Katy Perry's Geisha-Inspired 2013 American Music Awards Performance Sparks "Racist" Controversy

Singer is accused of being culturally insensitive for her "Unconditionally" stage show

By Zach Johnson Nov 25, 2013 8:33 PMTags
Katy Perry, 2013 American Music Awards PerformancesABC/Matt Brown

Katy Perry opened the 2013 American Music Awards with a eye-raising rendition of her latest single, "Unconditionally." Dressed in a custom kimono created by her stylist, Johnny Wujek, the 29-year-old singer was made up to look like a Geisha girl. The intricate set included cherry blossoms, a Shinto shrine and taiko drummers.

Before Perry took the stage, Samsung Mobile and the American Music Awards' Twitter accounts shared an exclusive picture of the pop star backstage, scrawled with the line "I think I'm turning AMA"—a reference to The Vapors' 1980 song "Turning Japanese."

Moments after the performance ended, Perry was accused of being racially and culturally insensitive. "In an effort to recalibrate our collective racism radar, which has been getting overtaxed at music award shows as of late: Was Perry's Great Wave of Japanese signifiers offensive, simply stereotypical, or harmlessly deferential in an inert Katy Perry maximalist way?" Vulture asked its readers.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Cosmopolitan, meanwhile, pointed out that Perry's "Asian-themed spectacle that seemed mightily confused about which nationality it meant to culturally reappropriate. Her Japanese-inspired kimono-esque robe came with a Chinese-inspired collar."

Perry's harshest review came from The Wall Street Journal's Jeff Yang, who noted that her costume was sexed-up for American audiences. "Her traditional outfit had been tightened at the bust with a triangular cutout designed to accentuate rather than flatten her generous bosom, and the sides cut to the waist to expose her pearlescent American legs," Yang wrote.

"In short, this was a a full-barreled technicolor assault on a quarter-millennium-old set of traditions that would've given any self-respecting denizen of Kyoto's Gion District a massive fatal heart attack," Yang continued. "But Perry's whiteface/yellowface performance was also a harsh reminder of how deeply anchored the archetype of the exotic, self-sacrificing 'lotus blossom' is in the Western imagination."

Yang added that Perry's look was likely inspired by Cio-Cio-San, the titular "butterfly" from Giacomo Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly. "The thing is, while a bucket of toner can strip the geisha makeup off of Perry's face, nothing can remove the demeaning and harmful iconography of the lotus blossom from the West's perception of Asian women—a stereotype that presents them as servile, passive, and as Perry would have it, 'unconditional' worshippers of their men, willing to pay any price and weather any kind of abuse in order to keep him happy," he wrote.

The Atlantic said Perry's performance "needs to be called out" because "stereotypes remain harmful." Australian Cosmopolitan, meanwhile, argued that "it was the visual, boppy, awards show equivalent of saying, 'It looks like fun to be an Asian!' without a scrap of cultural sensitivity,. She pretty much just stopped short of sticky-taping her eyelids to her temples to make her eyes slant."

Reps for Perry did not immediately return E! News' request for comment.