November 29, 2007

Itchy and Scratchy skewer Indians

As I've written before, when The Simpsons has a bit about Indians, it's usually a mixed bag. Parts of it reinforce Native stereotypes and parts of it subvert them. But last week's new episode was pure stereotype with no redeeming qualities.

Titled "Funeral for a Fiend," the episode featured a typical "Itchy and Scratchy" show within the show. In keeping with the time of year, Itchy and his fellow mice were Pilgrims and Indians on a Thanksgiving-themed float. Scratchy was an innocent bystander. Itchy filled Scratchy with helium, then shot him with a flaming arrow as he floated skyward. Scratchy exploded and his entrails mingled with the Thanksgiving feast.

A few problems with this:

  • Itchy was dressed as a brave but then showed up as a Plains-style chief complete with headdress.

  • The float was decorated with a teepee.

  • Shooting a flaming arrow and killing Scratchy was the typical aggressive act of a savage Indian. Consider how different the message would've been if Itchy had dressed as a Pilgrim and Scratchy as an Indian.

  • At our Thanksgiving dinner this year, my 6-year-old nephew Thomas recited a story he wrote. The theme was "a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" and it told how Charlie Brown and Linus arrived on the Mayflower for the first Thanksgiving.

    I was curious to see if Thomas would mention Indians. He did. I give him a mixed grade for his composition, as follows:

  • One point for including the Indians at all.

  • Half a point for saying they ran away when they saw Charlie Brown. Normally, Indians welcomed foreign visitors. Saying the Indians ran away is better than saying they attacked, but only a little. It acknowledges that Indians usually weren't the aggressors.

  • No points for saying the Indians lived in teepees.

  • That's 1.5 points of a possible 3. Not bad for a kid's first try at describing Indians.

    What's the point of comparing the Simpsons episode to my nephew's story? Just this: Where did he get the idea that the Wampanoag Indians of Massachusetts lived in teepees? He got it from a thousand media portrayals of Indians living in teepees, including the portrayal on The Simpsons.

    The Simpsons got three things wrong: the chief, the teepee, and the aggression toward strangers. My nephew got 1.5 things wrong and 1.5 things right. This six-year-old doesn't know much about Indians, but he apparently knows more than the adults who wrote "Funeral for a Fiend."

    Don't bother writing that "It was just a cartoon" (or "It was just a cartoon within a cartoon"). I've heard and dismissed all the excuses for stereotyping before. See "It's Just a [Fill in the Blank]" for details.

    My nephew is a good example of how the media propagates stereotypes. He doesn't analyze cartoons the way I do. He absorbs them. To him, The Simpsons, a movie on DVD, and the nightly news are all about equally real. He has no idea which parts of the "Itchy and Scratchy" scenario are true (a Thanksgiving feast) and which are fictional (the chief and teepee). He probably believes they're all true because he's seen Thanksgiving feasts, chiefs, and teepees so many times.

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