July 12, 2010

Magical bracelets in Sons of Tucson

In Sunday's episode of Sons of Tucson, titled Kisses & Beads (airdate: 7/11/10), Ron needs money to bet on a dog race. As he leaves work, he sees co-worker Mike (Michael Horse) get on an expensive motorcycle:RON:  How the hell did you afford that?

MIKE:  Beads, man, beads.

RON:  Beads.

MIKE:  I get my little cousins down in the basement on weekends, making bracelets and dreamcatchers and crap like that. Guilt-ridden tourists will buy anything from us poor Indians.

RON:  I bet.

MIKE:  I guess what I'm really selling...is forgiveness.

[Mike starts to leave.]

RON:  Wait, wait, hold on a second. Hey, if you front me some beads, you think I can make 500 bucks by Sunday?

MIKE:  Yeah, sure, it's possible. But you need a crew. With little hands.

RON:  Little hands....
Ron arranges a party at his house so he can enlist the neighborhood boys to make Indian trinkets. He turns off their video game and declares they're going to do arts and crafts:RON:  All right, everybody grab a thimble. Which you get to keep, by the way. Stretch out those sticky little fingers of yours and get ready for turbo beads!

RON:  Yeah! We are going to make some ornamental bracelets to honor the Native peoples of Arizona. It is a real privilege. Originally, only Native American warriors got to craft this mystical jewelry in order to harness the power...of lightning!
Ron elaborates to motivate the kids further:RON:  Listen up, gang. I didn't tell you guys the best part yet, did I? Local legend has it if you manage to complete 100 of these magical bracelets in one night, you too will inherit the awesome powers of a thousand Cherokee chiefs.

BOY [scoffing]:  You said lightning.

RON [thinking fast]:  The chiefs control the lightning. Ahhh, so what do you say? How's that sound?
A bit later Ron checks on the kids and finds they've stopped working at the "fun bench":RON:  So what, what, none of you want to become a magical Native American warrior anymore? Well, that's a shame, because that is the chance of a lifetime right here.Finally Mike shows up at the house:MIKE:  Hey, Ron, it's 8:00. You got my bracelets?

RON:  Uh, Mike. Uh, listen, I'm gonna need just a little more time. I ran into a baby snag with my crew. I promised them candy that doesn't exist.

MIKE:  Wow, a white man making promises he can't keep.

RON:  I appreciate your stoic irony. But seriously, do, do you know how to make magic candy?

MIKE:  Oh, sure I do.

RON:  Really?

MIKE:  Idiot. Look, I need those bracelets now. I got a tip on a broken-down busload full of Deadheads and--I gotta move fast.

RON:  Got it.
Alas, the kids turn on Ron and cover him in beads. Mike never gets his bracelets.

This is a great Native bit. Mike talks about some of the usual things--beads, dreamcatchers, guilt-ridden whites, forgiveness--but it's all insincere. All he cares about is his moneymaking scheme.

Ron also talks about some of the usual things--warriors, jewelry, chiefs, magical powers--but it's clear he's making them up. Ron is a buffoon and everyone knows it, so no one takes him seriously.

Sons of Tucson vs. The Dudesons

How is this show's approach different from that of the Dudesons? Let's see.

In the Dudesons episode, the Dudesons played everything with a straight face. They didn't once indicate that they were making things up. Moreover, Saginaw Grant confirmed everything with his on-screen comments and presence.

In the Sons of Tucson episode, Ron is clearly inventing things on the spot. His claim that homemade "jewelry" will give the kids lightning is patently absurd. Someone might believe that Indians have to endure pain to pass an initiation rite (a la the Dudesons), but no one will believe that kiddie bracelets can grant magical powers.

Moreover, Ron's comments are internally inconsistent. He says the bracelets will bestow lightning, then switches to the power of a thousand chiefs. He's says they're honoring Arizona Natives, then refers to the Cherokee.

Ron is so lacking in authority that a bunch of eight-year-olds turn on him and punish him for his effrontery. He endures the arts and crafts equivalent of tarring and feathering. And the person who know best, Mike the Indian, calls him an "idiot."

Given how Sons of Tucson presents Ron's preposterous claims, there's no chance anyone will believe them. The show has done what it takes to demolish the stereotypes it dreamed up. As always, the joke is on Ron, who pays the price for telling tall tales about Indians.

If Saginaw Grant had scoffed at the Dudesons and called them idiots, Natives might not have criticized the show. Instead, he gave the Dudesons feathers at the end--an Indian seal of approval. This confirmed the stereotypes instead of denying them, as Sons of Tucson has done.

What audiences take away

The real issue isn't how inaccurate each show's stereotypes are. It's the emotional weight each show gives the stereotypes. This weight suggests how viewers are supposed to react.

On The Dudesons, the phony costumes and rituals tell viewers to laugh at Indians. On Sons of Tucson, the phony legends tell viewers to laugh at people like Ron who laugh at Indians. It's a different vibe--the opposite of the Dudesons' vibe.

The key isn't the comedic context, since both shows are ostensibly funny. The key is whether the show contradicts the stereotypes in obvious ways. Sons of Tucson does; The Dudesons doesn't.

In short, Sons of Tucson is one of the rare shows that demonstrates how to use Native stereotypes properly. I.e., to parody people's ignorance. In contrast, The Dudesons demonstrates how to use stereotypes improperly. I.e., to reinforce people's ignorance.

For more on stereotypes in comedies, see Dudesons Too "Stoopid" to Matter? and Okay to Stereotype in "Satires"? For more on Sons of Tucson, see Domesticating Wolves in Sons of Tucson and Michael Horse in Sons of Tucson.

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