The Only Thing “The Politician” Needs to Cancel is Redface

Using Redface in entertainment is harmful to Native American communities, even when it is meant to be TV satire.

“feather” by Jo Andre Johansen is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Being let down by one of your favorite shows is by no means a novel experience. Still, when Redface is involved, and you’re a Native American citizen, you tend to take it personally - even if it doesn’t involve the untimely death of a favorite character.

Redface, the harmful practice of “dressing up like an Indian” or the wearing of headdresses, feathers, or face paint, etc. by non-Natives, is an all too common practice, especially on television. Whether it’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Saturday Night Live, and now, The Politician, I tend to leave the TV on just long enough to see the inevitable on-screen excuse for this harmful practice. And no, a brilliant moment of “self-awareness” at the end doesn’t cut it.

Spoiler: There is no excuse for Redface. No matter the purpose or intent, it’s dehumanizing and turns Native Americans into cartoonish characters rather than real people worthy of rights and respect. And while The Politician is dressing Ben Platt in Speedos and headdresses, we’re out fighting for our life and land, but you wouldn’t know that from watching episode three of season two of the celebrated Netflix show.

Representation matters. Especially on a popular television show viewed by millions of people and potential voters.

In the episode entitled “Cancel Culture,” state senate candidate Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), who has his eyes on the presidency, is accused of cultural appropriation when a picture surfaces of his six-year-old self in a Native American headdress. With little explanation, Payton’s campaign team informs him that he is at risk of being “canceled.” One of the show’s only Black characters (Skye) explains why cultural appropriation is wrong. Skye states, “There is a thin line between appreciation and appropriation, and you’ve crossed it, Payton.” In the following scene, Payton apologizes to a crowd of supporters while a Native man stands wordlessly next to him. In his speech, Payton says he is sorry but twists the instance of cultural appropriation in his past into “appreciation.” Payton then leaves the stage, and the Native man speaks a few words in an Indigenous language into the microphone before the scene abruptly cuts. Later in the episode, another picture of Payton in a headdress is discovered, but this picture appears to have been taken more recently and includes him wearing a Speedo. One of his campaign managers leaked the photo and then went to Payton’s political opponent to land a job. However, at the end of the episode, it is revealed that the whole thing was merely a plot to land a trusted person inside the opposing campaign. This strategy seems to indicate that Payton’s team doesn’t think a recent photo of him in Redface will be enough to “cancel” him permanently. In fact, it can be used as a smart political tool to assure his rise to power. But with Skye’s snappy line that damns the practice of cultural appropriation, surely the show has proven self-aware enough to justify the use of Redface, right?

Herein lies the first problem.

The decision to use Redface rather than another act of racial oppression proves to be a well-calculated, however unintentional, move on the part of the show. It sends a clear message: Viewers will recognize that wearing a headdress is undoubtedly frowned upon, but they do not see the practice as “bad enough” to warrant disqualification from political office the way other racist acts most certainly would. Furthermore, depending on what side of the political spectrum you fall on, the fervent outcry of the other characters in response to Payton’s headdress picture as a six-year-old might reaffirm that “cancel culture” has indeed gone too far. The show’s mockery of “wokeness” instills in the viewer that perhaps Redface isn’t anything to get too upset about, undercutting years of work by Native writers and activists. And unfortunately, we don’t get to hear from any Native characters who might say otherwise. A character who might indicate the sacredness of the headdress to Plains Indian Tribes and reveal how an image of a non-Native wearing one at any age can be extremely degrading to some Native viewers. Once again, a white person in a headdress takes the spotlight rather than an actual Native person. It’s a real shame, especially considering I’ve met the actor who plays the Native man in this episode, and he’s brilliant at his craft. He could more than handle more lines to flesh out his character and perhaps point this problem out to the other characters on the show.

Herein lies the second problem.

Native Americans are people, not plot devices. Our stories deserve to be told by us and not used as plot-fodder for Hollywood stories struggling to make a culturally relevant point. But considering Natives are shockingly underrepresented on both sides of the screen, it is no surprise that this unfortunate occurrence is a common one. In UCLA’s 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report, Native Americans made up less than 1% of every category. In some cases, 0%. This fact strikes me as profoundly unfair when I know so many Native writers, actors, and directors, all of whom are immensely talented and shockingly overlooked in the industry. It is simply inexcusable that Redface occurs on-screen repeatedly when the presence of any one of them in the writer’s room could have stopped it. The fact that our existence and respective Tribal cultures are consistently relegated to cinematic metaphors on our own land is not only profoundly unfair; it’s dehumanizing.

In one of the final scenes of the episode, Payton appears in the headdress and Speedo once more, an absurd image that is meant to elicit laughter from viewers rather than reflection. Even though Platt’s character in the spotlight, Native Americans are once more the butt of the joke. The repeated use of Platt in a headdress is yet another act of colonial violence that underlines the show’s unfortunate disregard for Native viewers. Rather than using the moment to cleverly point out the harmful and well-documented effects of Redface on Native communities, particularly on Native youth, The Politician prioritizes its mockery of “cancel culture,” a point that is perhaps better highlighted by the fact that the show will most likely face no outcry from non-Native fans for perpetuating representational harm against Native communities, many of whom are already experiencing hardship from all sides.

As this essay is being written, The Navajo Nation is battling one of the worst Coronavirus outbreaks in this country. A Native community health center received body bags from government health agencies rather than the life-saving medical equipment they requested at the pandemic’s start. Last month, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe almost had its land taken out of trust in a shocking and illegal move by the Department of the Interior. Native Women and Girls go missing at alarming numbers and are murdered at some of the country’s highest rates. And the suicide rates of Native youth have been skyrocketing for decades. So let me be absolutely crystal clear: There is no more room for mistakes when it comes to the representation of Native people and our communities on television.

There are over 700 distinct Tribes in this country, 573 of whom are federally recognized sovereign nations with their own rights. Our people have suffered too hard for too long at the hands of the dominant culture for moments of well-televised harm to go unacknowledged. And ironically, a lack of acknowledgment is an integral part of why cultural appropriation is so problematic, another thing The Politician fails to mention. When someone steals from a Native community’s culture and refuses to acknowledge history, it perpetuates the same cycle of harm that Native people have been trapped in for centuries. School children in this country are often encouraged to dress up like Indians on Thanksgiving but are not taught the true history of our attempted genocide and subsequent survival. Those children grow up to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, actors, writers, producers, or any number of influential professions without ever taking a class on modern Tribal Nations and our sovereign rights. Those people perpetuate, at best, severe misinformation and a feeling of general apathy towards Native communities and our achievements and struggles because they have never been forced to see us as real people in order to succeed in the society at large. Despite even the best of intentions, they are part of the reason our most concerning statistics stay high.

And yes, those people can even become Politicians.

And god forbid,

President.

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Maddie Easley

Maddie is a writer and fundraiser currently based in NYC. She is a proud citizen of the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma.