Finders Keepers

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Tianna Usher is a senior earning a major in Religious Studies and a minor in Biology. After graduation she plans to enroll at The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities to pursue a Master’s of Nursing. This post was written as part of Prof. Ramey’s REL 322: Tales from Asia course.

“Finders keepers, losers weepers.” While the jingle may have given us the upper hand in elementary school playground disputes over trading cards and action figures, matters get a bit more complicated in the adult world of cultural expression and exchange. Criticisms over the film Sita Sings the Blues, published in 2008 by Nina Paley, continue to raise questions about cultural appropriation in an increasingly globalized world.

Sita Sings the Blues is Nina Paley’s creative interpretation of the Hindu epic, The Ramayana. However, controversy over the film was immediately sparked as certain Hindu groups accused the European-American woman of appropriating Indian culture. In a revised publication statement, Nina Paley explained her motives behind the film and allowed free access to it by the public, adding, “Like all culture, it belongs to you already… From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes.” Her critics essentially argued that culture is, in fact, not shared, and that just because Paley found inspiration in another culture’s traditions, that didn’t give her any right to use that culture to create something of her own. Additionally, some critics argued that Paley’s representation of Rama and Sita diminished and mocked Indian culture.

Given the history of European colonialism in countries like India, as well as contemporary sociocultural Caucasian dominance, it is understandable that minority groups are defensive of their traditions and heritage. Yet at the same time, expanding globalization connects societies and allows for the observation and exchange of cultural ideas, making it increasingly difficult for any group of people to claim any product, tradition, or idea as exclusively theirs.

With that said, what place should cultural appropriation have in the world today? How far is too far, when it comes to taking pieces of other cultures and meshing them into one’s own? When minorities protest because Hollywood films based on their particular ethnic group’s heritage and traditions are cast entirely with European-American actors, it may seem obvious to some that the minority culture is being manipulated and controlled by the dominant culture’s representation of it. Yet matters may become a bit more complex when the issue at hand is a seemingly innocent Polynesian Disney costume or a “native” clothing line. In an American consumer culture, where it is normal to capitalize upon virtually any commodity—including those with ties to minority traditions—it can be easy to either miss the cultural implications altogether or to land at the opposite extreme and accuse every vendor of maliciously demeaning a group’s heritage. We must ask ourselves: where is the line between appreciating shared culture and addressing controversies over cultural appropriation in Hollywood films and popular culture? Is cultural appropriation theft or appreciation? Misuse or creative application?

For now, the appropriation of minority cultures by the dominant group is still viewed negatively, yet it can’t be ignored that cultural appropriation has paved the way for some remarkably creative works. Many minority groups find that capitalistic society is often driven by “finder’s keeper’s” principles. As traditions become consumer goods, these groups perceive that they often become the losers. But perhaps, in regard to culture, what we need is a new approach to the idea of cultural exchange in general. After all, worldwide globalization is fast approaching. Perhaps, even in 2008, Nina Paley was onto something with her “shared culture” after all?

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