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Native models, exoticism, and (in)visibility (maybe NSFW)

August 18, 2011

I was meaning to finally post a link roundup on the ongoing “nymwars”, but got distracted by having one of those periodic homesickness/grief attack days. So, I was going to try to write some about that–and finish the “goodbye deranged-acting relatives” series, in the process–and got further distracted by this showing up on my Tumblr dashboard.😉 Originally, I was just going to further spam Mr. U’s inbox–the possibly annoying equivalent of chattering about things I’ve found interesting when he’s not here in person–but thought I’d do a quick post instead, since it kinda ties in with some things I’ve written about here.

#NativeModel Brenda Schad (Choctaw/Cherokee)

Granted, I was already feeling pretty raw-nerved today, but seeing this affected me pretty strongly. Here’s someone who is absolutely lovely–and who is making a living as a model, with wider acceptance of her beauty–with a lot of the same kind of facial features/bone structure that have gotten me and other people I know considered unattractive and openly made fun of. (She was, indeed, much “luckier” in the basic physique department, by current dominant culture standards, though looking at other photos she does seem to have shoulders, which also should not be so refreshing…)

From a previous post, referring to the statue of Selu in Qualla Boundary (Eastern Band Cherokee):

It’s good realistic sculpture, but should not feel like such a huge blast of fresh air. The closest relevant bit from Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack is “45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.”

I would add, quite simply: “I can expect to see people who look like me respectfully depicted in works of art.” (Not to mention expecting to be taken at least semi-seriously if one complains about caricatures.)

I would have to add to that, seeing real people who look sort of like you, who are being presented as attractive. When that is so unusual as to make you do a double take and almost want to cry (again, emotional day!😉 ), things are just not right.

This also reminded me of a snippet from another post:

A post at Sociological Images also helped spotlight the particular Indigenous Women brand of marginalization: “Poca-Hotness” (NSFW). It’s hard to get away from that kind of thing, but it still makes me queasy.

Like one commenter, I do have to get darkly amused:

WOW. I’m kind of surprised they used an actual First Nations woman in this, I was expecting dark haired white chicks, however most of them look to be more … asian? Some kind of asian, I can’t say and I wouldn’t try.

It’s almost funny seeing my heritage get sexualized, because the rest of the time they’re calling First Nations fat and hideous.

Painfully accurate, that.

"Pocahontas was not a sexy Indian princess, she was kidnapped (and possibly turned into a sex slave) at the age of 17. After converting to Christianity while in captivity, she married an English man (John Rolfe, not Smith). She died at 22." And I'm actually surprised that they only used one oh-so-exotic light-eyed tanned model for this series...

BTW, I was also gratified that, glancing at a Google Images search, Brenda Schad has apparently drawn the line at doing the “Poca-Hotness” type of photo shoots that have no doubt been offered. Good that she has not been contributing to that kind of creepy exoticism.

Actually, I was also struck by how much a couple of shots that turned up on that reminded me of photos I’ve seen of my mother when she was young and working hard to stay thin, with similarly huge chinquapin eyes (darker than Brenda Schad’s seem to be, yeah).  She also kept more of a tan. Having been involved with someone who was seriously into photography when she was in college, she actually did a lot of photographic modeling. Apparently, she looked “exotic” enough in a way that was considered good that other photographers also wanted to do portraits, usually in natural settings.* (I almost forgot that one of her younger cousins–also “exotically” dark, with big chinquapin eyes–did professional modeling for years, if never hitting the big time with it.)

I also had to get a giggle at the similar hair type, having been made ashamed of that too.

BTW, for the ancestry dissectors including those who think they can determine blood quantum at a glance, she is apparently a “fullblood”.  See also Coloring and identity, Part 2.75: When colonial racism meets reality.

I don’t keep up with fashion and models–actively avoid the fashion and other “women’s” mags these days–but there are apparently some other working Native models; I already knew of a few actresses. Turned up clicking through to the source of one of the search images: Choctaw Women Are Hot!** (With some very familiar naturally “messy” hair actually used to advantage.)

Jessica Biel. More for the hair than anything else.🙂

I got fed up trying to search for more (with the kind of piles of crappy results you might expect), but here’s a forum thread with some more, Pretty Native-American Indian girls/models, and mixed ancestry–with some of the kind of fail I was expecting there. (Beyond the usual insistence on dissecting people’s ancestry, no matter how they identify based on culture.) Including, from skimming, one example of the kind of thing a lot of us are sick to death of hearing: “I had no idea Helena had indian in her! that explains her exoticness then”. ***

Erm, yeah.

My Granddaddy's first cousin, Blaze Starr (a.k.a. Fannie Belle Fleming).**** I can't blame her for making a career out of "exoticness", with very limited options at the time.

Since retiring, she’s been making some nice jewelry, so I thought I’d put in a plug even though I’ve never had occasion to meet her. (And, it’s a shame that they apparently don’t do international shipping.) My Granddaddy liked her, though.🙂

On the more “made me smile” side of things, I also ran across an interesting if not as active as it could be Flickr group, NATIVE AMERICAN MODELS INC.:

Cause we deserve our own …… Lol .. Exotic and different .
To all american natives men and woman please feel free to show yourself in a beautiful self portrait here !!

Had to get a kick out of this one. Not very stereotypical, no.🙂

I didn’t realize how much irritation and frustration at the whole exoticism thing was going to come bubbling up here. And I guess I do have some mixed feelings, going back and forth between “Gee, it’s nice to see someone at least somewhat like you portrayed positively” and “maybe taking part in and legitimizing a system as harmful all around as mainstream modeling/fashion is not great”.

Given the invisibility factor, though, I do have to wonder how many people looking at photos of people like Brenda Schad are just assuming they are, maybe, of Italian heritage or something. (My mother kept getting read that way; I just keep getting Irish or something, which is at least true as far as it goes.) I was going to quote something I remembered in comments there, from someone who’d had students who would say that they had never met a Native person while sitting right next to one in class, but the comments seem to have disappeared.😦 See also Stereotyping Indians by Omission. Maybe getting more visible Native people who are actually identified as Native will help with invisibility as real live people rather than historical fantasy beings and/or wank material.

Excellently put from something going around on Tumblr recently, about “Native” dolls (bolding added):

It’s about having been told time and time again that I don’t exist, that I’m not a person, that I don’t matter and that I don’t have a voice. That NDN people are archaic and strange and look a certain way that is VERY DIFFERENT from how other people in America look.

But as a kid, I loved seeing these depictions, even as horrible and problematic as they were, even as confused and conflicted as they made me feel, because there were all that I was offered. Because the only choices were ‘shitty stereotype’ and ‘total absence’.

I could definitely identify with that bit, as well.

_____________

* Which is sounding a little stereotyped, right there. Actually, in a display of rather amazing creepiness, my stepdad used that as what sounded like a bad pickup line when they ran into each other again in the early ’80s. “Hey, I have pictures of you!” Indeed, he had taken some like 15 years before that, and brought some of them along when he arranged to bump into her again. And she did end up marrying this guy.😦 And all of his exes looked remarkably like her. Apparently one of the reasons he moved back to the New River Valley in the first place, having gone to Virginia Tech earlier, was that he liked the “exotic”-looking ladies. Yeah, pretty creepy all around. And I have heard exoticizing crap like that out of other creepy-acting guys hanging around.

** I also had to get a sympathetic chuckle at the “About me” blurb in the sidebar: “I’m a biracial Jewish lesbian from the South’s working class. My liberalism is an evolutionary adaptation.”  And, indeed, that kind of title comes across a lot different in context.

*** I actually had one of the dudes mentioned above ask me if I were “part Indian”–then go all Squaw-and-Grope. Seriously. And I keep wondering if this “Indian in you” is sort of like the thin person who supposedly wants to get out, or the child trapped by the Monster Autism, or…?!

**** OK, most of the unexpected exoticism ranting is getting banished to endnotes. *wry smile* But, I did have one creepy run-in with an acquaintance’s older stepdad who used to go to her club in Baltimore every chance he got, in which I got coincidentally creepily compared to her. (Yeah, I’m using “creepy” a lot, because it really, really fits in this context.) We both did end up with a fairly common face and hair type within that part of the family (mine was also long then), and big boobs–otherwise, not much resemblance beyond Othering exoticism. But, the leering and near-drooling is really, really unwelcome, especially coming from somebody’s dad. Ewww.

(ETA: I probably do bear more of a passing resemblance than, say, Lolita Davidovich, but at the time it struck me as more a case of “They All Look The Same–and, my, is it exotic *leer*”. And I was not going to include this, but there really must have been some creepy attitudes going around that house, because said acquaintance with the creepy-acting stepdad ended up both going for horribly inappropriate racialized statements and trying to rape me. Erm, yeah Also funny how that invisibility comes and goes, depending on what other people have in mind…one of the things that got me more politicized in the first place.)

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Celine permalink
    March 28, 2013 12:50 am

    jw, what are “chinquapin eyes”?

    • urocyon permalink*
      March 28, 2013 1:33 pm

      I thought there was a link, but that would be the color of the nuts. A darker brown than chestnuts, with a distinctive reddish tone that shifts in the light. Sorry if it wasn’t clear.🙂

  2. January 5, 2014 10:36 pm

    Not going to dig into this (time/interest), you sound like one bitter person.

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