Cultural Appropriation?

So far as I know, as an author I haven’t been attacked for cultural appropriation, but we’re seeing a continuing barrage of such charges in many areas in the U.S., sometimes justified, sometimes not, and sometimes… it’s just hard to tell.

For example, take Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Mikado. It was written as a spoof and critique of upper-class British manners and mores through the use of “faux-Japanese” culture. There’s no doubt that it does a certain amount of violence to Japanese historical culture, but it was neither meant to be accurate about that culture nor meant to demean it. And, of course, it was written over 130 years ago. But, depending on how one defines cultural appropriation…

Then, in the opera world, there’s a trio of well-known operas that have been the center of the cultural appropriation debate – Aida, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot – set, respectively, in ancient Egypt, 1880s Japan, and in an unnamed year in China, most probably after the twelfth century. All three operas are, as operas usually are, a mish-mash of sources that take great liberties with history. Turandot, for example, is actually based on a story taken from the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami, but transferred from Persia to China. For all that, there’s been an outcry in some quarters about whether these operas should be performed and who should sing what roles. But the music is Italian in nature and doesn’t appropriate the music of the countries in which they are set, and two of the stories [Aida and Turandot] are totally fictional, including much of the supposed “culture”, while the other is based, if loosely, on an actual occurrence.

I think it’s fair to say that, in the case of the opera itself, neither Aida nor Turandot qualify as cultural appropriations, simply because about the only thing we can determine that was “appropriated” was the name of the country. Everything else is effectively fiction without specific definable cultural roots. For Madama Butterfly, however, there is a definite aspect of appropriation in the portrayal of the heroine, simply because, for the most part, she’s portrayed as a demeaning stereotype that was widely accepted in the west at the time Puccini wrote the opera almost a hundred years ago.

The question of whether it’s cultural appropriation if a singer doing the role isn’t of the ethnicity of the role strikes me as largely irrelevant. In recent years, singers doing these roles have been from multiple ethnicities; in my opinion, the question should be about how well they sing and perform, not their ethnicity. The larger question is whether individual opera companies are preferring singers based on ethnicity, as opposed to ability.

In F&SF, the cultural appropriation issue seems to center on whether a writer should write about cultures not his or her own. Now, as my readers know, I’ve never depicted a present-day or near-future culture that’s of a totally different ethnicity from my own. I have speculated at times about where various cultures might end up in the future, based on what I’ve studied and observed, but I don’t believe that constitutes cultural appropriation, and I wouldn’t call it that even if a writer from a different ethnicity speculated on a dismal future for the United States or Caucasians in general.

Speculation about the future is what F&SF does, and no writer should be criticized about what culture she or he writes about, but, by the same token, we should make a concerted effort to be accurate, and to be open to balanced and thoughtful criticism, painful as it sometimes can be. I would hope, of course, that such speculations be done with care, but then, all writing should be done with care.

7 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation?”

  1. Tim says:

    It saddens me that society today is fixated on these issues in the entertainment industry.

    I once read that the different stage productions of Romeo and Juliet outnumber those of any other play.I would imagine a large number of these could be termed culturally inappropriate. Forcing an acceptable appropriateness would stifle the creativity of the production. Such restrictions are essentially censorship.

    1. Not everyone is fixated, but far too many are.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    I won’t speak to opera, since there’s plenty of history of singing ability (properly, IMO, esp. in the more demanding roles) taking precedence over visual credibility, at least until recently.

    But (for example) there are as I understand it a few Shakespeare roles written for a black or African character; and since there are very capable Shakespearean actors of color, I see no reason not to prefer them for those roles if they feel comfortable with them, without in any way implying that they should be limited to those roles.

    In other words, when accuracy does no harm to the performance, and doesn’t cause a pattern of excluding particular groups from juicy roles, I don’t see a problem with it, esp. in productions that favor a pseudo-realistic visual approach; but neither do I see that it’s a question of justice if the production doesn’t require it. There are always alternative interpretations (“The Wiz”, “Hamilton”, etc) that purposely use persons of ethnicity different from what they’re a remake of or who they portray, and I see no reason to object to that either, as long as they don’t claim to be outright historical.

    There has certainly been a pattern of discrimination in entertainment, not less than in other fields. But to turn every casting choice into an occasion for bruised sensitivities seems a bit excessive. Bias is something that society might enable by negligence, but it’s ultimately carried out (or avoided) by individuals that make choices, and I think that it should be individuals rather than groups or societies (save only when the groups/societies largely and willfully support ongoing oppression, or when negligence rises to a level approaching ongoing genocide, both of which have happened in various places and times) that are held to account.

  3. Tom says:

    I saw a performance of Aida where the music was as the original but there were some scenes changed (during Radames active military service). These new scenes enhanced the maligned actions of Ramfis.
    It seemed to me that Ramfis bore a remarkable resemblance to paintings of Rasputin. The performance was in an Eastern European country (not Russia nor Belarus).

    If my perception was correct and the staging was changed in this manner, would this change in setting constitute cultural appropriation or perhaps misappropriation?

  4. Daze says:

    Lionel Shriver pointed out that, taken to the levels that some anti-appropriation activists appeared to espouse, her next novel could only contain characters that were 60 year old white women born in the USA and living in London. Or perhaps Hamlet can only be played by members of the Danish royal family..

    Once having accepted that those extremes aren’t sensible (or achievable), the question is where do you row back the line to? Just how disabled do you have to be before you can play (or write about) a disabled character? How black do you have to be to play Serena Williams’ dad? Not easy questions, and therefore probably the line gets moved pragmatically, and will be debated endlessly.

  5. Wine Guy says:

    Or, sometimes imitation is a sincere form of flattery.

    Sometimes, people need to just mind their own beeswax and find a real issue to worry about. If they need suggestions, I have several.

  6. R. Hamilton says:

    Wait until aliens arrive from outer space or some alternate universe! They’ll doubtless complain about cultural appropriation by F&SF writers.

    The PC police are everywhere…

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