Excerpts from the Keynote address presented to the Austrian Association for American Studies annual conference, Salzburg, November 2004, by Deborah L. Madsen, University of Geneva:
The Miss Universe beauty pageant, screed by NBC in June this year, featured a special award for “the delegate who displayed her country's pride and spirit best in costume.” Miss USA, Shandi Finnessey, appeared wearing a body-length war-bonnet style costume. She also wore straps studded with circular metal medallions – and very little else.
The imitation headdress was perceived as an insult by Native American tribal groups; Tex Hall, the President of the National Congress of American Indians, condemned the costume and demanded an apology of NBC and Donald Trump who owns the pageant. Hall was particularly offended that a woman should be seen wearing a war-bonnet which is reserved only for men.
The controversy focuses then upon the question of who has the right to wear “authentic” costumes. A photograph of the Women's War Bonnet Society quickly circulated to contradict Tex Hall's claim that this headdress is only for men though the counter-claim was also quickly made that these women photographed here belong to tribes that traditionally use the war-bonnet. To the objection that Miss Oklahoma 1940, Martyne Woods, wore a war-bonnet as part of her traditional costume came the response that she belonged to the eastern woodland Choctaw tribe and so is also “inauthentic.” The struggle to identify “authentic” people who might qualify to wear this “authentic” costume places in question just what it is that the costume is doing in this representation of identity. What is being “recognized” here? In one of the official photographs of Miss USA, it is significant that the image of her disembodied face appears projected against the US flag. She is shown in three-quarter profile, with her blonde hair cascading down to her shoulders. Here she is the all-American girl, identified by her bodily characteristics with the “Political” nation. But she is also is the same woman who wears faux Native American regalia. She is performing a kind of cultural authenticity that relates to the “Political” nation rather than to her bodily ethnic identification. She chooses Native America in the way that Gish Jen's Mona chooses Judaism – and by choosing they demonstrate their “Americanness.”
This pluralism, which is more a kind of performativity, can be seen also in the photograph of Cher, which features on the cover of her 1973 album Half-Breed. I use the word “performative” because the knowing choice of ethnic identification (as opposed to the unearthing of some core of personal identity), the voluntary act of adhesion, requires action – the performance of that identification.
Cher's performance differs from Miss USA's in that she is identifying with her “Americanness” in relation to a negative life-script: “ We weren’t accepted and I felt ashamed / Nineteen I left them, tell me who’s to blame / My life since then has been from man to man / But I can’t run away from what I am.” Now, we can simply see Cher’s Native costuming as a cynical marketing strategy but even in such terms it is curious to find this identification with a negative life-script, with an image that represents absence: the inability to belong or to discover one's “Americanness.” This makes the example interesting to me. It seems to point to the fact that not only the indigenous or ethnic American experiences hybrid subjectivity. Cher as Cherilyn and Cher as the anonymous Cherokee half-breed each alike represents the dynamic of belonging and not-belonging characteristic of American cultural identity.
Gives you a better appreciation for diversity and multiculturalism, eh?