ARTH 431: Contemporary Art History
Essay #1: Captivity Narrative
When entering the theme of the Captivity Narrative, I had never considered that captivity was more than just a form of literature and entertainment about imprisonment. But after studying this unit, I have come to understand that captivity was a tool that both Colonists and Native Americans took advantage of during this era. I think that my understanding of this narrative expanded outside of the narrative itself. During my readings, I discovered many different types of captivity. For instance, in class we discussed one specific type of captivity, and that was of course regarding the narrative. However, outside of class, when I read chapter one of America’s Women, and the author was explaining how many women were brought to the Colonies against their will. Or how many women were escaping abusive marriages (captivity) or being sold for little money. I believe specifically that the inequality and traditions held by the Puritans towards women---that discrimination was a type of captivity in itself.
The Native American captive was what this narrative focused on. I came to understand that this narrative was more of a racist political exploitation of the Native American lifestyle. This narrative focused on the pure, morally superior, civilized sexist ideals of the European female, in contrast to the wild, dangerous, evil, racist opinion of the “savage” or Native American. 1 The fact that the Colonists viewed the New World as a paradise fueled the popularity of this narrative. However, I also viewed this narrative as almost perverted, in the sense that they took a female and glamorized her horrific experiences as a captive. Women were supposed to be submissive and helpless, and since they were put in a position where they needed saving, from the corrupt “savages”, I think that this narrative reinforced that thrill to take advantage of the innocent female character. This narrative was also a political device. By representing Native Americans in a negative light, this reinforced the idea that not only was the New World a paradise, but almost as if it was the Colonists needed to cleanse this land of its evil. 2 In class we discussed the type of motives Native Americans had for capturing women. Whether it was for revenge, profit, slavery or population replacement---we must not forget that the colonists also captured Native Americans, that men were captives also, that women were regarded as property by the Puritans anyways. 3Women were being sold and traded and kidnapped within their own society, I’m not denouncing the horrors of the Native American captivity narrative. But I do believe that its important to understand that there are many stories that have been untold.
When we look at the art, depicting events from this period, I think its important to remember that art can also be used as political propaganda. We see this with John Vanderlyn’s “The Murder of Jane McCrea”. In this painting, as discussed in class, Vanderlyn’s painting was based off of an actual murder. The painting was supposed to be a statement on the negativity and resentment towards the British4---however, it is still representing Native Americans in a negative light and it is still a painting about a woman being killed due to her relation with a British man. Even when we viewed the painting in class, no one could tell that this painting was about British resentment. This was a painting about two “savages” murdering a helpless beautiful woman. If women were treated and viewed as property, were their deaths regarded as murder or as a robbery? It sounds absurd, but we have to imagine the mindset of the Colonial male, and not only that---but we have to see this narrative from different points of view. Jane McCrea was probably married because she had to be, to survive, that much was expected of her, that itself is captivity. She was a captive regardless. There are countless stories in American Women, about women such as Mary Dyer or Anne Hutchinson, who faced religious prosecution for having beliefs that did not support Puritan doctrine.5 Can inequality, at this extreme state in society, be viewed as a form of captivity? I think it should.
In class we discussed more recent stories about captivity, I chose a children’s cartoon “Princess Mononoke”6, which was about a girl who was raised by Wolf Gods and she loved them, adapted to their lifestyle, and believed she wasn’t human. Until, of course, a male came to rescue her from her psychological corruption. Though, she still returned to the wolves at the end of the story, this fantasy still revolves around a hero saving a victim. A more accurate version of today’s captivity narrative would be the movie Taken7, which is a fictional story about a fathers daughter who travels to France with her friend, and they both get captured and forced into sex trafficking. The story focuses on the father’s point of view. We rarely see exactly what happens to the daughter in this film. So once again, we get a story about a man who is the hero and a daughter who is the helpless victim. This movie was popular because of the fighting and violence---and also entertaining this perverted subtle theme of women being sex slaves. Sex trafficking is a huge issue in our world today. Women and children are still being sold for little money and forced into prostitution around the world, even in America.
As a conclusion, to this narrative I would like to point out a few things. I think that its ironic how the Puritans came to the New World to escape religious prosecution but to then inflict it on those who didn’t agree or live by their standards. Women who travelled to the New World were escaping one kind of captivity and entering into another. This narrative is very perverted, racist, and sexist and could be expanded into something much more, but it hasn’t. And it makes me wonder why? You would think that this narrative wouldn’t exist anymore, but not only does it exist, but its also being exposed to children, take a look at every Disney Princess, for example. Its psychologically manipulating us, without us knowing. Its creating sexist standards and glamorizing them to reinforce the superiority of our “civilized” society. If you are beautiful (and of European descent), if you are innocent, naïve and submissive---these are good qualities. If you are kidnapped, it will be by someone who is inferior, wild and uncivilized, but don’t worry! If you endure your captivity, a handsome, rich, talented, intellectual prince will come to your rescue. He will kill the evil that enslaved you, because you have spent your life being the perfect princess, and you are worthy to be saved. My question is, how has this narrative survived this long without abandoning these racist, sexist themes? I spend my time searching for feminist novels and films and I haven’t come across one that shows an ordinary woman who is held captive, but saves herself.
Barris, Roann. Colonial Life and Captivity Narratives. 2012.
Barris, Roann. Classnotes from Lecture, 2012.
Collins, Gail. America's Women. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
Morel, Pierrel. Taken. 2008. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0936501/ (accessed September 12, 2012).
Miyazaki, Hayao. Princess Mononoke. Studio Ghibli, 1997. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119698/ (accessed September 12, 2012).
Image: John Vanderlyn, The Murder of Jane McCrea, 1804.