Fourteen-year-old Larsen Thompson and 11-year-old Taylor Hatala are undeniably talented, and people are really loving the new video of them dancing to Beyoncé's "Run the World (Girls)."
"They're not biologically related, but after watching them dance together, you'll see that they're seriously in sync with each other," wrote Time's Samantha Grossman.
At Cambio, Brandi Fowler raved, "The girls — whose dance moves are so in sync it's cray — popped, locked and murdered every move until the end of the clip, where they fiercely palmed globes in their hands and stared into the camera. It's almost as if we can hear Bey saying, 'any questions?'"
Well, yes, there are some questions. Mostly surrounding the part of the video where the music switches to the Korean pop song "I Am the Best," by 2NE1, and the girls' costumes switch along with it, to include traditional Chinese tops, Japanese geisha-inspired makeup, and fans.
One question is: While the dancers are kids and shouldn't be held responsible, how did every single adult involved — and there are several listed in the credits — look at this and say, "Sure, that looks Asian-ish. It works!"
Another: Why are the problems with cultural appropriation so hard for artists to understand? The topic makes regular headlines and has fueled criticism over performances by Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry (not to mention a recent Twitter rant from Nicki Minaj). Just recently, 16-year-old Hunger Games star Amandla Stenberg filmed a video titled "Don't Cash Crop My Cornrows," in which she explained, "Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves."
But the topic hasn't been taken seriously or discussed widely enough, and plenty of people still costume themselves in the clothes or hairstyles that others take seriously, without a second thought. It obviously hasn't sunk in that this is widely seen as a problem.
In May, the blog Ube Empress offered great explanation of Orientalism and the appropriation of Asian cultures in music that should help.
It includes a paragraph by law professor Susan Scafidi, defining appropriation:
Cultural appropriation is taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. This can include the unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways, or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.
Two more paragraphs explain how Orientalism, specifically, often goes hand in hand with cultural appropriation.
The West's imagined construct of the East: strange religions and martial arts, bright colours and barbaric practices, unusual foods and incomprehensible languages, mysticism and magic, ninjas and kung fu. Asia becomes innately unusual, alien, and beastly. In Orientalism, Asia is not defined by what Asia is; rather, Asia becomes an "Otherized" fiction of everything the West is not, and one that primarily serves to reinforce the West's own moral conception of itself.
I.e. if a musician is mashing up a variety of Asian cultures in order to make their video feel mystical, otherworldly or edgy, (while at the same time claiming they're honoring that culture, where "that" just vaguely means all of Asia), and if they're essentially wearing a costume that's heavily coded as hailing from the Orient, then they're probably participating in Orientalism.
That sounds like exactly what happened in this new video. As is often the case, the appropriation looks like it was done without any ill will or intent to mock or harm. But that doesn't change the fact that it's as offensive to Korean, Chinese, and Japanese culture as the choreography is impressive.