Essay: Vogue Japan and Miranda Kerr vs. Cultural Appropriation

Mirander Kerr on the Cover of Vogue Japan, November 2014.

The world of fashion is no stranger to the theme of what we know as cultural appropriation. All too often, we come across circumstances where the model is wearing culturally specific clothing.The problem is that the model has no association with the culture or traditions that come with the aesthetic they are presenting. In America, this may appear as a white person wearing a Native American Headdress or donning braids and dreadlocks, styles that not too long ago and still are considered taboo when people of color wear them. Another example of cultural appropriation? Wearing a bindi when you have no association with any of the countries from which they originate. In recent events, Miranda Kerr, an international supermodel hailing from Australia and known to the vast majority of Americans as a Victoria’s Secret Angel, was featured in Vogue Japan. Her feature consisted of the cover and an editorial. There are several issues that arise with this choice. For one, Vogue Japan already faces controversy. There is severe lack of Japanese presence for a publication geared towards Japanese women. This issue is only amplified when a white, non-japanese model wears clothing considered symbolic to Japanese culture. Furthermore, these images propel existing stereotypes about Japanese culture, leading one to think that surely these images were not made in appreciation of Japanese culture.

    The line “Special 15th Anniversary Issue by Mario Testino featuring  Miranda Kerr” appears elegantly on the cover of Vogue Japan. On it, Kerr is wearing a black wig, made up in a high bun to resemble a geisha. She also is wearing what looks likes a kimono underneath a jacket. In the editorial, she is again dressed to resemble a geisha, a samurai, and a manga character. In the “Samurai Spread, she has her hair in a bun, wearing a boxy coat and adorned pants with a tasseled orange top. For the “manga” guise, Kerr has her hair worn in two long ponytails and a low cut ruffled dress, making her look very Lolita-esque . In  Advertising and People of Color, Wilson II and Gutierrez say, “Asians, particularly Japanese, continue to be dealt more than their share of commercials depicting them in stereotypes that cater to the dears and stereotypes of White America…Asian women appearing in commercials were often featured as China dolls with the small, darkened eyes, straight hair with bangs, and a narrow, slit skirt (Wilson- Gutierrez 287)”. In this case, we have the opposite. We have a blue- eyed white woman in a Japanese magazine wearing Japanese-influenced clothing. Yes, the samurai, geisha, and manga have a place in Japanese culture but this is not all that the Japanese have and by displaying these three archetypes in a magazine dominated by western ideals of beauty, Vogue is only embracing the stereotype of a culture. If they were to depict these themes, why not use a Japanese model? Kerr’s features are very much the idealized image of beauty, specifically western beauty. She has blue eyes, full lips, fair-skin, and is thin. Her features are not a common characteristic of the Japanese population. Seeing someone so unlike them in such a major publication could lead readers to believe that they must aspire to this standard of beauty in order to have significance to the Vogue community. Perhaps it would not be a problem if the majority of the models were Japanese but they are not, as previous content has shown. It seems that most of the vogue staff is Japanese, but editor- at- large and stylist Anna Dello Russo is not, which may be another reason we are presented with this vision.

    While the Manga and Lolita subcultures originate from Japan, is it necessary to feature them in Vogue? In The More You Subtract, The More You Add, Jean Kilbourne says, “ Many ads feature girls and young women in very passive poses. Limp. Doll-like. Sometimes acting like little girls, playing with dolls and wearing bows in their hair” (Kilbourne 264). Showing a 31- year old woman as a manga character seems to add testimony to Kilbourne’s statement. Manga characters can be hyper-sexualized, especially when men make up a large component of readership. In a readership that is comprised mostly of women, a layout depicting a women as a girl or a cartoon rendition of a girl just promotes the passive image of women in media and the concept that life after youth is irrelevant.

    In a quote acquired from  Japan Today, Mario Testino, the photographer said, “I wanted to represent ancient and modern Japan with these three characters. Japan has geisha and samurai, as well as manga, and I hoped to express these themes through Miranda to the Japanese people.” Perhaps someone should have told Testino that reiterating stereotypes in dedication to the Japanese people was heartfelt but not very sincere. This leads to the question of, “ Whose responsibility is it?”. I believe that the model, stylist, editor, and photographer all have a say in deciding what their viewers see. In this case, doing one’s job is actively participating in appropriation, whether realized or not. In appreciating the cultures of other people, we must be considerate in what we choose to represent because there can be repercussions, especially when a world famous publication is involved.

Works Cited

“JapanToday.” Japan Today RSS. Web. 29 Sep. 2014.

Kilbourne, Jean. The More You Subtract, The More You Add: Cutting Girls Down to Size. Web.

“MIRANDA OBSESSION | VOGUE.” VOGUE JAPAN. Web. 29 Sep. 2014.

“Vogue.” Condé Nast International. Web. 29. Sep. 2014.

Wilson, Clint C., II, and Felix Gutierrez. ADVERTISING AND PEOPLE OF COLOR. Web.

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