The Least of the Mohicans?

With some trepidation I’ve been watching Hawkeye And The Last of the Mohicans (ETA: Available at Talking Pictures TV, and also streaming on-demand on PlutoTV). Trepidation, because it was made in 1957 and clearly is going to warrant Talking Pictures TV’s Contains Racist Language And Depictions title card; however, it’s one of the oldest, if not THE oldest, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation television programme still viewable, so I felt I should give it a try for historical reasons.

My takeaways:

  1. While the brownface is indeed shocking to a modern audience (Cec Linder in makeup and a war bonnet as an “Indian Chief”, no kidding), and the depiction of Native culture ridiculous (e.g. Hurons living in tipis), one point in its favour is that the Native characters are all given fully rounded characterisation and interesting motivations; their resistance to colonisation is presented as fully legitimate, and they have as complicated internal power politics as you can depict in a 30-minute episodic series. So not to apologise for, or forgive, the other parts, but at least it didn’t go the route of having the Natives as the unreasonable faceless horde of cowboy movies or Laura Ingalls Wilder.
  2. Clever old CBC, making a “settlers and Indians” series which is set before the American revolution, and in a vaguely defined “Huron territory” that could be anywhere from New York to Eastern Ontario. That way you can sell it on both sides of the border without having to deal with the sticky political wicket of rebellion against/loyalty to the Crown.

The Diorama: Categories in a Car Factory

To continue on the subject of women in the Car Factory (see previous posts here and here), I’d like to talk about the Diorama Incident.

I’m going to share an edited/anonymised extract from one of my fieldnotes. For context, Jon was a recently-joined member of my team, an undergraduate student, and Frank was one of the older workers on the line, who had a car, and who was one of two people from whom I regularly got lifts to and from work. A further point of context is that plant employees were required to wear uniforms of plant T-shirts, jackets and soft trousers, where team leaders and shopfloor managers had special jackets indicating their status, and visitors had to wear white lab coats over their clothing and goggles over their eyes (there are reasons for all this, which I’ll explain in a later post).

The extract runs as follows:

I ask Frank if Jon can ride along and he says OK. We arrange to meet at the door; there is apparently a new display there, involving mannequins working on a car. Frank describes it as ‘not ethnically representative’ of the line.

[At shift end] I get my bag and Jon and I head over to the main door…. The display depicts three mannequins… working on a completed electric blue Mini (one holds a scanner up to its manifest), observed by a woman in a visitor coat and a man in a shopfloor manager’s uniform. Not only are all the people depicted European, but the only woman present is the visitor. I remark on this to Frank and Jon, and Frank says, ‘Well, most women here are visitors’.

There’s a couple of things to unpack here. First of all, the lack of depicted ethnic diversity is surprising on one level, since the managers were all aware that the plant was an ethnically diverse place, and, as far as I can discern, no negative message was intended. On another level, though, it’s worth considering that ethnic diversity means different things in different places. So, a German observer might not see a lack of diversity in the grouping, since in the German context, “ethnic diversity” does not necessarily mean representation of different skin colours… but of, for instance, Turkish and Italian guest-workers and their descendants. Who a British worker would perceive as “White”.

(This is why, if you’re implementing or taking a diversity management/awareness course or programme, it’s good practice to interrogate whether the author means the same thing by “diversity” as you do. But that’s another issue.)

And then we get to the second point. If anything, the gendered message of the diorama was even less subtle than the ethnic one. It was reinforced by the fact that the diagrams at the front of the plant representing proper shopfloor attire showed, yes, a male figure wearing plant uniform, and a woman wearing visitors’ clothing. But Frank and Jon, who were well-educated, non-sexist, people, who were on mixed-gender teams, and were the sort of people to pick up on and decry what they perceived as an ethnically discriminatory diorama… not only didn’t see it, but Frank’s first reaction was to justify it. When I made the point that there are female associates on the line, Frank acknowledged that this was indeed another problem with the diorama… but that wasn’t his first, gut, reaction.

So again, we’re back to native categories, and the way in which unspoken, subtle assumptions about the world and how it works shape our workplaces.

I wrote an actual academic paper about this, which was published in 2012 in Management International Review. If you have institutional access, and are OK with wading through lit reviews and methodology sections, you can read it at the link.