The many covers of Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block, via. thereal90s.tumblr.com
By Guest Contributor Debbie Reese*
Years ago I started reading Weetzie Bat but put it down, in part, because of these passages in the first few pages of the first chapter (Note: To write this post, I read an e-book that doesn’t provide page numbers):
Sometimes she wore Levi’s with white-suede fringe sewn down the legs and a feathered Indian headdress…
“She” is Weetzie Bat. Her friend, Dirk, who has “chiseled” features compliments her outfit:
Weetzie was wearing her feathered headdress and her moccasins and a pink fringed mini dress.
“Thanks. I made it,” she said, snapping her strawberry bubble gum. “I’m into Indians,” she said. “They were here first and we treated them like shit.”
“Yeah,” Dirk said, touching his Mohawk.
Weetzie Bat was published in 1989 and won several awards. Reading it today, what comes to mind is the hipster culture of the last few years and its appropriation of Native culture. While writing up this review, I did an image search of “Weetzie Bat.” In the grid of images I got (using Google image search), the first image in the second row I got is this one:
The source for the photo is a Weetzie Bat blog post at an art blog, A Beautiful Party. Dated September 16, 2010, the post is about a screenplay of Weetzie Bat and the photo is of someone playing the part of Weetzie Bat. If I didn’t know it was from Weetzie Bat, I would have thought, “Dang hipsters!”, because I’ve seen a lot of photos of hipsters in headdresses, feathered earrings, fringed clothing, or moccasins. Reading Weetzie Bat now, I wonder if it might have played a role in the 1990s emergence of hipsters and their appropriation of Native culture.
What, I wonder, was Block thinking about when she brought Native culture into her book? What did it mean to her or Weetzie Bat to say “I’m into Indians”?!
In my read of Weetzie Bat there is nothing to suggest that Block knew she was, in effect, having her characters embrace stereotypical “knowledge” about American Indians. (What she does with Jamaican’s gives me pause, too, but I’ll stay on topic.)
In the chapter titled “Jah-Love,” Weetzie meets the guy who will be her boyfriend. His name is My Secret Agent Lover Man (quirky names are everywhere in the book). He makes films of her doing things, like “having a pow-wow.” We aren’t told what she was doing, so we don’t know “having a pow-wow” means. That chapter closes with this:
And so Weetzie and My Secret Agent Lover Man and Dirk and Duck and Slinkster Dog and Fifi’s canaries lived happily ever after in their silly-sand-topped house in the land of skating hamburgers and flying toupees and Jah-Love blonde Indians.
Duck is Dirk’s boyfriend. Slinkster Dog is Weetzie’s dog. “Jah-Love” is, I think, short for Jamaica love but I don’t know what to make of it beyond that. There are, of course, blonde Indians, but the ones in Weetzie Bat are playing Indian–and doing it in stereotypical ways.
Early in the chapter “Weetzie Wants a Baby,” Weetzie, My Secret Agent Lover Man, Dirk, and Duck have finished their third film. It is called Coyote. In it, Weetzie is
a rancher’s daughter who falls in love with a young Indian named Coyote and ends up helping him defend his land against her father and the rest of the town. They had filmed Coyote on an Indian reservation in New Mexico. Weetzie grew her hair out, and she wore Levi’s and snaky cowboy boots and turquoise. Dirt and Duck played her angry brothers…
It is no surprise that the film makes some money for them. In the story–as in real life–white people defending and rescuing Indians from whites is a sure-fire hit.
Weetzie, as the chapter title tells us, wants a baby. My Secret Agent Lover Man isn’t at all interested in having a baby. He thinks the world is too messed up to bring a child into. While he’s away for a few weeks, Weetzie, Dirk, and Duck decide they want a baby together. They climb into bed together, and Weetzie ends up pregnant. My Secret Agent Lover Man returns, isn’t happy with her decision to get pregnant, and leaves. When the baby is born, Weetzie, Dirt, and Duck decide to name the baby “Cherokee.” There’s no explanation for why they choose Cherokee. All we know is that they considered these names: Sweet, Fifi, Duckling, Hamachi, Teddi, and Lambie.
At the end of the chapter, My Secret Agent Lover Man comes back. He gazes at Cherokee and asks who her father is. Weetzie says that she’s got high cheekbones like Dirk, and blonde hair like Duck, but that her eyes and lips are like his.
Ah, yes. high cheekbones like Dirk. Remember—he’s the guy with the Mohawk.
The last line in the chapter is:
Cherokee looked like a three-dad baby, like a peach, like a tiny moccasin, like a girl love-warrior who would grow up to wear feathers and run swift and silent through the L.A. canyons.
What does a tiny moccasin look like when you’re talking about a baby?! I know the book was/is much loved but–the stereotypical othering aside–the style doesn’t work for me.
In the chapter, “Chapter: Shangri-L.A.,” My Secret Agent Lover Man is making another movie. This one is called Shangri-L.A. Weetzie stars in it. She wears strapless dresses and rhinestones. And,
She made fringed baby clothes and feathered headdresses for Cherokee…
Sheesh! Now there’s headdresses for this baby girl?!
They can’t figure out an ending for the movie, so My Secret Agent Lover Man suggests Weetzie visit her dad in New York to see if he has any ideas. While there, he takes them shopping and buys Cherokee a Pink Panther doll at F.A.O. Schwarz.
If you’re buying a doll at F.A.O. Schwarz—well, if you’re even inside that store, you’re of a certain income level. Even though Weetzie’s source of money is never mentioned, the things they do suggests there’s plenty of it.
While in NY, Weetzie thinks her dad isn’t well. Soon after Weetzie goes back to L.A., he dies, and Weetzie struggles with her grief:
Grief is not something you know if you grow up wearing feathers with a Charlie Chaplin boyfriend, a love-child papoose, a witch baby, a Dirk and a Duck, a Slinkster Dog, and a movie to dance in.
Wearing feathers. That’s what Weetzie does. Nowhere do we get any sense that she (or Block) know much about the many distinctions amongst Native peoples. With the use of “papoose” we see more of that ignorance. Papoose is the word for baby in one language. It is not the Indian word for papoose. With over 500 federally recognized Native Nations, there are hundreds of languages, too. The Cherokee word for “baby”, by the way, is not “papoose.”
Cat Yampbell, in “Judging a Book by Its Cover: Publishing Trends in Young Adult Literature” (The Lion and the Unicorn, 29(3)) says:
The text of Weetzie Bat celebrates those who are torn from society, individuals who find each other and find happiness outside of the box that society defines as the norm.
Michael Cart, in “What a Wonderful World: Notes on the Evolution of GLBTQ Literature for Young Adults” (The ALAN Review, 31(2)), calls it a classic of gay fiction, and says:
its largehearted embrace of every aspect of the workings of the human heart, it demonstrates, with art and innovation, that love is love, regardless of what society chooses to label it.
Though I’ve not done an exhaustive look, I’m unable (thus far) to find any critical essays in which the stereotyping of American Indians is discussed. The book is much celebrated for its affirmation of people who are “outside the box” and/or gay, but I wouldn’t hand it to a Native child who was outside the norm or gay. I can’t elevate one part of who they are and slam another part of their identity at the same time.
Granted, some Native readers would breeze past it and shrug it off, but not all would do that, and I wonder, too, about the readers (like Yampbell? Cart?) who didn’t comment on the stereotyping. Did they not see it because it reflects their “knowledge” of American Indians? Or, did they deem that content insignificant? And what does it mean to decide that one culture is insignificant?
Thinking about those questions is ironic, given what Weetzie said at the top of the story. “I’m into Indians. They were here first and we treated them like shit.” Does Block realize that she’s doing the same thing?
Honoring or being “into” anyone in a superficial way is, in my view, treating them like shit because it is lazy. It allows a feel-good moment to stand in for real learning, real understanding, and meaningful action that would make the world we all live in, a better world.
In doing the research for this post, I read that Block has a new book out–a prequel to Weetzie Bat. I’ll pick it up next time I’m at the library.
*Debbie Reese continues to write on the Francesca Lia Block series in her essays, “Indian American” in Francesca Lia Block’s PINK SMOG and A Native Perspective on Francesa Lia Block’s CHEROKEE BAT AND THE GOAT GUYS.