On Halloween, I came across an article explaining what to do if your friend wears an offensive costume, such as an “Indian” costume — the Indian warrior outfit. It gives examples of what your friend might say in their defence, including “But I’m dressed as Pocahontas! I’m a character!”
When I read that particular part, my reaction was, “I’m dressing as Esmeralda — does this mean I’m appropriating that culture?” I felt terrible thinking I might be. But then I thought, why is wearing a Pocahontas costume bad? I do think just being a random Indian is appropriation and offensive, but Pocahontas is a character. Characters have ethnicities.
Now, I’m about to get into discussion about a pretty loaded topic.
Allow me to preface this by saying I’m no expert on the topic. This is me trying to work my way through my thoughts, and I am very open to the idea that I could be wrong. If you disagree or if you think there is something to add, please discuss with me in a comment below… but please know I really am trying my best not to offend.
(Also, I did attempt to research the least offensive way to refer to Indian people, and I found Indian is preferred over Native Indian and American Indian, so I’m going with that.)
Okay: Pocahontas isn’t misrepresented in my opinion.
Yes, she does go with John Smith in the end, but she is definitely angry with him when she first learns who he is. She also stays with him because he changes, not because she sees who he is and disregards his actions. The article states that “Pocahontas might seem like a ‘good’ stereotype, but she’s still an oversexualized woman who talks to animals and trees and is only famous because she saves a white dude.”
So is Ariel. So is Jasmine.
(Well, they don’t save white dudes, but the sexualization and talking to animals and trees, yes. I’ll get to the white dude.)
Sure, Ariel’s white, Pocahontas isn’t, but Ariel is a child and she’s definitely sexualized — she has a bare midriff, for one, and she only has a shell bra on. And she gives up her voice to be with a man. She also talks to animals. Mermaids aren’t “real,” so there is one reason it’s not offensive in terms of culture. If you dress as Ariel for Halloween, no one is upset. But why is there no concern about sexualizing a child?!
And Jasmine? She’s wearing a stereotypical outfit, but nothing is said about wearing that costume as appropriation, either. She’s sexualized as well, also baring her midriff (which actually isn’t necessarily traditional) and she too talks to animals — her tiger Raja, a word that means King in an actual language (Hindi being the one I recognize, though I’m sure lots of Arab languages as well since the movie is set in “Arabia”), and Abu, Aladdin’s monkey. There is cultural stuff happening there too.
I understand that the stereotype of talking to animals for Pocahontas stems from the idea that Indian people (or First Nations, in Canada) have a deep connection with the natural world. But if the argument is just that she’s an oversexualized woman who talks to animals and trees, it’s not really unique to Pocahontas. And in fact, it’s not portrayed negatively — Pocahontas’ ways are seen as the best way to live. Stereotypical, maybe — they’re still talking to plants and animals — but really not negatively.
The immediate problem I’m seeing right away is arguing that it’s okay to be stereotypical.
I’m trying not to say that — my thought is that it’s still rooted in the traditional culture. To say that all Indian people are in tune with nature comes from the true culture. I’m not sure how different American Indian culture is from Canadian First Nations’, but the belief that nature is precious hasn’t changed much up here. It’s part of the culture. I know that talking about a real culture, it could be trivializing to show the people talking to plants and animals. But that is part of the Disney world. It’s a pretty obvious way to approach the idea of a connection with nature, no? (I know this is a big statement to make — I feel like I’m missing something here. If you see a problem with what I’m saying, please comment and discuss with me.)
As well, sure Pocahontas only gets famous because she saves a white dude. But isn’t that huge? It’s bad because it shows that white people didn’t recognize any other culture as valuable. But Pocahontas was (supposedly) the first person to see beyond skin colour! Isn’t that important?
In the end, I concluded that specifically dressing up as a character isn’t appropriation.
But if we choose characters that are racist in their representation, then that would be a bit offensive. Tiger Lily, for example. But dressing up as Esmeralda wasn’t offensive — and I did stop to think about whether I should change my costume, I’m not saying this just because I dressed as her. Yes, she’s a gypsy. But she’s also a character who is a gypsy, and I don’t know why it’s wrong to dress as that. Would it be offensive to dress as Lilo from Lilo & Stitch? No. Even if you wore her Hawaiian dance costume, it’s not appropriation. You’re dressing as a character. And she’s not a bad representation of Hawaiian culture, either. You’re not taking that culture and trivializing it. The difference with dressing as a random Indian is you’re taking the traditional outfit they have for warriors and using it for fun. It’s not fun — it’s a serious, special thing of Indian culture.
Perhaps the problem with Pocahontas is that her outfit is also a traditional, serious, special thing.
I’ve had arguments in my head about this for a few days now, but I still feel like it’s not offensive to dress as a character who has an ethnicity. I’d say it’s important to be mindful of how that character is represented, yes. But it’s one thing to just dress as a person of a culture that isn’t your own, appropriating their culture because it’s now been taken from them and trivialized as a “costume,” and another to dress as a character.
But now I wonder: these costumes, including Jasmine, Esmeralda, and any other character of a distinct culture — the fact that they are characters, does that make them automatically culturally appropriated? Should we not even address culture in cartoons? Or is it only certain cultures that are off limits?
Is it right to then say we shouldn’t even approach culture in our Halloween costumes? Should we not dress as characters from a minority ethnic background at all, even if we are also a minority?
As you can see, I haven’t come to a clear conclusion, despite starting out that way. I’m open to the idea that I could be wrong, as I’m still struggling with these ideas.
What’s your favourite Halloween costume?
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