October 02, 2013

History class in Modern Family

Suddenly, Last Summer, the second episode of Modern Family this season (airdate: 9/25/13), included a Native-oriented sequence. Here's the scoop:

Cameron (Cam), a flamboyantly gay man, is asked to substitute-teach an Advanced Placement history class. He knows next to nothing about history, so he decides to dress as George Washington to get the students' attention.

His partner's niece Alex is one of the students in the class. She's embarrassed by Cam's antics and tries to get him on track.ALEX: Our syllabus says we're supposed to cover Native Americans on the eve of colonization.

CAM: Yes! Native Americans! Indians! A majestic, peaceful people who lived off the land and cried when they saw litter.

ALEX: The textbook says many tribes were often at war with allegiances shifting all of the time.

CAM [a beat slow as he tries to copy her]: --shifting all the time.

STUDENT: So...were the Indians friends with the colonists, or not?

CAM: Ah! Yes! I know one Indian who was friends with a construction worker, biker, and traffic cop.

[Cam laughs at his own joke, but notices no one else is laughing.]

CAM: Do you g--nothing, seriously nothing? Okay, your parents are going to love that joke.
Later:ALEX [diagramming on the white board]: The Native Americans and the settlers had two completely different ideas of land ownership. Eventually, these differences would lead to war.

[Cam gasps in surprise. He leans forward to talk to another student.]

CAM: Look, goosebumps.
Comment:  This is one of those ambiguous bits about Natives you often see on recent TV shows.

Alex is clearly more knowledgeable about Indians than Cam is. And her statements are basically accurate without casting Indians in a bad light.

Cam offers Native (mis)appropriations--the crying Indian, the Village People--as "jokes." But it's not clear if one comment--"A majestic, peaceful people who lived off the land and cried when they saw litter"--is really supposed to be joke.

Will viewers get that this superficial view of Indians--that they're all members of one eco-friendly tribe--is false and stereotypical? I wouldn't bet on it.

To be effective, Native-oriented humor should be clear about what's true and what isn't. These Native bits sort of pass the test, but not quite. Alex and the other students sort of reject Cam's ignorant views, but not quite.

That's why I say these bits are ambiguous. That some writers are trying to do Native-oriented humor properly, without mistakes or stereotypes, is good and commendable. But they haven't quite nailed it yet.

For more on Modern Family, see 1/16th Cherokee in Modern Family.


Anonymous said...

The first remark was a joke, alluding to the TV commercial with Iron Eyes Cody.

Anonymous said...

No one who ever met Iron Eyes Cody ever considered him less than a dignified and honorable man. His tears at the mis-treatment of the land were genuine.! He is a wonderful example to all of us about issues of respect and good attitude towards the land and each other.! And NO I am not A Native American. Just someone who respects them and especially him !

Anonymous said...

neither was he.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Iron Eyes Cody wasn't Native, he was just an Italian-American actor who made money off of Native imagery and identity.

Anonymous said...

That's not all: in one episode, Gloria wanted to return to her "native village" in Colombia. In another, Gloria's sister, visiting from Colombia, asked where the river was, so she could wash the clothes. Because Colombia is not the US, so it must be a poor and backward country. In reality, the actress who plays Gloria is from Barranquilla, a city of almost two millions people. And even though they're portrayed as desperately poor, nobody's doing a thing to help them.

Anonymous said...

On a different but related topic, I saw a few minutes of the TV show "Dancing with the Stars" recently. Featured a guy dressed as the Lone Ranger dancing with a woman dressed "Pocahottie" style, or like Tonto. Evidently it occurred to no one involved that this just might be considered offensive.

Rob said...

Yes, I know the first remark was a joke about Iron Eyes Cody. That's what I was referring to when I wrote:

Cam offers Native (mis)appropriations--the crying Indian, the Village People--as "jokes."

I often don't spell out that the first Tonto was Jay Silverheels, the Village People's "chief" is Felipe Rose, and the crying Indian was non-Native Iron Eyes Cody. I presume my readers know these things or can look them up.

Rob said...

True, Modern Family often stereotypes Colombia as a backward country. This is understandable when Jay the ignorant American does it, but not when Gloria the Colombian does it.

Since these stereotypes aren't explicitly Native, I didn't mention them. But no doubt the show is implicitly bashing Colombia's indigenous population.

P.S. I saw the Dancing with the Stars bit and posted about it.