Undermining the Power of Victoria’s Secret

As an anthropologist I am often placed between intellectual “rocks” and “hard places.” For example, I am often left to defend the very presence of Native American studies discourse even as I attempt to change the game in Native American studies. What do I mean by this?

Well, as many of you see in your daily lives, conversations about Native America equate to two questions: (1) what tribe are you from and (2) do you speak a Native language? Who asks a White person if they speak British English vs. French vs. English of the U.S. South. No one. It should be self-evident. But in asking a Native American both where they are from and if they speak a language there is a reinforcement of a very strong power dynamic in the West that makes Native America exist only if Native Americans sit authentically within particular locations and practices where they are perceived to maintain tradition (as illustrated by a language that we should should speak outside the language we do speak).

OK…so why am I bringing this up? Well, it is time that we have a very public and very intimate conversation about the economics that help protect this need to ostracize, alienate, and subvert Native American identity under the rubric of authenticity and tradition. While I understand that a few people are obtaining wealth on several Native American reservations as they serve as the executives of major economies built on Casino profit, this is not all of Native America. Anthropologist Jessica Cattelino, in her study of casinos established by the Seminole tribe of Florida, asks in one of her academic articles why Native American empowerment (or sovereignty) must exist along side the context of need. She states that once Native Americans obtain wealth they are criticized for the power they have ascertained through their wealth making apparatuses. While this is a wise and poignant start to analysis, it assumes (yet again) a localization of Native identity around traditional and contested existences in tribal communities. But what happens when the Native American person attempts to occupy a personal identity? What is the disconnection between the localized, tribal identity and a personal Native American identity that wants to participate in larger national and global markets of representation?

Perhaps the importance of understanding a Native American’s personal identity – how it operates in economies and politics of expertise and representation – is best understood in the contexts of Hollywood. I recently came upon a website owned by two Native American sisters from Canada: The Baker Twins.   These ladies are members of two Native American nations in British Columbia. On their website, they posted this Tyra Banks clip where they discuss the lack of roles for them in Hollywood. One of the most critical portions of this conversation is when they describe their decisions in the past to consider roles that were scripted for Latino or “mixed” characters.

While this may seem innocent to many people – as, possibly, just the nature of changing populations that demands that Hollywood producers and directors represent racialized peoples in particular ways – it is not so innocent when we consider the rampant abuse of Indigenous, Native American, and aboriginal images in the economies of the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Here, I will provide two examples.

The first example is discussed here on ABC news. Essentially, Victoria Secret dressed a white female model in a replica headdress, a leopard skin bikini, and costume turquoise jewelry. Once this fashion show took place, there was a mild outcry against Victoria Secret. Like all organizations that are labeled in the American media as “racist,” they subsequently released an official “apology.”

I asked my students in one of my undergraduate classes why it was so easy for Victoria Secret to both utilize the image of the sexualized Native American vixen and later feel compelled to only issue an apology. One of my students stated with great wisdom that Victoria Secret often uses images of females in racial and regional decoration because these races and regions are perceived to be overtly sexual and scandalous. Essentially, as my students articulated together, you couldn’t put a catholic nun or 16th century pilgrim on the Victoria Secret stage because they aren’t “naughty” enough. You would have to call them the “naughty nun” or the “sex craved pilgrim.” There are no such modifiers given to the image of the Native American female utilized by Victoria Secret. Thus, the Baker Twins found out quickly that if they are going to portray characters that represent typical American life in Hollywood films, they would have to take on the standard identities that Hollywood propagates (e.g. the Latina, the “mixed” girl, etc.). They were dismissed because they had no power to overcome the power of producers and directors to direct what racial and national identities were visualized in their productions. If Native Americans and other alienated racialized individuals were used to represent themselves on a regular basis in the United States, this would undermine the power of the flexible white model to act in buffoonery (contemporary black face, if you will) and the power of billion dollar corporations to flexibly depict the American and global landscape as they choose. Apologies – and no real repercussion – is the privilege of power.

Perhaps this conversation can be continued in the context of the economics of other colonized countries in the Western Hemisphere. In my second example, one of my colleagues recently sent me a video that is an advertisement for the clothing line of international model Gisele. In a fashion similar to the use of images of sexualized Native Americans in North America, the narrative of this video places the more European Gisele in a situation where the Natives are preparing her in makeup and other clothing that is depicted as traditional, authentic, and indigenous. At the end of the video, Gisele looks in a pool of water held by a Native person and sees European beauty.

Like the Victoria Secret model, Gisele is the exemplar of contemporary Indigenous buffoonery. “But what is the Harm?” someone may ask. The harm, in my opinion, is the acceptability that after 400 years of making indigenous peoples invisible – after 400 years of genocide in North and South America – there is no conduit for Native Americans to represent themselves. And I ask, how do we combat this? What do we do within our theoretical analysis that sheds light on the quagmire that Native Americans find themselves in as they attempt to supplant White peoples in contemporary black face (I guess we should call it “red face”)?

I think there is much to be done. While I absolutely agree that we should continue understanding collective senses of Native American empowerment, I also argue that we should understand this dismissal of contemporary Native Americans as individual agents in popular culture. It is in defining these individuals that we have a next realm of Native American and Indigenous studies. This is the beginning of an important conversation.