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?

When Religion and Artistic License Clash

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Jackson Nock is a senior from Denver, Colorado. He is a double major in International Studies and Religious Studies with a minor in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies.This post was written as part of Prof. Ramey’s REL 322: Tales from Asia course.

When we think of art, we think of a world in which creativity and expression know no bounds. However, when certain stories are labeled as “religious” or “sacred” as opposed to “non-religious,” we seem to look at art differently.

In my REL 322 class we have been focusing on the Indian epic the Ramayana. What I have found most interesting about this story is the number of tellings and depictions that exist. Recently, we watched the film Sita Sings the Blues, an animated film based on the Ramayana produced by American artist Nina Paley. Paley’s telling of the Ramayana received criticism for its portrayal of certain characters in a negative light and a number of Hindus found the film offensive.

Similarly, the comic book series The 99 written by Naif Al-Mutawa has faced criticism in its portrayal of characters. The 99 is about a team of superheroes each based on one of the 99 attributes of Allah found in Islamic traditions and is generally directed toward a younger Muslim demographic. The comic is banned by the Saudi government and ISIS members have even called for the killing of Al-Mutawa.

These two instances raise questions over how far artistic license extends. Are there certain topics, themes, or stories that should be left off limits? Should “religious” or “sacred” stories be told only in a certain way in order to prevent possible cultural appropriation? The problem with these questions is that it looks at stories such as the Ramayana or the 99 attributes of Allah through these “religious” or “sacred” labels.

As Dr. Ramey notes in his blog post “What if Harry Potter is Sacred,” “When we label something as ‘sacred,’ that designation often changes how we engage it.” But why do we use these labels to describe certain texts or stories in the first place? In his book Capitalizing Religion, scholar Craig Martin argues “when there is a chafing relationship between [a] state’s practices and the practices of a particular civil institution, the latter may cry foul on the grounds of ‘freedom of religion'” (Martin, 44). Thus, religious groups, Martin argues, use “religious” or “sacred” labels in order to reduce the reach or scope of “secular” institutions in their private lives (Martin, 44). Could it be possible to extend this argument into the realm of artistic license?

In both the cases of Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues and Al-Mutawa’s The 99, we see religious groups protesting the content of artwork they see as degrading to things they hold as “religious” or “sacred.” If we are to use Martin’s line of logic, the use of these labels to describe the Ramayana or the 99 attributes of Allah is a way of limiting the scope of artistic license on them. But is this healthy? Should artists refrain from creating their work out of fear of backlash?

Despite where you stand on this issue, the important thing to realize is that using the terms “religious or “secular” to describe certain stories has an impact on the way people think about them. This, in effect, has discouraged artistic license in regards to them. Therefore, it is important to examine how these types of labels may be affecting the telling or retelling of a story when you examine it.