- Killing the Indian Maiden: Images of Native American Women in Film
Scholars have tended to encode the cinematic Indian as male, relegating Native women to the periphery. In challenging this literature, M. Elise Marubbio refrains from engaging the entire range of screen representations of Native women. Instead, she focuses on the “Celluloid Maiden,” an alluring, exotic young woman who engenders her own demise by entering into a relationship with the white hero. As she stresses, the Celluloid Maiden, is neither a static nor a monolithic figure. Variations exist; filmmakers decide which elements to incorporate; their choices, in turn, speak to the broader cultural and political milieu in which they operate. Despite these variations, Marubbio contends that the Celluloid Maiden, as the romantic, doomed avatar of a vanishing people, has sabotaged attempts to depict Native Americans with greater sensitivity and empathy.
Marubbio traces the Celluloid Maiden back to the silent era, foregrounding two subtypes: the Celluloid Princess and the Sexualized Maiden. As the female counterpart of the ignoble savage, the Sexualized Maiden, as mandated by her “savage” blood, is a promiscuous, sexually aggressive femme fatale of mixed parentage who threatens to castrate white males. If this figure endangers white masculinity, violates sexual mores, and stokes fears of moral and racial degradation, filmmakers manage these threats to the social order by killing her off. In contrast, the Celluloid Princess “symbolizes the ‘best’ of Native America” (6). She is unspoiled, innocent, exotic, beautiful, and open to engagement with white culture. In “helper” films, the Celluloid Princess, in gratitude for a past kindness, sacrifices her life to warn whites of an impending Indian attack. In “lover” films, the Celluloid Princess marries and procreates with a transplanted Easterner seeking sanctuary in the West. With time, a crisis imperils their interracial union. Either she discovers that her husband loves another (white) woman, or she realizes [End Page 44] she cannot forsake her people and accompany him on his return to the East, or she becomes inconsolable after her husband enrolls their child in an eastern school. Whatever the crisis, the resolution is the same: she commits suicide, thereby releasing her husband from his obligations, facilitating his return to “civilization,” and ensuring the benefits of civilization for their progeny.
The Sexualized Maiden and Celluloid Princess each receded from screens in the 1930s (for reasons Marubbio never adequately foregrounds). A lustier, deadlier, more wanton Sexualized Maiden did reemerge, however, in the 1940s. As in the silent era, these films encoded female assertiveness as deviant, racialized promiscuity, conjoined miscegenation with degeneracy, and cast interracial romance and female sexuality as threats in need of containment.
If Sexualized Maidens continued to appear through the 1960s, Marubbio argues that filmmakers fused the Sexualized Maiden and Celluloid Princess into a hybrid figure in the early 1970s. The catalyst for this merger was the ascendancy of the revisionist western, which recast westward expansion as a tragic tale of murder and dispossession rather than an inspiring story of progress and nation-building. The Celluloid Maiden in these films, while as sexually assertive as the Sexualized Maiden of yesteryear, earned admiration, not scorn. Filmmakers cast the Celluloid Maiden as a harbinger of the sexual revolution and used her to inveigh against a “civilization” they deemed repressive. On the other hand, while these maidens resembled Celluloid Princesses in that they were full-bloodied Indians of social standing who entered into romantic relationships with whites, hybrid maidens practiced a markedly different brand of assimilation. Rather than seeking acceptance among whites, they detached their white lovers from “civilization.” Yet, for all of their good intentions and countercultural leanings, revisionist westerns, according to Marubbio, were less progressive than advertised. The Celluloid Maiden still died, an outcome that not only perpetuated the image of Native Americans as noble, exotic creatures destined for extinction, but also undercut the revisionist film’s bid to posit Indian culture as a viable alternative to the status quo.
As revisionist films attest, the historically and ideologically laden baggage of genre can subtly undermine the liberal intentions of filmmakers. If Marubbio demonstrates nothing...