17 May 2007

My Wife and Kids "Michael's Tribe," Part I

Yesterday, the episode "Michael's Tribe" of the former ABC sitcom My Wife and Kids, starring African American actor Damon Wayans, aired on a local Fox affiliate. "Michael's Tribe," as the following Brady Brave Bureau response may reveal, entails disturbing illustrations of redface.

Michael Kyle (Damon Wayans) serves as the adult “Indian” figure while his youngest daughter Kady is like Opie Taylor with his interest in “Indians” in several episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. At first, Michael hesitates to play “Indian” not because of its potential disrespect to Indigenes but because he is more interested in a sports game on television. When he hears that his daughter’s “Indian” Princesses group will be camping at the house of a family he does not know, Michael demands that the camping be at his house. As he tells his wife Jay/Janet (portrayed by Tisha Campbell), “I’ll be the chief. I’ll watch the game and then I’ll go out there and play ‘Indian.’” Jay explains that he will not have time to see the game because he will be with the girls “the whole day and night” and thus, too busy “[teaching] them the culture and the history of Native Americans, the arts, crafts, dancing, all of that.” Obviously, one “day and night” would not suffice in teaching effectively about the millions of heterogeneous Indigenous Peoples and hundreds of Indigenous nations, yet effectiveness in education is not a characteristic of learning about the sitcom’s “Indian.” Not wanting to back down after volunteering, Michael replies, “Fine, I can do that.” As the rest of the episode unfolds, he shows that he is clueless about as well as racist towards Indigenous Peoples. The only clue he has is being well-versed in Hollywood “Injun” stereotypes, which suffices for the sitcom’s “Indian.”

Calling himself “Chief Bald Eagle,” Michael sits lazily near his radio in the backyard and listens to the game. At one point, one of the Princesses brings him a beer. In return, Bald Eagle gives her the “Indian” name Little Fetch-Me-Beer. When Jay reminds Michael that he must teach the girls about Indigenous Peoples, he interrupts her by speaking in a Hollywood “Injun,” broken English monotone.

MICHAEL. Silence! Maiden no tell Chief how to act, what to do.
JAY. Michael, if you ever want to get into this maiden’s wigwam again, you’ll do as I say.
MICHAEL. Whoa. Poked-out hiney.
JAY. Hey!
MICHAEL. I see where you have hidden sacred drum. Can’t wait to bang drum slowly.

Jay’s threat of withholding sexual relations leads to Michael expressing his desire to “bang drum slowly,” an obvious reference to sexual intercourse. Michael’s comparison between a Native drum and his wife’s backside is one of the most vulgar jokes in “Indian” play throughout the history of redface in Amerian sitcoms. It represents a large shift in what has become acceptable to say in sitcoms. Unfortunately, to use a revered Native object like the drum for a sitcom’s sexual metaphors and innuendos is reflective of contemporary sitcom material.
Michael’s main resistance to seeing the game is a White, red-headed “Indian” Princess named Rachel. Known to Michael as “Little Pain-in-Butt,” Rachel repeatedly has reservations about Michael and his un-educational tactics.

RACHEL. This is ridiculous. All we’re doing is waiting on you hand and foot.
MICHAEL. Yes, yes, because you are a maiden, and a maiden must tend to the needs of the chief.
RACHEL. You gotta be kidding. You’re overly simplifying things. The Native Americans had a very advanced culture.

Speaking of oversimplification, Rachel generalizes by speaking of a singular, monolithic “culture” from the past. The hundreds of cultures from historical and contemporary times are ignored. “Despite the cultural differences among tribes,” academic and activist Devon Mihesuah (Choctaw) explains, “many non-Indians believe that all Indians are alike” (20).Rachel then explains that Indigenes “were the first to openly accept gay people.” Is she referring to all Indigenous Peoples of all Indigenous nations? What time period does she have in mind? To apply almost any concept or belief as representative of all Native Peoples is, to say the least, a major fallacy. Michael has no understanding either. His response to Rachel’s comment on accepting homosexuality is a made-up reference to “the tale of Little Drop the Tomahawk,” which is an “Indian”-specific version of jokes about men dropping bars of soap in locker room showers.

part 2 of the bbb's analysis of "michael's tribe" will appear in our next post.

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