Professor Elena Tajima Creef Moderates Panel Following MFA Exhibit Protests

March 1, 2016
Art patron holds up a cell phone during protest MFA protest in front of Claude Monet painting

When programming at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts led to an outcry over racial stereotypes, the Museum turned to Elena Tajima Creef, professor of Women's and Gender Studies, to moderate an important panel to help address the controversy. Creef's insights during the discussion were cited in coverage by both the Boston Globe and WBUR's The Artery.

The panel was called to address "Kimono Wednesdays," a controversial program last summer that welcomed museum visitors to wear replica kimonos while posing before Claude Monet's "La Japonaise," a painting that shows Monet's wife in a blond wig and red kimono. Creef pointed out that the painting called forth racial stereotypes similar to blackface, according to the Globe. "Images like Camille Monet playing in a blond wig in dress-up in a [kimono] seem very pleasurable and benign, but I want to say there is of course a whole spectrum in the way that racial costuming and dress-up and yellowface/blackface operates," she said. "I would put the Monet painting somewhere on that spectrum."

Creef also pointed out what is a troubling discrepancy when it comes to how racial stereotypes are perceived, said The Artery. Dressing up as Asian or Native American (known as "yellow-face" and "red-face") don’t always generate the same criticism as other racial representations. "There's nothing inherently racist about putting on a kimono and playing, but it's part of a long racist history," Creef said.

Instances of yellow face and other examples "Orientalism" are persistent; Creef said she has abundant examples to use when she teaches Asian American Women's & Gender Studies courses. "Every year there seems to be a new incident or event that demands a critical intervention and on the spot re-education about the ongoing problematic representation of Asian/American women in popular culture," she said in an email interview, noting that she plans to use this latest example in her teaching. 

Creef is currently teaching a course called Asian Women in Film. She said she is preparing a formal lecture on "Kimono Wednesdays" and this topic to cap the semester. In addition to using examples from the MFA event, in the past Creef has used videos featuring musical artists like Madonna, Katy Perry, and R. Kelly "that use racial cross-dressing themes in their Orientalist flirtations with the exotic," she said. "These are screened in class, and we follow up with a collective critical deconstruction."

Creef said one concept that is often left out of the media's coverage about topics like this is "a better understanding that there is such a thing as 'racist hate' but also a counterpart, 'racist love.'"

She said, "Everyone can understand why the former is problematic and offensive… But under the logic of racist love, many people do not understand what is problematic about the ways they exoticize, commodify, fetishize, worship, or desire the 'Asian Other,'" she said.

Creef researches Asian American visual histories in photography, film, and popular culture. She is the author of Imaging Japanese America: The Visual Construction of Citizenship, Nation, and the Body.