Amber Ruffin has a bone to pick with Marvel Comics.
On a recent episode of her late-night talk show, The Amber Ruffin Show, she called Marvel out over its “deeply offensive” depiction of the Princess Matoaka in the recently released King Conan #3, from writer Jason Aaron.
“We talk a lot on this show about how representation matters, but what if that representation is so deeply offensive that it’s worse than not being represented at all?” Ruffin asked. “I’ll explain in a segment called, ‘How Did We Get Here?'”
Ruffin went on to say that if the name Matoaka sounds familiar, that’s probably because it’s the birth name of the indigenous woman most of us know as Pocahontas. “Now, I know what you’re thinking—what a great opportunity to show a historic native woman for the complicated, resourceful, brave person that she was,” the host said. “Well, instead, they did this.”
She then cut to an image of a scantily clad Matoaka that she finds problematic on many levels. “First, [it’s] super racist. Second, it’s very confusing to literally anyone who has seen a woman in her underwear,” Ruffin remarked. “Now, in case you’re wondering if this was drawn by a man, let me point out that there are zero bra straps and she’s wearing gold pasties, and yeah. She’s holding up a metal orb entirely with the strength of her breasts.
“Apparently, this comic is set in an alternate universe where native women exist,” Ruffin added, “but gravity does not.”
Ruffin then went on to contextualize the situation, and why the way Matoaka is depicted has been upsetting people. “Native women have been hyper-sexualized throughout American history, and the consequences have been devastating,” she explained. “According to the Department of Justice, Native American women are two to three times more likely than women of any other race to experience violence, stalking or sexual assault, and that is terrifying. The only thing native women should experience three times more than other races is compliments about their incredible community and nation-building skills.”
Ruffin then expanded from discussion of “this offensive depiction of Matoaka” into conversation on Disney’s animated film Pocahontas and media depictions of native people, in general. In Pocahontas, she recalled, the character was depicted as “a native woman who falls in love with an English guy named John Smith, saves his life [and] has a close personal friendship with a raccoon,” though “almost none of that” was based in reality. “I mean, I’m not ruling out the raccoon part; they’re adorable and they seem like great listeners,” she said. “I don’t know who her friends were, but in reality, Matoaka was around 10 years old when she met John Smith, and he was almost 30.”
In reality, she continued, there was “never any kind of romance” between Matoaka and John Smith “because, and this is important, ew!“
Ruffin went on to say that in the movie, Matoaka sneaks food to John Smith and even risks her own life to stop her tribe from executing him—though in all likelihood, these aspects of the story drawn up for her are also false. “First of all, according to the indigenous site Indian Country Today, when the colonists didn’t grow enough food for themselves, John Smith actually stole food from the tribe by holding a gun to the heads of village leaders,” she explained. “So, natives like Matoaka likely gave John Smith food in the same way that a cashier gives all his money to a guy in a ski mask. And as for Matoaka saving John Smith from execution, well, historians say that probably didn’t happen either. In fact, many deny that he was going to be executed at all.”
Why, then, have so many of us learned this “incorrect history,” Ruffin wondered? “Well, because America likes stories about native women that make it look like they welcome western culture and live happily ever after. The actual story of Matoaka is a devastating one,” she remarked. “According to native accounts, she was kidnapped, raped by colonists, and died before the age of 21, and no matter how many adorable raccoons you add, that story sucks. But it’s the truth.”
Ruffin then returned to discussion of the image of Princess Mataoka from King Conan #3, noting that the issue’s writer has apologized for his depiction of her, and vowed to change her name and design, after being “called out on Twitter” by native comic lovers. Still, she said, her intention was to focus not on the writer of the comic, but on why this whole situation matters. “Continuing to hyper-sexualize indigenous women in fiction can lead us to ignore their abuse in real life,” she said. “According to a 2016 report from the National Institute of Justice, more than four out of five indigenous women reported they had been the victim of violence and 96 percent of them described their attacker as non-Native American. Even worse, those attackers often can’t be prosecuted.”
This, she explained, is because a 1978 Supreme Court case called Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe decided that tribes have “limited authority” to prosecute non-tribal citizens. “That leaves open a legal loophole where in some cases, non-natives can enter a reservation, commit violence and not be held responsible, which is insane,” said Ruffin. “It’s like if I went to Florida and kicked a bunch of people in the shins, and then I got away with it because I don’t live in Florida.”
Of course, she said, this is not right. “Now, here’s the thing. We, as artists and consumers, have to be extra careful in how we treat native people because our country has not been. The Amber Ruffin Show is filmed on the traditional land of the Lenape people’s past and present, and we honor with gratitude the land itself and the people who have stewarded it throughout the generations,” said Ruffin. “It is our duty to make sure indigenous women are depicted with care and integrity, and more importantly, make sure they get a chance to depict themselves.”
This, she said, means supporting native women “in everything from writers’ rooms to boardrooms.
“It means donating to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. It means supporting positive native representation by watching shows like Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls,” she continued, “and speaking of support, it also means making damn sure they get all the bra straps they need.”
The Amber Ruffin Show is produced by Universal Television and Sethmaker Shoemeyers Productions. The series hosted by Ruffin is currently in the second half of its second season, having returned on October 8. Check out Ruffin’s segment on Princess Matoaka by clicking above.
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