Friday, February 12, 2010

This is what inappropriate appopriation looks like

The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, WA [I mean BC! Woops! Brain fart--thanks for the catch Taavi--10:48pm] begins today. I confess, I am a figure skating fan (we can thank/blame my mother!). So when I started to hear about the controversy over the reigning world champions, the Russian ice dancing pair, I was curious. Apparently aboriginal groups in Australia have been protesting their routine, lobbying the Olympic committee to ban them from performing their routine because it was insulting to aboriginal people.

Now, one of the things you have to know is that all the pairs competitors around the world had to develop a routine for their national finals around the theme of "folk dance or ethnic dance." OK, right THERE is the root of the problem. Because it's a fine line between honoring a folk or ethnic tradition to parodying that tradition, especially if this is something you are learning rather than something you were raised with.

So the Russian pair decided to look to Australia for their inspiration, and this is what the came up with:

Yes, it IS that bad. I mean, when I read this article, I thought, wow, how bad could it be--the picture sure is bad. But then you watch the above clip and you think, WOW it's cringe-worthy bad, it's insulting, racially insensitive, parodic, and just plain BAD.

The Russian pair, for good reason, has received a lot of criticism from many different quarters over their performance and costumes. The American pair of Meryl Davis and Charlie White, however, have been lauded for the authenticity of their performance (skating to a song from Slumdog Millionaire)--particularly in the Indian press and on some Indian blogs:

Apparently the skaters hired an Indian choreographer who had worked in Bollywood films to help them with their movements and in the article I linked to above, they were very careful to say that they wanted to be respectful of Indian culture and to create a performance that would be aesthetically pleasing in the vein of Indian culture but also authentic.

And I guess one question I have is, how authentic can any of these skaters actually be? I mean, I'm not trying to quibble for the sake of quibbling--we're talking about ice dancing after all--not exactly a natural thing. And I do think it was smart for them to hire someone who knows Indian culture intimately and who could provide them with some guidance. But is this authentic? And is this appropriation? I mean, clearly the Russian pair is completely and clearly inappropriate, but the American pair? What do you think?


IzumiBayani said...

When I see both performances, I think of blackface. What drives an OLYMPIC event to feel the need for a "cultural/ethnic" dance? If I had to guess, it has a lot to do with the whiteness/privilege of being able to competitively figure skate. There's a "VOID" of "culture" which is to say there's a void of non-white competitors.

With that said, I'm pretty confident that it is fairly difficult to imitate another culture/people/country/race the right way. But being non-white in the US, I pine for media that doesn't get white-washed (Avatar: The Last Airbender) and I feel like this is a white-washing of a non-white culture.

But all racism aside, I can see why the Russians are favored to win. They can skate

david said...

Okay, first off I'm just going to get this out of the way; can we just watch the Olympics for the sake of the sports? I'm done.

I don't generally watch the Winter Olympics, I find the Summer Olympics a lot more entertaining, but when I first found out about what the Russian skating pair did; my interest was a little peaked.

I find Ice skating, I'll be honest, boring. Now though that I'm taking a second look at the controversy I can say that the Russians are very ignorant about the Aborigines.

They should've done some research like the American skating pair did. As for the authenticity of the American pair's dance routine; it's authentic because they had someone teaching them the dance moves that he would be doing if he was dancing.

To address Izumi, the need for a "cultual/ethnic" dance is not because of white privilege to compete in figure skating; it's because there are different routines that they have to go through.

Also, there isn't a void of non-white competitors. Have you seen the U.S. team this year? There are Asian-Americans skating, as well as Asians skating this year in general. To say that there is a void in non-white competitors is inaccurate.

Taavi Burns said...

Speaking of quibbles, the olympics are in Vancouver, BC, Canada, not Vancouver, WA. ;)

dkh said...

I still think the US routine is pretty bad. I mean Slumdog Millionaire is the only piece of Indian music they could've used? That kind of cut into their authentic/respectful talk even before I watched the dance. Like they're going to do an "authentic", but scrubbed-up version that everyone will recognize. The meaning of stereotype.

And I agree with Izumi, whoever ok'd the idea to do a "cultural dance" at all was just asking for all to the bad.

IzumiBayani said...

Model Minority Myth?

IzumiBayani said...

i would also argue that the japanese are east asia's privileged group. Not that it makes them white, but generally more acceptable within the context of privilege.

Also, david, I identify as a man of color, but that doesn't change the notion that your dismissal that there's no white privilege involved is a pretty white thing to do

david said...

@Izumi, I see it differently. I fail to see how Japanese people are Asia's privileged group. Not all the ice skaters there are Japanese, to say so is to make general assumptions. There are Korean ice skaters competing too. In fact, one of the top contenders is Korean.

As for my dismissal of white privilege, you're assuming that I am white. Just because I don't see a certain thing a certain way doesn't suggest what I am. It shows how I think but not how I am.

@lankr1ta said...

The American pair did not use Slumdog Millionaire music- rather a mash of several Bollywood songs. Now Bollywood is not very "cultural" Indian- and is heavily inspired by Western Dance. So were they appropriating culture- i think not. the Russians, unfortunately are clueless.