Cultural appropriation, an idea developed in the 1970s and 1980s, has really only begun to proliferate in pop culture over the past decade. It means the “taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another,” according to Oxford University Press, and it connotes “exploitation and dominance,” meaning that the dominant (white) culture has stolen from and disrespected a minority (nonwhite) culture.
It’s important to understand and appreciate the cultures you borrow from. But the term has become one often used to shame people for doing fun and harmless things. Anyone who makes sushi or wears box braids or attends a Cinco de Mayo party isn’t likely to leave that experience thinking they’ve suddenly changed their race or ethnicity.
And yet, we now have one of the first cases of someone getting plastic surgery to try to change their race. Oli London, a seriously confused white British influencer who underwent 18 surgeries to look like a K-pop star, now says he identifies as “transracial.”
“I'm finally Korean,” he said in a message to fans earlier this summer. “I've transitioned. I'm so, so happy. I've completed my look. I'm finally Korean guys. I have the eyes. I've just had a brow lift as well. I'm so happy.”
Of course, many who saw the news, including Asians, were outraged. One commenter called it the “ultimate cultural appropriation.”
If anything is an example of cultural appropriation, paying more than a hundred thousand dollars for surgery to take the identity of another race certainly is. Being Korean is so much more than having certain facial features, and London rightly faced plenty of backlash.
Now imagine if a high-profile celebrity, who had made a career succeeding as a male athlete and the patriarch of a famous family, decided to get surgery and become a woman. You don’t have to imagine it—because that’s the story of Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner, who came out as transgender in 2015.
When Jenner revealed a sultry new look in Vanity Fair, praise flowed in from a largely uncritical press. “One could hardly find a news channel the past couple of days that wasn’t touting the former Bruce Jenner for her courageous transgender metamorphosis or admiring her ‘gorgeous’ new look,” noted a Washington Post article at the time.
Contrast “gorgeous” and “courageous” with “ridiculous” and “disrespectful”—the comments directed toward London after his misguided surgery. What really makes these two so different?
Cultural appropriation vs. female appropriation
I don't wish ill on London for his struggle with identity, nor do I wish ridicule or harm on anyone struggling with gender dysphoria. But as a woman, I feel conversations on the meaning of womanhood are important ones to have if we don't want to abdicate all significance and meaning in our identities.
As transgenderism has become more popular in the United States, thanks in part to third-wave feminism, it has become the cultural norm to accept anyone’s preferred gender identity uncritically. Questioning whether a man choosing to present himself as a woman has sexist overtones has become enough to be branded “transphobic.”
And why don’t we hear cries against this from feminists? Well, we do. But when J.K. Rowling expressed concerns about transgender orthodoxy, she was reviled by fans, sent death threats, and dismissively labeled a TERF (“trans-exclusionary radical feminist”). Feminists who balk at the idea that men can become women simply by choice are reviled by the culture at large, losing friends, professional opportunities, and even their jobs.
While those who crusade against cultural appropriation and for the transgender cause seem to believe that their worldviews are compatible, you can’t complain that white people are insulting the heritage of minority communities by dressing similarly, while asserting that men are not belittling women by acting like being a woman means little more than putting on makeup and a pair of high heels.
While some would argue that you can change your gender (and medical experts are pushing for sex to be removed from birth certificates), there are not enough surgeries and hormone supplements in the world to change the fact that most people (with rare exceptions) are born either with XX or XY chromosomes and that these genes make a difference.
But transgender women who were born as biological men sure seem to be appropriating female culture, as the Oxford definition would indicate, by “taking over . . . creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another.” This trend even exhibits “exploitation and dominance,” as women’s spaces (including restrooms, locker rooms, and shelters) are no longer guaranteed to be their own, and women who speak up on this issue are silenced and shamed. And there is something sexist and patriarchal about a man demanding that women accept him as their own and telling them to shut up about it.
There seems to be a great irony in shaming people for dressing up in the trappings of other cultures (or even getting surgery to identify as another race) while celebrating men for becoming women by no more than a declaration of identity. Apparently, being a woman is so simple that anyone can do it.
It would appear that women, who have been fighting for millennia to have rights on par with the dominant (male) culture, are being told once again that our rights are less than. And while the culture of womanhood is being appropriated, there is little we can do about it but speak up about the richness and value of authentic femininity to a culture that, maybe someday, will be willing to listen.