December 09, 2011

Pepper Ann Dances with Ignorance

Adrienne Keene writes about an episode of the Pepper Ann cartoon in her Native Appropriations blog:

Pepper Ann "Dances with Ignorance":  Quality TV for an Indian Appropriator Near You!Quick synopsis: teacher tells the class they're doing heritage reports, Pepper Ann decides all of her European ancestry is "boring" and then her Dad informs her she's actually 1/16 Navajo, and gives her a concho belt that belonged to her ancestor. Pepper Ann then gets super excited, relying on every stereotype possible to represent her new "Indianness"--war whooping, crying a single tear for littering, putting her brother in a cradle board, beating "war drums", etc. The whole time her friends are telling her she's being offensive and wrong, but she's too caught up in her ficticious identity to care.

Then she invites a "real" Navajo family over for dinner, she makes a complete fool out of herself in a plains Indian costume, building a tipi out of bed sheets, making smoke signals, suggesting they do a rain dance. The family gets offended and leaves, and later Pepper Ann eventually goes to apologize, learns the truth about Navajos, and gives a culturally correct and sensitive classroom presentation. I'm not really doing it justice. You should watch it.
And:And here's the moral of the story, after the Navajos leave:

Pepper Ann:  What happened? I thought I was just learning about my background!

Moose:  That's just it, Peppy. You weren't interested in learning anything. They barely got to talk.

Pepper Ann:  All I wanted to do was show them how much I knew about our culture from stuff I picked up on TV, and in the movies, and in comic books...

Mom:  Yes, but that's what stereotyping is, Peppy. Even when it's done with the best of intentions. You can't believe things about any group of people without getting to know them first!

Pepper Ann Follow-Up:  Why I'm glad I have readers1) Pepper Ann's best friend Milo (the one who identifies as Native Hawaiian) is actually named Milo Kamalani--and in the first 30 seconds of the cartoon, he says "My family can be traced back hundreds of years to the Kanaka Maoli people of the Hawaiian Archipelago." The writers on this show clearly knew how to do their research! It's fantastic that there was a contemporary Native Hawaiian character on the show, considering there are officially like zero representations of Native Hawaiians in the media today.

2) The voices of Dave and Carol (the Navajo Mom and son) were voiced by Cody Lightning and Irene Bedard--They even used Native actors. Cool.
Comment:  We constantly see people using and reusing stereotypes in cartoons, TV shows, advertising, art, jokes, parties, etc. The perpetrators will claim they're mocking the stereotypes, or presenting them with some invisible sense of irony. They're not racists, they'll tell you--they're making fun of the racists.

The latest examples are this season's Halloween and Thanksgiving parties, but there are millions of them. Classic examples include the South Park episodes, the Dudesons episode, and the Irish "Indians" showband.

This cartoon shows the folly of these approaches. The so-called criticism of the "mockery" or "irony" doesn't work unless you actually criticize something.

It's not enough to present negative stereotypes and assume people will understand your imagined intent. That's no different from presenting the stereotypes, period. It's the same approach generations of racists have used: attack and insult people, then claim you were "just joking."

If you want to criticize them, then criticize them: openly, obviously, and unmistakably. The only way people will learn about stereotypes is if you tell them the stereotypes are stupid, ignorant, and wrong. Otherwise people will see and believe them just as they've done for centuries.

This is the only valid excuse for using stereotypes in artistic works: to criticize them. "Joking" about them is insufficient unless it's clear what the jokes are and whom they're on. In most cases, artists fail to make this distinction, and the jokes are on the Indians.

J-Pop talk show

Another good example of this is the "J-Pop America Fun Time Now" skit on Saturday Night Live:

These students look stupid to me...but I know something about Japanese people and culture. Many Americans don't. They don't know whether some or all of this presentation is true or false.

If the skit simply showed white students imitating stereotypical Japanese beliefs and actions, it would be racist. But that's not the case here. The professor undercuts what the students do with his acerbic commentary.

For people who don't know Japanese culture, this is a necessary part of the skit. Like the Pepper Ann conclusion, it transforms the content from racist stereotyping into a critique of racist stereotyping. Ignorant viewers get the message explicitly: these antics don't represent Japanese culture.

For more on the subject, see Gaillard's Use of Chief Wahoo and Hipster Racism.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Actually, I thought "Cherokee Hair Tampons" was pretty clever. Considering they aren't actual Indians. (Love the name Carlos Ramirez. Wasn't he a serial killer?)

Well, a lot of Japanese game shows are pretty crazy. But a lot of the nonsensical-ness is bad translation. Certainly that's the case in anime. And then you get people who think cartoons are for kids, rent Urotsukidouji for their boys, and what is this? I don't even...