Dances with Disney: Disrupting Indigenous Stereotypes in Children’s Media

By Rachael Nuckles

As Native American Heritage Month comes to an end, I’ve been thinking about media representation and how various stereotypes have been perpetuated in television throughout history. This month also marked the release of the new streaming platform, Disney Plus. The media powerhouse, while most often associated with children’s programming, is responsible for much of the media we consume. Most recently, Disney acquired Fox in a multi-billion dollar deal, meaning that the conglomerate now owns approximately 35% of movie production alone. Disney has a long history of problematic racial stereotypes in children’s media, so it seems relevant to consider both Disney and its representation of Indigenous people to honor this month’s theme. I want to look at one of the times I think Disney got it right: Pepper Ann. This series was Disney’s first animated series created by a (white) woman, running from 1997-2000, remaining the only one until 2015. Pepper Ann‘s creator, Sue Rose, originally wrote the character as a comic strip for a teen magazine. It was purchased by Disney TV Animation in 1996 in a push for more female characters.

In honor of Native American Heritage Month and my rediscovery of Pepper Ann, let’s consider the episode “Dances with Ignorance.”  Despite Disney’s long history of racist representations, this ten-minute episode is an outlier which challenges problematic media stereotypes through its title character. In the episode, Pepper Ann, a seventh-grade white girl, is thrilled to learn that she has Navajo ancestors, thinking that she will get to present something more “exotic” than her peers for a family genealogy project. It’s an all-too-common story of a white person appropriating an identity that is largely not hers to claim, othering the group in the process. As she researches, her friends express concerns that she is focusing too much on stereotypes and not enough on actual history. While Pepper Ann makes generalized assumptions about all Indigenous people, her friends focus on specificity to learn about the traditions of the Navajo people. Instead of taking her friends’ advice to look deeper than surface level, she invites some of her relatives over for dinner to show them just how much she thinks she knows about their culture. It is clearly a cringeworthy display. Consider this still of Pepper Ann and her relative, Dave, for a visual of her problematic behavior:

Screenshot of Pepper Ann in “Dances with Ignorance” (Source: YouTube)

As the dinner progresses, it becomes clear that Pepper Ann is less focused on actually learning about her heritage and more concerned about showing off. When her relative Carol points out that the braid she’s wearing is a Lakota tradition, not Navajo, Pepper Ann interrupts to explain she was going for a “Pocahontas thing.” This is worth highlighting as it refers to another animated Disney feature which has helped to construct the very stereotypes Pepper Ann has accepted as factual throughout the episode. Nearly every time her Navajo relatives try to correct her incorrect assumptions, she is unwilling to listen or acknowledge her behavior. They leave offended, which leads to the following exchange between Pepper Ann her immediate family:

Pepper Ann: What happened? I thought I was just learning about my background!

Moose: That’s just it, Peppy. You weren’t interested in learning anything. They barely got to talk.

Pepper Ann: All I wanted to do was show them how much I knew about our culture from stuff I picked up on TV, and in the movies, and in comic books…

Mom: Yes, but that’s what stereotyping is, Peppy. Even when it’s done with the best of intentions. You can’t believe things about any group of people without getting to know them first!

Indeed, while Pepper Ann might have had good intentions, she failed to acknowledge the way her actions might harm others. In fact, her actions have privileged her own voice while silencing those she supposedly wanted to learn about. So, she pays an apologetic visit to her Navajo relatives and spends the evening eating Chinese takeout and learning the real history of her ancestors, no stereotypes attached. In the end, they even come to support her giving the presentation to the class. 

What’s so important about this ten-minute episode is its ability to condense a critique of problematic media representation into cartoon format; it is accessible to the young people watching without diminishing the problem’s real-world importance. Pepper Ann’s behaviors throughout are inexcusable; everyone from her friends to her family visibly react with discomfort and verbally respond with disapproval. However, they also take the time to correct her behavior. Her family teaches her how to think more critically about media representations and her personal othering.

Pepper Ann, as a whole, is a revolutionary show that has been largely forgotten. While I’ve only been able to rewatch a few episodes so far, I love its accessible messaging and unapologetically feminist undertones. If you haven’t been introduced to this quirky, red-headed seventh grader, I would recommend viewing an episode or two to draw your own conclusions about its messaging. Cartoons are often dismissed as unimportant artifacts of popular culture, but the role they have in shaping ideology is undeniable. So, next time you’re watching a “kid’s” show, pay attention to its messaging and ask . . . what is this programming really communicating? While stereotypes about Indigenous people typically involve generalization, “Dances With Ignorance” is careful to reject this strategy and uses specificity in its representation of Pepper Ann’s Navajo relatives. Moving forward, we can look to this episode as a positive example of representation that works to break down, rather than reinforce, stereotypes.


Resources


Rachael is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her current research interests include girls’ cultural production and “bedroom culture,” technology-based activism, and performance studies.

David Simon’s The Wire: A Study of Women

by Amanda Seybold

David Simon’s The Wire, which aired for five seasons on HBO from 2002 to 2008, is possibly one of the most probative and insightful shows that has ever graced the small screen.  While some would describe it as a show about police in Baltimore who investigate and apprehend drug dealers, the show actually presents thoughtful and in depth examinations of many aspects of urban life, which would otherwise be ignored by middle-class America.  Despite being outside the regular scope of the show, The Wire, perhaps intentionally, perhaps unintentionally, uses the juxtaposition of two female detectives, Detective Kima Greggs and Detective Beadie Russell, to illustrate a discourse on gender norms, racial implications, sexuality and motherhood.

At the end of her text No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women, Estelle Freedman takes a moment to reflect on the changes that have occurred in both the public and private sectors with regards to women’s issues.  She notes “[w]omen and men are demanding new social policies that allow them to choose both caring and breadwinning rather than choose between them.”[1] It is apparent from The Wire’s depiction of both Russell and Greggs, however, that the show is a bit behind the developments that Freedman lauds in her text.  Ultimately the show’s story arc stays with Greggs while Russell is relegated to a secondary position after just one season.   Greggs’ character seems to illustrate Simon’s argument that in order for a woman to succeed in the high energy and exciting world of crime fighting in Baltimore, she must essentially align herself more closely with traits we have come to regard as part of the male gender, rather than with the female. Continue reading

Is He Gay?

by Alexandria Linn

In the fantastic world of relationship self-help, a new dating guide emerged to once again help the lonely American woman land her “dream” guy. Using senseless and sarcastic humor, the markets itself as a guide for women who need to know if their potential suitors are “gay” (according to the author’s understanding of homosexual qualities). For those particular women who want to know how to distinguish between men of the homosexual persuasion, and those who embody all of the violent and neglectful tendencies of the “masculine” male, Ed Baker and Chris Busick have answered the call.

In their book entitled Is He Gay?[1] (for obvious reasons) the two self-help authors follow the story of a young, white and single female as she comes dangerously close to falling in love with a gay man. Despite the author’s attempt to scream commentary to her from the sidelines of the pages, she begins to fall for the homosexual male. Her relationship is sustained by her denial, though she eventually recognizes that the man she’s dating is attracted to other men and not to her.  In the end, the woman leaves the relationship with only small disappointments (fortunately, no deep wounds) and resolves that she still loves him “as a friend”[2].

The good news is that other straight women can steer clear of making the same mistake. By heeding the authors’ advice, one can avoid the queer pitfalls that may occur in the single girl’s dating arena. For those who are not familiar with all the heteronormative ideals of homosexuality, Is He Gay? points out all of the stereotypical tropes associated with “gayness.” The authors, do however attempt to acknowledge their gross generalizations, with a disclaimer at the end of the book that reassures the reader that their mocking was done so “all in good fun,” of course. Continue reading

Sarah Palin’s ‘feminism’

On November 23, Slate journalist Jessica Grouse wrote a scathing review about Sarah Palin’s new book America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag that had me seething in anger and frustration.


According Grouse, Palin devotes an entire chapter to dissing liberal feminists past and present. She insults Betty Friedan twice; says that Hillary Clinton seems “frozen in an attitude of 1960s-era bra-burning militancy”; calls Gloria Steinem out for saying that “no woman who believes abortion is wrong can call herself a feminist”; argues that today fewer women call themselves feminists because “somewhere along the line feminism went from being pro-woman to effectively anti-woman”; and repeats stereotypes of liberal feminists suggesting that they emphasize women as victims because they’re obsessed with rape and domestic violence and are disdainful of “the joys and fulfillment we find in motherhood.”

I haven’t read the book, and truth be told, I seriously doubt I will. But I have found myself obsessed with reading anything and everything that examines Sarah Palin’s views of feminism and feminist history and discusses the afore mentioned chapter. I’m also obsessed with this whole BloggingHeads.tv phenomenon, so I did a quick search to see what the BloggingHeads were saying about Palin’s feminism and happened upon a series that’s really quite good.

My favorite video features Michelle Goldberg and Rebecca Traister. You can watch that video called “Why Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist” on BloggingHeads.tv.  You can watch part two of that discussion here.

-Nydia Swaby


Sarah Lawrence grad wins contest, fights stereotypes

courtesy of Hyphen Magazine

Recent Sarah Lawrence graduate Kyle Chu, hailing from San Francisco, won the 2010 Mr. Hyphen contest, an event somewhat based on more traditional beauty pageants and the “signature” event of Hyphen Magazine. Chu discusses his drag performance to Queen, one of the many factors contributing his win. On choosing to do this performance, Chu explains that he wanted to use drag as a “queer tradition” to bring attention to the fact that gender is fluid and that there are a plurality of ways to be masculine. Chu’s $1,000 prize goes to his charity of choice, the Center for Asian American Media. Having interned at the Center, Chu also chose it based on his own encounters with racism, telling a hurtful personal story to illustrate how important these efforts to fight stereotypes and media misrepresentations are. To hear Chu’s far more eloquent explanations, please listen to the full NPR interview here.

— Kate Wadkins