Vogue's Race Problem Is Bigger Than Karlie Kloss

Even if the model featured in the magazine's latest controversial spread had been Asian, it would still have been offensive.

Karlie Kloss is having a rough month. First, in a "Hidden Fences" type gaffe, the American supermodel claimed last week in Love magazine that her favorite Beyoncé hit was “Waterfalls,” a song made famous more than two decades ago by R&B group TLC. Then in Vogue’s March issue, which supposedly champions diversity and the “modern American woman,” Kloss, a white model, appears in a six-page spread in full geisha regalia. Entitled “Spirited Away,” photos depict Kloss bowing to fetch water at a bamboo pump, or leaning demurely beside a grimacing sumo wrestler.

From the bevy of critiques, the most impassioned reproach against Kloss and Vogue aligns the geisha shoot alongside a spell of recent whitewashing controversies to rattle Hollywood; in films like Aloha, The Ghost in the Shell, and Doctor Strange, white actors Emma Stone, Scarlett Johansson, and Tilda Swinton portray Asian characters. Criticism on Twitter pointed out this geisha spread’s similar issue of erasure, with users decrying the obvious hypocrisy: a white model appearing in yellowface for a diversity-themed issue. Questions surfaced over how many Japanese models had been passed over for Kloss’s opportunity. But this line of inquiry misses the mark. If, say, a Japanese model replaced Kloss, we’d witness a far more reprehensible act of self-sabotage: Asian minstrelsy. While the geisha is traditionally considered a female entertainer in Japan (performing music, dance, and hostess duties for guests), her coquettish and submissive manners have congealed into a haunting stereotype Asian-American women have, for decades, attempted to divorce. Vogue’s diversity problem isn’t Karlie Kloss but rather the geisha image itself, and the persistent desire to exoticize otherness in its storied pages.

The image of Asians in American pop culture is historically limited, a topic on which Asian-American writers like Jessica Hagedorn, Frank Chin, and countless others, have chronicled exhaustively. Caricatures of Asians in America date back to the late 19th century, with bucktoothed “Chinamen” depicted in political cartoons and propaganda. In the midst of Yellow Peril, racist literature acted as a direct response to mounting immigration fears; East Asians had arrived to steal jobs and inundate America with their foreign languages, habits, and traditions.

Vogue’s diversity problem isn’t Karlie Kloss but rather the geisha image itself, and the persistent desire to exoticize otherness in its storied pages.

One-note archetypal Asians, invented by white authors and played by white actors, served as the sole representation of Asians in film and literature for decades. For the most part, popular yellowface characters, like wisecracking detective Charlie Chan and insidious villain Fu Manchu, have dissipated from their early 20th century heyday.

But over a century later, one Asian stereotype, the geisha girl, lives on. America’s fixation with the geisha may have begun with author John Luther Long, in his 1898 short story “Madame Butterfly,” which has since inspired a variety of theater, film, and operatic adaptations. In Long’s original tale, his protagonist Cho-Cho-San, a submissive geisha, loyally waits for her American husband to return to her in Japan. (Spoiler: He never does and out of shame, she attempts hari-kari.)

There are two enduring stereotypes Asian-American women are still spurning today: the Dragon Lady, a deceitful, inscrutable, sexually aggressive gold-digger, and Long’s creation, the servile geisha girl, also known as a Lotus Blossom Baby or China doll — Oriental flowers, docile, reverential, but flirtatious. The geisha girl has existed with particular prevalence for so long in American pop culture, we, as audiences, have internalized her — or, to borrow post-Trump era lingo, normalized her existence. So much so that the very idea of a geisha-themed photo shoot in 2017 didn’t garner any flack for its utter unoriginality.

Now is as good a time as ever to demand rectitude. In the same way we’ve come to cringe at the image of Black minstrelsy, like the “dandified coon” initially popularized in 19th century Vaudeville, offensive Asian impersonations ought to be rejected with equal distaste and fervor, even if the performances omit exaggerated accents. Both types of shallow imitation allow racial stereotypes to spread for the sake of entertainment or, in the case of fashion, exoticism.

Blackface is still, bafflingly enough, an ongoing dilemma in the fashion industry, from ill-advised makeup choices on the runway to straight-up race mimicry, with alabaster-skinned models spray-tanned cocoa, then featured on the pages of widely circulated, international magazines. These are editorial choices, green-lit by many creative decision makers, from ideation to print. In that sense, it isn’t fair to peg Vogue’s most recent misstep on the yellowed face itself, Karlie Kloss. But this isn’t Kloss’s first brush with cultural appropriation. In November 2012, she walked the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show runway wearing leather fringed lingerie, high-heeled moccasins, and a floor-length Native-American inspired headdress. She apologized for both instances, and recently affirmed via Twitter that her goal “is, and always will be, to empower and inspire women” — with future shoots and projects reflecting such a mission.

Kloss is currently ranked the 3rd highest paid model in the world; tied with Kendall Jenner, both earned $10 million in 2016. She’s got bills to pay, sure, but like anyone else, at the end of the day, Kloss can make her own choices. She may need to empower herself before anyone else, though, by digging deep to really examine why these mistakes keep piling up at her Twitter doorstep. And, whether she likes it or not, by dating a Kushner, she’s First Family adjacent; politics are, for now, unavoidably part of her orbit.

Kloss isn’t on the cover of Vogue’s March issue, but fellow top earner and It girl Jenner is, along with, notably, plus-size trailblazer Ashley Graham and models of color Liu Wen, Adwoa Aboah, and Imaan Hammam. Even though she shares the moment with seven others, Wen is the first Chinese model to ever appear on American Vogue’s cover, and, excluding fold-outs, the first Asian cover model featured in approximately 80 years.

It isn’t as if Vogue has altogether excluded Asian faces from its pages though. But past efforts placed emphasis on an Asian model’s unconventional, or exotic, appearance. For its December 2010 issue, the magazine included a photo spread called “Asia Major,” featuring Liu Wen and seven other prominent Chinese, Korean, and Japanese models, who’d recently strutted for high-fashion houses as legendary as Givenchy and Oscar de la Renta. They’re swathed in haute couture gowns, posed as if caught in the midst of coy conversation, inside an edgier spin on an extravagant, Marie Antoinette-style parlor. Aside from their dresses, they’re meant to look alike, powdered and rosy-lipped, each donning identical black mohawk wigs. The magazine attributes this crop of rising stars with “redefining traditional concepts of beauty.” In other words, Asian beauty is worthy of our consideration, but only as an irregular and novel aberration from the norm.

So, what would true diversity look like? Definitely not an Asian in a geisha costume.

Ironically, Vogue’s March cover story hints at a better approach, calling for the democratization of fashion: “In a climate of immigration bands and building walls...there isn’t just one type of American girl — nor has there ever been.”

If no one type exists, maybe instead of highlighting race, models of color should be featured in more fashion stories that don’t address race at all. Say, Asian models in bold ready-to-wear knits or black models in dreamy tulle resort wear, interchangeable in every permutation with their white peers. But this will only work if non-white faces appear with increased regularity on covers and in photo spreads of glossy magazines.

There are glimmers of hope that the industry is capable of reflecting a more honest, diverse vision of beauty. For example, French Vogue’s March issue has placed transgender model, Brazilian Valentina Sampaio, on its cover. She isn’t tacked into a group pic, and there are no heavy-handed or coded gestures in the art direction. Sultry, smoky eyed, and wrapped in gold lamée, one could easily envision the same shoot showcasing Natalia Vodianova or even Karlie Kloss. But the choice is a pointed one; featuring Sampaio, as the magazine attests, demonstrates how transgender models “are changing the face of fashion and deconstructing prejudice.” Perhaps the magazine’s parent edition will one day catch on, too. A few page flips away from Karlie Kloss’s geisha, the answer is already written in American Vogue’s own words: “The new beauty norm is no norm...All are welcome.”


TLC released "Waterfalls" 23 years ago. A previous version of this article stated that the song was released three decades ago.

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