Why You're Wrong About Michelle Williams: A Primer on Redface, Fashion Politics and Reading Comprehension
Last week, the Internet news cycle erupted in a predictable maelstrom of gasps and pearl-clutching over the spring/summer issue of AnOther Magazine, an esoteric style rag based in London that caters to a relatively rarefied demographic of the sartorially literate and eclectically minded. Like a number of similar periodicals, the publication achieves its ad dollars not by accruing a large readership, but by courting the tastes of the creatively attuned — most likely, design students and other aspiring insiders. The fury reserved for its cover girl, a three-time Oscar nominee and the star of the recently released Oz the Great and Powerful, was the latest episode in a vogue of hand-wringing about pop caricatures of Natives and the perils of a specifically visual brand of cultural appropriation.
While some of the incidents in said wave have quite rightly garnered backlash and sparked timely and necessary dialogue about the historically invisible Indian America, the disgruntlement with Michelle Williams is perhaps most reminiscent of the uproar that occurred when Karlie Kloss trotted down a Victoria's Secret runway last autumn clad in nominally indigenous regalia, replete with headdress and other cartoonish accoutrements. The ire precipitated by both controversies illuminates an ironic ignorance — since that, of course, is the primary element in each occurrence identified as offensive —about the nature of creative expression and hierarchical power structures in the fashion industry, as well as interesting implications about the trendiness of political correctness and waxing butthurt over consumerist minutiae and other contemporary inanities.
When Kloss stomped down a New York City catwalk back in November during the lingerie monolith's annual over-the-top marketing free-for-all, online commentators wasted little time in taking the model to task for her faux pas. Feverish speculation that the beauty had donned the fake tribal garb as an intentional diss to ex-boyfriend Sam Bradford quickly seized the imagination of especially misguided voices. Although the Rams quarterback is a registered member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, such fantastic romantic-revenge conjecture missed a salient point: major corporations are not in the practice of leaving any details of a multimillion dollar and nationally televised production to the whims of 19-year-olds. Companies helming a presentation of their clothing wares employ men and women whose sole professional responsibility is to apparel the posers in a pre-selected line of ensembles and determine the appropriate manner in which to accessorize those garments; these specialists are known as stylists. An organization investing money in such a large operation would inevitably require final approval over the outfits and accompanying entertainment from teams in a variety of departments. At no point does a mannequin, even one as highly paid as an Angel, customarily pipe in with an opinion on the costumes she has been assigned. Her job, effectively, is to function as a living doll or animated clothes hanger: show up and display the goods in as flattering a way as possible, in manner consistent with the thematic tone of the collection, the event, and the label at large. One assumes Ms. Kloss could have launched a dressing-room protest against ugly Halloween kitsch, but plenty of working women put up with managers who deploy disagreeable tactics, and most of them don't face the possibility of breaching a lucrative contract while facing the costs of a West Village mortgage and future medical school tuition.
Unlike the carnivalesque VS spectacle, titles of AnOther’s ilk reside far from the intersection of explicit commerce and obvious sexualization; they trade in fantasy. Open up the pages of any glossy devoted to fashion editorial, and you are likely to find sequences of photographs that act both as subtextual advertisement and as optical poems. Such sittings are analogous to storybooks without attendant words or the still images of a film strip: there is a narrative at work, and this is the major reason why circulars like Vogue are celebrated as enduring escapist fare. Thus, when Michelle Williams poses for multiple cover variations, all of the portraits involved are most reasonably interpreted as depictions of fictional characters. The nuances of context distinguish an appearance in such circumstances from pointedly profit-driven transgressions of taste in more definitively market-oriented spheres like mass-underwear retail and the T-shirt arena of Steve Madden. And although detractors have raised valid questions about the disconcerting underrepresentation of Natives in entertainment and the sensitive conundrum of when it is acceptable for a person outside of a particular race or culture to portray a character of the aforementioned background on camera, such gray areas do not automatically damn Ms. Williams for her participation in an artistic exercise over which she enjoyed no autonomy and in which she was likely legally obligated to engage as part of the media promotional clause of her employment agreement with Disney. Michelle Yeoh, for instance, has appeared in theaters as a Japanese geisha, a Burmese freedom fighter, and a Chinese warrioress even though she is Malaysian, and has garnered nary a raised eyebrow. For that matter, Tantoo Cardinal and Irene Bedard have played roles in movies about indigenous tribes very disparate from which they hail in real life. Why not a Caucasian performer, and why not in a static picture? It's called "acting" for a reason, after all. If disappointment and unease with these characterizations is to be channeled effectively, critiques should be directed to the parties with ultimate discretion over the projects: Victoria’s Secret Fashion Collection Creative Director Sophie Neophitou-Apostolou and Dazed Group Editor Jefferson Hack.
Of course, tempered consideration has no place in a debate like this, and the gallery of talking heads triggered to cry "off with her head” (or “racist!”) and avoid all but superficial analysis steadfastly charged ahead by ascribing culpability to Montana's favorite starlet not only for the photo shoot, but also for statements she never made. Most confoundingly, Aura Bogado of The Nation was apparently determined to take as much umbrage with the situation as possible, facts be damned; she penned an open letter to the thespian entitled "Native Americans Are Not Munchkins," in which she chides the suggestion that "Natives are cute creatures that require safekeeping." The missive would have been incisive and worthy of some self-righteous applause had Williams ever issued statements in that vein . . . except she didn't, but rather accurately noted that one productive interpretation of L. Frank Baum's Oz mythology is as a sociological allegory: "Quadlings, Tinkers and Munchkins didn’t mean much to me; it wasn’t my language. 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. Even if it’s not always overt, if you’re looking for [politics] in the movie, it will feel very topical.” Relating the threads of an especially outlandish and arcane fantasia to the historical realities of the era in which it was created neither necessitates endorsement for troubling thematic undertones or authorial intent; as millions of audiences know, it's easy enough to dissect the Twilight saga, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Harry Potter series, without earnestly believing in Mormonism, Christianity or the racial purity doctrine of the Third Reich. But who cares about literary deconstruction when there’s some moralistic sanctimony to plumb?
Educated at Darmouth College and Columbia University, Cole DeLaune is a native of Oklahoma and Tennessee. He currently resides in Atlanta, and has contributed editorial content to Vogue and Elle, among other publications. He is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Skin-walking, his first book of poetry, will be published in October.