a safe community who embrace difference, containing people with whom they can identify, who have been celebrated rather than excluded because they don’t fit western beauty ideals.
I want to see our stage lineups reflect the rich cultural diversity of our society at large and I hope that what I have shared with you helps us to achieve this as a burlesque community!
Figure 9 Ruby with fellow #slaysians Chloe the Cocaine, Silly Thanh, Crocodile Lightning, Jazida and Electra Powerhouse
A donation has been made by The Bombshell Burlesque Academy to Ruby's chosen organization