Despicable Me 2, Village People and The Power of Feather Headdresses
Well... it's based on the regalia as worn by Felipe Rose, a member of the Village People. Rose, of Puerto Rican and Lakota heritage, has worn a feather headdress for decades as part of the Village People's shtick. Other members of the group dress as a policeman, a construction worker, a cowboy, a soldier, and a man clad in leather (a look associated with gay leather subculture). Rose is an active member of the Native music community, a NAMA-winning artist whose charity work includes the American Indian College Fund and HIV/AIDS advocacy. Without a doubt, Rose is an influential and respected Native musician.
But he is also one of the Village People. When he performs in his feather headdress, he is entertaining as a disco performer, not participating in a sacred ceremony. But does that matter?
Would you parody Song of the South by portraying a black Uncle Tom? Then this probably isn't a good idea either.
This led to another of my interminable online debates.
The umpteenth Village People parody
I think a better question would be, would you parody a hipster wearing a headdress by portraying a them with a buffoonish cartoon? That's more like what this feels like to me. They're lampooning a ridiculous character that just happens to be Native American and it's on screen for all of about 20 seconds. There's another one in the movie sporting an afro that's an obvious nod to Isaac the bartender from The Love Boat. I'd wouldn't see getting upset about that either.
I'm not gonna say that it's totally beyond reproach, but this just feels like swinging at a bad pitch.
This is obviously not an important issue, but still. If you mocked a stereotypical Uncle Tom with some sort of exaggerated or farcical Uncle Tom, does that address the problem? You're still portraying another Uncle Tom. You're hoping people will understand that your Uncle Tom is different from the original Uncle Tom.
So yes, the situations are parallel. Which is why I used the Song of the South analogy in my status.
"Would you parody a hipster wearing a headdress by portraying a them with a buffoonish cartoon?" I might if I made it clear that the hipster's actions were racist and unacceptable. Specifically, the act of appropriating the headdress.
Making the hipster a buffoon but not addressing the headdress explicitly would be a problem. It would send an unclear message: that the cultural appropriation might or might not be okay.
If you're satirizing the Village People and how silly they were, you're probably not calling out the "chief" explicitly for appropriating the headdress. Because that's a minor issue compared to the VP's gay subtext. In that case, I'm gonna say the so-called parody fails.
If that means parodies of the Village People are off-limits, too bad. Parodies of most ethnic groups are off-limits these days, and the VP includes an ethnic person. You don't parody Jews or Italians or Poles anymore, and you don't parody groups that happen to contain an Indian.
If the Village People happened to contain a big-nosed greedy Jew, would it be okay to repeat that stereotype for the purposes of parodying it? Would people understand that your big-nosed greedy Jew was a critical commentary on the original big-nosed greedy Jew? Because that's also a parallel situation.
Indian chief = greedy Jew
Considering that it was nominated for Academy Awards, I'd say yes.
"If you mocked a stereotypical Uncle Tom with some sort of exaggerated or farcical Uncle Tom, does that address the problem? You're still portraying another Uncle Tom. You're HOPING people will understand that your Uncle Tom is different from the original Uncle Tom."
Again I think not a parallel example. If you parodied Uncle Tom in the context of satirizing Disney then I think it would be OK. And in the context above they are satirizing the Village People as a whole and the Village People phenomenon, not the specific Native character that just happens to be a part of it.
"If you're satirizing the Village People and how silly they were, you're probably NOT calling out the "chief" explicitly for appropriating the headdress. Because that's a minor issue compared to the VP's gay subtext."
Which leads me to ask why you aren't equally bothered by the movie's depiction of the gay character?
But why is it necessary to specifically "call out" the Indian character? It sounds like you are criticizing this example not because of what the movie does but because they failed to commit an act of social justice by including a prominent message about the headdress. As I said before, this was on screen for at most 30 seconds. I think that's a pretty unreasonable expectation.
I think most people get how ridiculous the Village People are. You don't have to hit them over the head explaining it to them. It would be different if they were depicting, say, Sitting Bull or some other real person rather than mocking an already fake Indian. That's kind of the difference between this image and the original Village People character. That character mocks a real Native person, whereas you'll notice here that they don't go any further than the headdress - just enough to make it identifiable who it is and no more.
"If the Village People happened to contain a big-nosed greedy Jew, would it be okay to repeat that stereotype for the purposes of parodying it?"
I think it would if it were in the same context. I feel like if they singled out A character to parody that changes things a bit. By keeping the headdress in the group context, it's pretty clear that they're lampooning the group and not perpetuating the stereotype.
"Felipe Rose, age 21, performing in the mid-70s. Source: Facebook.com."
A lighthearted musical gets nominated for its music and that makes it a serious cultural expression? Okay, I guess Mary Poppins, Doctor Doolittle, and The Muppet Movie were serious cultural expressions too. Good thing you have other arguments, because that one sucks. ;-)
I don't have time to call out all the other stereotypes in the world besides Native stereotypes. The calling out is sometimes explicit in my commentaries, but always implicit. Cut out all the stereotyping, of which the Native example is the one I'm bringing to your attention. Native stereotyping is one of the last areas where stereotyping is accepted, so it's a great way to show people's ongoing biases.
My reference to the gay subtext was one of these implied callings out. If I were gay, I might not be crazy about the gay stereotypes in the Village People. I haven't been studying gay stereotypes for 20 years, so I don't presume to speak authoritatively on the issue. But yes, they seem like a big problem--which is why I said the chief seemed like a minor problem in comparison.
You think an Uncle Tom or a greedy Jew would be acceptable in the context of a Village People-style group? I'm guessing you're wrong about that.
I base that conclusion on the same years of experience. This experience tells me Native stereotypes are acceptable in almost every context in mainstream America, whereas black and Jewish stereotypes are quickly denounced in the same contexts. A Village People-style parody of blacks and Jews would be the same; it would quickly be denounced.
The bit's short duration doesn't excuse it in my mind. We've criticized still photos, which have no duration, and 30-second commercials for their stereotypes. Karlie Kloss's catwalk in the Victoria's Secret controversy probably lasted about 30 seconds and no one gave it a free pass.
True, a short duration reduces the problem, but the number of viewers increases the problem. Thirty seconds times 60 million viewers equals an hour times 500,000 viewers. In other words, we're talking about something like 500,000 person-hours of exposure. It's math, buddy!
So you think the length and the group focus mean this bit isn't a problem? Okay, let's say the bit didn't change its focus, but went on for an hour. Or the bit lasted 30 seconds, but was entirely about the Chief. Then do you agree it would be a problem?
Sounds to me like you're saying it's a tiny or potential problem, but not one worth worrying about. I agree, which is why I'm not worrying about it. My point is that it's a problem, even if it's tiny or potential. I'd avoid the stereotype rather than perpetuate it because no one needs a parody of a 40-year-old group at this point.
I'm guessing the movie is using this bit as a pretext to parody gays (primarily) and Indians. Because that's what the Village People parodied. If you want to parody the disco era for some reason, bring in a character like Tony Manero (Saturday Night Fever) or Disco Stu (The Simpsons). The Village People are not necessary for any creative purpose except parodying gays (primarily) and Indians.
"It's about the intent"?
No, I said in a parody of the Village People. Keep the arguments straight. You can't change history and the Village People are the Village People love them or hate them. As I said, if there were a Jewish character I wouldn't have a problem with the use of that image in a send-up of the original.
"The short duration doesn't excuse it in my mind...So you think the length and the group focus mean this bit isn't a problem? Okay, let's say the bit didn't change its focus, but went on for an hour. Or the bit lasted 30 seconds, but was entirely about the Chief. Then do you agree it WOULD be a problem?"
Yes. That would change things. It's not about the duration exclusively, it's about the intent. As I've said before this clearly ISN'T an attempt to misrepresent a Native person, Native tribe, or Native culture As is, it's clearly intended as a farcical reference to the previous character. It's actually not about ANY group that's being parodied in my estimation EXCEPT the Village People. I actually don't consider it a problem, even a minor one. There are a myriad of ways in which they could have turned this thorny, but I think they walked that fine line where they found a way to present this in which it doesn't create any problems.
The main problem I have with your position is that you seem to be advocating that it's unacceptable to use an image of a headdress anywhere, anytime, by ANYone. I'm not prepared to go that far down the rabbit hole in limiting acceptable creative expression. What if we were to apply the same logic to Kimonos, or afros, or even tallitot. We'd be eliminating a lot of harmless and even some positive images from the cultural landscape.
The phrase "in the context of a Village People-style group" includes both the original group and this group. If you didn't get that, I trust you get it now.
The Village People are a parody of real occupations. If this scene is a parody of the Village People--which is debatable--so? A parody of a parody is still a parody. Whether it's the Village People or a "parody" of the Village People is irrelevant since it's using the headdress in the context of a parody.
"As I said, if there were a Jewish character I wouldn't have a problem with the use of that image in a send-up of the original."
You might not, but the rest of us would. Repeat: You think an Uncle Tom or a greedy Jew would be acceptable in the context of a Village People-style group? I'm guessing you're wrong about that.
Find me an example of a greedy Jew portrayed in any context: a parody, a parody of a parody, or whatever you want to call this. Make sure it's an example that our society accepts without qualification--which rules out Shylock and Fagin. Good luck.
"Yes. That would change things. It's not about the duration exclusively, it's about the intent."
The filmmakers' intent is invisible and unknowable in this situation. It's not worth a bunch of idle speculation. Besides, the intent doesn't matter; only the outcome does. The outcome is the perpetuation of a Native stereotype.
"The main problem I have with your position is that you seem to be advocating that it's unacceptable to use an image of a headdress anywhere, anytime, by ANYone."
Unless you're a Plains Indian who has earned the right to wear a Plains Indian headdress, you shouldn't be wearing one. It violates a cultural taboo against the wearing of headdresses by people who haven't earned the right.
"What if we were to apply the same logic to Kimonos, or afros, or even tallitot."
I don't know about tallitot, but the first two aren't considered semi-sacred. There are no cultural prohibitions against outsiders wearing them. So they fail as comparable examples.
Besides, kimonos and afros do contribute to the stereotyping of Japanese and black people, respectively. If a 30-second bit showed every Japanese character in a kimono or every black character in an afro, I'd call it a problem too.
Again, it would be an extremely minor problem. But you could say that about every case of stereotyping. Minor problems become a major problem only when you take millions of examples and look at them cumulatively. As Native activists have done with the stereotypical Indian chief.
For more on the Village People, see What's Wrong with the Village People? and "Village People" in Saturday Night Live.