thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Interlude: Old Navy & Mr. T

In advertising, Interlude, race on March 8, 2012 at 7:43 pm

Phoebe B.

Last night, I was watching Psych, a show I quite like because Shawn and Gus remind me of my best friend’s and my fairly goofy relationship. I was enjoying myself, having a glass of wine, and relaxing. But then, this new Old Navy commercial featuring Mr. T appeared on my TV. And then, I was no longer relaxed but rather frustrated and surprised.

Check out the commercial on Facebook here.

The commercial stars Mr. T and is part of Old Navy’s new push for their “Best Tees,” marketed as the most comfortable and softest t-shirt ever. Despite Mr. T’s presence, the commercial–like pretty much all Old Navy spots–is really annoying. But that’s not the problem. The problem is the appropriation and stereotyping of Native American dress on Mr. T midway through the commercial.

Out of nowhere, Mr. T descends from the ceiling of a massage room dressed in dream catcher style earrings, lots of bracelets, feathers, and a brown stereotypical Native dress–the kind of ensemble we might see in 1950’s Westerns or Disney’s Pocahontas. Indeed, he resembles the Pocahontas photoshoot with Mariah from America’s Next Top Model last week, which Melissa wrote about last week on GLG, as did Adrienne K. on Native Appropriations (which if you don’t know it, is an awesome blog). And then, Mr. T says his tag line, “I pity the fool who wears a scratchy Tee.” 

This massage moment equates the t-shirt’s qualities–soft, calm, and natural–with Native cultures. This formulation suggests and reiterates that Native cultures writ large are closer to the earth. Perhaps this doesn’t seem too bad, but, as Adrienne K. argues on Native Appropriations, these tropes are harmful, “because they relegate [Native cultures] to a mystical, fictional creature that exists in the past, not allowing Native people to exist as a modern, heterogeneous population.” And, through a relegation to nature, these tropes position Native cultures as outside time and modernity. The spa sequence does just this as it uses Native artifacts to define the relaxed space as outside modern industries (ie the T-shirt factory). Save for the massage moment, the rest of the commercial takes place in a factory with loud and fast-paced music, which reinforces the high-speed nature of the factory. But, during the brief massage sequence, even the music switches to become ethereal, which reinforces this spa space as outside and different from the rest of the commercial. The juxtaposition of the factory and its all-white customers with the spa-like space relies upon, and so perpetuates, the distinction of Native cultures as part of the past and outside present time. 

Furthermore, the ad relates those qualities not just to one Native culture, but all–showcasing the non-specificity endemic to white or American representations of Native cultures. Like Mariah’s problematic Pocahontas outfit, which dislocated cultural objects, like the tomahawk, from their specific cultural moments, places, and people, so too does the massage sequence perform this same work. And, to add insult to injury there is a gong in the background, which seems to be drawn from a non-specific Eastern location. Within the commercial the amalgamation of multiple cultures, and erasure of difference, creates an othered (read, non-Western and not-white) space for and in service of the white guy, who gets a massage. Not only does the commercial forego distinctions between Native cultures, but Old Navy also omits cross-continental difference in favor of simply relying on, and thus perpetuating, old colonial tropes.

That Mr. T is seemingly the only person of color working at the factory, making clothes for the white customers, adds another layer of confusion to this already terrible commercial. After this commercial aired, I could not stop thinking about it. Its placement in the midst of Psych and on USA, a network that champions difference through its “character campaign,” seems counterintuitive. Indeed, USA has of late branded itself as celebratory of ethnic, racial, and sexual diversity via its “character campaign.” And, safe to say this Old Navy commercial does not fit that bill.

Dear Old Navy: please re-think this commercial. And the next time you think it is a good idea to appropriate and mock Native American cultures, kindly think again.

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