Saturday, October 30, 2010

One Woman's Costume Is Another Woman's Nightmare

The idea of brown women being over-sexed and improper, and thus more willing sexual participants for non-brown men, is an old and pervasive one. It's particularly clear looking at the costumes available for women. Pocahontas wears an up-to-there dress, Flamenco dancers bear a midriff, and a bush woman may get nothing more than a loin cloth. Perpetuating these ideas with hyper-sexual costumes is a common, yet potentially dangerous thing to do.

Recently, a group of non-Native women crashed the stage at a Neon Indians concert wearing headdresses and little more than pasties to cover their boobs. Adrienne of Native Appropriations dissected their actions, writing, "Native women have been highly sexualized throughout history and in pop culture." Pulling examples from Pocahontas, Peter Pan's Tiger Lily, and the Land o' Lakes mascot, Adrienne summarizes that the "sexy squaw" stereotype and subsequent appropriations are dangerous for non-fictional Native women, considering that "1 in 3 Native women will be raped in their lifetime," and "70% of sexual violence against Native women is committed by non-Natives." Compare that figure to the 1 in 6 overall American female population who is a victim of rape.

Adrienne also wrote that "this is not just about cultural appropriation. This is about a serious, scary, and continuing legacy of violence against women in Indian Country." A lot of what Adrienne wrote could just as easily apply to other women of color. Consider the "Chiquita Banana" stereotypes of Latinas, oversexed black Jezebels, or the seemingly pliant and sexually subversive Japanese geisha. All of those stereotypical costumes correlate with a tame, sexually pure image of white women, like the European colonist with her full-length skirt, the Scarlett O'Hara on the plantation. Of course, there are also sexy stereotypes for white women, but most aren't ethnicity-specific and most people don't routinely lump all white women into one category.

The fact that Native women are most commonly assaulted by non-Native men is not surprising to me, but does add a historical slant to the idea of how harmful cultural appropriation can be for women. Historically, men have used the implied "natural" sluttiness of women of color as justification for rampant rape or not-really-consensual relationships with women of color, particularly Native women who came into contact with colonists.

Appropriation is bad in any case, but when it mixes with race-based sexual assault, it's just plain inexcusable.

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