Paul Frank and its PR team learned the hard way. In doing so, they gave the spotlight to a topic that needed attention -- that moment wasn't wasted. Bloggers Jessica Metcalfe of Beyond Buckskin and Adrienne K of Native Appropriations posted about the extreme misrepresentation and offensive nature of Paul Frank's "Dream Catchin Powwow". They had good reason to do so and ouch, did Paul Frank ever hear about it!
Paul Frank, the designer behind the famous monkey tees, used Native themed dream-catchers, feathers, and headdresses at his Fashion Week event in LA on September 6th. The stereotypes even extended to the drink specials:
Below I've compiled some of the best commentary regarding this story:
To whom it may concern:
Thank you for removing the Powwow pictures from your Facebook page. However, the party still happened, and the images are still out there. We want an apology, Paul Frank.
Since you are profiting off of a caricature of our cultures, a donation to a Native American youth arts program would be fitting to accompany your apology. Furthermore, if you are genuinely interested in Native American design, I suggest you collaborate with Native American designers in the future.
Your actions are highly offensive, and it is ridiculous to see this level of racism still occurring in 2012.
Jessica R. Metcalfe, PhD (Turtle Mountain Chippewa)
There are so, so many things about this event that are upsetting to me that I don't even really know where to start. It is such a statement about the state of our society that this event was allowed to go off without a hitch. Think about how many layers of approval these things go through, and not one person at Paul Frank, or in the PR company they hired (Red Light PR), thought this was problematic.
Redface, as it's known, involves selectively adopting a hodgepodge of items associated with a culture that is not yours, without an acknowledgment of the social and historical context. Whether people are doing it as a fashion statement, a sign of 'respect,' or for 'spiritual reasons,' it’s offensive; and it’s doubly so coming from white people in the US, who directly contributed to the historic oppression of indigenous populations and continue to be complicit in the systems that affect Native communities.
Get ready to cringe: Paul Frank hosted a Native American culture-themed "Dream Catchin" party for last week's Fashion's Night Out that makes Urban Outfitters' Navajo Hipster panty fiasco look like a United Nations peace treaty.
Paul Frank celebrates diversity and is inspired by many rich cultures from around the world. The theme of our Fashion's Night Out event was in no way meant to disrespect the Native American culture, however due to some comments we have received we are removing all photos from the event and would like to formally and sincerely apologize. Thank you everyone for your feedback and support.
I mostly agree with these opinions -- the Paul Frank event was completely offensive and unacceptable. However, I believe the issue at hand is less about racism and more a question of awareness around Native culture and life. I am hesitant to characterize the people who produced 'Dream Catchin Powwow' as racist because they did nothing to define Natives as an inferior race -- the actual definition of racism. Instead they lack cultural sensitivity and have a complete misunderstanding of Native life. How did something this egregious occur? I have two ideas:
- The curriculum in our education system doesn't spend enough time on Native culture and history.
- Non-natives have limited interaction with Native cultural events. Many people have been to Native owned casinos, but not to events such as powwows or art shows.
Articles and commentary like this are good ways to start educating. There is work to be done.
Pictures and captions below from Indian Country Today
Ashley Argota of the Nickelodeon series 'True Jackson, VP,' with a bow and arrow and feathers.
Actress Daphne Blunt of the Radio Disney series 'My Dream,' posing with tomahawk and feathers
Holland Roden, of the MTV series 'Teen Wolf,' holding a toy bow and arrow.
Actress Vanessa Simmons, daughter of Joe Simmons (aka Reverend Run), poses with a tomahawk.
Accessories for Paul Frank's Dream Catchin' party: bows, arrows, tomahawks, antlers and feather headwear.
Update 9-17-12. Paul Frank, the designer contacted me with this statement:
My name is Paul Frank Sunich. I am the creator of Julius the Monkey and was the co-founder of Paul Frank Industries, the company that created the Paul Frank bran.
I left Paul Frank Industries in 2005 to start my own company called Park La Fun. Since then, I have had no ties to my former company.
I am saddened and disappointed by the recent news involving the Paul Frank Industries brand and how the new owners are using my creation, Julius the Monkey.
To the extent that anyone associates me with this unfortunate event or other ongoing use of the other characters I had created for that brand, I would like to take this opportunity to set the record straight. As I have mentioned, I am no longer in an way involved with that company. Please do not confuse my past involvement in the Paul Frank Industries brand with the actions of the current owners.
My goal in life has always been to make art that will make people happy and that is still my goal with my new company, Park La Fun. It has always been my hope and desire that my former company would use the characters I left behind for that same purpose. Unfortunately, though, that is not something I can control.
Still your friend,