Media representation of Native women: invisibility, stereotypes, whitewashing
In 2018, in the United States, there has never been a television series starring a Native woman. Ever.
The hit Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, co-created by Tina Fey, could have changed that. The fourth season of the comedy was recently released, and producers have announced an upcoming spin-off movie. Jacqueline, one of the three main characters in the ensemble cast, is a Lakota woman, living in New York City and struggling to navigate her relationship with her family and tribe. Instead of breaking new ground for the representation of Native women on screen, the comedy cast a White woman to play the role.
Jacqueline's character is supposed to push back on stereotypes of what it means to be Native American, by showing a contemporary, urban woman. Instead of breaking the mold, casting a White woman as the main Native character is a trope that literally started before movies had sound. The show teaches its vastly non-Native audience that assimilation works, that the Indian who breaks all the stereotypes is really just White.
With so little representation of Native Americans on television, any representation can seem better than nothing. But rather than lowering the bar, the dearth of real Native women in pop culture actually raises the stakes. Sadly, in 2018, a White lady stumbling through Lakota culture is the only media representation of contemporary Native women most viewers will ever see.
In 1977, Joanelle Romero (Apache) starred in the first U.S. film about the life of a contemporary Native woman, which was also the first time a Native woman played a title role, in a film called The Girl Called Hatter Fox. Since CBS aired the TV movie 41 years ago, network television has not produced another show with a leading Native woman.
“At the end of the day, if we are not represented in film and television, if we’re not seen, we don’t matter,” says Romero, who created both Native Women in Film and Television, a film festival that takes place in Los Angeles during Oscar week, and the #WhyWeWearRed campaign to address lack of representation in the industry. “If we don’t matter, it doesn’t matter when people rape and murder us. I addressed this to a group of Hollywood executives, and they said, ‘You can’t blame this on us,’ and I told them, ‘Yes I can.’”
While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has boasted having a body that is 30 percent people of color, Romero is one of only two Native women members (making the representation of Native women 0.0026 percent). No American Indian has ever won an Oscar. (The handful of indigenous recipients have all been Canadian.)
While Native men are underrepresented in mainstream media, the representation of Native women is even worse. Actress DaLanna Studi (Cherokee) tells me, “Our women are relegated to the background. In period pieces, it’s all about the men and the warriors. You go to the village and there are two women: the grandma and the princess. There are strong Native women in our communities. I know them. Why aren’t we on screen?”
When Native women do play lead roles, they most often “are there to fall in love with the savior character. They save the savior character and then teach them their ways,” explains filmmaker Sydney Freeland (Navajo). “I think I just described the plot of Avatar, Dances with Wolves, and Pocahontas.” The trope can be found as far back as the 1917 film Bronze Bride, in which a fur trapper takes an Indian maiden named A-Che-Chee (played by a White woman) to be his bride.
When Native female characters are not supporting the White, male protagonist, they are often being brutalized. Films from the last three years with prominent Native storylines illustrate this point. In The Revenant, the character Powaqa is raped on camera, and Hugh Glass’ wife (who is never named) is dead. In Hostiles, Elk Woman and Living Woman are both murdered. And while the film Wind River has been a significant signal boost for the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women, the only time the audience sees the main female Native character alive is for the rape scene.
The most visible Native woman in pop culture, Pocahontas, was first played by a White woman in 1910. When creating the 1995 Disney feature, the animation team used old Western movies as their source material, while rejecting input from the Powhatan Tribe. The cruel irony of the Disney love story is that the real-life Powhatan teenager was kidnapped and raped by White settlers and died in England at the age of 21. Looking at White cinema’s portrayal of Pocahontas from 1910 to 1995, there has been no marked improvement.
And this is where the industry is stuck: White people are writing “new” Native characters based off old stereotypes other White people wrote. People may argue that Jane Krakowski playing Jacqueline in 2018 is fundamentally different from Anna Rosemond playing Pocahontas in 1910, but how? If it's supposed to be satire, I’ll be the first to unabashedly say I don’t get it.
“It’s a derivative of a derivative,” Freeland says. “Stories told from an authentic and first-hand place is how we are going to change the narrative.”
Freeland’s first feature film, Drunktown’s Finest, has 36 speaking roles, 32 of which are Native. Not only is every Native character played by a Native actor, but every Native actor is from the same tribe as their character, with 22 actors representing Navajo Nation, where the film is set. When Freeland was working to finance the film, “investors would read the script and say, ‘This is a contemporary ensemble piece about Native Americans and there is no market for this. People do not want to see this.’”
Native people are already creating, directing, and acting in well-made, compelling, authentic stories; their work is just not reaching a mainstream audience. “We have so much talent and success,” says Romero. “At the end of the day, it’s all about money.”
After a similar series of meetings with movie executives, Sterlin Harjo (Seminole and Muskogee) moved back to Oklahoma and decided to make films on his own. “We are always independent filmmakers. We’re always on the fringes. That’s where we operate.”
But Freeland, Romero, and Harjo all tell me they are witnessing a shift in the industry, or perhaps the beginning of a shift. “I think after Standing Rock there is a renewed interest in Native stories,” says Harjo, who recently announced he is on the writing team for an upcoming biopic about Native American Olympics champion Jim Thorpe (produced by Angelina Jolie). “For the first time people are hiring Native people to write Native stories.”
In 1996, Romero produced a pilot episode for what the Los Angeles Times said “could be a national first: a TV series about contemporary tribal life, written, directed, produced, and acted by American Indians.” While Home, Home on the Rez gained national media attention, it was never picked up. Twenty-two years later, the industry has renewed interest. While Romero couldn’t share the details, the series is currently in pre-production. The United States may one day see its first television series starring a Native woman. And in 2018, it’s about time.
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