Cultural Appropriation in Musical Theatre History

Cultural Appropriation: the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture.

Now from first glance, you may not think cultural appropriation seems like a big deal- other cultures are incredibly cool, why wouldn’t I want to use elements from them? The problem with cultural appropriation throughout history is that they misrepresent cultures, and oftentimes base their actions, speech, clothing choice, etc. completely on racial or cultural stereotype. This is incredibly disrespectful to the culture because it is taking away the true culture and hiding under this stereotypical misrepresentation.

  • In my American Musical Theatre class, we talked in depth about it in regards to:
  • Blackface
  • The Mikado
  • ShowboatBy studying these instances of cultural appropriation throughout theatre, we can also take a step back and view the ways that we negatively culturally appropriate today, such as:
  • The romanticizing of Native American life through costume, stories, children’s dolls, etc. Think about it. Have you read a Thanksgiving children’s book lately? Well if not, I ask you to take a look at the picture to the right. Did the pilgrims and the Native American’s really eat together in harmony during Thanksgiving and then help each other out? No. The Europeans slaughtered the native peoples. But, it’s much easier to view it like this, isn’t it? But, for who?
  • The cultural appropriation of traditionally African hairstyles, for example dreadlocks. Dreadlocks are very sacred to many African countries, especially because of the huge role it plays in the religion of Rastafari. But in today’s society, many people disregard the fact that it has any cultural significance, and forcefully add dreadlocks to their hair. Now, this topic is incredibly controversial. Is it morally just to allow only one race to indulge in a given culture, but not another? Therefore, is it right to shame white people for culturally appropriating dreadlocks? These are just some of the common controversial questions on the subject, and it can often be hard to determine where the line may fall.The cultural appropriation we see throughout American Musical Theatre should not be anything new to us. We are still living in a society that negatively culturally appropriates. But, by reflecting on these ideals through American Musical Theatre, it teaches us to become more aware of it in our world today.
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