Lizzo is the latest to appropriate Asian culture, with dangerous implications

Performer Lizzo on stage
Getty Images

Story at a glance

  • Musical artist Lizzo was recently photographed for Rolling Stone magazine donning looks that sexualize and appropriate various Asian cultures.
  • Lizzo joins a long list of celebrities that have come under fire for the same reason.
  • The sexualization of Asian women has led to a fetish called “Yellow Fever” and caused Asian-related search terms to shoot to the top of Pornhub charts.
  • Sexualization of Asian women and promotion of a stereotype depicting them as meek and subservient can proliferate sexual violence, experts warn.

On Jan. 26, rising star musical artist Lizzo will make her Grammy debut as both a performer and a nominee. In fact, she’s racked up the most nominations out of any artist this year with a total of eight, including in the category of Best New Artist. 

It’s no mystery why Lizzo has become such a beloved artist over the past year. She’s been a refreshing breath of upbeat, self-loving air. She exudes relatability and body positivity, as well as having some really catchy songs to boot and incredible flautist abilities. It is unfortunate, then, that she’s now going through a stage that many pop stars seem to go through, made even more disappointing by her own pride in being a powerful black woman and owning her blackness: blatant and unacknowledged appropriation of Asian culture.

The Rolling Stone cover and David LaChapelle

Yesterday it was revealed that Lizzo would be gracing the cover of the upcoming issue of Rolling Stone magazine. On said cover the star looks up smiling while she dons a sheer floral bodysuit and matching hooded cape. Men kneel at her feet holding calla lilies and the headline reads: “How she conquered the world.” 

The cover itself is well in line with photographer David LaChapelle’s style, which often draws inspiration from art history and plays on biblical imagery. The photos inside the magazine’s pages tell a different tale though, as Lizzo is portrayed in one image fully nude save for serpentine body paint — her head, shoulders and hands adorned with accessories one would typically only see in Southeast Asian ceremonial dance. (Lizzo and LaChapelle have not responded to Changing America’s requests for an interview.)

Other photos depict Lizzo equally nude playing a flute, with only silver heels on her feet and matching fans on her head, influence taken from geisha culture. Geisha culture plays an influence throughout the photoshoot, like in a photo of the artist draped across a sofa with a fan in her hand and orchids in her hair. 

LaChapelle has appropriated and sexualized Asian culture in photoshoots before. In one, Icelandic musical artist Björk poses in racy lingerie within a dreamscape of clouds. On her right is a large branch of Japanese cherry blossoms and she sits between golden ships adorned with Chinese characters. 

“YASSSSS WE LOVE CULTURAL APPROPRIATION,” says Instagram user endy.leonardo_rmrz on Lizzo’s post of the Rolling Stone shoot. The comment has already racked up nearly 250 likes as well as replies in agreement. “Ok so I’m not the only one? I was gonna say…” reads a comment by user girl_strange.

Some Instagram commenters such as lifeasoflate go further into detail: “Love me some Lizzo. But is everyone gonn [sic] freak out about the culture appropriation in this photo they way they do with other celebrities appropriating black culture? (Cambodian head dress.)” 

I just don’t understand why people think it’s okay to use the cultural dress of others and wear it this way,” user moe_ngin writes. “Like I love Lizzo and her positivity and her music is amazing and that she is paving her own way. This is just the second time within the last few weeks that I’ve seen Asian dress used in this way and it is NOT okay.”

An ongoing trend

Household name celebrities like members of the Kardashian family and rapper Iggy Azalea have sometimes become synonymous with the appropriation of African American culture, and punishment by editorial outlets and users on social media have been swift and decisive in sharing their opinion that it’s not an okay thing to do. So, why does it continue to happen?

There are many reasons why it’s particularly offensive to the African American community to have their culture appropriated, having been systematically oppressed for hundreds of years. There are also particular reasons why appropriating Asian culture is offensive and problematic, one of them being the deep roots of oversexualizing Asian women. This sexualization is so predominant, in fact, that it’s proliferated a fetish called “yellow fever.” 

Pornhub’s 2019 annual Year in Review, for example, revealed that their top 25 searches saw the term “Japanese” shoot up 4 positions to become the most searched term of 2019, while “hentai” remained the second most popular term. Searches for “Korean” and “Asian” moved further up the list, causing previously popular terms like “step mom” and “massage” to move down slightly, according to the report. All in all, a troubling quarter of the top search terms were Asian-related. 

Stereotypes played out on stage

Back in 2013 Caucasian pop star Katy Perry took the American Music Awards stage to perform her hit song “Unconditional” fully dressed as a geisha, swirling a paper fan with a face that was painted white. “It’s these kind of stereotypical visuals that plays into white fetishization of Asian women,” wrote The Atlantic’s Nolan Feeney about the performance. “Something Perry doesn’t have to deal with when she takes off her costume.”

The stereotypes crafted around the sexualization of Asian women can not only be offensive, but dangerous critics point out. In 2016, the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) found that sexualized, submissive stereotypes of Asian women had lead to staggering rates of violence, with 41 to 61 percent of Asian women reporting that they’ve experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime — a statistic that exceeds that of any other ethnic group. 

Other pop stars that have been publicly criticized for their appropriation and sexualization of Asian culture include Rihanna, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, Avril Lavigne, Gwen Stefani and Kim Kardashian-West, who came under fire recently after naming her new shapewear line Kimono. The star even applied to trademark the word “Kimono” as well as related terms “Kimono Body,” “Kimono Intimates” and “Kimono World.” After facing massive scrutiny for the decision, Kardashian-West changed the name of the line to SKIMS. 

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Finally I can share with you guys this project that I have been developing for the last year. I’ve been passionate about this for 15 years. Kimono is my take on shapewear and solutions for women that actually work. I would always cut up my shapewear to make my own styles, and there have also been so many times I couldn’t find a shapeware color that blended with my skin tone so we needed a solution for all of this. The third pic is the solution short. I developed this style for all of those times I wanted to wear a dress or skirt with a slit and still needed the support. Introducing Kimono Solutionwear™ for every body. Coming Soon in sizes XXS – 4XL in 9 shades. I can’t wait for you to feel this fabric!#KimonoBody @kimono Photos by Vanessa Beecroft

A post shared by Kim Kardashian West (@kimkardashian) on

Appreciation vs. appropriation

The main counterargument for cultural appropriation is that the offender is merely attempting to show their appreciation for the culture. Many celebrities, such as Ariana Grande and Avril Lavigne, have been criticized for ripping off Japanese culture in particular, and replied by citing trips to Japan and a deep love for Japanese culture, geisha culture, or Harajuku culture as their reasons for incorporating certain elements into their performances and videos.

Experts say a good rule of thumb to consider is that appropriation can be thought of as “cherry picking” from someone else’s culture — taking elements that you consider to be beautiful or aspirational and neglecting to include or mention others that aren’t so pretty. Another common aspect of appropriation is failure to give credit to the culture you’re drawing inspiration from in the first place. 

There’s no issue to be taken when someone finds true inspiration from a culture other than their own, only when the inspired person lacks the foundational knowledge to accurately represent it. Look into the negative and problematic stereotypes of the culture that inspires you — really do your research. Give credit where it is due, and you’ll be exhibiting true cultural appreciation.