12 April 2007

Disney's Revolutionary "Indians"

Set in Boston at a hotel, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody targets young Disney viewers as it follows the adventures of twin teenage White brothers Zack, the carefree troublemaker, and Cody, the studious dreamer. In the 2006 episode “Boston Tea Party,” Boston city hall plans to transform Liberty Park, one of the boys’ hangouts, into a paved lot. Cody writes a lengthy letter of protest in which some of the key words, he announces, are “boldfaced” for emphasis. Zack, growing tired and, as he calls it, “boredfaced,” inattentively listens to his brother and falls fast asleep. The episode then goes into a dream sequence of flashing back to what I label a redfaced reenactment of the Boston Tea Party.

Set in 1773, the year of the Tea Party and three years before the official founding of the United States of America, the dream depicts the non-Native cast engaging in talk of revolting against England’s high taxes on imported tea and of forming their own country. That same year, a group of American colonists in Boston dressed as Mohawk “Indians” to disguise themselves while throwing English tea overboard. Like the real colonists in Boston, the characters’ plan is to dress as “Indians” and dump the latest shipment of English tea into the Boston Harbor. In the next scene, several characters are seated on Liberty Park’s lawn and constructing their “Indian” headdresses. “During our raid on the tea ship,” one character explains, “these Indian headdresses will disguise us so the British won’t know who we are.”

For colonists to have played “Indian” at the real Boston Tea Party and in The Suite Life’s reenactment functions as far more than mere disguise. To be pseudo-“Indians” enabled colonists to take on characteristics they linked with “Indianness.” For one, the colonists associated “Indians” with courage. To be dressed as “Indians,” Cody adds, “will show [the British] we can fight!” The Suite Life plays on the Euro-American rationale of believing that all “Indians” are warriors who will go to any length to protect themselves and their homelands.

To associate “Indians” with violence occurs again in the next scene. Dressed in their exotic “Indian” regalia of feathers and beaded necklaces and belts with multicolored paint on their faces, the non-Native characters enter the hotel and celebrate their off-screen dumping of the tea. Another character, who did not play “Indian,” sees them and yells, “Indians!” After the pseudo-“Indians” duck in fear, she screams, “Indian attack!” One of the “Indian” players proudly responds, “We’re not Indians; we’re revolutionaries!” As a signifier of revolutionary and uninhibited freedom, “Indian” denotes who is not British. Attracted to what they perceive as Indigenous characteristics of exoticness, freedom, courage, and violence, the “Indian” players in The Suite Life, like the historical American colonists, looked to become different from the British. The Boston Tea Party, Philip Deloria states, “offers a defining story of […] American character.” It functions, he adds, as “a catalytic moment, the first drumbeat in the long cadence of rebellion through which Americans redefined themselves as something other than British colonists” (see Deloria's book Playing Indian, pg 2). The Tea Party portrays a pictorial semblance for colonists to assume an authentic American identity.
To play, not be, “Indian” enabled the White revolutionaries to move away from being British and towards original Americanness in the form of “Indians,” America’s original inhabitants. Thus, White revolutionaries in Boston engaged in playing “Indian” to serve their purposes without claiming permanent “Indian” identities. In the process, they perpetuated the notion of “noble savagery,” which Deloria denotes as “a term that both juxtaposes and conflates an urge to idealize and desire Indians and a need to despise and dispossess them” (Playing Indian 4). The Suite Life characters ethnomasquerade as “Indians” one moment, fear an “Indian” attack the next, and then proudly proclaim to be non-“Indian” revolutionaries.

Awaking from his dream, Zack is inspired to save the park, a symbol of his joy in America. This time, he does not resort to “Indian” disguise. Instead, he checks the park’s historical significance of a huge tree in the park and learns of its ties to the Revolutionary War. While waiting for a permit from a local historical preservation society, Zack and other characters stage a protest on the same lawn where the “Indian” headdresses were constructed. The encouragement and revelation from Zack’s dream of “Indian” players reaches fruition as a permit is issued and the park is saved from the awaiting demolition crew.

“Boston Tea Party” never mentions that most of its cast, like Boston colonists in 1773, dressed as “Mohawks.” Instead, it refers to generic, tribeless “Indians.” In the epilogue, the female character who yelled “Indians!” in Zack’s dream enters the hotel lobby with her hair styled into what she calls a “Fauxhawk,” or a fake Mohawk hairdo. Now, she, too, joins the “Indian” play, but in a more subtle manner. Nevertheless, I strongly suspect that the scriptwriters were aware of the ambiguity here as they temporarily transformed numerous characters into faux Mohawk “Indians.” But I do not credit The Suite Life of Zack and Cody with knowing of the offensiveness and disrespect associated with redface.

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