Two days ago, No Doubt pulled their offensive “Looking Hot” video and issued a apology, which has been posted possibly everywhere on the internet, but which I want to quote here as well so that I can outline everything about it that I found lacking:
As a multi-racial band our foundation is built upon both diversity and consideration for other cultures. Our intention with our new video was never to offend, hurt or trivialize Native American people, their culture or their history. Although we consulted with Native American friends and Native American studies experts at the University of California, we realize now that we have offended people. This is of great concern to us and we are removing the video immediately… We sincerely apologize to the Native American community and anyone else offended by this video. Being hurtful to anyone is simply not who we are.
First and foremost, when has No Doubt ever showed sensitivity to other cultures? Gwen Stefani has indulged in demeaning cultural appropriation throughout her entire career, from her insensitive and inappropriate decision to wear a bindi as a fashion accessory, to her fetishized crew of Japanese backup dancers “The Harajuku Girls,” about whom she sang in “Rich Girl,” “I’d dress them wicked/I’d give them names,” thus denying four Japanese women both agency and humanity with one inane lyric. Apparently the best way to showcase your admiration for a different culture’s fashion trends is to reinforce harmful stereotypes about the passivity of its women. I mean, every time I want to show my appreciation of another culture, what I like to do is select people who can claim that heritage and have them follow me around silently, garbed in my own bizarre and misinformed conception of what their culture means! I also like to give them new, infantilized American names that are difficult to pronounce in their native language, because nothing says “I appreciate you” like commoditizing a human and naming them after your own clothing line!
Also, the whole refrain of “we’re multi-racial” and “we asked our Native American friends if it was ok” is a classic example of tokenism and white privilege. To think that you have the right to (mis)represent all Indigenous people based on your limited interactions with members of that group is deeply flawed – especially because the representation is not of any individual, but rather of a generalized stereotype that has existed since before our country’s inception. The repeated use of the world “hurtful” only serves to augment this false sense of individual psychological damage, implying that the harm done was on an individual, emotional level instead of a systemic, cultural one. It is not offensive to see a Native American woman bound in a sexualized manner because it might hurt some poor Indigenous woman’s feelings. It’s offensive because it’s a continuation of an incredibly negative, widespread ideology that was used to justify the dispossession of the Native people’s land and the cultural dominance of colonial settlers. It trivializes the dire conditions of Native American women, who are twice as likely to be raped as non-Native women and far less likely to receive help and who are targeted for violent and sexual crimes because of their ethnicity. In the words of aboriginal scholar Emma Laroque:
the portrayal of the squaw is one of the most degraded, most despised and most dehumanized anywhere in the world. The ‘squaw’ is the female counterpart to the Indian male ‘savage’ and as such she has no human face; she is lustful, immoral, unfeeling, and dirty. Such grotesque dehumanization has rendered all Native women and girls vulnerable to gross physical, psychological, and sexual violence… I believe that there is a direct relationship between these horrible racist/sexist stereotypes and violence against Native women and girls.
(For more on this, I suggest reading this excellent post on spunkmate). Furthermore, to compare the struggles of other people of color to Native Americans is to take a totalizing, uninformed, and clearly unengaged view of how oppression operates in America, especially since the issues faced by Indigenous people are often minimized or sanitized.
All this is fairly obvious, I feel, but what angered me the most was reading responses to the apology. Several news sources put scare quotes around ‘hurtful’ or highlighted that the offense was merely a “claim,” refusing to even agree with the band in their deficient categorization of the offense inherent in their video. I understand the concept of being unbiased, but it is precisely through maintaining that critical responses to white privilege are “hypersensitive” that we conceal the way in which it operates and create a situation in which the marginalization of other cultures is perceived as common sense. Below is a comment on news article that I think best exemplifies all that’s wrong with this frame of reference:
No artist should apologize for their work. If a small group of people… get offended that’s their problem… This is a fashion, sexualized version of cowboys & indians and shouldn’t be taken very seriously to begin with. I am pretty aware that Native-Americans these days don’t dress like that and if you do then you are a moron. It’s rock and roll fantasy and nothing else.
To act as though we live in a post-racial, postmodern society in which “art” is exempt from the structures of racial and gendered dominance through which everyone apprehends reality is beyond naïve. There is a reason that “cowboys and sexy Indians” is a cultural trope: because white Americans have invented and revisited it constantly as a means of justifying and reinforcing the destruction of Native American lives and culture. Especially since there are few – if any – accurate and positive portrayals of Indigenous people in pop culture, to say that we all know better and that the image of a sexualized, bound Native American woman is a harmless fantasy fails to take into the account the way in which media like the “Looking Hot” video structure two separate fantasies: that of the pervasive, still present fantasy of the sexualized squaw (statistics show that 70% of the sexual violence committed against Native women is committed by non-Natives) as well as that of the world in which cultural appropriation is harmless and all in good fun. Cultural appropriation is not, and never will be, fun, nor will it ever be harmless. It is a means through which those in power trivialize and exert dominance over other cultures, disregarding the trappings that are too foreign, bizarre, and contemptible to them, failing to understand or even care about their significance and historical context, and demonstrating that they have the right to claim whatever they desire as their own, all in the name of “fashion” or “playfulness.”