October 21, 2010

1/16 Cherokee in Modern Family

In Wednesday's episode of Modern Family, titled Unplugged (airdate: 10/20/10), Cameron and Mitchell are trying to get Lily into an exclusive preschool. Afraid that being a gay couple with an Asian daughter isn't enough, Cam decides they need more. He begins talking to the admissions officer in a low, slow voice like that of a stereotypical Indian:CAMERON:  Well, my white-man name is Tucker. I am one-sixteenth Cherokee. Ready for child to soar...like eagle.

But wait, there's more. The tag-end during the credits shows another excerpt from the admissions office:CAMERON:  The tribe elders foretold that though I lay with fire-haired man, the giving hawk would bring us baby. With her skin the color of sweet corn, which my people call maize.

MITCHELL:  Please stop.


CAMERON:  Knowledge is her sustenance. Like so much maize--which, you'll remember, means corn.
Comment:  This routine is obviously meant to be embarrassing. And Mitchell and the admissions officer are embarrassed by it. But that's not enough to make it okay.

Cameron could've claimed to be part Indian in his normal voice. He could've said something modern, like, "How about Obama's tribal summit last November?" or "I was just checking out the tribe's powwow schedule on its website." Then the bit might've been funny.

Instead, he portrayed a stereotypical "dignified" Indian. One who's too out of touch to speak proper English. Who drops references to ancient lore as if he's never seen the 20th or 21st century.

Another minstrel show

Imagine Cameron had announced he was 1/16 black and made the following speech:My great-grandpappy was supposed ta get 40 acres and a mule, but he dint get nuthin'. Won't chu help a po' cotton picker?

My Lily luv watermelon and fried chicken, and she already good at music and sports. She be a real asset to your school, massa!
Nobody would even think of putting on that kind of minstrel skit on the air. But the Indian bit is the same thing. It stereotypes Indians as some exotic ethnic group outside the American mainstream.

The point isn't that Modern Family shouldn't have done the bit. It's that it shouldn't have done the bit in such an exaggerated way. No white man in America would try passing himself off as a cotton-pickin' Negro. It should be equally out of bounds to try passing oneself off as a mystical Tonto.

For more on the subject, see Stereotypes as Mental Maps, Why People Don't Care About Indians, and The Harm of Native Stereotyping:  Facts and Evidence.

Below:  Mitchell and Cameron.

1 comment:

Rob said...

Mal Wabashishib said...

There was also a woman dressed up like Pocahontas the night before on a Halloween episode of "Parenthood." This new set of family-oriented shows is getting an F in my book!

Rob said...

Thanks, Mal. I covered that show in "Pocahontas" in Parenthood.