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Why You're Wrong About Michelle Williams: A Primer on Redface, Fashion Politics and Reading Comprehension

Cole R. DeLaune
3/20/13

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.
 

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Anonymous's picture
Does it matter that L. Frank Baum publicly called for the genocide of all Native Americans? Just wondering.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Delaune is mistaken if he thinks activists directed their ire at Karlie Kloss because of her alleged diss of ex-boyfriend Sam Bradford. He's mistaken if he thinks activists directed their ire at Karlie Kloss, period. In reality, they directed most of their ire at Victoria's Secret, the company that organized the fashion show. They and Delaune agree that Victoria's Secret is the real culprit.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Very well done, Mr. DeLaune. The more I read into the 'controversy,' the more annoyed I became--with those screaming "racism," that is. (I'd even started writing a piece using a lot of the same logic you've presented!) I especially like your points about Twilight/Mormons, Narnia/Christians, and Harry Potter.3rd Reich. Also, about how the industry works. For instance: In the America's Next Top Model, Mariah Watchman had to wear a generic "Pocahontas" outfit. Her job wasn't to protest the authenticity of it, but to make the costume look the best to her own ability as she was under contract to do. She's under contract to do so. And if she doesn't wear it, she gets billed as difficult to work with on her modeling resume, then someone else does and then we complaining about not using the Native model. But some people act like Ms. Watchman personally designed the outfit to offend. Go figure, it was fellow (whom I always respect as an interesting and informative writer) ICTMN contributor Ruth Hopkins who made accusation linking Williams with Hitler of all people. She wrote, “Falsely aligning Native imagery with L. Frank Baum is akin to putting a picture of a Gentile in a stereotypical Jewish getup on the cover of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf,” I’ll have to call overreaction regarding the context of what Williams had said. William’s offense that somehow warranted association with Hitler was saying fictional Munchskins not having a voice in their own land was comparable to women and Native Americans who also could not vote during the early 20th Century. Then Aurora Bogado seemingly tries to supplant “five centuries of injustice” onto Williams for making the Munchskins/Native comparison while ironically lecturing William’s about Natives not getting the right to vote until 1924. Art is in the eye of the beholder, and I thought Williams looked more like a western hippie. To others, however, William’s look seemingly was the cause and effect of centuries of genocide and mistreatment directed at Native Americans. One would be excused if they think I’m speaking in hyperbolic terms, but when one relates her role in a children’s movie by linking her as somehow guilty by association with Frank L. Baum’s promotion of Manifest Destiny and genocide, that’s what’s called a “slippery slope” accusation in its purest sense when attacking someone’s very character and integrity. Anyways, I'd written previously: "Have we become unsure of who we are as a people, that any construed vague “representation” of us is supposed to make us rise up and protest in anger as we jump to conclusions about every artists supposedly nefarious and racist intentions and demand censorship? Pick and choose whatever battles you want to fight, but be wary that even Natives themselves are beginning to roll their eyes when crying racism becomes crying wolf, thus diluting future real claims of racism where it actually exists. When you racism one too many times , no one listens." ~Adrian Jawort
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Cole, no one really cares. Its over, move on.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
You spelled Aura Bogado's name wrong.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Interesting article. I agree that placing the blame solely on Michelle Williams is unfair, however it is unlikely that she had no ability to refuse to participate in a racially insensitive photo shoot - unless her contract directly stated she was going to be in redface. I think this was an error on behalf of many parties, not just Michelle Williams. Most of the press that I have read has asked for an apology from the magazine, not Williams herself. One element that is strikingly absent from this article is the historical context of white actors playing black/red/yellow face as a means to degrade and humiliate other cultures and reinforce notions of white superiority. This places a modern photo shoot like this in a different context, does it not? I'm surprised that this was overlooked. This is why I consider the Michelle Yeoh comparison to be false - unless there is a history Malaysians committing genocide and cultural oppression on the other peoples she represented that I was unaware of. And there may be members of the Asian community who are offended by this as well - the Michelle Yeoh example does not justify this photoshoot, however it might point to the problem of an overall lack of opportunity for Asian people in the entertainment industry. In the last sentence of this article the author makes the assumption that everyone who is critical of or offended by this photo is also completely fine with the undertones in these literary examples, which may not be the case. Just because some mainstream films/books are problematic does not vindicate the perpetuation of this problem. I am by no means an expert on these matters and I welcome any corrections if my above opinions are misinformed.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Saw this on Indianz.com and had to come over and comment: As a previous poster said, you are wrong if you think that the majority of people who participated in the "uproar" are directing their displeasure at the cover girl or the model in those two instances. Red herring aside, I ask myself about your depth of knowledge on the way such stereotypes and caricatures have historically affected the way that Indians and/or any other race whose members have not been allowed to self-identify and have had to rely on the dominant culture's interpretation of who they are, have been, and will be. This is an issue that is detrimental on social, political, and economic advancements that our people(Indians) and my people(Blacks) are trying to make. I will use myself for some examples to clarify: Social: One of my brother's friends has a son who is biracial, in this case Black and White, he at the age of 5 has told his White mother that he only wants to be White. When asked why, he stated that being Black is bad. Now where would a child of 5 get such an idea about a whole race of people? Not from his family. Social: Another example, my mother went to her doctor just Tuesday of this week and her doctor told her that she had high cholesterol, he then proceeded to tell her to stop eating fried chicken. She did not mention anything about eating fried chicken prior to his statement, I asked, as she rarely eats fried chicken. Where would he get the idea that she eats fried chicken and that it is negatively affecting her health to that point? Social: In another instance I was at Qualla Boundary and they were performing Unto These Hills when suddenly I heard a man sitting behind me saying to another patron that the Indian women on the stage were ugly and misshapen. He then stated that he himself was part Indian but that the racial mixing had occurred back in the day when the Indian women were beautiful and took care of themselves. Yeah those good old days of Pocahontas or at least the image that we have all been fed of her that she actually was a White woman in disguise, very beautiful, and apparently hot for Pilgrim. Economic: Recently there was a magazine called Numero which decided to have a White model put on blackface and title the spread African Queen. Now we all know there are White people in Africa so calling a White woman an African Queen is no problem. What they did was take a job from a Black model as they apparently wanted her to look Black but did not want to pay a Black model. Economic: Today I looked over a mailing from the store Express and the theme is Urban Paradise. The funny thing is that there are a lot of pieces that resemble the so called Southwestern Indian motifs. Pseudo-Indian purses, totes, miniskirts and T-shirts abound. There are no Indian designers, right? Indian design has not changed or evolved since contact, right? Economic: This summer I decided to start a business and talked to a lawyer who would write up contracts for me. We planned to meet in a local cafe. I got there first and sat at a table in the tiny cafe, she then sent me a text message saying she was coming in the door, I looked up and saw her as I replied to her text message. She then went to every other woman in the cafe inquiring as to whether they were the woman she was supposed to meet with before standing in a corner to wait for me. I couldn't possibly be the one so she never came to me in this tiny cafe where I had already sent her a message informing her that I was there. You should see the bewilderment on the faces of White people when intelligent words come out of my mouth, it's absolutely hilarious. Not all of them by any means but enough to count, and count, and keep counting. But these are the people who will find out I am the owner of my business and on that fact alone decide to go elsewhere. Political: There is this huge rumor going on in the GOP which amounts to every Black person who is not a member of the GOP being so uninformed and unintelligent that they could find only one reason to vote for President Obama, I'll let you guess what that is. I won't explain exactly how these examples correlate with the idea of stereotypes and caricatures because if someone doesn't get it, that someone probably never will. As to your example about White people being able to portray other races, do the names Burt Lancaster, Iron Eyes Cody, Rock Hudson among others ring any bells. It has been done so there is no one protesting that it can't be done. Also if there is so much fluidity in acting as you say, why is it that the Indian actresses you named rarely ever play in roles that have nothing to do with being Native American? I feel that Indians need to have a time when it is okay to be an Indian and play an Indian role and where it is okay to be an Indian and play a non-Indian role before we can allow White people, once again, to take those roles. In the case of Michelle Yeoh, she is Malaysian but is also Chinese which explains those Chinese warriors and in the case of those other ethnicities there is no real correlation because in their own states the Burmese people and also the Japanese have never had to contend with any other group of people wanting to denigrate and suppress their cultures, languages, or even existence over a sustained period of hundreds of years so the idea of needing to retake their image and identity is foreign to them. Finally one of the most resoundingly elitist things you said in sarcasm, hopefully, about the model needing to worry about her finances and not rocking the boat by protesting brings to mind the reason why change is so hard and long coming. I believe that wherever there is the evil that is racism something needs to be said. And say it I do. I was a government employee before starting my own business and I risked a promotion by pointing out the racist nature of a test question as I was being considered for the new position. I did not think twice about it as I knew it was the right thing to do even as my studen loans loomed overhead. I also protested at a store that was selling sodas with the images of Native American chiefs on them. I did it in a crowded mall and had other patrons looking at me like I was insane and even the people I was with there not really feeling my need to protest but I could not swallow the lump in my throat that these people were making money off of these men who stood for so much more than ginger ale. They were gone when I returned the next week(though they may have just sold out) I do not believe in doing these things that I am above the average person nor am I trying to garner recognition, it is just that if I don't say something who will. What will I be able to say when the voting rights act is criticized as being archaic and unnecessary when I don't stand up for everyday issues that are equally pressing. I am not one to pick a fight but where there is one, I'm all in, each and every time. Change will come. (I know this is long as hell but ay...)
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Someone stated, "Most of the press that I have read has asked for an apology from the magazine, not Williams herself."...Not true. Ruth Hopkins, for instance, write, "AnOther Magazine and Michelle Williams have made a serious blunder here." Note, she singled out Williams and did most of her article. Aura Bogado's piece was called, "....An Open Letter to Michelle Williams," and I don't see how that can be any more direct seeing especially seeing it didn't even mention AnOther Magazine once.
Anonymous
editors's picture
@Anonymous: Thank you for your comment! The error has been corrected.
editors

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