American popular culture often falls short in its depiction of racial groups who seek fair and accurate
portrayals of their cultural heritage. Whether in movies, the theatre or musical performances, Asian
Americans are often portrayed in stereotypes that ignore complexity and invite the potential for the
harm this shallowness breeds.
Katy Perry’s recent geisha-styled performance on the American Music Awards (AMA), broadcast nationally on
ABC television, served as the latest rendition of the bad movie we’ve all seen before. There is a
persistent strain in our culture that refuses to move beyond the stereotype of Asian women as exotic
and subservient. These stereotypes have been reinforced in our popular culture through plays and
movies from our distant past such as Madame Butterfly and The World of Suzie Wong. Moreover,
stereotypes aren’t confined to those that denigrate Asian women as depicted in more recent
characterizations that tarnished all Asians as dog-eaters by Tonight Show host, Jay Leno.
Katy Perry’s performance appropriated cultural traditions and served them up in a splashy performance
replete with worn stereotypes. The background performers dressed in “geisha” attire gave us the
bowing gesture complete with hands pressed together and elbows extended as well as the foot
shuffling, never mind that the side slit kimonos didn’t restrain movement. Perry’s kimono was
fashioned into a stage costume with little respect for the traditions of this garment.
Stereotypes have plagued Japanese Americans throughout our history in the United States. The yellow
peril fears of the early 1900s branded Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans as inscrutable and
unassimilable. During World War II, abetted by negative media depictions, Japanese Americans were
tainted as untrustworthy and disloyal, factors that led to their unjust incarceration. The recession of the
1980s and 1990s rekindled fears about Japan that were then projected on Japanese Americans as an
evil and unscrupulous force bent on economic domination characterized in movies such as Rising Sun.
The proliferation of these images were the source of renewed defamation and hate crimes.
The JACL respects the space needed by performance artists to apply their creativity. However, this
space does not extend to the perpetuation of racial stereotypes that hold the potential for harm. The
thoughtless costuming and dance routines by Katy Perry played carelessly with stereotypes in an
attempt to create a Japanese aesthetic. The JACL believes it is important for all who are involved in
entertainment production to understand that while audience approval is important, caution must also be
the byword to avoid denigrating and marginalizing a portion of that viewership.