This month I enjoyed a lovely week with my mother and step-father, during which we drove down to Key West, FL. Flipping through the tourist book in the hotel, I was surprised to see this:
I’ve been writing for Sociological Image for over six years now and, as a result, it takes a lot to shock me. Well, you got me, Ripley’s! I did not know that we were still marketing racial or ethnic others as “oddities.” At least not this blatantly.
The women who have historically practiced this neck lengthening illusion (what you are seeing is a depressed collar bone, not a longer neck) are a Burmese ethnic minority called Kayan or Padaung. As late as the early 1900s, Europeans and Americans were kidnapping “Giraffe-necked women” and forcing them to be exhibits in zoos and circuses. Promotional materials from that era look similar. Here’s an example:
I knew that Westerners still traveled to the communities where Kayan people live to see them “in their natural habitat” (sarcasm) and I’ve argued previously that this is a case of racial objectification. I had no idea, however, that we still featured them as grotesque curiosities. Ripley’s Believe It or Not!: “Proudly freaking out families for over 90 years.” Taking that tradition thing really seriously, I guess.
A slideshow of members of the punk scene in Burma, however, offers another version of cultural appropriation. Their fashion is clearly inspired by the punk scenes of Britain and the U.S., which started in the 1970s.
Accordingly to an interview with Ko Gyi at Vice and an article at Spiegel Online, some members of the sub-culture believe themselves to be rebelling against an oppressive state, others are interested in “non-political anarchism.” While their music has to pass through state censors, they are talented in pushing their lyrics right up to the limit and deft in using metaphor to get their point across.
This is a fully different kind of appropriation, the kind that is about fighting the establishment, not spicing it up with “colorful” bits of marginalized groups. It is more akin to feminists and gay liberation activists borrowing the tactics of the civil rights movement. Alexander Dluzak writes:
In Burma, punk is far more than just a superficial copy of its Western counterpart. Here, what is probably the most rebellious of all subcultures in the Southeast Asian country is going up against one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes.
Cultures can borrow from one another, then, in ways that both empower and disempower. It will be fascinating to see if this particular appropriation can shape the future of Burma.
These days, if you live in the West, thinking about Asia–whether it be Chinese labor, Japanese inventions, Indian demographics, or Korean politics–is taken-for-granted as part of knowing about the world. During the colonial era, however, when “mass media” was largely limited to print, Americans and Europeans experienced being more-or-less newly introduced to different cultures. This spurred an entire industry in which “Africa,” “the Orient,” and the “Middle East” were presented to curious Westerners. These presentations, more often than not, were objectifying. Westerners were able to enjoy reveling in the seemingly bizarre and unfamiliar people and customs of these Other places (with a capital “O”), as if Other kinds of people were new species of animals over which to fawn. This accumulation of documents with which the average Westerner could try to understand their “foreign” counterparts were produced not only by travel writers, but anthropologists, artists, imperial employees, novelists, and others.
Edward Said, in his powerfully influential book, Orientalism, first articulated the way that efforts of these actors coalesced into a mythology about “the Orient.” A mythology in which the East and the West were set in opposition and the East was used by the West to define its own, superior identity.
Katrin sent in one example of this traffic in Orientalism. It’s a postcard from the early 1900s that depicts a “Burmese Beauty.” It was painted by Robert Talbot Kelly and originally published in his book, Burma (1905). The caption reads:
A Burmese Beauty. The Burmese women are generally attractive, much more so than the men, and present a pretty picture as they walk about attired in their gaily coloured skirts and shaded by their quaint umbrellas. All the ladies smoke in Burma, large cigars being the favourite ‘weed.’
American school children learn all about the U.S. gold rush in the Western part of the country. Goldmining was a speculative, but potentially highly rewarding endeavor and attracted, almost exclusively, adult men. But the entrepreneurship of gold mining (though not mining as wage work) is long gone in the U.S. Still, gold is in high demand: “The price of gold, which stood at $271 an ounce on September 10, 2001, hit $1,023 in March 2008, and it may surpass that threshold again” (source). Who are the gold entrepreneurs today? Where? Under what economic conditions do they work? And with what environmental impact?
I found hints to answers in a recent Boston.com slide show and a National Geographic article (thanks to Allison for her tip in the comments). While there is still some gold mining in the U.S., there is gold mining, also, in developing countries and all kinds of people participate:
According to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), there are between 10 million and 15 million so-called artisanal miners around the world, from Mongolia to Brazil. Employing crude methods that have hardly changed in centuries, they produce about 25 percent of the world’s gold and support a total of 100 million people…
Environmentally, gold is especially destructive. The ratio of gold to earth moved is larger than in any other mining endeavor.
It makes me rethink whether I really want to buy gold (because, you know, I do that constantly, darling, constantly). In fact, jewelry accounts for two-thirds of the demand. In the comments, HP reminds me:
Gold (along with even more problematic metals) is found in pretty much all consumer electronics. It’s in your computer, your cellphone, your .mp3 player, your TV/stereo, etc. You’re buying gold all the time already, whether you know it or not.
Below are images of gold prospecting around the world.
Near Lodwar, Kenyan children mine for gold to help support their families:
In Colombia, about 8,000 prospectors seek gold illegally on the Dagau river:
Miners in Abangares, Costa Rica, scrape tiny amounts of gold out of abandoned mines; the work is dangerous and potentially toxic:
An illegal gold mine in a national park, Paral, Brazil:
This woman, in Indonesia, is collecting mud to sift for gold:
Also in Indonesia, this illegal mine is opposed by villagers who argue that the waste is polluting:
Mining in Myanmar:
UPDATE! A reader, Heather Leila, linked to a picture she took of gold prospecting in Suriname (at her own blog). She writes:
The gold mines aren’t what you are thinking. They aren’t underground, you don’t carry a pick axe and a helmet. The garimpos are where the miners have dammed a creek and created large mud pits. The mud is pumped through a long pipe lined with mercury. The mercury attaches itself to the specks of gold and gets filtered out as the mud is poured into a different pit. The mercury is then burned off, while the gold remains. This is how it was explained to me. From the plane, they are exposed patches of yellow earth dotting the endless forest.
Adriana E. sent in this video made by The Human Rights Action Center, featuring Tila Tequila, designed to inspire opposition to human rights abuses in Burma. Like other organizations, such as PETA (see here and here), this PSA uses sex appeal to inspire activist outrage.
Ironically, as Adriana notes, Tila Tequila is famous for being bisexual, but really only interacts suggestively in this video with the boys. I guess hypersexualizing a woman is all fine and good, but bisexuality would be a real turn off.
Do any of you think that this is effective in inspiring concern for Burma?