Michelle Williams found herself the unlikely center of a controversy this week. One of the photos in a spread for AnOther Magazine features the Oz: The Great and Powerful actress in hollowed-out makeup, long braids, and feathers in her hair. She’s meant to look like a Native American, and it has not gone over well.
Tuesday, Jezebel published an article from Ruth Hopkins, a writer, scientist, and tribal attorney, who also happens to be a Native American. Hopkins wrote that it was “redface,” and also cited the unfortunate connection between the photo and the fact that Wonderful Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum wrote an editorial in 1890 calling for the extermination of the American Indian. She wants an apology and for the issues to be pulled.
Michelle Williams had no comment on the matter, but AnOther issued the following statement:
While we recognize the seriousness of this debate, the image in question in no way intends to mimic, trivialise or stereotype any particular ethnic group or culture, as recent reports suggest.
The image (which is not, in fact, the cover of the magazine) is one of a suite of images taken from inside the magazine, presenting Ms. Williams in a series of eight different imaginary characters.
All the characters in the story were inspired by multiple fashion and cultural references, characters and eras, as well as by our admiration of Ms. Williams as one of the most respected and talented actresses of her generation.
While we dispute the suggestion that the image has a racist subtext in the strongest possible terms, we’re mortified to think that anyone would interpret it in this way.
As far as the response from the Native American community? The Association of American Indian Affairs does not have an official stance on the issue – mascots or use of Native images are outside the purview of the organization. The Native American Journalists Association offered the following statement, though:
The Native American Journalists Association is against the misrepresentation of Native cultures in the media. It is the responsibility of journalists (magazine) and photojournalists when organizing any type of article and or photo montage is to think about the artistic value and what, if certain cultures are being used in the picture that to always question: could this be offensive or seen as offensive to anyone?
In regard to the Michelle Williams photo shoot, anytime a non-native person dresses up as a Native American this leads to problems like:
1. That Native people don’t care about people playing dress up
2. It perpetuates the stereotype that all Native people look like this
3. That Native people do not exist or even comparisons to mythical creatures perpetuates this myth.
There needs to be a discussion held about diversity, how many of the people working within that department are Native American, African-American, Hispanic, Gay or Lesbian. If there isn’t there needs to be reaching out to these groups to ask about these things. The Native American Journalists Association is here to lend a hand and help out in any way possible.
This photo represents the intersection of two different worlds – fashion and mainstream pop culture. It’s not that they don’t have any overlap on the Venn diagram, but here, you have a major Hollywood actress promoting her big budget, commercial Disney movie, and an edgy pictorial for a British fashion magazine with a circulation of under 200,000. Fashion seems to relish controversy and subversiveness in the name of art, and dressing up models in headdresses, beads, feathers, and other Native American-inspired garb certainly qualifies. When Karlie Kloss walks down the runway in a bra and a full headdress, people cringe and write about how offensive it is, and apologies are issued, but this photo of Williams struck a different tone due to the makeup and her own celebrity.
As for “redface” in pop culture, early and mid-century films were obvious offenders. Not only did Hollywood perpetuate stereotype, but more often than not, white actors were called on for the more major Native American roles. Revisionist westerns like Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves corrected some of those wrongs, but this summer, Johnny Depp is donning face paint and feathers to play Tonto in The Lone Ranger. But, he told EW, “I guess I have some Native American somewhere down the line.”
What do you all think? Should AnOther magazine pull the issues? What is the responsibility of filmmakers and actors in portraying Native Americans on film? If it’s art, does it get a pass? Is this particular instance something else? Would it have been okay without the makeup?