Over the last few years I have done a lot of thinking about costumes. This season is another time to consider the matter as Halloween is just over and Christmas is coming, with a lot of costumes gathering around the “jolly old elf” and a great many Nativity plays and pageants. Also, a young acquaintance who is a pastor in Iowa became vocal about how a local school had come up with a coloring contest, this past week, offering a prize for the best rendition of Sugar Skulls, a stylized confection and type of face painting used by Latin American ethnic groups on the Day of the Dead, Die de Muertos, now conflated with All Saints’ Eve (Halloween), All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. She was alarmed that the school was turning something culturally important into a coloring contest, meaning that its cultural significance was being ignored. Her list of things she had learned to avoid, included dressing in Native American attire (a painful but important lesson she had learned when she wore a Pocahontas dress a few years ago), and conducting Christian Sedar Services on Passover.
Confession time: I was once the proud owner of a set of Native American dance costumes that I had taken hundreds of hours to make, and I used them in woodland settings complete with a tipi, to teach little Christian boys to do dances and learn about the Trail of Tears that ran right through our camp. I also once studied how a Messianic Jewish Congregation in Illinois conducted a Sedar service, and our Presbyterian congregation did the same, complete with a meal including gefilte fisch, matzos and Mogen David wine. The decades have passed, and perhaps I would not do those things again, although I will still defend having done them at the time and place we did them.
That brings me to the notion that PURPOSE and CONTEXT matter.
Let’s say that some folks in the USA have a Thai classical dance costume and mask. How wrong would it be to wear it to an event in, say, Los Angeles? (1) Suppose a high school was putting on an international day, as many better schools do. Would it be culturally insensitive to have someone wear the costume and perhaps dance in it? (2) OK, now suppose the event is a Halloween party? (3) Next, suppose the project is a student-produced movie in which the character appears in a nightmare segment to murder a character, as does happen in several of the 125 scenes of the classical dance drama. (4) Finally, suppose the school has a majority of ethnic South East Asian students and they choose that character to be their sports mascot.
None of those uses would be automatically exempt from criticism. Thai classical masked dance drama is a key cultural marker, and it is the symbolic bridge that links Thai culture and royalty to ancient archetypes and divinities. Actors who train to perform these dances are expected to venerate the character they represent and to pay worshipful respect to the unbroken line of inspired teachers. However, we might expect little objection to the first use, as an example of Thai culture in an exposition of international culture. The remaining three would be over the line between respectful and disrespectful. Who, on the other hand, retains the right to draw the line? And what criteria will they use?
As with my friend’s experience this past week, in the USA anybody can claim the right to an opinion about a matter of cultural exploitation. Criticism might come from anywhere and attack any aspect of the issue. But there is a difference between informed and uninformed criticism, as there is between one platform and another.
Here’s how it would work in the cases I have proposed. In effect, the masks and characters as well as the scripts for presenting dance episodes of the Ramakian are owned by the Palace. The Thai Ministry of Culture has an assigned duty to judge and enforce decisions about those things. Certain institutions are authorized to provide training and performances. Movements, musical accompaniment, and costume details are set. But masks are commercially available and export is not restricted in any way. Paintings or photographs of performances are for sale and if you hang one in your family room it will not be considered insensitive or wrong. Still, to find a demi-god racing back and forth encouraging a touch-down would count as a misuse of the character.
Similarly, Thai Boxing is a symbol of Thailand and its culture. It is an evolved form of martial arts adjusted to more closely conform to standard athletic competitions. Some elements of the martial-arts past cling to the bouts, including the ritual invocation dance of the fighters. However, I cannot imagine a circumstance in which a person dressed as a Thai boxer would be heavily accused of cultural exploitation. Any of the four events described above could involve a Thai boxer. The Ministry of Culture has no guidelines or monitors checking on who wears a boxing costume, or who teaches Thai boxing. There is a Ministry of Sports and Recreation that might have strong opinions about events that pass themselves off as Thai boxing championship competitions.
So, what about your Halloween costumes, your plans for Christmas plays, and on to Chinese New Year and Mardi Gras? I believe that if an event is for the purposes of cultural demonstration it will pass if it is reasonably accurate … UNLESS the characters represented were victims of cultural suppression. The right judge would be authoritative members of that culture. You’re going to be safe if you stick to completely fictional characters like Superman, Santa Claus, and Harry Potter … UNLESS they intrude into the wrong realm of presentation. (I can imagine Spiderman hanging over the manger of the Baby Jesus, but I cannot imagine it being right.) The right judge would be authoritative members of the culture being intruded upon. You will probably be as sensitive as necessary if your all-white choir belts out “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on Martin Luther King’s Birthday, whereas, it might not go over with the same level of appreciation in a candle-light Christmas Eve service.
Nothing is right about any portrayal of oppressed people that ignores their oppression. Nothing is right about any costume that ridicules a culture.
[For previous essays on related topics I refer to: www.kendobson.asia/blog/black-lives-matter www.kendobson.asia/blog/who-says and www.kendobson.asia/cultural-theft and I invite your comments.]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.