I was just thinking about this “cultural appropriation” thing lately. It’s not something I know much about. I have used the verb “to appropriate” in my own writing to refer to Africans taking, borrowing, adapting, and altering cultural objects from Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas. The plastic beads worn by the Masaai are imported from Europe, and some of the foods we think of as African staples (bananas, for example) are New World crops.
But I don’t think that’s what people are talking about in more recent discussions of “cultural appropriation.” I was using the word to refer to a kind of organic evolution of cultures blending – with one taking something from another and “appropriating” it for their own uses, almost how languages appropriate and borrow words from each other.
In these newer conversations, I think people are talking either about stealing an idea from a particular community, usually one that has historically been disadvantaged or oppressed, or objectifying members of that community and treating their identity as a plaything. Personally, I view the latter as objectification rather than appropriation, but that’s probably just semantics.
I think “problematic” is a perfectly sensible word to use when describing said stealing or objectification.
But wait – why isn’t Mary Poppins singled out for cultural appropriation?
Well, this is probably a question of whether Dick Van Dyke, putting on an English accent, is racist. But I don’t think Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins is any more “cultural appropriation” than Laurence Olivier in Othello. Those are both problematic in different ways (IMHO). Personally I think they would have been better just letting Dick be American and Laurence be white.
The difference is, there is no history of Americans enslaving, colonizing, segregating, and otherwise telling British people that they are naturally inferior to white Americans. There is no history of British people in America being refused the right to vote and, in the same era, having to endure zillions of popular plays and movies where Americans put on phony British accents and pretended to be British people in order to make fun of how stupid and lazy and inferior they were. If such a history were to exist, then Mary Poppins would be extremely “problematic.” And racist.
But Mary Poppins is also different from Othello because of demographics. I’m sure there are plenty of Black actors that would have liked to play Othello. But even today, we can’t seem to bring ourselves to have black heroes be played by black actors. That is problematic. You wouldn’t have a sixteen year old girl play an elderly man in a movie, for example. Why would you do that? It doesn’t make sense.
Here’s John Oliver on the whitewashing of Hollywood.
The bottom line, I think, IMHO, is that it boils down to what’s behind it. Is it objectifying people? Is it taking a style that you did not invent and passing it off as your own? Or is it a fair creative exchange based on mutual respect? Is it a cartoon character you’re playing, or do you really deep down appreciate the art or style because you empathize with that community?
Let me leave you with three short videos and two articles to help you contemplate this. And then hopefully it will be a bit clearer why, for example, I think Dick Van Dyke and Miley Cyrus are not doing the same thing.