Education About Asia: Online Archives

Teaching the “Geisha” as Cultural Criticism

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The late 1990s marked an explosion in the popularity of the geisha icon in the United States and elsewhere, fueled by Arthur Golden’s 1998 best seller Memoirs of a Geisha. The novel has inspired spin off vodka ads and a specialty tea, and Steven Spielberg’s motion picture version, while repeatedly delayed, will reportedly begin production in 2001.1 Visually, the image of the geisha has become more and more prominent. An image of a woman in kimono appears on the dust jacket of the U.S. edition of Golden’s novel; this 1905 photograph is apparently in the public domain and has been reproduced on various knick-knacks.2 Celebrities such as Madonna and Björk don “geisha-inspired” fashions, as did the “queen of the Naboo” in George Lucas’s The Phantom Menace (1999). Even before the recent popularity of the geisha, however, one could find this figure represented in elements of popular culture ranging from tuna fish labels and chocolates to X-rated Web sites. It is rare to find a student who has not come into contact with one or more representations of the geisha.