An Expanded Look at Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation is something that I haven’t discussed a lot on this blog, but something that is constantly being discussed in the art world and in popular media (think Miley Cyrus twerking at the VMAs.) Essentially, cultural appropriation is the “taking of something produced by members of one culture by members of another” (Young 136). In musical works this often comes in the form of “content appropriation”—where the “cultural products” (such as musical forms, or way of dancing) are borrowed by the cultural outsiders. However, cultural appropriation can also be “subject appropriation”—where the cultural outsider makes the lives of the insiders the subject of their painting/story/film (136). This second kind of cultural appropriation is the one Jesse Hassenger touches on in his article “Can Movie Stars Play Authentic Blue-Collar Characters?” While this question is the title of the article, Hassenger does not really address it, focusing instead on reviewing three different movies. (As he is a movie critic, this is not surprising.) But his question makes me think about the kinds of cultural appropriation that are not usually addressed by the media. While there are many differences between the cultural appropriation in Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance and the cultural appropriation in Out of the Furnace (one of the movies Hassenger reviews), the main difference seems to be the kind of culture they are borrowing from. Miley Cyrus’s appropriation is distinct because of its racial component, while Casey Affleck and Christian Bale’s performance in Out of the Furnace is distinct because of the class differences between the actors and the people they are portraying. However, because both Affleck and Bale are actors, the line between authentic and in-authentic performance seems to be shakier than in Cyrus’s case. Acting is a medium that hinges on the ability to perform as someone distinct from yourself, so theoretically an actor should be able to authentically perform as anyone regardless of their culture. On the other hand, if either Affleck or Bale were performing in blackface cries of “inappropriate cultural appropriation!” would echo throughout media-land. (These cries, of course, would be completely justified, as blackface perpetuates harmful and historically damaging stereotypes about African Americans and is profoundly offensive to many people.) It seems clear that our culture makes a distinction between cultural appropriation that involves race and cultural appropriation that involves class, but is this an important distinction to make?  By posing the question, Hassenger seems to think so, or at least he seems to think that we should be paying attention to cultural appropriation that involves class. But he also doesn’t really attempt to answer his own question, so maybe he doesn’t think it is worth answering?  Cultural appropriation is an inherent part of our art-world, and is taking place in a variety of mediums in a variety of ways, and in itself, cultural appropriation is not morally wrong. However, whenever cultures mix, especially when there is already a hierarchical or even imperilalistic relationship between these cultures, it is easy to end up in morally ambiguous territory. Therefore, I believe it is important to consider the moral implications of all cases of cultural appropriation. Whether or not these moral implications help or hinder your enjoyment of the art, however, is completely up to you.


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