Stereotypical perfomances and lack of critical thinking

Last week Katy Perry had a “Japanese”-inspired performance at the American Music Awards. (I won’t post a link to it here, but you can look it up for yourself on Youtube.) When a bunch of angry articles started appearing in my newsfeeds, I had to see it for myself.

While the over-the-top performance was admittedly visually stunning, it was completely stereotypical, offensive, and just wrong in soo many ways, from her sexy, cleavage-bearing skintight Halloween costume (a mutation from the kimono and Chinese cheongsam), to the strange, repeated un-Japanese bowing with hands together, to the non-Asian dancers shuffling around on stage, to the fake taiko-playing. It was the epitome of twisting of cultural “appreciation” into cultural “appropriation”. However, as an English teacher in Japan I of course had to ask some of my students. I showed the video to one of my four classes and to a group of students at English Conversation (lunchtime) Circle.

Surprisingly, yet maybe not so surprisingly, responses were a bit underwhelming. Perhaps it was because they were caught up in the flashiness of the performance rather than looking at certain details. One girl (who actually spent much of her life in New Zealand) even said that maybe it was a good thing that Katy Perry was raising interest in Japanese culture. My problem with this answer of course is that while many viewers might take the time and effort to learn about the real Japan, many more viewers will not, or even worse, think, “Wow, she really pulled that geisha thing off!”

Many Japanese college students and young people unthinkingly love flashy performers like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. One aspect that has bothered me about Japanese education is that it seems as if though students are hardly ever demanded to think critically, whether in English or their own language. (Essays and research papers aren’t often part of the curriculum, which is the complete opposite of my experience from middle school until I graduated from Oberlin. Our second essay task for my writing class was a comparison essay (Japanese and American movies), and even that seemed to produce a bit of confusion.) In any case, because so few students were willing to speak their opinions about the performance, I used it as a segue to an open discussion about cultural stereotypes.

Here are some American stereotypes my students came up with:

  • hotdogs, hamburgers, BBQ
  • scary
  • guns (everyone has them, walks around with them, or at least knows how to shoot them… “If you don’t have one you’ll be killed!” 7 students)
  • tattoos
  • fat/big (9 students)
  • hugs & kisses

Versus their stereotypes of their own country:

  • sushi
  • anime
  • kimono, geta (sandals)
  • old wooden, tatami-mat houses
  • always bowing
  • always on time
  • shaking hands (but not hugging)

I was amazed that I had to do it, but I had to explain to my students exactly why stereotypes and perpetuation of stereotypes can be so hurtful, why Katy Perry’s performance was so offensive to so many people, Asian-Americans like me in particular, and why they should take offense themselves be wary of these types of portrayals. Hopefully after my lesson they’ll think a little bit harder next time they watch any type of performance.

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