Flare-ups over cultural appropriation have become such a routine part of our cultural dialogue that we could practically play Mad Libs with them. This week's fill-in-the-blanks controversy: A Utah teenager wore a vintage cheongsam to her prom and is now being excoriated by certain denizens of the internet for an act of alleged cultural theft.
We've been through so many of these imbroglios that it's probably easy to figure out which side you think you're on. But it's worth considering what arguments about cultural appropriation, cultural evolution and cultural exchange should accomplish - and whether the dialogues we're having over and over again are actually helping us get there.
Ideally, a debate about cultural appropriation might result in a previously uncredited creator getting recognition or compensation for their work. At minimum, it should lead to more accurate knowledge of the history of a garment, culinary tradition or artistic style. Far too often, though, the conversations we have about cultural exchange don't even do that: Instead, they end up reaffirming smug preconceptions of what it means to be virtuous.
It's worth pointing out that demands for cultural purity can be as restrictive and ahistorical as exploitative cultural appropriation itself. People on both sides of the equation would be poorer if chefs could only train apprentices from their own ancestral homelands, if fashion designers weren't allowed to benefit from global trade, or if directors like Wes Anderson, who recently provoked his own cultural appropriation kerfuffle with his movie "Isle of Dogs," were only allowed to cast English-speaking white actors.
To his credit, Jeremy Lam, who raised the objections to the prom dress, did more than say that the student should not have worn the dress because she's not Chinese. His Twitter thread on the subject took readers through a limited cultural history of the cheongsam, making an argument for its particular significance to Chinese women. That's certainly a better basis for a conversation than suggesting a rigid ban on cultural exchange.
But in this case, though the qipao or cheongsam may be part of "my culture," as Lam placed his claim on it, the shifting style of the garment is also very much the product of exchange, rather than a pure expression of a supposedly homogeneous Chinese culture.
According to Chor Lin Lee and Chung May Khuen's "In the Mood for Cheongsam: A Social History," the gown originated as a Manchu garment. Both the dress and certain styles of shoes became part of a complex series of cultural interactions between Manchu and Han Chinese people; the dress was ultimately assimilated into Han Chinese culture, while a less restrictive style of Manchu women's shoes lost out.
In the 20th century, Chinese women accessorised cheongsams with elements of Western fashion to create an iconic look. As the style and the political movements it was associated with took wider hold, especially in Shanghai, the cheongsam became one of the city's cultural exports.
"Much as the women here looked to style guides generated in London or Paris, the impact from Shanghai was more accessible and palpable" in Chinese communities in such places as Singapore, Lee and Khuen write. And all of that is before cheongsams started showing up in movies, with their supercharged ability to make a garment globally desirable.
Maybe the conclusion you draw from this history is that only people of Manchu descent should wear cheongsams - or that everyone should reject them as an emblem of a centuries-old attempt at cultural domination by the Manchu. Maybe it's that our standards for fashion and our ideas about gender roles have changed dramatically since a figure-hugging dress could be seen as an emblem of liberated modernity. Or maybe it's that our perennial fights over cultural appropriation aren't always as simple as they seem.
Sometimes, learning more about a case of alleged cultural appropriation will produce a clear answer. If an artist's work has been stolen without credit or compensation, it's easy to suggest fair recompense. And occasionally an artist, company or organization uses a style or symbol in a way that's grossly offensive to the people who originated it - with or without being aware of what they're doing.
Other times, though, studying cultural history can also make claims of ownership much more fraught. Uncertainty isn't as satisfying as high dudgeon. But it might be the better, smarter place for many of our debates about cultural appropriation to take us.
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.