November 01, 2010

Kathy Griffin in a headdress

Kathy Griffin takes aim, fires

Nothing is sacred for the 'D-List' comedian, and that's the secret to her success. Her Bravo special airs Tuesday.

By Yvonne Villarreal
The flame-haired 49-year-old comedian known for her acerbic humor—and her Bravo series "My Life on the D-List"—holds a nebulous place in the celebrity pecking order. She's the star of a reality series in which she mocks stardom, while her own Hollywood life lends itself to plenty of material. Especially on this September day: Griffin was between two comedy sets at Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, which has been edited down into the one-hour Bravo comedy special "Kathy Griffin: Whores on Crutches" that will air Tuesday.

"I'm not doing Caesars. Palace—that'd be too easy," she said backstage. "We're doing it Temecula style and, frankly, I deserve an Emmy for the drive alone. You can't come here unless you witness several accidents and get caught in several brush fires."
In other words, Griffin hints that Indian reservations are remote and dangerous places.In Tuesday's special, Griffin warns, "I'm going to discuss things that should not be discussed in a tepee," with Bristol Palin, Paris Hilton, Tiger Woods and "The View's" Elisabeth Hasselbeck coming under fire.Stereotype alert! The Pechanga didn't use tipis.As Griffin analyzed her live set in retrospect, her brain was clearly moving at warp speed, pegging the opening—in which she appears with a Native American headdress—as "really strong cause it was visually funny and silly—it could be the commercial." But she admits she didn't hit her stride until much later in the act, when she blathered on about the VH-1 series, "The OCD Project."And:"If you'll excuse me, I have to put on my headdress," she said. "I bet Joan Rivers has never had to say that."Comment:  Anyone who isn't an ignoramus never had to say that.

Spare us any comments about how the headdress was part of Griffin's comedy routine. Or how she was satirizing our ignorance about Indians. I've already dismissed those excuses as invalid.

For starters, I'd place a large wager that she doesn't know anything about the Pechanga Indians. In particular, I'm betting she doesn't know if they wore headdresses or lived in tipis. If I'm right, that alone eliminates the "satire" argument.

As for the "part of the show/it's just a joke" rationalization, it doesn't work. Everyone who wears a headdress is "putting on a show" for the public. It doesn't matter whether they're professional entertainers or not. They're making a statement about something: that they think Indians are "cool," they consider themselves "tribal," or whatever. That's why we use the term "fashion statement."

What's the statement?

So the question isn't whether the headdress is meant to make a statement or not. It is. And the magical power of intent assures us that no one ever intends to mock or belittle Indians. We know that because they tell us so, and they would never lie.

What the headdress tells us about the wearer--that they're hip or ironic--is a secondary and unimportant message. What the headdress tells observers about Indians is the primary message. And that message is loud and clear: that all Indians are the same, like Plains Indians. That they're primitive people of the past who used to kill white folks and now have mostly vanished.

Whether you're a comedian, a hipster, or some other wannabe, your intent doesn't matter. Your secondary message--"look how clever I am!"--doesn't matter. What matters is the primary message you're sending to the public. And that message is stereotypical.

It's also arguably racist. You wouldn't dress up as an outdated black or Asian person, but you will dress up as an outdated Indian. Picking on one race to the exclusion of others is racism.

Did the Indians laugh?

Let's recall one more point. Griffin's audience included many Pechanga Indians. They didn't need to hear that most people have stereotypical views of Indians. That it's "ironic" that people think Indians wear headdresses. They're living proof of that.

Would you go in front of a black audience in blackface to make a point about blackface? Are blacks likely to consider that funny? No. Then why would you do the same thing in front of an Indian audience? Because you're an ignoramus, I guess.

From what I heard, some people in the audience were uncomfortable with Griffin's redface minstrel shtick. And understandably so. Whether she realized it or not, Griffin mocked Indians in front of Indians.

For more on the "it's just a joke" rationalization, see:

Why minstrel shows are wrong
Irish band is just harmless fun?
The Dudesons, Polish jokes, and minstrel shows
Dudesons too "stoopid" to matter?
Okay to stereotype in "satires"?

For more celebrities in offensive outfits, see Paris Hilton as a Sexy Indian and Khloe Kardashian in a Headdress.

Below:  "Comedian Kathy Griffin performs at Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula." (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

1 comment:

Liriel said...

"You wouldn't dress up as an outdated black or Asian person, but you will dress up as an outdated Indian. Picking on one race to the exclusion of others is racism."

I love your blog and have been a sporadic reader for over 3 years. However, I must take issue with this highly misguided claim. I do understand your point, and why you chose to make it in this way; but it's just so problematic.

1) It's wrong.
EVERY. SINGLE. HALLOWEEN. (and even in between Halloweens) There's some story of some morons dressing up in blackface and thinking it's cool. In one university incident from just earlier this year, the guys in blackface actually won a costume contest (showing that everyone at the party thought it was acceptable & not just the morons in the racist costumes). And about Asians? Well, the "Sexy Geisha/Chinadoll" costume trend that just WILL. NOT. DIE. begs to differ. Not to mention, the appropriation that is inherent in "Oriental" style clothes, which first gained popularity during the height of US "involvement" in SE Asia.

2) There is a flaw in your logic.
Dressing up as an Indian, Black, or Asian person is racist. But, obviously, given my examples above, it's not to the exclusion of other races. That definition leaves a lot of room for hipster racists to claim that they're not racist because they "pick on all races equally." Personally, I would contend that it's not so much the "picking on one race to the exclusion of others" so much as the institutionalized power differential that's the root of racism.

In conclusion, I don't take issue with the fact that you may not know very much about how racism manifests itself to the Black or Asian communities because we each have our areas of focus; and we can't possibly know everything about everything. However, I would venture to say that if you are not, in fact, very familiar with these other communities, perhaps using the "Oppression Olympics" as a rhetorical device to make your point is (in addition to being factually incorrect) insensitive and counterproductive.

I feel that this post ("One Woman's Costume Is Another Woman's Nightmare") at does a much better job at focusing on the horrific legacy of violence against Native women while also acknowledging how it parallels the struggles of many other women of color.