A few years ago, I posted about a lost very special episode of Hey Dude. On Saturday Night, I got a notification that a podcasted aptly titled Hugging and Learning had used my post as a source for their recent episode, “Saved by the Cowbell” — once again awesome title.
The portion of the podcast I’m writing this follow up post in response to involves the character Danny Lightfoot, a member of the Hopi Nation, portrayed by Joe Torres. Let me pause here and acknowledge that this casting and the way the show’s creators have since described it could be its own separate post entirely. According to Michael Koegel in the book Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age, when casting the show “we fudged it because Joe Torres was really Mexican-American. He had a little American-Indian blood in him, but once you get into that part of the country, there’s a fine line between what’s an American Indian and what’s a Mexican Indian. It’s a cultural divide.” This book was published in 2013 and even though it is an oral history, I am struck by how glib this statement is, right down to the “what’s” instead of “who’s”. And in case it needed clarification, tribal sovereignty is much more than a “cultural divide.”
In all fairness, I did not dive into the casting (nor did I research it) in my original post and it doesn’t appear to come up in the discussion between hosts Chelsea and Andrew on the podcast either, though I may have missed it. However, as anyone would in 2020, Chelsea and Andrew immediately zero in on the incredibly problematic line Danny says to describe why he would not go drinking with his coworker Melody’s brother. If you’re listening to the podcast, this section starts at about 24:52.
For those of you who haven’t read the original post, I’ve included a screenshot below for the section in question.
There is so very much to unpack here. The first of which is that I’d like to clarify that “betrayed” is my word. Chelsea refers to this in the podcast, but she attributes that word to the character (before she quotes the same section I quoted in the original post). To be clear, Chelsea says, “He had a friend of the family that he says betrayed all of them by becoming quote another Indian with a drinking problem.”
The text from the show is actually as follows, “it felt like he let us all down.” So here’s where this gets sticky and where I want to be very clear because this podcast is using a lot of my phrasing. Anything in the screenshot above that I did not directly quote came from me, not the show.
My interpretation of the line reading was that Danny and his community felt “betrayed” and I chose that word in 2017 because of my personal experiences with alcoholism and perhaps that’s unfair for me to apply to this situation. However, alcoholism runs in my family and I was very strict about experimentation (or lack there of) as a teenager because I personally would have felt that I betrayed my family if I were to become another member of the family with an alcohol problem: betrayed the experiences and examples of my ill family members; betrayed the expectations of my immediate family; betrayed the family name at large in our community. I don’t know what the writers intended, but Danny’s sentiment of not wanting to let anyone down or in essence “betray” them resonated with me. The most glaring difference here being that my perfectionism was self-imposed and Danny’s was the result of generations of oppression following a genocide.
Chelsea then goes on to say that, “He basically lays it out like therefore I can never drink because that would make me a stereotype, which is like a really weird thing for a writer to put into the mouth of a character who’s, I’m guessing, ethnic group they don’t share. You know what I mean? Like part of me is sort of like wow okay we like got culturally heavy here for a second.”
Once again, that “culturally heavy” is my interpretation of the actor’s line reading, one that Chelsea and Andrew appear to agree with. But I want to take this one step further and tell you exactly what I meant by that in 2017 because I didn’t lay it out and I should have.
To me, one of most devastating aspects of racism on a micro level is that individuals do not feel permission to express a full range of emotions, and there are often devastating consequences should they choose to do so. My interpretation of Danny’s statement is not that the show unfairly “puts” this desire to avoid “stereotypical” (and wholly untrue) behavior “into his mouth” so to speak, but rather that this statement reflects the innermost thoughts of a young man who is not afforded the opportunity to make mistakes in the same way that Melody’s white brother is.
And let’s be clear, Melody’s brother has a disease. All people experiencing alcoholism unfortunately face stigma and stereotyping. That said, the stereotypical interpretation of his disease is not nearly the same as it would be for Danny’s friend.
I do think this is an appropriate conversation to have. I do not think this is a “weird” statement for Danny to say because the pressure this character feels is very real and very relevant. He in fact states, “I don’t think there’s anyway I could have gone with Billy, even if I wanted to.”
What I find to be inappropriate in this episode and, more accurately, harmful is that this statement is said and dropped. Within this episode, there is no unpacking of Danny’s feelings or the systemic pressure that created them. There is no acknowledgment of the immense unfairness in the simple fact that he cannot make a mistake even if he wants to.
I wrote “culturally heavy” and I figured people would get it. But maybe what I should have written was “personally heavy” because we personally carry the pain of our cultures and for minority communities that pain is more than any individual should bear.
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” — Anne Lamott