Jack Skellington, uninspired, and in a rut, discovers Christmas Town, falls head over heels with a culture that is not his to begin with, does not talk to a single person who actually lives there, and thus fails to understand the significance of its elements, then goes on to falsify their image in order to appeal to a different audience, and despite their reluctance, decides that he, the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown, can in fact do Christmas better than Christmas Town. At which he fails. Spectacularly.
Unlike what John Mulaney would say, we, dear readers, absolutely do have the time to unpack all of that.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) is an excellent conversation starter and explanation tool if you are completely new to the concept of cultural appropriation. The Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect the original culture.”
As the story begins, Jack is shown disheartened with the usual Halloween festivities – as he leads the celebration each year, he privately grows weary of it. Thus, it is an extremely delightful experience for him when he discovers the even gates representing different festivals – and goes through the one leading to the Christmas Town. He discovers a brand new world, a different festival, and a wildly different way of living. Enthused, he takes back some of the things he likes (Christmas baubles, candy canes, etc.) in an attempt to understand what it was that made Christmas so magical. Notice how he doesn’t even try to talk to the residents of the town, who would have answered his questions in depth had he just thought to ask. The residents of Halloween Town are also confused, since without any context as to why things are done a certain way, all the Christmas elements can only be compared to what they already know, and do not come at par. As expected, Jack fails at understanding Christmas because even after the multiple experiments and equations back at his crib, he is, after all, using his egregiously narrow perspective to explain something totally out of his scope.
When Jack can neither understand nor rationally explain Christmas to anyone – not even to himself, he simply decides that he is going to ‘improve Christmas’ as it is unfair that only Christmas Town gets to celebrate it. He tasks different citizens with jobs like ‘singing carols’, ‘preparing gifts’ and even ‘kidnapping Santa’ to make sure he is fully prepared to lead the festivities. Despite getting warned not to proceed, Jack goes on to botch the entire festival, ruin Christmas for the normal world, and as a return gift, gets shot out of the sky.
A key fact about cultural appropriation that is missing from the above story is that it is always people of the dominant culture that appropriate the culture of the minorities. While Christmas is in no way a ‘minority culture’ – the Nightmare before Christmas serves some excellent points in what not to do when taking inspiration from another culture.
Why is cultural appropriation a problem? What is so wrong in getting influenced by another culture, especially in a world where there is increased access to everything that exists on earth? The problem arises when the ‘influence’ and ‘inspiration’ is taken for the wrong reasons. When white musicians use music pioneered by black artists and make a killing off of it, when fashion houses host shows inspired by black culture but have only white people modelling for them, or when white people dress up as geishas or put tribal paint on for Halloween – that is when they cross the line from appreciation to appropriation. It is problematic when artists like Zendaya get ridiculed for wearing dreadlocks (which is a common hairstyle for people of African ethnicities) while white celebrities like many of the Kardashian – Jenners continue to do the same and garner millions of Instagram likes and shares despite significant backlash from the black community.
As an Indian, I am not new to watching my culture get appropriated for profit or aesthetic, even though every new instance in an apparently increasingly educated world does make me infuriated. Music festivals are a breeding ground for not just STDs, but also for blatant disrespect of ‘exotic’ cultures, as white people wear bindis, apply henna, or get dressed in the traditional garb of other cultures, all for the aesthetic. While doing the same in normal settings would lead to immense amounts of ridicule not to the white person, but to the Indian just trying to wear something common in their community. White people may profit hugely and be seen as ‘cool’ from doing the same things that people of colour have been doing since long. Even many K-pop artists have remorselessly appropriated different cultures – from randomly wearing dreadlocks in rap videos, to the girl group Blackpink most recently using a statue of the Hindu god Ganesha in an unrelated music video, no amount of fan led educational discourse seems to stop them in their tracks.
Cultural appropriation does more than harm the sentiments of the non-dominant community. It perpetuates offensive stereotypes, and may blind people to the true origins of the culture being appropriated. When Miley Cyrus famously twerked in her ‘We Can’t Stop’ music video – generations of people formed the misconception that it was she who had invented the dance move rather than African-American artists from New Orleans in the early 1990's. This kind of appropriation also opens the gate to fetishisation of concepts not meant to be sexual – the glaring popularity of ‘sexy kimono’ or ‘sexy geisha outfit’ searches during Halloween in America is a testament to this very fact. Kimono is the traditional dress of the Japanese woman, with a rich history that does not deserve to be reduced to a costume for an entitled brat. And geishas have a long history of being dignified artists and performers, not some sort of glorified sex workers. In fact, the entire premise of Halloween is based on appropriation– the people who most fervently celebrate it remain ignorant of its roots, using it as an excuse to wear costumes that degrade cultures different from them. The ancient Samhain tradition of wearing masks to scare away evil spirits has devolved into misogynistic and appropriative debauchery for the amusement of many.
Using elements of a different culture merely ‘for the aesthetic’ and because you apparently can’t think of something original – cultural appropriation is, in a nutshell, plagiarism of the oppressed. And in a world where Google can be opened on nearly any electronic device, there is no excuse for anyone to remain ignorant of the culture they are supposedly being inspired by.
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