On Cultural Appropriation: Halloween and Beyond

by Latoya Peterson

While I was sick, I received a few interesting emails. While in the context of a larger Racialicious team discussion about Halloween, Andrea linked to a Sepia Mutiny post about Heidi Klum’s choice of Halloween costume.

Here’s the costume:

Fatemeh commented:

Though I have to admit, it was a bitchin’ costume, I don’t think it’s appropriate. I doubt Catholics appreciate it when people go as Jesus. I know lots of Muslims would have a shit fit if someone went as the Prophet Muhammad. I know that sometimes Hindus dress up as their deities for plays and such, but I doubt they’d appreciate it for a Halloweeen costumes. It’s different than dressing up as a Pope or a priest, which are human. You’re essentially dressing up as God.

Then, Fatemeh followed up with a link about how Hindu leaders were angered by Klum’s choice of costume.

Interested, I asked Fatemeh to do a post. But Fatemeh was flying to Denmark, Thea and I were sick, and the other correspondents had work constraints.

The following week, I got an impassioned email from reader Naomi, who wrote in about the treatment of Klum’s costume in an Us Magazine article.

Starting with the title, “Heidi Klum Explains Her Crazy Halloween Costume,” Naomi immediately launches in on the problematic nature of the coverage:

This article is horrible and ridiculous on so many levels:
1. The fact that Heidi Klum went to India and all she got out of it was an offensive Halloween costume idea.

2. The “othering” of non-Western cultures by making them look as odd and different as possible without even seeking to understand them or learn about them, proven by the following point.

3. This quote from the article, stated by Ms. Klum in regards to the goddess who inspired her costume: “I loved it because she’s so mean and killed all these different people and [had] fingers hanging off [her] and little shrunken heads everywhere.” As my Tamal friend pointed out–wtf, that’s not the point of the goddess at all.

4. That she is taking a RELIGIOUS figure and using it as a “scary” costume.. And that Us Magazine doesn’t find this offensive.. They even open with the gosh golly quote: ‘How did Heidi Klum come up with the idea to be a scary Indian goddess for Halloween?’

Then again, V.V. from Sepia Mutiny admits:

What think you, desis? My initial thought was that I should be offended. Then I thought, why? Is that reasonable? People dress up as versions of evil a range of characters, including ones with religious connotations, every year on Halloween. And this Kali is a pretty awesome costume. Klum certainly pulls it off with panache. Maybe that’s easier if you’re twelve feet tall and a model. She’s got all the details—look at what’s around her neck and waist!

While Halloween is three weeks in the past, I’ve been playing around with how this fits into the larger ideas of culture and appropriation. Klum’s costume is gorgeous in both execution and the technical sense. But, as the interview displays, Klum isn’t really concerned about the true meaning of the goddess outside of her immediate need for a cool costume.

Thoughts, dear readers?

And while we’re thinking, does anyone know what the hell Seal was going for with his costume?