By Guest Contributor Adrienne Keene, cross-posted from Native Appropriations
This is not a post hating on Mariah Watchman, America’s Next Top Model‘s very first Native contestant. At all. I’m so excited she’s on the show, and proud that she’s representing for all of Indian Country. Mariah is from the Umatilla rez in Oregon, but is also Ojibwe, Modoc, and Mandan, and seems pretty down-to-earth and awesome. This is much more about the show itself, and the messages it sends us about society at large.
The premise of this season of ANTM is a competition between British models and American models (they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel after 18 seasons to keep it interesting, I guess), and on the first episode, the models were paired in what was termed a “Culture Clash”–one model from the US and one from the UK, each representing an “iconic figure from [their] individual country.” Ok, fair enough.
So here were the pairings:
- George Washington vs. Queen Elizabeth
- Janet Jackson vs. Scary Spice
- Madonna vs. Elton John
- Michelle Obama vs. Margaret Thatcher
- Andy Warhol vs. Amy Winehouse
- Jackie O vs. Princess Diana
- Pocahontas vs. John Lennon
Any guesses as to who they made portray Pocahontas? Yeah. Mariah. Her response (on the show) to the choice:
“Me representing Native Americans, I mean who else better for me to get than Pocahontas? But I’m also nervous, because she’s Pocahontas, and that’s a lot to live up to.”
She went on the record with an interview with her hometown newspaper discussing the choice as well (which was a choice of the producers, not her own), saying:
“As soon as I heard what the competition was, I knew that’s who I would be. I was completely fine with it. There’s no one else I’d want more to portray. It’s someone everybody knows.”
I think this is completely a reflection of the sad, sad state of our society if a proud Native woman feels the only “iconic figure” that “everyone knows” of her race is a 12 year old who was famous for “saving” and marrying an old white dude and then becoming a Disney character. Awesome.
The choice of the producers to have her portray “Pocahontas” is straight up offensive, too. Let’s pigeonhole the only Native contestant by forcing her to don an extremely stereotypical outfit and be an Indian. The thing that stood out to me was that Mariah was cast into a race-based role, while the other pairings had plenty of (relatively progressive) race-bending. George Washington, Elton John, Jackie O, and John Lennon (all white) were portrayed by models of color, which I thought was kinda cool. But, because Mariah’s heritage is her “exotic” selling point for the show, the producers felt the need to exploit it.
Then the outfit they put on her. Oh the outfit. It looks like they bought it straight off the pocahottie halloween page–fake buckskin, primary-colored feathers, plains-style beading and designs, braids in her hair. And–the kicker–a tomahawk. Yes, a tomahawk. History lesson, ANTM: Pocahontas was from Virginia, and none of those stereotypes apply to her people. So, basically, they did what everyone seems to do when they want to “honor” Indians–drew upon every Hollywood Indian stereotype without any regard for historical accuracy, regionality, or how effing racist it is to make the only Native girl basically dress up in blackface. (I’m ready for the angry comments about that last part.)
But during the judging I wanted to throw my remote at Nigel Barker‘s face. Here’s the final picture:
It’s fine. There were others that were much worse (it’s the first episode!). But Nigel, with all his infinite wisdom, said this:
“First of all Mariah, I think you had a very easy thing to do. You’re Native American? (She nods) But I don’t feel that you’ve committed. I just don’t see the angst, I don’t see the feeling, I don’t see the passion. I just see you looking pretty.”
Dear Nigel, I’m sorry that Mariah did not live up to your stereotyped images of what a Native person should be, I’m pretty sure she was doing her best while dressed in a fake-ass outfit that trivializes and stereotypes her culture. And a 12-year-old Powhatan girl is supposed to portray “angst” and “passion”? Do you realize how ludicrous your statements are? She’s somehow supposed to be “better” at playing a fictionalized historic figure because she happens to be the same race? None of the other critiques mentioned anything about the model’s race. They didn’t tell the girl playing Michelle Obama that she could have done better because she happens to be black, and Michelle Obama is black, so why didn’t you channel your inner sassy black First Lady?
It’s just so frustrating. The only lens that millions of viewers of ANTM have to view us (Natives) through is that of stereotypes and false representations–even when faced with a, living, breathing counter-narrative to those stereotypes in Mariah. An educated, reservation-raised, Sahaptin language-speaking Native woman who doesn’t walk around in buckskin and braids, but is still Native (and proud!).
I sure hope this start doesn’t reflect how the rest of the season will go. To her credit, Mariah is taking it all in stride, wants to use her new celebrity to give back to Indian Country, and tried to represent Native peoples in a positive light on the show:
“I felt I couldn’t be crazy or nonchalant about things because I had a whole people on my shoulders,” she said. “I had higher expectations for myself. I wasn’t going to go and be crazy and disrespect people because for Native Americans one of the hugest things is respect.”
“Native Americans haven’t had anybody in the celebrity industry,” she said. “There have been a few native actors – Adam Beach, Irene Bedard – but there’s never been a native so high up in the fashion industry who’s looked at on a celebrity level. People don’t want to listen to you unless you come from a place of power. There are a lot of improvements across Indian country that can be made. I want to start helping out and being a factor.”
Finally, one image that did make me proud, here she is rockin her medallion during the panel judging:
So, thanks ANTM for showing us, once again, how deeply stereotypes and erasure of Native people run in our national narrative.
Adrienne Keene is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and a graduate student in Boston, where she studies access to higher education for Native students. In her free time, she blogs about cultural appropriation and use of Indigenous cultures, traditions, languages, and images in popular culture, advertising, and everyday life at Native Appropriations.