In 2014 there may very well be no two dirtier words than "cultural appropriation," thanks to recent shenanigans from the likes of pop stars like Miley, Katy, and Iggy (Azalea, not our guy). It seems like more than anything, white celebrities spent the past year committing one boneheaded cultural faux pas after another, claiming to invent twerking one day and donning Geisha garb the next.
But if it comes off as a bit disingenuous when the Mileys of the world claim that their borrowing of, say, black culture comes from a place of pure appreciation, it might be because of the sheer inauthentic nature of the whole thing. At this point in 2014, cultural appropriation is seemingly a strategic, if tired, part of the white pop star album promotional cycle: Drop album, release offensive video in which you stereotype or pilfer from a minority group, unleash a shitstorm of click-bait think pieces analyzing the event from every corner of the Internet, enjoy the "publicity." Rinse and repeat. If records could go platinum based on outraged think pieces alone, surely there would've been more platinum records in 2014. But alas ...
The good thing is all this has ignited a debate on what it means to appreciate a culture and what it means to appropriate it, and it's refreshing to see a heightened sensitivity to complex issues even in an arena as vacuous as top 40 pop music. But while it's easy to vilify these rich, white pop starlets as cultural kleptomaniacs, a little sympathy for the devil comes from the 21 year-old holiday cult classic — Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, given a renewed meaning during the great debate today.
If you don't know the story, here's a recap: Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, is growing bored with his job leading the ghosts and goblins of Halloween Town in scaring the shit out of children year in and year out. After ducking out of Halloween festivities, our listless hero stumbles on a door that transports him to Christmas Town, where he finds the holiday cheer — as well as the lack of severed heads — completely refreshing. Turns out that though he may look creepy on the outside, Jack's got a lot of heart and decides that Christmas, with its lights, toys, and candy, is his new favorite holiday.
Jack, of course, has no idea what Christmas actually means from his brief crash course with the holiday, and he never actually speaks with anyone from Christmas Town. Armed with only a superficial understanding of its signifiers, Jack returns to Halloween Town to teach his denizens about this great new holiday. And that's where the analogy falls apart a little bit, actually.
In the film's world, there is no power imbalance between Christmas Town and Halloween Town, and no history of systemic oppression between the two. The power imbalance is the magic ingredient that casts even the most innocuous instance of cultural appropriation into an icky light. When a white hipster teenager dons a headdress made out of hot glue and neon feathers at, say, the Coachella festival, the history of white genocide of Native Americans is invoked. Likewise, it's a problem when a white artist brings a black art form to the masses, gets credit for inventing it, and laughs all the way to the bank (but if you didn't know what twerking was before last year, you have got to make a New Year's resolution to get out more).
But Jack isn't raiding Christmas for profit, oppressing Christmas Town's denizens, or taking credit for inventing it — by the film's logic, he merely deeply admires this novel new holiday, even though that means calling on Santa Claus to be kidnapped so he can switch places with him.
The analogy picks back up, though, in the way that Jack thinks he understands Christmas — and then declares himself the authority on it. Jack, the messenger, has no idea what any of the customs of Christmas mean (never mind the fact that in the film, Jesus is nowhere to be found), so naturally, the denizens of Halloween Town completely fuck up the holiday. Having no concept of any culture outside of their own, Jack's workshop of horrors creates a legion of evil toys that terrorize the populace, resulting in pretty much the worst Christmas ever.
After getting shot out of the sky by the National Guard (giving a new meaning to "the war on Christmas"), Jack attempts to make everything right by setting Santa free. Santa's understandably pissed, but after scolding Jack, he indicates that his efforts at cross-culture "exchange" weren't totally unwelcome. On his way out (via his flying sleigh, naturally) Santa wishes everyone a "Merry Christmas," and even spreads some holiday cheer of his own by making it snow in Halloween Town.
It's a silly story, but it's illustrative of the fact that merely crossing cultural lines (or magic doors, whatever) isn't the sin — it's doing so without any regard for, or deep understanding of, the culture being borrowed from. There's no doubt that Jack's intentions were in the right place, but good intentions aren't enough to exonerate someone from the crime of reducing another culture to a commodity.