Pop Culture, Power, and Privilege

Suzanne  -  Mar 07, 2013  -  , , ,  - 

Navajo Nation

Dragonfly doesn’t watch a lot of TV, but we were waiting for a nerdy PBS documentary last week and happened to catch the tail end of the sitcom Mike and Molly. There we were, minding our own business, trying to drown out the laugh track, when Molly’s snarky mother-in-law says, “Arizona? Why would I move to Arizona? It’s nothing but a furnace full of drunk Indians!”

So we tuned in the next week, on purpose, just to see what other things they were saying about us. Sure enough, at one point in the episode, someone said that Mike had “gone off the reservation.”

According to the online Urban Dictionary, to be “off the reservation” is to be:

  • crazy
  • on an unauthorized mission
  • doing something without permission, or
  • so intoxicated that you won’t remember what happened the next day

Crazy Indians, with their silly dances. Unruly Indians, too wild to discipline or control. Bad Indians, always doing things – e.g., existing – without authorization. Drunken Indians (full stop). That pretty much covers the most popular tropes and stereotypes – except wait a minute, they missed “dirty.” Would an Indian in a suit be “off the reservation”?

Dragonfly admits, we let the Arizona comment go. Our jaw dropped wide open, but we let it go. No letter to CBS. No blog post. We didn’t even mention it to our friends and colleagues. Sad to say, but we’re sort of used to it – and there is only so much time in the day. We’d rather do our work than talk about the same old same old.

But yesterday, we caught up on some of the Aboriginal news wires. Turns out, the Mike and Molly story is big news, picked up by the Huffington Post (using an Associated Press story), TMZ, ABC, and MSN. So we had to wonder: isn’t this the work?

These sorts of comments are so ingrained in the collective psyche of the Americas that they go by unexamined and unremarked upon most of the time. Especially that second one – although some people would spot the racist implications of referring to Arizona as “a furnace full of drunk Indians,” most people would miss the “off the reservation” comment completely. So here we go, doing the work.

Donna Blue Bird (r) and daughters Jamie (l) and Winona Blue Bird with T-shirts they bought in Duluth, Minnesota

Racism is about power. When the systems and institutions of the dominant society control how Aboriginal peoples are perceived, they create or support stereotypical ideas and beliefs, which leads directly to individual acts of discrimination. Discrimination limits the freedoms and activities of others, ensuring that Aboriginal peoples are denied access to economic, political, educational, and social resources and structures. This denial of access perpetuates power and privilege, contributing to marginalization and oppression.

Please write that last paragraph out, photocopy it, and hand it to every person you see wearing the Chicago Blackhawks logo on their clothing.

But power is a funny thing. Even those who are themselves oppressed are capable of oppressing others. Ellen DeGeneres, one of Hollywood’s first out lesbians, celebrated Columbus Day on her show during last November’s American Thanksgiving. The thematic logo that day featured a drawing of the Santa María, the flagship for Columbus’s expedition to the Americas. DeGeneres later said, on another episode, “I don’t see race.” Apparently not – because looking past someone’s identity makes it conveniently impossible to analyze power and privilege. Welcome to neoliberal America.

Dragonfly wrote a letter this summer to Advertising Standards Canada (ASC), complaining about an ad that’s been running for years on OMNI television in Toronto. The ad depicts a man wearing a Plains-style Aboriginal headdress, carrying a stuffed toy horse and a large, blond-haired, female doll. He shuffles across the screen, “dancing” in a stereotypical manner, as the voiceover talks about “clowning around.” The ASC administers the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards – which sets the criteria for acceptable advertising – but the process is self-regulatory and relies on the cooperation of advertisers. According to the ASC in its final letter to Dragonfly, “Despite repeated attempts by ASC staff to contact this advertiser, the advertiser did not respond. Regrettably, as a result, we cannot pursue this complaint, and will close our file on this matter.” OMNI is touted as a leader in diversity and ethnocultural outreach, and wins awards for “presenting the world.” True enough, given that the ad is part of the world around us, and it portrays Aboriginal peoples as cartoon-like savages. Same old same old.

When Dragonfly contacted OMNI sometime in 2007 about the ad – we’re a reasonable sort; we call first and try to work things out before we write letters to regulatory bodies – OMNI agreed that it was offensive and agreed to remove it from broadcast. The person we spoke with at that time said something about the advertiser being Aboriginal himself. Dragonfly has no idea if that’s true, but if it is, it doesn’t negate the fact that the ad contains stereotypical images that support discriminatory actions against Aboriginal peoples. Internalized racism is an unfortunate result of living in an oppressive society: when people are confronted with stereotypes about their own culture on a daily basis, they sometimes end up believing that the assumptions society holds about them are true.

Erny Zah, communications director for the Navajo Nation, told ABC News that the Mike and Molly joke was “offensive … derogatory … and deplorable.” The Native American Journalists’ Association (NAJA) says on its website that “This comment … perpetuates antiquated stereotypes of Native Americans.” NAJA has asked CBS, the network that runs Mike and Molly, for an apology. CBS hasn’t replied.


To see the Mike and Molly clip, click here.

To view the ad that formed the basis of Dragonfly’s ASC complaint, click here.

If you’d like to share your views on this subject, send Dragonfly a note using our Contact form.


N.B.: Dragonfly used the term “Indian” early on in this piece, then switched to “Aboriginal.” Here’s why: the crazy, wild, drunken Indian is a stereotypical image and idea; a construction of the dominant society. Everyday Aboriginal peoples, with all their individual strengths and weaknesses, are just that: people. Read more about the Mythological Indian here.

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