Thoughts On The Line Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation

It’s time for white, middle-America’s favorite game – IS! IT! RACIST!
Source: Bored Panda

So, a certain story has floated past my news feed multiple times for a while now. It made me ask some powerful questions and I want to share those questions with you.

I’ll save you the time spent reading and sum up the source for you; a mom in Utah gave her little girl a traditional Japanese tea party complete with traditional garb and makeup, photos found their way to Tumblr, people cried racism (because that’s pretty much all Tumblr lives for anymore), and one user from Japan named ‘cheshireinthemiddle’ finally shut the whole argument by basically saying there was nothing wrong with what the girl did and the only racists there were the ones that were denying what they saw as healthy cultural exchange.

So this got me to thinking – Where do we draw the line? When does legitimate cultural exchange and appreciation descend into racist caricature? Is there even such a thing as cultural appropriation?

Well, this wouldn’t be a hot topic of debate if it weren’t loaded with unclear details that everyone interprets differently. That said, I CAN offer my own take on the matter and provide a different way of looking at the issue.

To me, the things that separate cultural exchange and flat-out racism are intent and context. Checked in the dictionary, racism is defined as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” By that definition, a racist act is any act that insists on the superiority of one race over another by highlighting a segment of another’s heritage or culture as a negative.

Now, let’s go back to our primary story that sparked this discussion. Did the girl make or intend to make any sort of negative statement of Japan as a racial group? No, what she did was demonstrate an interest in another person’s culture and a desire to learn more about it through first-hand experience. It’s literally no different than when white guys were wearing do-rags and gold chains out of an affection for black rap culture.

I feel the issue, in this case, has to do with a cultural barrier that prevents context from flowing freely and clearly between the two parties. A similar issue occurred between Japan and America in the opposite direction back in my day because we mistook the Ganguro fashion scene for racist depictions of black people (not helped by the fact that ‘ganguro’ translated to ‘black face’ in English) instead of a powerful message that challenged and contradicted the feminine beauty standard that Japan held for years. And it’s still an issue today; This is why in Pokèmon, Jinx is recolored for western audiences from black to purple (it didn’t stop them from having Jesse and James dress up as Ganguro Girls in the anime, though).

Honestly, I love learning about other cultures. I’ve often felt cut off from the rest of the world my entire life and sharing in the traditions and habits of other people gives me a chance to expand my understanding of the world. It fact, allow me to give you a first-hand example from a primary source.

When I was in college, I worked closely with a campus’ LGBTQ rights group who, in-turn, cooperated with the campus’ diversity office. As such, I ended up working with a varied spectrum of people with a plethora of different views and insights that I cherish to this very day.

But the most fun I had with them was the semester’s end soul food dinner that we all shared. Almost every culture can relate to bonding over a family meal, after all. I also got to experience culturally influenced dance performances from the students that were legitimately tear-jerking. As for the food itself, it often consisted of things like oxtails, pork jowls, and chitterlings – what foodies like to refer to as offal or  ‘variety meats’ that were often used as a means to ensure that nothing from a meat animal was wasted. As someone with a Scotish-Irish background whose heritage produced haggis (the pluck of a sheep broiled in its own stomach) and black pudding (seasoned pork blood sausage), I can relate.

And that’s why I feel cultural exchange and showing interest in other people heritage is so important. It’s a chance to expand our understanding of the world and the people in it as well as learn that we aren’t as dissimilar as we like to think; We may have different ways of doing things, but we’re all basically after the same thing – a happy, comfortable life where we can celebrate who we are.

So, the next time you find yourself confronted with a cultural sensitivity issue, remember this rule of thumb: if you’re doing it because you’ve experienced or want to experience the culture and share how amazing it is with others, it’s cultural exchange; if you’re doing it because you’re chasing a fashion trend at best or you just want to poke fun at how silly it looks to you at worst, you’re probably just racist.

Cultured Gaming: An Exploration of Counter-Culture in Borderlands 2

In words that Sir Hammerlock would approve of, “Cultural commentary, ho!”
Source: Borderlands Wiki

In my free time, I’ve started getting back into playing games that I didn’t have time to play while on campus. I’m enjoying the trip and starting to notice things I didn’t pick up on in previous playthroughs.

For example, while finally finishing Borderlands 2, I noticed counter-cultures on Pandora that mirror our own. So, as an experiment, let’s explore the various lifestyles of the Pandorans and if the developers have any meaningful commentary on them.

Bronies

Somehow, I think the developers actually wish they could have Tiny Tina riding Pinkie Pie.
Source: Derpibooru

Let’s start with the counter-culture that, hilariously, is least prominent, yet is most likely to polarize the target audience that reads this.

For those not in the know, Bronies are a community of male (and female) adult fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. This group can be labeled as a counter-culture as they stand in direct defiance of our cultural ideals of masculinity and maturity by embracing an animated television made to target younger girls.

While there is very little to be seen in game, there are enough connections and references to MLP to support the claim. Most exist through the character of Gaige the Mechromancer. Her skills in game reference many characters and events in the show. Some include “Discord” (a reformed villain), “20 Percent Cooler” (a catchphrase spoken by Rainbow Dash), and “Fancy Mathematics” (part of a memorable rebuttal used by Applejack to her brother Big Macintosh).

Side note: Please note that I, unlike several others on the internet, did not preface this section with the words “not a Brony.” That’s because people should be able to talk about a kid’s TV show like adults without qualifying statements that reveal our massive insecurities.

BBWs and their admirers

Well, I do like a courteous, adventureous lady with a sexy southern drawl that can take care of herself.
Source: Borderlands Wiki

This is one of the first counter-cultures that I took notice of as I played.

BBW, for the uninitiated, is short hand for “Big Beautiful Woman” and is used to describe a woman of larger than average (read: socially prescribed as acceptable) weight who insists on retaining her confidence in and her happiness with her physical appearance despite pressure from the fashion industry and misinformation from the medical community (no, really; the health risks connected to being overweight are quite exaggerated).

There’s quite a bit of evidence that suggests that some of the people of Pandora love their ladies large. Scooter has a full-figured female on his trucker cap, a computer monitor in the Crimson Raider HQ has a wallpaper depicting a rather rotund lady in a bikini, and Ellie… well, Ellie exists.

Also note that I said “some people” rather then “some men.” Why? Well…

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Life

Moxxi wants the D… and the V… and whatever else is between your legs at the time.
Source: LucidArtDVC @ DeviantART

The BBW’s may have been my first, but this was the one that made me want to do this exploration.

As it turns out, Pandora has a very strong LGBT community. Dr. Tannis, Moxxi (who openly admits to having several lesbian affairs), and Ellie will flirt with you regardless of your gender. You can find several ECHO tapes depicting or hinting at same-sex couples. In a behind-the-scenes release, lead writer Anthony Burch revealed that he intentionally wrote Axton the Commando as bisexual.

This is surprisingly progressive for a video game. Usually when a character is designed as LGBT, it’s for titillation or as a joke. Here on Pandora, the game just says, “Yup. That’s an ECHO recording of a gay couple. Just another day.”

So Why Is All This Important?

At first, I took the presence of these counter-cultures on Pandora at face value. I read them as an attempt by the development crew at Gearbox Software to create a more diverse world for the player to explore. And that is certainly true.

But as I drew closer to the game’s climax, I was hit with a realization that felt like the hammer of Thor straight to the chest.

Handsome Jack, our main villain, makes it very clear that he hates EVERYTHING about Pandora and wants to level it to the ground in order to start over again. By extension, that would mean that Jack equally hates these subcultures I mentioned that really pose no threat to anyone.

Knowing this, Jack becomes an allegory for the hyper-conservative public; people that shun these innocent folks while refusing to understand them and their lifestyles.

The message is clear; don’t fear the strange and different. We are all human and deserve to be treated as such. It’s okay to be gay, big girls need lovin’ too, and we need to love and tolerate the #&$ out of anyone that says otherwise. How’s THAT for a statement of purpose?

And just in case you think I’m over analyzing this a bit too much, allow me to remind you of the aforementioned behind-the-scenes article where I can quote Anthony Burch as saying, “…like the bandits Ellie crushes to death, I take great pleasure in making bigots and sexists pay for their douchery.”

Bless your heart, Mr. Burch.

The Kalos Connection: French Culture in Pokémon X and Y

… And so it was done.
Source: Cheezburger.com

Lately, I’ve been playing a ton of Pokémon X when I’m not savagely working on projects for college. Honestly, I had fallen out with Pokémon after the second generation, but this new addition has successfully restored my enthusiasm in the series.

One of the fascinating themes of the new generation is its decision to leave the trappings of Japanese culture to explore that of northwestern Europe; specifically France. But how does it hold up? Is it an accurate depiction of French culture? Let’s see.

Geography and Landmarks

Take a few seconds to think of how much effort went into recreating half a country in a digital environment.
Source: Pokémon Database

One of the places where French influence is most prevalent in Pokémon X and Y is in the lay of the land. This is most clear when you overlay a map of our new setting, the Kalos region, over one of France.

The coastline of Northern France matches up almost perfectly with that of Kalos. What’s more, the mountains forming the eastern side of Kalos seems to be composed of the real life mountainous borders of Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland (indeed, you can find and speak with a character in-game that speaks only in German).

Continuing with the matchups on the map, the largest city in Kalos, Lumiose City, aligns perfectly with France’s capital Paris. Lumiose City’s main attraction is its brightly lit gym which bares an amazing resemblance to the Eiffel Tower. Even the name Lumiose City is a direct reference to Paris’ title as “the City of Light.”

Many people are quick to compare Geosenge Town to Stonehenge with its standing rocks, but this makes little sense as Stonehenge is in Wiltshire, England. It’s far more likely to be a reference to the Carnac Stones in Brittany, France. And yes, its location matches up on the Kalos map as well.

Culture

Chateaus, sidewalk cafés, and an Eiffel Tower. Yeah, I’m SO sure this is New York.
Source: GamesRadar

There are certain cultural elements that we all seem to connect to France naturally and it seems most of them can be found repeated throughout Kalos.

For example, France is one of the leading countries in the fashion industry. As such, one of the heavily touted features in Pokémon X and Y is the series of fashion boutiques and salons dotting Kalos that let you customize your appearance by purchasing new clothes and restyling your hair. Then you can get in costume to film ‘Trainer PR Videos’ to show off your style to other players online in a sort of digital fashion show.

Another recurring theme in Kalos is the appearance of hotels, cafés, and restaurants. The prevalence of these relates to France’s dominance in the tourism trade. After all, when you have huge numbers of people coming in and out of your country, you want them to have nice places to rest and entertain themselves.

Name and Word Etymology

Ladies and gentlemen, the sexiest genius alive.
Source: pokemonxy.com

Many terms and names in Pokémon X and Y are derived from French. For instance, one of the new gameplay features, Pokémon-amie, is a clear play on words of the French term ‘Mon Amie’ meaning ‘My friend.’ In the original Japanese, this feature was called Poké Parler; Parler being French for ‘To speak.’

Speaking of the original Japanese translation of the game, our new Pokémon expert proves quite interesting. Professor Sycamore was originally named Dr. Platane; platanes or plane trees being the French name given to sycamore trees.

Even some of the newly added Pokémon get in on the act. I could never hope to cover them all in one sitting, but we can cover a few like Trevenant who is a portmanteau of Trent, a fantasy race of tree-like creatures, and revenant, an undead ghost or zombie-like monster. The term revenant comes from the French revenir meaning ‘to return.’

Another wholly French Pokémon is Furfrou, who is essentially a poodle that can even be styled in-game. Its name is a pun on the term ‘frou-frou’ meant to describe something extremely fancy but has its origins as a french onomatopoeia for the sound of rustling fabric.

On reflection…

So why is it such a big deal that Pokémon X and Y draw so much from French culture? Because recognizing that is to see a person’s passion and fascination with an entire people and their way of life. Pokémon X and Y’s director Junichi Masuda is a huge fan of French culture and to see that come out in his game is to read a love letter to an entire country that seems to love his country in return.

It’s also a sign of increasing cultural awareness in these polarizing times. By showing a truthful and respectful depiction of another person’s culture, even in a world of fantasy, it shows a person’s understanding of them as well as a desire to share that understanding with others.

There is no way I could cover every connection to France in these games, so I encourage you to play the game and find them for yourself. You may be surprised at what gives you a sense of Déjà Vu.