Katy Perry dons ‘yellowface’ at American Music Awards.


Katy Perry’s Orientalist performance at the American Music Awards (which is hardly the epitome of tastefulness to begin with) where she prances about on stage dressed as a pop culture geisha, complete with kimono, tabi socks and lacquered hair has sparked a widespread media debate. I’ve read a deluge of interchangeable articles, ‘Was Katy Perry’s AMAs Performance really racist?’, Katy Perry accused of racism, Katy Perry’s geisha act being called ‘racist.’ Lets abandon the skeptical scary quotation marked ‘racist’ here. None of the articles presented particularly compelling arguments in favour of her performance, or provide any legitimate defences, anything beyond, ‘ohh but Katy Perry luuuuuuuurves Japan! She just toured there! Stop being so insensitive you pesky internet commentators!’

I’ll break it down.

Exhibit A. She’s performing her new song ‘Unconditional.’  Unlike her usual repertoire, it’s not about sexy aliens or pyrotechnics, it’s about female subservience to that extra special Englishman in their lives, and goes something like this:

Unconditional, unconditionally
I will love you unconditionally
There is no fear now
Let go and just be free
I will love you unconditionally

So come just as you are to me
Don’t need apologies
Know that you are all worthy
I’ll take your bad days with your good
Walk through the storm I would
I do it all because I love you
I love you l love you.’

Oh how novel. The one dimensional caricature of the  sexualized subservient Asian woman. She’s evoking Cio-Cio-Sian, the young Japanese woman in Puccini’s iconic ‘Madama Butterfly’. Cio-Cio-Sian takes a Western lover who eventually abandons her, precipitating her suicide. Katy Perry is distastefully using this staid Orientalist imagery of the self sacrificing lotus flower to represent her derailed marriage with Russell Brand. She might as well have been singing, ‘Love you long tiimeee.’

In addition, the set and costumes are ethno confused. Katy Perry’s costume is a mish mash of Japanese and Chinese formal wear (but they’re basically the same thing right?).  The badly choreographed bowing and shuffling is cringeworthy. There’s also a conspicuous lack of Asian women on stage.

Following in the footsteps of Miley Cyrus’s appropriation of ratchet culture in ‘We Can’t Stop’, Perry cashes in on the fetishization of Japanese culture and creates a  reductive narrative which portrays Japanese women as ‘unconditional’ and servile worshippers of their men. And I think that’s a racist schtick. No quotation marks.