March 11, 2013

Michelle Williams as a Native woman?

Why Is Michelle Williams in Redface?

By Ruth HopkinsNow I've really seen it all. Michelle Williams is on the cover of AnOther Magazine, in apparent Redface. Michelle burst into the spotlight when she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Brokeback Mountain (2005). Later, she was nominated for Oscars for her work in Blue Valentine (2010) and Marilyn (2011). She is now starring as Glinda The Good Witch in Oz: The Great and Powerful (now in theaters).

Dressed in a braided wig, dull beads, and turkey feathers while sporting a decidedly stoic expression, AnOther Magazine and company ups the ante by putting Michelle in a flannel shirt, jeans, and what appears to be some sort of academic or legal robe. I smell an attempt to portray reservation nobility. Are they endeavoring to capture the spirit of the American Indian Movement (AIM) circa 1973? Is this an ad for the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) or the American Indian College Fund (AICF)? Nope. It's a 33 year old white actress hyping her latest Hollywood project by wearing a cheap costume designed to make her look like she's the member of another race.
Native Americans Are Not Munchkins: An Open Letter to Michelle Williams

By Aura BogadoDear Ms. Williams,

I cringed when I saw that you “dressed up as a Native American.” While some have called your decision “risqué,” I’d call it deeply offensive. Still, I was going to ignore your foolish costume until I saw a recent interview in which you shared your inspiration for Oz the Great and Powerful. In it, you compared Natives to Munchkins, and I knew then that this letter was necessary. What you’ve said and done is not only disrespectful—it’s dangerous. I hope you’ll read through this letter and think twice before once again choosing to participate in actions that preserve deeply racist convictions in popular culture.

By wearing a braided wig and donning feathers, and calling that “Native American” in a photo shoot, you’re perpetuating the lazy idea that Natives are all one and the same. Because you were born and spent your childhood in Montana, I expected more from you. Montana is home to seven reservations, where Natives from more than a dozen state or federally recognized tribes and nations reside—each with its own history, culture and language.

From what I can tell, the AnOther magazine cover doesn't include any claim that Williams has "dressed up as a Native American." That seems to comes from the Holy Moly site, which reposted the cover image and added a caption. If I'm right, Holy Moly is to blame for the claim, not Williams or AnOther magazine.

A commenter on the first column offered an obvious rejoinder:Um, the picture is in black and white, how can you tell it is redface? And do you mean just wearing a feather and braiding your hair is by itself offensive? Beyond that she's dressed basically like a hipster, it's in no way a Native American "costume." This is on a completely different level from blackface.Maybe, but Williams has said she researched L. Frank Baum and his thoughts on Indians:

‘Oz the Great and Powerful’: Michelle Williams on Glinda inspiration

By Steven ZeitchikTo prepare for the role in the film, the actress read both a biography of Baum and nearly all of the author’s 14 “Oz” books, even keeping a “Glinda notebook.”

Williams said she was initially concerned that all the homework wouldn’t pay dividends.

“You don’t know if you’re going to find anything when you do all that geeky research,” she said, offering a small laugh.

But in learning of Baum’s interest in the suffragette movement as well as in Native American rights, she ultimately found herself opening a window onto characters she might otherwise have found unrelatable.

“Quadlings, Tinkers and Munchkins didn’t mean much to me; it wasn’t my language,” Williams said of the groups of misfits her character benevolently rules over. “But when I thought of them as Native Americans trying to inhabit their land or about women getting the right to vote, it made a lot more sense.”
Comment:  Baum was "interested" in Indian rights only to the extent of extinguishing them, along with the Indians themselves. He was no advocate for Indians. See The Indian-Oz Connection for details.

I've never heard anyone say the "native" people of Oz were supposed to represent Indians. Williams may have come up with this notion on her own, while reading about Baum. I doubt her sources said that Dorothy or the Wizard were trying to protect indigenous rights.

Anyway, it's possible Williams was trying to look Native, or at least "ethnic," to show solidarity with the Munchkins and other Ozians. Even though she played a witch and not one of the "natives." Or she may just have thought it was a cool "tribal" look.

I should note that AnOther magazine and its fashion editor may have come up with Williams's look. Williams went along with it, but she may not have originated it. If so, the magazine deserves most of the credit or blame.

Without more information, I wouldn't condemn this image as "redface." Even if Williams was trying to "play Indian," it's a pretty mild case. It's nothing like the hipster starlets and models who dress up as a sexy "Pocahontas" or Plains Indian chief.

For more on hipsters playing dress-up, see Crystle Lighting in a Headdress and Aubrey O'Day as Indian Princess.


Anonymous said...

Indians aren't munchkins, but wannabes are the Wizard.

Rob said...

The magazine responds:

Michelle Williams in Redface: Should Magazine Apologize?

AnOther Magazine is standing by its controversial photo of Michelle Williams.

The Oscar winner poses for that publication's latest issue (on an alternative cover) in what appears to be Native American attire, a look that has inspired many critics to react in horror and describe her costume as "redface."

But the British magazine refuses to issue an apology, explaining instead via statement to Yahoo News:

"While we recognize the seriousness of this debate, the image in question in no way intends to mimic, trivialize or stereotype any particular ethnic group or culture, as recent reports suggest."

Adding that Williams is presented in a "series of eight different imaginary characters," the magazine concludes:

"All the characters in the story were inspired by multiple fashion and cultural references, characters and eras, as well as by our admiration of Ms. Williams as one of the most respected and talented actresses of her generation.

"While we dispute the suggestion that the image has a racist subtext in the strongest possible terms, we're mortified to think that anyone would interpret it in this way."