Gwen Stefani has a longstanding history of cultural appropriation but still gets a “little defensive” when facing such accusations.
In a recent interview with Billboard, Stefani denied engaging in a history of cultural appropriation, specifically referring to her 2004 album Love. Angel. Music. Baby. as a “literal bow down to a culture that I was a superfan of.”
Stefani is referring to the not-so-subtle Japanese cultural “nods” she injected into the album, which were particularly evident in the song “Harajuku Girls” and the entourage of Japanese women who were hired to flank Stefani like a fashion accessory and follow her around. At the time, Stefani faced mild, scattered criticism for such culturally insensitive choices but never actually addressed it. Margaret Cho was one person to speak out, equating Stefani’s appropriation and fetishization of the Japanese culture to be “kind of like blackface.”
Even though criticism has picked up steam in the years since, particularly given the rise of social media and cultural appropriation awareness, Stefani is still dismissive of such accusations.
Instead, she continues to chalk up her decision to co-opt Harajuku culture as merely a pure fascination and respect of the Japanese, insisting that her interest in the culture started at a young age and exploded when she visited the country for the first time and was incredulous of how “fashion-obsessed” they were. Stefani maintains that she felt at home the first time she visited Japan and that her Harajuku-influenced album was meant as nothing more than a love letter to the culture she had grown to deeply appreciate.
However, Stefani’s lengthy history of capitalizing on culturally significant symbols makes it clear that her Harajuku phase was much more than the result of pure respect or admiration.
For one, prior to her Harajuku days, Stefani continually adorned a bindi, a forehead decoration that is culturally and spiritually significant for South Asian women. Though Stefani largely co-opted this cultural symbol in the nineties and early aughts, a recent Instagram video showed Stefani attributing this “fashion choice” to being “so unbelievably fascinated” by Indian culture, particularly after being introduced to Indian cultural nuances by then-boyfriend Tony Kanal.
Appropriating black culture too has been a constant throughout Stefani’s career. Stefani has stepped out on many occasions, particularly in the ’90s, wearing Bantu knots and cornrows. Bantu knots — mainstreamed as “mini buns” — originated with the Zulu tribes in South Africa. Yet, they’re still referred to by many as merely a ’90s beauty trend started by Stefani.
Stefani has also ripped off Chola style, choosing to appropriate the Mexican-American aesthetic in her 2005 music video, “Luxurious.” In the video, Stefani adopts a Chola-style aesthetic, donning thinly drawn on eyebrows, thickly-lined lips, “wife-beater” tank tops, a plaid shirt with only the top button buttoned, and Old English-style nameplate necklaces. She surrounds herself with Mexican American extras and is the blondest, whitest woman at the video’s backyard barbecue. In one scene, she even goes so far as to purposefully resemble Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
Stefani has claimed to be “mesmerized” by Chola culture, noting in 2017 that “Cholas had a huge influence on me,” crediting her upbringing in majority-Latino Anaheim to be the reason. It’s an excuse that’s all too familiar and one she seems to resort to every time she appropriates another culture, claiming that she’s just “so in love” and “wants to pay homage.”
In 2012, Stefani again made headlines when she reunited with her band, No Doubt. They released, and then almost immediately pulled, a music video for their song “Looking Hot,” which featured a game of cowboys and Indians, with Stefani clad in Native American attire. The group released an apology, which claimed that “as a multi-racial band, our foundation is built upon both diversity and consideration for other cultures… being hurtful to anyone is simply not who we are.” This statement seemed to be a direct contradiction of Stefani’s history (and, to boot, Stefani is white). Yet, Stefani herself has never expressed any real regret or condemnation of her actions. Instead, she wore tribal braids when she appeared on The Voice in 2016.
Since so many of these incidences took place in the early ’00s, perhaps you might think that enough time has gone by that Stefani would be regretful of her past transgressions and that she would eagerly offer up an apology. But, in her latest interview, Stefani makes it clear that she continues to stand by her choices. She states,
“If we didn’t allow each other to share our cultures, what would we be? You take pride in your culture and have traditions, and then you share them for new things to be created.”
Sure, the idea of blending and swapping items of facets of different cultures in some ways might seem innocuous or even inevitable. But it’s objectively harmful when Stefani, a privileged white woman, rips off trends from disenfranchised minorities as a way to ultimately amplify her own career and image. She claims to love and respect all cultures, but she continues to be the only one profiting from them.
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Michelle Vincent is a project manager and freelance writer. She enjoys traveling, is worried she won’t love her future children as much as she loves her dogs, and is actively recruiting podcast recommendations.