Cultural Appropriation & The Floating World (#geishagate)

The story of #geishagate, in which The Floating World uses "faux Asian font" and a white woman dressed up as a geisha as their conference logo & banner. Stay tuned for more info, & if you don't understand why this is a problem, read on! Most recent updates at top.


  1. UPDATES (from most recent to oldest--scroll past to see original information)

    Saturday, 7/13 11:50PM: The volunteer mentioned below (note: not an organizer, so I've edited my previous text to reflect that) and I have an intense conversation on Twitter soon after her Storify is posted, and we end up setting a meeting to chat on the phone about all this (with her not acting as an event rep, but as herself) on Monday. As the original post has been taken down by now (not at my behest, but at her offer and presumably to avoid further fire from people who weren't happy about it), though I've retained a copy for posterity and interested parties. Hopefully this will get us somewhere and we can improve what Floating World is. Stay tuned.

    Saturday, 7/13 before 10PM: An organizer volunteer (the one who deleted the FB picture and issued an apology on there, which were steps in the right direction and effectively erased the white-woman-as-geisha image off the official conference pages) publishes her own Storify story [NOTE: this has now been removed] to counter/balance mine, but doesn't link to this to give people proper context and let people see the full scope of the issue. In this piece, with a more personal spin, MmeChantilly outlines her own journey with this "crusade" and...entirely misses the point, twisting what began as a small poke for accountability and a desire to remove racially-inappropriate imagery into some bizarre crusade to ruin this kink event and subsequently the lives & livelihoods of people involved (who are apparently too busy to deal with things like this). I could break it down point by point (and even outline the tactics being used to gain sympathy and make me look bad), but I'll let my Storify speak for itself instead. 

    What I do want to point out though, is that I made contact via VARIOUS channels with organizers, and I (for a fact) know this was not just a one-person conversation within the organizing team. I clearly outlined why this was a problem and what things could be done, and only increased my pressure when I saw things weren't meaningfully happening (read, almost a month after the initial comments, tweets, emails, and Facebook messages were sent and I knew they'd been seen). The straw that broke the camel's back was seeing the white-woman-as-geisha image on a flyer getting sent out to big venues and shops. Still, when I poked people and requested assistance (primarily from personal contacts and friends--which explains why many of them were queer and POC, not because I was "targeting" those people), I did so with respect and asked people to not berate or flame the organization and its reps, but to instead say what the issue was and state that there was community support for this issue to get resolved.

    I'll keep my personal comments to a minimum, but...really? Taking this issue and making it look like something I was doing for my own personal gain or attention? That's low and completely missing the point of this entire. thing. As someone who works in small nonprofits, sexuality education, AND works pretty damn tirelessly to be accountable herself, frankly, it's upsetting and disheartening to see people making this about themselves & suggesting I did it to get POPULAR (srsly?!). Also, get your facts straight, please. I am not a social media coordinator at my places of employment; I just know my way pretty well around technology.

    Thursday, 7/11: After I reached out to various educators that were presenting at the conference and the online hubbub spread further, I FINALLY got a response from more organizers/volunteers and some sort of public apology on Facebook (that left a lot to be desired, but still). The description on their About page is the same, but they removed the image from the FB event. I was trying to keep this as non-explosive as possible while still getting results, but once again, it seems that the only way to make change is to actually raise a ruckus. To my tweet, this is a sampling of what some of the past/present event speakers had to say:

  2. Thanks to Viviane (who was involved with the conference in the past, but isn't anymore), another organizer event-affiliated person (besides 705, who's an organizer this year) paid direct attention:

  3. Which...sounds kinda funky to me...because I brought this up almost a MONTH ago and I don't think their promo was ready and printed back then. And if they heard about this a month ago, why would they not reprint? And if it's a $$ issue, why would they STILL send out offensive flyers anyway? I bet they would've reprinted them if the date had been wrong, but apparently yellowface isn't enough of a problem to recall printed flyers...?

  4. The apology on FB reads thusly:

    "The Floating World has always been inclusive and has stressed the diversity of the lifestyle which we celebrate each year by hosting this event for the many and varied peoples and groups in the Northeast and points beyond. It was never our intention to offend anyone with the picture of a fetishist whose kink is the high protocol of serving a Japanese Tea dressed and made up as a Geisha. We have removed the offending picture from our website and our Facebook pages; however, any printed material prior to this date cannot be undone. The program book and any subsequent printings of promo material will be corrected. Our sincerest apologies for any offense given, it was never our intention to do so."

    This has parts of a good apology, but is missing others. I don't have time to outline them all right now, but maybe I'll work on that later. The biggest thing is that it's only posted on FB. This is something that merits being on the actual event WEBSITE and their Fetlife group, not just one of their vanilla social media channels. What's to be done now?

    > Actual apology on their bigger channels (website & Fetlife). As I said before, "Apologies aren't valid if they're behind closed doors and in whispers; they need to be public and as big as the issue itself."
    > Some sort of concrete commitment to diversity for moving forward from this. (More on this near the end of this Storify story, where I wrote my recommendations)
    > A change on their About page so the text isn't also weirdly appropriative and misleading
    > Internal discussions about what happened so ALL STAFF knows *AND* understands why this was problematic and how to avoid it in the future.

  5. Wednesday, 7/10: There are gradual changes, but no official statement and seemingly no word to any sponsors, presenters, or anything of the sort. This is even more cowardly of an action set to take, too. At best, this is the Floating World organizers trying to "fix" the situation in a very poor and piecemeal fashion, and at worst, this is the organizers trying to cover up the digital tracks of their cultural appropriation so that "hopefully no one notices" and they can appease me and the other people who have complained about the geisha imagery. :/ Still, the printed flyers have been published and sent out for the event, making their way to places like sex toy shops in NYC and events like Poly Cocktails, as well as innumerable other locations. At this point, they have removed the white-woman-as-geisha image from the Fetlife profile and their banners page, but it's still up on their Facebook event, and the description of the event on their About page is still the same.

    Sunday, 6/23: The event changes it banner on the website's front page and on the header for their Facebook page. As of noon on Tuesday 6/25, though, the image is still on their Facebook event, their Banners page on their website, the Fetlife profile for "Ms. Floating World" (specifically this image). No statements have been made whatsoever (on Twitter, the Facebook page, the Fetlife group, or anything, even though they have all had recent activity). I decide to name this #geishagate and comment on some of the pictures prompting their deletion.


    To quote in part from a Tumblr post by The CSPH (co-written by me):

    However messed up this thing and the image may be, ideally do not berate or insult the organizers. Rather, we think it would be really useful and effective to call them out on it, poke them on their Twitter profile (be sure to tag it #geishagate), their Facebook page, or directly by email to: You can also start a new topic on the Fetlife discussion group. If you need to contact any of the conference senior staff directly, their contact information is here. We decided it could be useful to include a template of what your email/comment could look like:

    "Hey there TFW,

    I love the space you provide and the community that you bring together, which is why I want to bring to your attention that your problematic banner (where a white woman is featured in geisha attire and some generic "Asian-like" font is being used) is still up on Fetlife, your Facebook event, and being used in the printed flyers going around the country. I also know that many of us are wondering if a public apology is under way, as this is too important an issue to just correct without properly addressing it.

    Thank you for helping us build a strong, intersectional, kink community.

    (Your name)"

    Saturday, 6/22: Nothing has happened, so I publish my Storify compilation and tell some close friends about it. @Majamajamaja reads it and acknowledges she was the one who wrote the event description once upon a time, and feels it's necessary to own up to that. One of the event organizers responds to my Storify, too:

  6. (As per usual, 705 is a good listener and gives immediate feedback. I wish the rest of the organizers were on the same boat, though.)

    It seems discussions are being had behind the scenes about what to do, what to use as a logo instead, and all that jazz. Not everyone is on the same page. I suggest some things (honestly, I kind of wish it would go back to the lovely logo Jack Stratton (@jcktxt) made for them). Namely: focus on the kink aspect of the event, and don't try to do some weird half-assed homage to the Floating World of Japan. Even better, try to stick with a design that's simple, evocative, and doesn't even involve people's bodies! Finally, stay away from fonts like "Chop Suey" or things that, once again, end up being gross and appropriative.

  7. The Original Story

    A few days ago I was emailing someone who'd asked me about my journey in the world of sexuality & kink and I was linking them to some of the events that were influential in my journey, like the Providence Fetish Flea and The Floating World. I looked up the links so I could send them to her, I saw the banners that TFW was using to promote their event.
  8. The Discovery

  9. I should correct my above tweet, too. The name wasn't inspired by a Japanese concept; its direct translation (from the Japanese "ukiyo") was used as the name for the event. But anyway. This conference is supposed to be a place where kinksters and interested folks can play but also go to classes, get gear from vendors, and build new networks.

    Its mission is described as aiming "to create a similar space [to the Floating World of 17th-century Japan]— a space of safety and freedom, the ideal environment in which to explore." They "encourage [their] attendees to build bridges among communities, to share perspectives, strategies, and insight. (...) In total, The Floating World is a space dedicated to the serious pursuit of understanding, identity, and pleasure — three elements that necessarily go hand in hand."

    So What's The Problem?

    Even the use of "Floating World" as a name and the invocation of this "magical 17th-century Japan pleasure district" is weird, but the even more obvious problem here is the use of a white woman dressed up in a geisha costume as the "face" on the con banner. Taking concepts and bits of history from another culture/country, especially one that the U.S. doesn't have the nicest history/relationship with, is a problem--especially when the majority of event attendees are white. Is it cultural appropriation? I'll let you decide. Something else to consider: is stuff like this, or random stars wearing bindis and Victoria's Secret putting out a "Going East" cherry-blossom-laden line, top on the list of things that Japanese, Asian, and/or Asian-American folks are worried about right now? Of course not.

    HOWEVER, all these things add up. All these things have a cumulative impact, and the problem is that: 

    a) people of color often get marginalized or criticized for doing/wearing things from their culture (XYZ), but when someone outside of it does/wears XYZ, suddenly it's hip/fabulous/radical and gets praised (key examples right now: Miley Cyrus and Ke$ha's new music videos)

    b) even if it's not the top priority for a community, these things still matter, and we need to deal with them, or else people fall into the lazy trap of "well, we'll just deal with this later because there are bigger fish to fry" and just never really deal with it at all (and sometimes don't deal with the bigger fish, either!)

    c) the statements on the website (such as claims that people in 17th-century Edo-period Japan enjoyed a level of sexual freedom "unbound by gender or class") provide a super oversimplified idea of what ukiyo was (no, seriously, go read about its Buddhist origins and the idea of the "sorrowful world") and contribute to messed up U.S. ideas of what Japan is/was like. This kind of decontextualized, subtle romanticization of bits of Japanese history are a problem. (We do similar things with indigenous and First Nations cultures, too.) I encourage all of you to get some concrete information about the history of "ukiyo" and get more context on the art of the period. If you're down for a longer read, you can also check out what Julian Peña wrote about "ukiyo-e," or the images of the floating world.