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November 1, 2011

Geisha Girls and Indian Princesses

Happy Halloween, Blessed Samhain, Happy All Saints Day and Happy All Souls Day! Hope everyone didn't OD on candy last night...

We saw a lot of questionable costumes this week, so we wanted to make a quick note about that. We already wrote about the whole "sexy _____" phenomenon, but we also wanted to quickly address some issues of race and culture. Earlier this month we had come across an online conversation about Halloween costumes and were surprised by some of the comments made. The question was whether or not costumes like 'geisha', 'senorita' or 'Indian princess' were inappropriate.We were surprised by the amount of people who not only didn't find these costumes to be inappropriate, but didn't even understand why others might potentially find them offensive. (What was not that surprising was that the majority of people commenting that there was nothing wrong with the costumes were white. Shocker.)

Here is just a sampling of our "favorite" comments:
I say go for it, "dress up" is about being something different than what you are. Weather that be a dream occupation, a different gender, or race.

I just think of them as a way to celebrate a heritage...not really any different than a cowboy costume.

What I am reading is making me a little upset. What I think I'm reading from some of you is that pretending to be someone you're not can be racist? What if you're pretending to be a Native American in a school play? Is that so different from Halloween?

I am offended by very few costumes. Every culture, genre, gender etc can have a silly side.

A costume is just a costume. It doesn't 'make' you behave or think any particular way. Witches or zombies included.
We were kind of shocked. We know that not everyone will automatically understand why costumes like these are potentially offensive, but the "it's just Halloween and therefore nothing can be offensive" people can be annoying, because they refuse to accept it, even when confronted with the reasons why.

So we thought maybe it was time to "remind" people one more time why certain costumes are at best - culturally insensitive and at worst - racist. The best way we can think to do that is to pass on these images from Ohio University's S.T.A.R.S. group ("Students Teaching About Racism in Society"). Yes, these have been reposted on a lot in the last few weeks, but we felt it was important to show them one more time because they are just that good.


Basically these kinds of costumes are offensive for two reasons: One, it's misappropriating a part of someone else's culture and two, it's representing a stereotype of that culture or race. People who benefit from white privilege may think it's okay to dress up as someone more "exotic" for your own holiday amusement, but costumes that poke fun at another race or culture, reinforce a stereotype about that race or culture, or perpetuate racism are not okay.

Hopefully most people can understand why "illegal Alien" and "Muslim terrorist" costumes are offensive (most people) but certain costume choices have been around for a long time and often go unchallenged, even by the most well-intentioned. Possibly two of the most widespread costumes that really irk me the most are the Indian Princess/Pocahottie and the Geisha/China Doll (and their countless variations). The reason why these particularly bother me is two-fold:

First off, they are not only based on stereotypes, but vast blanket stereotypes. "Native American" encompasses hundreds of different indigegnous tribes and "Asian" can refer to so many different, dissimilar countries and cultures... however as a costume they are somehow simplistically condensed into the same general looks. For the "Asian Princesses" and "Geisha Girls" it's all (fake) silk and floral prints; for the "Indian Princesses" and "Tribal Hottie" costumes it's (fake) suede with fringe and feathers. Both depictions are rather insulting and far from historically accurate.

Secondly, both costumes are almost always highly sexualized - which actually sexualizes entire groups of women.

A Native American woman is 2.5 times more likely to be raped and/or sexually assaulted than other women in the U.S. The fact that these women are stereotypically portrayed as sexy Indians is disturbing on many levels. The fact that Pocahontas specifically is singled out for sexy costumes just adds another layer of "wrongness"... The myth of Pocahontas did not go down the way the Disney movie implies. If the story actually happened at all, Pocahontas would have been 10 or 11 at the time that she alleged saved John Smith's life, so a sexualized Pocahontas is a costume that sexualizes a child. The real Pocahontas was later kidnapped by the English at the age of 17 and was only released when she "agreed" to marry an older widower. Yet another aspect of her story that makes her portrayal and a sexualized costume rub me the wrong way.
As for the "Asian" costumes... people will often make the argument that the sexualization of a geisha costume isn't wrong because the geisha were basically prostitutes. This is a misconception. The role of the geisha was far different than that of a courtesan; she was an entertainer. (Yes, it is possible that some geisha did engage in some acts of prostitution, but that wasn't what the geisha were. See the distinction?) Furthermore, the authentic geisha outfits rarely look anything like the way they are portrayed in Halloween costumes today.

Take a look at the way Yandy.com portrays both of these racist caricatures. (That's not to single them out. You can find the same costumes - or similar/equally offensive costumes - on almost any costume site. They're just usually our "go to" for this sort of thing because they have such a large selection of items.)

A random sampling under the category of geisha costumes:

Left: "Sexy Geisha", Right: "Geisha Beauty to Ninja Cutie" 

(In the second one, they actually managed to fit two antiquated, inaccurate Japanese stereotypes into one costume.)

Left: "Japanese Doll", Right: "Tokyo-A-Go-Go".

 Left: "China Doll", Right: "Beijing Babe"

(Neither of those is even remotely a geisha costume, seeing as geisha were Japanese and these are both "Chinese", sort of.)

Left: simply "Sexy Asian", Right: "Chinese Takeout".

(Words fail me on that last one. I just... I just can't.)

And now for a more authentic look at what a traditional geisha may have worn:

A random sampling under the category of Indian costumes:

Left: "Indian Diva", Right: "Pow Wow Princess".

Left: "Sexy Pocahontas", Right: "Igloo Cutie" .

Left: "Makin Reservations Indian", Right: "Burlesque With No Reservations".

(Oh those puns are just hilarious.)

Left: "Tribal Trouble", Right: "Tribal Vibe".

Left: ""Indian Huntress", Right: "Indian Warrior".

(I know that's exactly what I'd wear if I was a huntress or warrior. Totally practical.)

And now for some traditional Native American attire:

Left: Portrait of a Puebloan woman believed to be circa 1900,
Right: "Ghost Shirt" similar to that worn by the Lakota-Sioux for the Ghost Dance.

I could go on and on with various offensive costumes from many different cultures, but I'll stop with these two because I think (hope) you must understand what I'm getting at by now. It doesn't make you a bad person or inherently racist if you've worn a culturally insensitive costume in the past (even as far "past" as last night) but that doesn't mean it's totally fine to wear whatever you want because you may very well be hurting someone else. Or you might be perpetuating a stereotype that is not only false but damaging

When someone (especially someone from the culture you're dressing up as) points out that your costume is offensive, don't tell them that they're wrong or oversensitive. Take it as a learning moment and do better next year. But for now, you can go buy some half-priced candy and eat til you're sick.


Anonymous said...

I'm offended that my comment was chopped and even more offended that my race was assumed post chopping:/

LS said...

This issue was only brought to my attention this year, and I must admit I've been struggling with it.

Part of the reason I've found it so difficult is because the individual you speak with seems to cause what is and isn't appropriate to vary wildly. More so than with most issues of privilege.

While most, including myself, can agree that costumes like the ones in this post are racist, there are others which are not so clear. Ninjas being a specific example. I've heard some say that they're just as racist as a geisha costume, whilst others agree that Ninjas are more of a pop culture costume than a racial costume.

It's a difficult issue for me to wrap my head around, but I'm trying.



We only excerpted the particular lines that stood out to us the most. There were more comments made that bothered us, just as there were plenty of comments we agreed with as well.

As for your race, we didn't say everyone was white (or even that most of the comments we quoted were from white people) just that many of the commenters were white. (And we have it on good authority that at least some of them were in fact white - not based on an assumption.)

But it probably would have been better to say that many of the commenters appeared to benefit from white privilege in some way (whether they personally identify as white or not, is not our right to decide, but you could say that they are able to "pass" for white and therefore benefit from a privilege that other members of their race would not).

We're not sure which comment you're referring to, so we don't know whether you were one of the people who we appeared to be in this category.


We agree that it's tough. Some of the costumes are obviously inappropriate and others are in more of a "gray" area. What I think is good is that at least people are open to trying to understand what may or may not be offensive. No one is perfect and we're all bound to "mess up" from time to time, or offend someone when others said we were fine. The goal I think is to just be open to criticism when it's given.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say thanks. I keep struggling with the idea of cultural appropriation for some reason- I avoid things that are cultural appropriation but I don't always understand entirely why. This helped to clarify quite a bit. Thanks!

RedHead said...

This is brilliant - thanks for posting. Hadn't seen that campaign before.

(Sorry for the lame comment!)