October 26, 2018

Putting a Price on Dignity

Nathaniel Payne

It’s that time of year again.

In the US, every Halloween season serves as a reminder of the seemingly willful ignorance that remains in this country surrounding culturally appropriative and insensitive costumes. This year’s controversy began last month when online costume retailer Yandy peddled a “Brave Red Maiden” costume as a sexy spinoff of the outfits worn by concubines in the popular book and Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Within hours of the costume’s listing, social media users expressed disgust and outrage with Yandy’s attempt to profit off a symbol associated with women’s oppression. Amidst the wave of rapid criticism, Yandy pulled the costume and issued a statement expressing its remorse.

But Yandy’s willingness to listen to the concerns of women and girls only extends as far as its bottom line.

In an interview with Cosmopolitan Magazine last year, Yandy’s co-CEO Jeff Watton outlined the reasons the company refuses to take down its ‘sexy Native American costumes,’ despite protest from Native Americans and their allies for the better part of the last decade. Watton, emphasizing that the Native American princess costumes continue to be top sellers, stated that Yandy made $150,000 in profits in 2016 from that clothing line alone. Watton further noted that there hasn’t been “significant demonstrations...along the lines of the Black Lives Matter movement” to put enough pressure on them to pull the costumes.

“This settler gaze is inherently violent—an active force of colonialism and imperialism, maintaining white supremacy by establishing an exotic ‘other’ and this act of fetishization inherently disavows and dehumanizes people.”

– Dani M., a Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota writer

Watton’s rhetoric reflects the privileged ignorance that festers in this country in reference to racial costumery — also recently showcased by Megyn Kelly’s remarks on blackface. Such remarks are a manifestation of centuries of harmful narratives placed on Indigenous groups and coded with the same notions of Native invisibility, hypersexualization of Native women, and trivialization of the sacred — mentalities that have been historically used to justify violence and oppression against the original peoples of this land.

Defending costumes like the “Tribal Babe” and “Naughty Native”, Watton told Cosmopolitan that many people “grew up with Pocahontas as a figure that they idolize or wanted to dress as,” — completely disregarding the fact that Matoaka, the real Pocahontas, was not a Disney Princess, but a child and a rape victim.

Another large-scale Halloween retailer, Party City, joined the conversation this year, stating that the store “has costumes for all types of customers and our assortment reflects consumer demand — nothing we carry is meant to be offensive.”

It isn’t “meant to be,” but it is.

Many of the racialized tropes that Yandy, Party City, and similar Halloween retailers evoke in their ‘Native costumes’ stem from colonial interpretations/representations of the ‘new world.’ Among the most lasting stereotypes from the colonial era is that of the ‘Indian Princess,’ modernly associated with Disney’s Pocahontas. Hypersexualized depictions/portrayals of the ‘Indian Princess’ served to establish the lasting narratives that Native women are sexually available to the desires of non-Native settlers, and by extension so was and is Native land. This dichotomy between ‘Indian Princess’ and ‘squ*w’, though, continues to manifest itself in the modern world with detrimental effects.

In asking for a “significant demonstration” from a population that only comprises 2 percent of the nation, Yandy fails to recognize centuries of systemic erasure that have attempted to render the Native population invisible, a process that never ended and is currently ongoing. Similarly, the company’s statement signals that it has no real interest in responding to the protests of women who are actually impacted by their costumes. Yandy’s readiness to take down an outfit that depicts a fictional rape victim while actively selling costumes that sexualize real historical victims of rape conveys a chilling point: Some women matter more than others.

Native American and First Nations women in North America face rates of violence, sexual assault, and rape at significantly higher rates than non-Native women. The correlation between Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (#MMIWG) and the hypersexualization of Native women in history and pop culture cannot be understated. Perpetuating harmful stereotypes compounds the racism that Native/Indigenous folks already face every day, thereby compounding the violence that Native communities suffer at the hands of non-Native settler populations.

MMIWG is an endemic issue on this continent, and there is no official number that accurately reflects how many Native women and girls are missing and/or murdered. Similarly, there is no federal recognition of this tragic pattern in the United States. Culturally, these women and girls are sexualized and dehumanized to the point of being targets for horrendous criminal activity. Just last year, a Native woman in Alaska was the victim of sex crime by a white perpetrator — one who now walks free.

Denying Native women’s bodily autonomy from non-Native hands and the settler gaze enables individuals to write off costume controversies as a simple case of Native peoples being overly sensitive to costumes. In other words, there are people who want to appropriate Native culture to their liking, but they do not want criticism or feedback from actual Native communities. Despite the ability and resources at hand for people like Watton and Kelly to educate themselves and others about the actual impact of negative costumes on minority communities, the burden to inform such ignorance is usually tasked to those who are marginalized. Native activists and their allies are routinely told online to simply “get over” this issue, rather than having their settler counterparts reckon with the real, tangible effect of sexualized costumes on Indigenous communities.

Year after year, Yandy routinely ignores the voices of Native American and Indigenous women and their demands to cease the sale of costumes that serve to hypersexualize and dehumanize them. But Natives continue to resist.

Activists behind #CancelYandy presented a petition earlier this month to Yandy’s CEO Jeff Watton formally demanding to pull them from shelves. The petition, hosted on Change.org, garnered 14,000 signatures within a few days.

Instead of listening to Native voices, Watton refused to even meet with Indigenous protestersand threatened to call the police.

#CancelYandy protests occurred in conjunction with an online protest titled #InvisibleNoMore. Online Native activists and their allies continue to actively reject the “settler gaze” and the subsequent fetishization of Native communities that are already vulnerable to acts of violence from non-Native people.

“It essential to understand that the settler gaze was born out of genocide, forced assimilation, and post-mortem violence,” says Dani M., a Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota writer who helped found and organize the online protest. “This settler gaze is inherently violent—an active force of colonialism and imperialism, maintaining white supremacy by establishing an exotic ‘other’ and this act of fetishization inherently disavows and dehumanizes people.”

It is time to make companies like Yandy acknowledge that their rhetoric and actions perpetuate damaging narratives toward Native Americans that enable the disproportionate rates of violence against them.

How can you put a stop to this?

Educate others.

Sign the petition.

Do NOT buy these products, and when and where you can, help get them removed!

Remember, culture is never a costume. Halloween is not inherently an “offensive” holiday. There are innumerable ways to celebrate without being racist or dehumanizing. Just get creative (and #CancelYandy!).