B-Sides: The Warpaint Honeymoon is Over

b-sides logo_bigger size

This week’s B-sides is in the flavor of “sad,” unfortunately, in the way that finding out a band I loved last year has taken some missteps since then. I first wrote about Warpaint last November (see the previous link), where I caught a little flak about thinking they’re pretty (heads up: still do) and also generated a thoughtful conversation about Native appropriation in the band’s name and aesthetic style. That discussion stayed with me, and the video NPR just released for Warpaint’s self-titled new single warrants further critical analysis.

The sticking point readers pointed out last year was that Warpaint has been flippant to the point of ignorance about the influence of American Indian cultures in the formation and styling of their band. In a 2010 interview for SXSW, Theresa, Jen, Stella and Emily were asked how they came up with the name Warpaint. Their response? “Stabs in the Dark, our Indian chief.” Totes clever with the double entendre, ladies, but cleverness and good looks are not a get-out-of-Orientalism-free card. Jessica Yee wrote a scathing indictment of Native appropriation by hipsters specifically in April of last year, which asks that those who invoke Indigenous cultures do so with an eye to history and the invoker’s specific placement in it. Considering that none of the band members quantified their Stabs in the Dark comment, or have ever commented publicly, to my knowledge, about their feathers-and-scarves heavy wardrobe, it’s worth questioning Warpaint’s engagement with racial posturing.

Now we come to the newly released video for the song “Warpaint.” It doesn’t deal with American Indian heritage, but it does highlight this band’s potential propensity for imagery sans consideration.

On the surface (har har), this video keeps with previous videos by Warpaint: dreamy, magical in a relatable, I-know-how-they-did-that way, soaked (I can’t help it!) in Southern California haze. But it gets real suicidal (literally) real quick. All of the characters in the video choose to go underwater, where they become fantastical versions of themselves. One in particular, though, holds just her head underwater in a bizarre basin in the middle of the woods, and when she emerges she has flowing red scarves tied around her wrists. Her land-based character has almost no back story, so whether or not she was trying to drown herself isn’t really explored. The blatant visual cue of bleeding from her wrists underwater, though, lends the few seconds we saw of her early in the video a disturbing undertone.

I’m NOT arguing here that images related to self-mutilation or suicide should not exist in art. But I am wary, after Warpaint’s demonstrated preference for creating aesthetics before doing their research, that their integrity and compassion in regards to an incredibly painful topic might not be as deep as their metaphor-laden ocean.

What are your thoughts on Warpaint’s choices? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments section.

by Katie Presley
View profile »

Katie Presley is a writer and editor currently based on the East Coast (help, how did this happen??). She's been with Bitch in one form or another since 2010, when she started as a New Media Intern, and most recently served as Bitch's first and only Music Editor, from 2016-2017. Past resume lines include Assistant Producer for All Songs Considered at NPR Music, panelist on Pop Culture Happy Hour, and bylines at NPR and Ms. Katie is also a doula and herbalist, and writes a blog on herbal medicine, "The Herbal Apprentice." She also co-founded the first full-spectrum doula organization in Texas, The Bridge Collective. She is also a late-comer to being a Dog Person, but currently lives with four cats. 

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

8 Comments Have Been Posted


artistic indulgence/inspiration is best left a mystery, no? the norm for artists.. who may or may not feel a "native" connection... whether it be a drawing towards a shared country's beauty and history of the culture or the regalia --or life and war.. afterall, aren't all americans at this point "adopted" sons and daughters.. lets have a bit of leeway. where i agree about desensitization, and commiserate with much of the native plight, these girls just wanna have fun, and as "of-age" individuals, have earned their right. btw, we are of irish, scottish, welch, and english with a tad of the german. i believe at some time in history, all donned the "warpaint". i think the ladies know this. yeah, they're dark --it's art. enjoy or don't, it's free country... it's much more fun to like it than to hate it, though, methinks.

respect for all beings.


Artists don't get a pass to erase/objectify/appropriate Native or otherwise marginalized history for the sake of being "edgy"," experimental", "mysterious", etc. And no, et, being the beneficiaries of stolen land, history, and genocide does not equal adoption. These women knew that they were appropriating Native heritage because 1) in their interview they played it off like a joke and 2) its the hip thing to do right now. if they were actually attempting to explore their european heritage it would've been explained as such. actually, i'm sure they would've taken it much more seriously than just a fashion statement. I'm sick of people trivializing appropriation. it is never ok.

I can also see them using self mutilation as a shock factor or tool to make them more hip. however, since we don't know if any of them have had a history of dealing with depression/self mutilation it would be too early to say that they are exploiting it. It could be honest self reflection and expression or it could be just another appropriation.

The origin of the name

The origin of the name "warpaint" "warpath", in the early 1800's, were meant as a derogatory image applied to Native American cultural attire - specifically. Now days, some people think it's hip to use the term and try to frame an entitlement to the term. Interesting....

Anti-Get-Out-Of-Orientalism-Free Card

I want a set of these—they would be like Monopoly get-out-of-jail-free cards, but instead of a free pass they would have one orientalist or exoticist behavior each, and then the reasons why it isn't ok. Must make these (they will go with those bingo sets nicely, folks...)

I forgot and then remembered about that last post (hi, from a sticking point reader!), so I wanted to see if I could dig up anything else where the band talks about their name. I did find this video on the Guardian UK, with this nugget (emphasis mine):

"...We just liked that name so much and wanted to name, <strong>SOMETHING</strong> 'Warpaint'"

I still can't find anything with any consciousness at all about the name. I'm still of the mind that they named themselves (and their song, by the same name) Warpaint because it <i>just sounded good at the time</i>. Kind of like their songs and this video. Sounds pretty. Looks pretty. Means? No idea. AND WE DON'T EXIST IN A VACUUM SO YOUR INDULGENCE IS STEPPING ON SOMEONE'S FAMILY TREE, THANKS.

Sorry. </rant> <deepbreath>

This vid is dripping in Virgin Suicides, Picnic at Hanging Rock wistful/mystery/pretty pictures—same themes too (when life gives you lemons, have an underwater tea party?); tragicbeautiful girls looking to escape from life. I think that, like appropriating native culture, they're grabbing on to Suicide Girls status. But it seems to be just another tool in their cool-quotient toolbelt.


P.S.: That capslock rant was in response to an earlier commenter, not to the original post.


I honestly did not interpret the red scarves as a metaphor for suicide or self-mutilation. While their color and placement can't help but remind one of blood, my interpretation was more of a positive one, that while on land the women seem separate, they come together underwater, flowing in and out of one another, something like that. Water is often associated with the intuitive and the subconscious. It's also possible, however, that the scarves were added as merely an aesthetic choice, with no thought to what others might interpret form it, which would be very careless, I agree.

I also did not see (and if anyone else does, please point it out) any Native American imagery in this particular video. If anything, the pinafore and tea party suggested an Alice in Wonderland-esque style. As for lack of backstory, I'm not sure what you want. Any definitive narrative, and you have a completely different video with a completely different aesthetic. You could even argue that the fact the video provoked thought, reaction and questioning makes it successful as a piece of art.

As for the appropriation, I do agree that their "Stabs in the Dark" comment was less than intelligent. I have to say I'm really only familiar with one song by this band, and I'm sorry to hear that they have made such flippant remarks. I, too, am troubled by the appropriation of Native items by hipsters. (And for the sake of full disclosure, I wear moccasins. Minnetonka brand. There, I said it.) I read Jessica Yee's article, and though I know it may be off topic, but I feel that associating anything with the theme of appreciation of nature, feathers, earth-based spirituality and yes, "war paint" to be automaticallty "Native American" is short-sighted. There are many other cultures for whom these things are important (mine, for one), and to write off anyone who ascribes to them as an appropriating hipster without further understanding is not always fair.

Yes but you can't deny the

Yes but you can't deny the trend of white young people wearing feathers, war paint, and headdresses because it's "in style" and sold at Urban Outfitters. I think often it IS clear whether or not these culturally-ascribed objects are being used by someone whose culture uses them. Like at an indie music festival, no, I don't think the "war paint" you're wearing means something to you culturally. Warpaint the band has demonstrated their flippancy on the matter, so that's why we're talking about them, and I don't find that short-sighted at all. Yes, painting with a broad brush is always bad, but when it comes to the appropriation of non-white cultures I think it's okay to give the benefit of the doubt to whoever is suggesting something fucked up is probably going on.

I never said I denied the

I never said I denied the trend, or found it to be excusable, nor do I think anything sold at Urban Outfitters comes with much of a cultural backstory (outside of hipster culture, that is). I also did not say that discussing Warpaint in terms of appropriation was short-sighted. I merely pointed out that I could not find anything IN THE VIDEO FEATURED that was reminiscent of Native American cultures. Obviously the name (and possibly other imagery/language) has to do with appropriation. I just didn't see how the video did. The only thing I saw in the video was the possibility of representation of self-harm, which I think is one possible interpretation out of many.

I'd also like to point out that while I understand the historical context of non-white vs. white cultures in terms of appropriation, ANY appropriation of any culture by anybody without a real understanding of that culture, barring things like forced assimilation, is usually kind of fucked up on the part of the appropriating persons.

Add new comment