Katy Perry at the American Music Awards on Nov. 24. (Getty Images)
For her song "Unconditionally," the 29-year-old went full geisha. Mimicking the well-trained Japanese women whose job is to entertain men through singing, dancing, and playing instruments (sometimes, though less frequently, in sexual ways too), Perry dressed in a long floral kimono and had her hair styled in the typical updo with bangs. She also had traditional makeup — dramatic black eyes, bright red lips, and, yes, whiteface.
Perry, who changed out of the Oscar de la Renta gown she wore on the red carpet, then launched into an Asian-infused act with other similarly attired women dancing behind rice-paper screens and emerging from a garden. There were also lanterns, fans, and cherry blossoms aplenty.
All of those components, especially her makeup, riled up viewers and pundits who — similar to Selena Gomez's incident with the bindis earlier this year — branded it culturally insensitive and racist.
"Katy Perry's AMA performance is offensive," Shivana Jorawar, who is the Reproductive Justice Program Director at National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, tells Yahoo Music. "It is yet another example of Orientalist, exoticizing stereotypes about Asian women being reinforced. When you consider the pairing of her ensemble, which for the average viewer invokes the stereotypical 'geisha' image, with the words of the lyrics, 'I will love you unconditionally … don't need apologies,' it's clear that — intentionally or not — Katy is encouraging the kind of racist fetishization of Asian women as submissive and powerless that harms us and clouds the strength and resilience we demonstrate every day in this country as we support our families, contribute to the economy, and lead movements for social change."
Take a look at Katy's performance:
"If you don’t think Katy Perry was racist — let me ask you, what if she had performed in blackface? Perhaps a costume isn't the same as changing skin color to you, but it is agonizingly close for me," he wrote. "I remember Mickey Rooney in buckteeth for his role as Mr. Yunioshi in 'Breakfast at Tiffany’s;' Jonathan Pryce in Yellowface in 'Miss Saigon;' Gwen Stefani in her Harajuku phase. … Racism is defined as prejudice plus power — I think Katy Perry’s performance meets the criteria for a yellow-face, racist performance."
[Related: The 10 Most Memorable Moments of the AMAs]
They weren't the only one who didn't appreciate Perry's act. Twitter exploded with comments, starting when John Mayer's lady love took the stage – and they are still rolling in.
Loved the cultural authenticity of Katy Perry's #AMAs performance. She nailed the traditionally ignorant costume of a white pop singer.
— Louis Virtel (@louisvirtel) November 25, 2013
I guess Katy Perry really didn't want to be left out of the mind-numbingly ignorant and racist pop-star hall of shame. — a v snider (@what_freshhell) November 25, 2013
Oh, good. Katy Perry is dressed as a geisha. I was afraid her sharp vocals would outshine her racism.
— Nathan Hatcher (@NATHANHATCHER) November 25, 2013
— Adrienne K. (@NativeApprops) November 25, 2013
But not everyone agrees that Perry's look was offensive. After all, seeing female musicians dressing as geishas is nothing new. In addition to Stefani, Kylie Minogue (2008), Madonna (2000), and Bjork (1997) are others who have done it. Those Perry defenders think the world has become too sensitive.
Madonna and Bjork have also gone there. (Getty Images/Elektra Records)
Katy Perry isn't racist. Everyone can shut up now — Jordan (@NobodysVassal) November 25, 2013
Like in the "Unconditionally" video, I will GO DOWN IN FLAMES defending Katy Perry's #AMA performance as not racist.
— Kat Georgé (@kat_george) November 25, 2013
While still others just weren't sure what to make of the whole thing.
Idk if Katy Perry's set was racist or not, but Pitbull is definitely blatantly objectifying women right now. American Music at its finest. — Stuart Allen (@b33fstu) November 25, 2013
I'm waiting for the Internet to tell me if Katy Perry was being racist or not
— Mehnaaz Chowdhury (@emcee19) November 25, 2013
Perry hasn't yet commented on the situation, but she's known for playing dress up. She's hit the red carpet dressed as a geisha before (without the white makeup). She's worn a shirt with the Virgin Mary. Her less offensive getups include everything from Uncle Sam to … a fried egg. However – as Julianne Hough and Ashton Kutcher have also recently learned – if you need to change the color of your skin for a costume, perhaps its best to change your costume instead.
- Arts & Entertainment
- Katy Perry
- American Music Awards