Selena Gomez, what are you doing?
For those of you who don’t know, Selena Gomez recently came out with a new song, “Come and Get It,” where her EDM-inspired pop music is layered over traditional sounding Indian music. Her actions have sparked controversy, but only really in the South Asian community. Not only is her video filled with her hypersexualizing traditional Indian dance, but her subsequent performances of the song also involve her wearing a bindi and appropriated forms of Indian clothing.
The donning of the bindi by fair-skinned celebrities is a constant in our mainstream media where Selena Gomez is just happily following in the footsteps of Gwen Stefani and Madonna, who have become trademark cultural appropriaters. Now, there is a difference between appreciation and appropriation – a fine line that I have not seen many people tread successfully.
When Selena Gomez continues to pick and choose fragments from my culture and exotify them, that is far from appreciation, and rather a contribution to the continuing appropriation and commodification of South Asian culture.
Cultural appropriation, as perpetuated by the Western hegemonic culture, is one that continues to mark different cultures as the Other, while making a profit, in a way that doesn’t even benefit the culture something is stolen from. Because if I, an Indian-American woman with dark brown skin, leave my house wearing a bindi, it isn’t me falling into the latest styles as characterized by Western beauty standards. The bindi on my forehead is not me just wearing a “face gem,” but rather a marker of my Otherness. The bindi on Selena’s skin is a marker of her ability to exotify and further ingrain ideas that components of other cultures are better suited for beautiful, Western women, whereas the bindi on my skin is my failure to assimilate into Western and American culture.
How unfortunate is it that my parents had to literally force me to wear beautiful parts of my culture because I was afraid of being ostracized, but Selena Gomez can take aspects of the clothing I grew up with and make money off of them? How unfortunate is it that South Asian immigrants and South Asian Americans are Otherized every single day for the way they look, talk, and dress, but Urban Outfitters continues to commodify and make a profit off the sale of bindis – as made popular by American pop stars?
What’s even worse is that when asked about this song in interviews, Selena Gomez just perpetuates the grouping of all brown bodies by stating the song is “tribal” and has “Middle Eastern vibes.” Because the Middle East and South Asia are two geographical areas that are entirely interchangeable, right, Selena Gomez? And I don’t even understand what people mean when they say “tribal.” What kind of tribe? From where? What are you talking about? But, fine, I’ll give Selena Gomez the benefit of the doubt. I mean… if you’re taking parts of a culture and using them to make a trendy music video, there really is no reason for understanding where they even come from, right? There’s nothing wrong with living in a society that Otherizes any community with a different culture that can only be presented appropriately by the West. There’s nothing wrong with fair-skinned celebrities being named Bollywood queens with bindis on their skin when women in my community are mocked and ostracized for the same actions. There’s nothing wrong with the hegemonic culture we live in making a profit off the components of South Asian culture that lead to its ostracization.
It makes me even more uncomfortable that Selena Gomez, a Latina woman, has not put more effort into understanding the problematic nature of her rising fame and how it affects communities of color. It makes me uncomfortable that people of color are being exotified, Otherized, and ostracized, by other people of color. So, Selena Gomez, I ask again, what are you doing? Take the agency you have and be critical of the way you are presenting yourself and presenting South Asian culture.
My tabla is the music I grew up to and not a sample for you to pretend to understand with your “twisting the lightbulb” dance moves. My tabla is the music that has been understood at my family members’ weddings, and not in your safe place in Billboard’s top ten hits.
My bindi is not a way for you to present yourself as being friendly to South Asian culture while exotifying it. My bindi is from my mother, put in my drawer because it is another mark of my internalized Otherness, on top of my brown skin. My bindi is tainted by Western celebrities trying to be “cultural” or “bohemian” or “tribal.” My bindi is not just a piece of plastic, my bindi is not for sale, and my bindi is not for you.
Written by Anisha Ahuja