I can't believe I'm writing about this again. I am actually kind of mad at myself right now because I shouldn't care that people can be this blasé about their own lack of knowledge on this or any other topic. But here we are. The recent onslaught of pure ignorance re: Coldplay and Beyoncé's video Hymn for the Weekend (HFTW) beckons a rant. And a rant ye shall get.
A few things we need to clear up from the start:
- Yes, the video is visually appealing. It is beautifully shot.
- Yes, you are free to not care about cultural appropriation or think that political correctness is out of control
- YASSSS QUEEN BEY YASS
- Yes, you can like the song, like the video and still feel conflicted about this. Issues like these are mired in ambiguity, that's a given aspect of culture dilemmas like this one.
- Yes, if you are Indian and don't find it offensive, that's cool, too. HOWEVER, give this post a read and you'll see why it may be more problematic than you think.
1. I am a Beyoncé superfan and this is a well-known fact about me to those who know me (some even refer to me as A-yonce (and by some I mean me)). Despite her (many) hypocrisies, I find her to be a fascinating cultural enigma--which, technically, is a representation she herself has engineered at great effort. See? She's fascinating. Also, she's a terrific performer and the resident queen of my playlist. I'm also mad that my auto-correct doesn't automatically add the accent aigu on the last "e" in her name; get it together Google Chrome Spell Checker, she's a cultural icon, dammit. But, just because I'm a stan doesn't mean I'll excuse her or anyone else's bullshit.
2. I have been a huge fan of Coldplay from the beginning (laugh away). Yes, they are cheesy af now, but we all need a little (night*) cheese in our lives.
3. I am an Indian-born, Canadian, feminist grad student who's been steeped in feminist theory and cultural studies for years; so, yes, I'm "one of those", or whatever you want to call me to avoid thinking deeply about the views I present and confronting your own biases.
4. No, I am not offended by every case of supposed cultural appropriation. Sometimes people are wrong about what is and isn't cultural appropriation (see this whole crazy thang), The HFTW video is not one of those times.
*if you got the night cheese reference, I love you and we should be friends.
Can YOU tell me what Cultural Appropriation actually is?
Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group; usually a dominant cultural group does the adopting from a minority/marginalized culture, and it usually connotes that the elements of the appropriated culture are divorced from the meanings they originally signified.
Did you catch that? What's happening in HFTW is: Specific elements of Indian culture (Beyoncé's manner of dress and hand gestures) are being taken from a minority/marginalized culture (which was systematically colonized by Europeans for hundreds of years) and those elements are completely meaningless in the video's context because they are being used superficially without any consideration for their significance and only because they're "pretty" or "exotic" or "Indian".
Why does this matter?
Coldplay and Beyoncé's appropriation exemplifies Edward Said's concept of Orientalism quite well, as the performance uses the [American] perception of the East...to perpetuate the idea of the exotic East as a vehicle for the pleasure and entertainment of the West.
This is one of the keys to understanding why ethnic costumes out of context can be so offensive: the outfit, the makeup, the accessories, are all just ONE part of the identity. When you don’t honor or understand the significance holistically, you dismiss that identity as being nothing but a hollow prop – just a means for you to please and benefit yourself at the expense of that culture’s historical identity. Plus, Beyoncé, Coldplay and others continue to benefit financially from these performances on the backs of Indian women who continue to face ostracism and are stereotyped on the basis of these same portrayals.
The costume does not offend me as much as I think it is stupid and poorly researched, which also tells me that Beyoncé (and her stylist) probably doesn’t care about who or what she is dressing up as, just that she is peripherally aware that Indian women, princesses, or goddesses look like this. What does offend me is what she is doing with her hands. The technical term for what she is doing is called a mudra. It is a hand gesture used in Hindu and Buddhist spiritual and religious practice. You can often see Hindu religious icons depicted with mudras. As well, it is a very significant aspect of Indian classical dance, and there are hundreds of mudras meant to tell a story through the dance (I had to learn many of them as a child in classical dance; it was hard, so I’m particularly bitter and biased). So, again, why is she doing that?
Because she thinks it is “Indian”. Thus, it is offensive for the same reasons that someone might try to act "Mexican", or "African", or "hood", or “Native American” and use associated clothing and gestures. How does one act like an Indian woman? Well, by dressing up like one of course...because isn't that all there is to it?!
Her costume, then, is a confusing mishmash of Indian and Middle Eastern symbols used incoherently so that she can appear as sexy and exotic as possible. Consequently, there is also another layer of the sexualisation and exoticization of Indian women, and a reduction of the “Indian woman”, into this romanticized exotic/erotic trope, by an affluent American woman. So, it becomes a clear example of orientalism lurking in the guise of an unfortunate costume choice. Thus, it is ignorant, inappropriate, orientalist and culturally appropriative. Moreover, it crystallizes the image of the Indian woman as someone who is permanently fixed in the Western imagination as this stereotype so that, unlike Euro-American women, she remains the same, incapable of progress and change.
Cultural appropriation in this case exists within a matrix of colonial power, financial power and hegemony. That Coldplay and Beyonce, and the system of people and companies supporting them who thought this was a good idea, stand to capitalize financially from this cultural exploitation is not a coincidence.
Again, feel free to not think so! You have a right to ignorance.
So What Should Beyoncé Have Done? AKA How to appreciate not appropriate!
- Beyoncé, first off, doesn't need to dress this way. Her second outfit in the video has little to do with India or Indian cultural dresses and it’s a-okay.
- Sonam Kapoor, a prominent Indian actress, is barely featured in the video. She is a perfectly beautiful, talented Indian woman who could have gotten far more screen time in the cultural garb of the culture she belongs to!
- RESEARCH. It's not that f***** hard. That face thing? What is that? What even is that, Beyoncé (or, technically, Beyoncé's stylist!)? Learn from those within the culture, and share in the culture as fully as is appropriate by actually knowing the significance of the articles of clothing and symbolic gestures you are using.
- Beyoncé is also in studio, unlike Coldplay who are actually among Indian people (don't worry I pick on Coldplay further down). This is what a respectful, culturally engaged scenario would look like, in my view: Beyoncé in a beautiful real Indian setting with other Indian women, who are all dressed similarly in culturally accurate, but equally beautiful Indian clothing. This is better, still not great, but better. Is that so hard?!
- Look at the following image. This is an example of appreciation not appropriation. Why? Because of the context! This is Beyoncé performing in Mumbai, India. She is wearing a contemporary Indian Lehenga-Choli that you can find many actual Indian women wearing at parties and festivals. She is performing for Indians and her intention to share in the culture within the context is clear. Simply wearing Indian clothes isn't always appropriation. It's how you wear them as a non-Indian and your intention of doing so that matters. No inaccurate outfits or hand gestures in sight! I go more in detail on how to appreciate and participate in Indian culture here.
But the truth is far more complex. No, a 4-minute video cannot show every aspect or even a quarter of the complexity of India, a mosaic of hundreds of religions and subcultures. But, why use the same recycled tropes? How is this creative? Why continue to conflate India with these same tired images?
BECAUSE they fit the Euro-American image of what they think India is. God forbid we ever see the nuances of Indian life in the suburbs or the mountaintops of India. Never are we to be shown the students and the working class who are not that different from us North Americans. Why would they show that anyway? It isn't fantastical or exotic. Beyoncé portrays a platinum-blonde Bollywood actress/goddess on screen in the video. Little do most non-Indian viewers recognize that Bollywood is a multi-billion dollar industry with actors whose net-worth exceeds that of Beyoncé or Jay-Z. Or that the fashion industry there produces the most beautiful clothes in the world. But, no, Sonam Kapoor, a fashion icon in India, is instead relegated to a blink-and-you-miss-it scene as "Indian girl No. 1".
A lot of the criticism against HFTW from Indians is that it doesn't show the progress and the skyscrapers and all that. I don't care about that; that is not my criticism. It is not the actual content of the images that matter but the intention behind them. The intent of the director here was to show a clearly stereotypical India and that is not okay. It is an unchanging India, a monolith of cultural stereotypes, a comforting, palatable idea of a colonized nation which exists for Western consumption. And, the many Indians saying “my India looks beautiful”, “what’s the big deal” etc., may now, through globalized media-sharing, replicate and reproduce this cliched narrative.
Also, to those who say it's only white social justice warriors who are complaining about this. Well, obviously that is not true. Apart from this one, you can read other critical opinions from other Indian writers and publications: here, here, here, oh and here, and also, here, and there is this one, and this one, to name a few.