June 22, 2009

Educating Gyasi Ross about Pocahontas

A commentary by a Blackfeet Indian with my responses interspersed:

Blog:  The thing about skins

3.0: Skin night at the movies

By Gyasi Ross
Another thing that my family absolutely loves--unabashedly--is seeing other Skins on television or in the movies. The Skin actor/actress doesn’t even have to be a big part--bit roles are just as much sources of pride. Oh yeah, and cartoons work too! We were ecstatic to see the small, yet inspiring role of the Alaska Native lady with the really, really, really big breasts in “The Simpsons” movie. John Redcorn from King of the Hill and Apache Chief from the Superfriends? My heroes. My non-athletic mother, to this day, does three back flips whenever she sees Chief Bromden in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Big role or large role, either way, my mom excitedly points them out and asks--“You know that he’s Indian, right?” Of course, mom; we used to have the video disc.
It's a sad commentary on the state of the arts that these characters still excite Ross. They should be minor examples of Indians on the screen, not major ones.

It's just a movie?My friends are slightly different than me and my family. It seems like many of them love to dissect and analyze every single Skin role--on television or in movie--for accuracy and stereotypes. Not that seeking accuracy is bad in any way--it’s just that for me, movies are movies, not documentaries.OMG...is this pathetic "it's just a [fill in the blank]" argument ever going to go away?

Why distinguish between a movie and a documentary, Gyasi? Documentaries have a point of view and are filtered through a filmmaker's biases. As we learned in our discussion of Wounded Knee, a fictional movie can be more accurate than a "nonfictional" documentary.

Heck, why distinguish between a movie and anything? A sports logo is just a sports logo. An advertisement is just an advertisement. A statue is just a statue. A school lesson is just a school lesson. A book is just a book.

Apparently Ross thinks that no one has ever formed an opinion of Indians based on mere words and images. No, Americans remain neutral and openminded about Indians until they meet one in the flesh. When they see and hear a real Indian, they conclude that Indians are just like everyone else.

Therefore, it's impossible for Americans to think Indians are savage, primitive, uncivilized, lazy, good-for-nothing, stoic, drunk, mystical, ecology-minded, noble, greedy, corrupt, or rich. Why? Because these things generally aren't true in reality and Americans don't know about Indians from any other source. No American has ever learned a Native stereotype from a movie or other form of media.

How naive and foolish can you get?

Pocahontas is "hot"?For example, once upon a broke Friday night, one of my closest friends from Acoma Pueblo and I got into a heated debate about the Disney movie, “Pocahontas.” I didn’t realize the hornet’s nest that I got myself into--I spoke glowingly of the movie. I told her how much my nieces LOVED the movie and that I frankly thought that, for a cartoon character, Pocahontas was extremely hot. Almost Jessica Rabbit hot.Yeah, that's what young girls in America need...more images of women as sex objects. Today's women are growing too smart, strong, and independent. They need to embrace their inner "princess" and become more like Disney girls who need princes to save them.

"Hotness" is a pretty lame reason to like a Native character. So what if Pocahontas is hot? The issue is whether she's a reasonably accurate representation of the historical figure, not whether she's babe-alicious.But my friend didn’t agree. In fact, I’m sure she used a few curse words when she told me how disgraceful and bad the depiction of Pocahontas really was. My dear friend talked about how Pocahontas didn’t really marry John Smith but that Pocahontas had been captured. And while captured, Pocahontas met John Rolfe--her future hubby. The truth was very different than the Disney cartoon’s depiction of how she met her husband. Yes.Pocahontas didn't marry John Smith--either in the movie or in real life. But thanks for proving the critics' point. We're so used to Disney's "princess" mentality that we assume Pocahontas the Indian princess must've married John Smith the prince-like hero. Ross believes he saw this on the screen even though he didn't.

Seeing a Native on screenAnyway, my wonderful and brilliant friend from Acoma was incredibly upset about the artistic license that was taken in the movie. And I tend to like all Disney cartoons (“Lion King”? “Mulan”?)--but I liked this one ever more because 1.) Pocahontas was hot; and because 2.) There was an image of a Skin on the big screen. Sure she was animated--but she was undoubtedly a Skin. When it came down to it, my Acoma friend and I simply had two very different takes on the movie. And my argument, “It’s a cartoon. … I doubt the tree really spoke to her and the raccoon seems slightly unrealistic as well,” was not gaining any momentum. Mind you, my main point was simply that my nieces and little sisters and lots and lots of other little Skin girls finally got to see a Skin woman on television.Fantasia, Song of the South, and Peter Pan are just cartoons too. Should we accept and applaud their racist images as well? Is there any instance of racism Ross is willing to criticize?

Ross could buy or rent dozens of movies and TV shows if he wanted his nieces to see Native women on the screen. Try Dreamkeeper, Into the West, or The Emperor's New School for images of strong Native women. It's ridiculous to say we should accept Pocahontas because it's the only way Native girls can see themselves represented.And I was happy for that. But maybe I shouldn’t have been. Maybe I should be offended when a portrayal of our people comes on television or at the movie theater that isn’t 100 percent correct.With his black-and-white thinking, Ross may be spending too much time around non-Indians. There are more choices than 1) love it uncritically or 2) hate it and scorn it.

How about taking a nuanced position like mine? I like Pocahontas for its storytelling and artistry. I dislike it for its mistakes and stereotypes. I criticize the movie's problems but don't take them personally or get offended by them.

Pocahontas a role model?Maybe the hundreds and hundreds of Pueblo and Navajo girls who congregated at the Gallup movie theater when “Pocahontas” came out were wrong to enjoy the movie.I wonder how many of these hundreds of Native girls had problems with self-esteem, weight and body issues, dropping out of school, teen-age pregnancy, substance abuse, depression and suicide, etc. I wonder how many of these problems came from not being able to live up to Hollywood's image of Indian women as thin and beautiful.

And what about the 99% of the viewers who aren't Native girls? Does Ross have anything to say about them? Does he understand that non-Indian children are more unschooled and impressionable than adults like him?

Here are how some non-Indians reacted to Pocahontas. From Steve Harvey's column in the LA Times, c. 1995-96:When a portrait of a crinkly eyed Smith was shown on "Biography," our daughter Sarah, age 7, said, "Oh, my God! He's got a beard! He's almost bald!"

When a portrait of the Indian princess was shown, Sarah took one look at the somewhat plump, round-faced child and declared: "That is not Pocahontas."

During one commercial break, however, she exclaimed, "There they are," pointing triumphantly to the screen, where the voluptuous Indian maiden and surfer John were indeed frolicking. It was an ad for the animated movie.
From "Native Americans Face Stereotypes," The Post (Ohio University), 11/1/01:During recess, a couple of boys danced around her singing a Pocahontas song, "Savages! Savages! Barely even human," he said.Perhaps Ross should journey from school to school to educate these kids about the media. "Why are you yelling racist epithets at an Indian child? Don't you realize Pocahontas was just a movie? What's the matter with you? Next you'll be telling me you admire people and buy things just because you saw them on TV."

Love it or protest it?Maybe they should’ve been more politically savvy and protested the movie.Another too-pat answer. One can understand the media's influence--can be culturally and politically savvy--without getting outraged and protesting. Just be aware of the media's overt and covert messages. If your thinking begins and ends with "Pocahontas is hot" and "hot women are good," you really aren't thinking.Maybe my family, and people like us, are too simplistic and just don’t know any better to be offended.Too simplistic? Just don't know any better about the causes and effects of Native stereotyping? Yes and yes. You said it, Gyasi.

For more on the subject, see the Stereotype of the Month contest and The Best Indian Movies.

Below:  "Girls, try to become thin and beautiful like me. Starve yourself, binge and purge, whatever it takes. If you do, I promise you'll find your Prince Charming."


Unknown said...

I know Gasi from his days as a student in New York. He is a smart man with a sense of humor and honesty that often leaves parts of his self vulnerably exposed. In all honesty I chalk it up to youthful bravado, but then I have had conversations with him that allow me to draw this conclusion.

Of course I see the sexism in his comments and I don’t agree with his opinion regarding Pocahontas (I was at the Central Park premiere and bitched through the whole thing, screaming “Lies, Lies, Lies!” much to my brother and sister’s embarrassment). Knowing a little of Gasi I suspect he is "keeping it real" by admitting his honest reaction to such portrayals of women by just being a guy and focusing more on the pride he and his feel just seeing other Natives being seen. I understand where he is coming from and know many, including myself who feels less privileged than most to claim it, who feel the same when seeing "skins" on screen or in the media being seen. It is in that moment of recognition that the pride being felt doesn't take into account the damage the portrayal and manipulation of what is seen or shown, all it does is grasped is the instant sense of "yes" those are my people.

Having said this in his position, writing a column that reaches the masses of “Skins” is a powerful thing and can be a tool of change. The thing is his honesty, including him not understanding why there is an issue is his way of connecting. As a Native, admitting his need to keep it simple and openly questioning his own point of view, while defending if of course, is perhaps what is needed in order to start a conversation amongst all the people, regardless of education, financial or social status. I just hope that he grows to understand how the perpetuation of such images of women, Native or not, is a continuation of a stereotype that doesn’t honor the strength, diversity and value of real women. I also trust that given the chance and opportunity, including responses to what he writes, such as yours, will give him the opportunity to grow into that responsibility.

Anonymous said...

In regards to Disney's Pocahontas, The argument could be made that the movie is a period piece. Meaning that the tribe depicted, which existed BEFORE McDonalds, U.S. Government issued cheese and peanut butter, MOST LIKELY had a different (thinner, more fit) physique than that of the typical Modern Native Tribesman/Tribeswoman.

In Native Tribes (before Europeans), that lived on/off the land, obesity was a rare thing. When the western diet started to influence the life/body of those Tribes people they began to be affected almost immediately with issues, conditions, and diseases that did not exist in their culture. (Anecdotal inference comes from the words of the last Queen of the Kingdom of Hawaii and her thoughts on how her nation had fallen. She mentions how her people did not used to be fat. She said that around 1900)

So just on the ONE point of Disney's Pocahontas depicting Native people's stereotypical 'beauty' by showing them thin, lean, and fit may in fact be closer to how most Native people were during the period BEFORE the Europeans influence.

There is nothing wrong with their image/depiction of Pocahontas. Now, their story of what Pocahontas, the woman, actually did and how the tribe she's from actually conducted themselves from a cultural point of view is a completely different issue.