I recently started following ‘thesweetfeminist’ A.K.A Becca Rea-Holloway on Instagram. She posts pictures of her cakes which are iced with a generous amount of buttercream and political advocacy. On June 20th 2018 Becca posted a photo of a cake which said “Abortion is Healthcare.” She has reposted this same cake many times since and particularly as of late with the 27 abortion bans that have been passed in 12 American states. Becca, however, wasn’t the only one to express her outrage via frosting. Miley Cyrus announced she’d be collaborating with Marc Jacobs to sell a jumper with the words “Don’t F*ck With My Freedom” of which all the profits are claimed to go to planned parenthood. One of the photos for this campaign depicts Miley licking a cake that not only resembles Becca’s creation, but is an EXACT replica. In response Becca wrote, “Cake art is for everyone, but this is inexcusable.” The issue is that her work was blatantly copied without her consent or any form of acknowledgement or compensation. Now while this may not be an example of cultural appropriation, parallels can be drawn from this case to the arguments presented by Brown (1998) in his paper “Can Culture be Copyrighted?”
Trying to copyright ‘culture’ is like trying to copyright ‘cake’ (for different reasons of course) but in the same way that they are both unstable grounds to work on. Firstly, how do we define culture? Do we need to distinguish between material, tangible culture and intangible cultural knowledge? Brown (1998) argues the notion that we can somehow ‘copyright’ culture is flawed because it rests on a romanticized and purist understanding. If we can ‘replicate’ culture then it must be original and authentic to begin with. I could argue this point further or I could insert a compelling quote from Edward Said (1994, p. 448): “All cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic.”
Now just because culture is fluid and cake is delicious, does that mean they should be a free for all where we can steal as many symbols and slices as we want without any consequences? While at first glance it may seem as though Brown (1998, p. 207) is arguing for the protection of a liberal democracy above all else, he makes an important declaration, “Reduction of inequalities in the distribution of power is just as essential for maintaining liberal democracy as is a free flow of information.”
Becca believes that, “Cake art is for everyone” and likewise Brown (1998) argues that ideas, knowledge and personal expression should not be threatened by copyright laws. Institutionalized secrecy has a tendency to result in abuses of power. For instance, the Church of Scientology has been attempting to privatize their religious texts and ‘sensitive’ information about their organization (and I think we can see how problematic it would be to keep that info confidential).
Many debates about cultural appropriation have centered on control and the notion that by copyrighting cultural artefacts, symbols and knowledge the ‘original’ culture regains power. But will this really give power back to marginalized and minority voices? Instead Brown (1998, p. 208) asserts that greater change can be enacted through an “agreed-upon social goal” and mechanisms which provide compensation for the use of cultural symbols/knowledge. Brown (1998, p. 203) believes that all this talk about copyrighting culture is actually detracting from more important discussions such as “the fragility of native cultures in mass societies.”
What can Becca’s feminist cakes and Brown’s (1998) arguments in favour of a liberal democracy teach us about cultural appropriation? For one, copyrighting something as crumby as cake and as elusive as culture is a problematic foundation to work on. Instead we should focus on developing ‘social goals’ which foster respect for cake artists and cultural ideas. We need to think critically about how compensation can best be given to those who have inspired us and how imbalances of power effect the actors involved. I realize that these suggestions are quite ambiguous and ‘fuzzy’, but when dealing with a phenomenon as complex as cultural appropriation, perhaps any possible solutions will be just as elusive.
Brown, MF 1998, ‘Can Culture Be Copyrighted?’, Current Anthropology, Vol. 39, No. 2, pp. 193-222.
Said, EW 1994, Culture and imperialism. New York, Knopf.
Enjoy thinking about the pitfalls of defining & appropriating culture? See also:
Maddie’s article https://anthrozine.home.blog/2019/06/08/subtle-diasporic-traits/