The S-Word: The Squaw Stereotype in American Popular Culture

squawbrandpeasThis presentation explores the term “squaw” as an element of discourse that frames a version of indigenous female-ness. The speaker is developing a theoretical perspective of representational ethics for media and popular culture that examines the question of who has the right to represent others, under what circumstances, and in what ways. Whether in television programs, films, advertisements, or in popular music such as hip-hop and rap, women are generally absent, under-represented, or misrepresented. Women of color are often invisible. When Native women are seen it is usually in one of two stereotypical portrayals: Indian princess (young, female noble savage) or squaw (older woman/drudge). Place and landform names, products, and references in literature and popular culture that use the word “squaw” contribute to a climate of stereotypical thinking about Indian women, and limit imaginative possibilities and narrow self-perception. A visual analysis of names, products, and places illustrates the persistence of this term.

Presenter Profile: Deb Merskin, Associate Professor, School of Journalism and Communicationmerskin2

Dr. Merskin’s interests focus on the representation of women and minorities in media, in particular the impact of symbolic representation on lived experience. Her theoretical focus is the ethics of representation. Her book Media, Minorities, and Meaning: A Critical Introduction was published by Peter Lang in 2011. Sexing the Media: How and Why We Do It was published by Peter Lang in 2014. Merskin’s research also has been published in a number of journals, including Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, American Behavioral Science, Sex Roles, Journal of Communication Inquiry, Feminist Media Studies, and the Howard Journal of Communication. She has written chapters for several books including Dressing in Feathers: The Construction of the Indian in American Popular Culture; Growing Up Girls: Popular Culture and the Construction of Identity; Sexual Rhetoric; The Girl Wide Web; and Bring ’em on: Media and Politics in the U.S. War in Iraq. She is currently writing a book on parallels between racism, sexism, and speciesism (discrimination and prejudice on the basis of species membership).