The goal of the entertainment industry is to sell an idea, an image, a feeling. Inevitably there are many moments in the world of pop where these ideas, images and feelings just don’t translate well.
Take for instance America’s Next Top Model. This season, while a really entertaining one (I know we all wanted Nicole to win), has really crossed a certain line becoming a grotesque affected mess. In one of the latest episodes I was really blown away by the bizarre and careless cultural appropriation that Tyra Banks thought was a great idea.
The girls were in Hawaii and their photo shoot was meant to reflect the apparent abundance of mixed race people there. In Hawaii, Tyra explained, they call them “Hapa” meaning half. This inspired a photo challenge where each girl became a hybrid of races. For example, one girl was Tibetan and Egyptian another Native American and East Indian. Tyra photographed them, and she and Mr J Alexander took turns coaching them with brilliant direction like: “Erin, feel that spirituality! The Tibetan culture — it’s all about ritual.” Then, one second later, “Think about Egypt. The people. What they’ve been through.” This whole sequence was intercut with interviews in which the girls said things like, “I have very vague knowledge of Tibet except than it needs to be freed,” or “I definitely don’t know nothing about Greek people.”
Most of the girls were painted in darker skin tones. It seemed so easily irreverent in its approach, so obviously problematic and, ultimately, tragic. Beautiful headdresses and saris were squandered, misused and sloppily appropriated for something as prosaic as America’s Next Top Model cycle 13.
Ultimately what I think Tyra did wrong here was to exploit our sensitivities for ratings and publicity. I think appropriating cultures is a touchy subject for all of us to varying degrees. Tyra must have known as much since the Internet was a buzz the next day wondering if what Tyra had done was racist. Richard Four Four, one of the best bloggers on the internet and great for must see coverage of ANTM, describes Tyra’s evil plan: “Basically I think the formula for successful provocation involves taking something that’s outright offensive, and brushing right up next to it — maybe even crossing paths with it — while making your pretense of a higher purpose apparent all along the way. In this respect this photo shoot was not unlike dancing in a field of burning crosses in a video about the unfairness of racism or turning a wheelchair into a fashion accessory in a video about the hazards of fame. This shoot was a crafty bait for attention. Kind of impressive, actually.”
Recently Taylor Swift was photographed with a guy at Katy Perry’s birthday party who was wearing a “stylish” swastika T-shirt. Of course she claims that she didn’t notice and didn’t know who the guy was. Or did she? Maybe this too was just a publicity stunt. How are we to know?
But of course, many celebrities do seem to notice when offensive things are happening and they take a stand. Take Paul Haggis, the director of Crash. He actually publicly quit Scientology citing its homophobic stance on Prop 8. Apparently the celebrity liaison for the church and son of Anne Archer, Tommy Davis, had made hollow promises to Haggis that he would rectify the church’s stance on the hateful legislation, making it clear that Scientology was not in support of legislation that violated the rights of gay and lesbian citizens. When Davis failed, Haggis made it clear he could not subscribe to an organization that would support such a thing.
And in a very candid interview, Balky from Perfect Strangers, also known as Bronson Pinchot, explained how one the most famous Scientologists used to be bizarrely homophobic on the set of Risky Business. Bronson says of Tom Cruise: “He was tense and made constant, constant unrelated homophobic comments, like, ‘You want some ice cream, in case there are no gay people there?’ I mean, his lingo was larded with the most…. There was no basis for it. It was like, ‘It’s a nice day. I’m glad there are no gay people standing here.’ Very, very strange.” Very strange indeed, why Tom? Why?