Monday, April 07, 2014

Of Caricatures and Stereotypes

Now with Putinesque Add On.

Who'd have thought? Cartoon villains are painted with broad brush strokes.

Repressed Brits, evil Mexicans, Arab villains: why are Hollywood's animated movies full of racist stereotypes?

From Chris Rock's jive-talking zebra in Madagascar to the racial hierarchy in Rio, Hollywood's animated films have been bombarding children with lazy caricatures for years. Should they come with ethnic sensitivity warnings?

... Why are [animated features'] racial politics stuck in the 1970s? Maybe parents have been too busy dozing at the multiplex, or doing the washing-up while their kids are anaesthetised in front of the TV. Maybe we've dropped our guards because talking animals are the lingua franca of innocuous cuteness, but we seem to have got to a point where these movies are teaching children the finer points of racial prejudice before they've even learned to read. ...

The racial pyramid persists through the animated realm: white-voiced characters at the top (British just below mainstream American); other ethnicities below; darkest-skinned at the bottom. Even if the differences aren't spelt out visually, they usually are in terms of accent, which means the spectre of stereotyping is never far away. Disney's long history of racism has been well documented: the lazy, African American crows and illiterate, dark-skinned labourers in Dumbo; Sebastian, the workshy Jamaican crab in The Little Mermaid; the darker-skinned "evil" Arabs in Aladdin; the hyenas in The Lion King; the Native Americans in Peter Pan; the list goes on. Not forgetting the notorious Song of The South, Disney's 1946 musical depicting happy black slaves singing with cartoon birds on a southern plantation. ...

News flash: Animated cartoons, like their live-action counterparts, are created in the context of their time. Song of the South falls into the racist category seventy years after it was made, but its racism is tame compared to Gone With the Wind, and South is off the American market while GWTW rolls merrily on. Steve Rose objects to James Baskett's shuffling, chuckling Uncle Remus, but does he also protest James Baskett's crafty, hyperkinetic Bre'r Fox?

I don't begrudge Mr. Rose his fantasy that newer live-action films are more ethnically sensitive than animated cartoons, but perhaps he's missed specimens like Borat, True Lies, the Indiana Jones series and various newer screen comedies, and so doesn't know any better. And if the black crows in Dumbo are racial stereotypes circa 2014, what must he think of the (unmentioned) Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs? Here's what director Bob Clampett thought about it:

In 1942, during the height of anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II, I was approached in Hollywood by the cast of an all-black musical off-broadway production called Jump For Joy while they were doing some special performances in Los Angeles.

They asked me why there weren't any Warner's cartoons with black characters and I didn't have any good answer for that question. So we sat down together and came up with a parody of Disney's "Snow White" and "Coal Black" was the result. They did all the voices for that cartoon, even though Mel Blanc's contract with Warners gave him sole voice credit for all Warners cartoons by then. There was nothing racist or disrespectful toward blacks intended in that film at all, nor in "Tin Pan Alley Cats" which is just a parody of jazz piano great Fats Waller, who was always hamming into the camera during his musical films. Everybody, including blacks had a good time when these cartoons first came out.

All the controversy about these two cartoons has developed in later years merely because of changing attitudes toward black civil rights that have happened since then. ...

It's always dicey to take popular entertainments from one era and superimpose a later era's cultural values on top of them. Depictions of gay men in motion pictures during the thirties, forties, and fifties might be repugnant today, but less than a decade ago, bans on gay marriage were sweeping the country and winning voter referendums by wide margins.

Times change, as do values and social outlooks.

And as for black comedians/singers who give voice to animated zebras or owls or garden snails being part of a "racial pyramid," perhaps Mr. Rose is unfamiliar with the recent trend in animated features of casting well-known comedians and singers (who bring their fan-bases and delivery styles with them) to boost box office. If these actors aren't allowed to voice animals and mollusks (Mr. Rose would prefer someone other than James Earl Jones portraying Lion King's Mufasa?) then who, exactly, are they allowed to portray? Should British actors complain that they're forever cast as evil Romans in sandal-and-toga epics? Shouldn't an Italian actor be given a shot at those parts?

Animated cartoons, from their beginnings, have thrived and prospered through caricature. The seven dwarfs aren't seven small men suffering from dwarfism, they are cartoon caricatures reacting to the girl in their midst. Cruella De Ville doesn't succeed because her black-heartedness is underplayed, but because she is larger than life. Captain Hook's villainy is not subtle. Which is the case for most every animated character ever created. As a veteran director said to me long ago:

"Steve, audiences aren't seeing Robert Redford or Dustin Hoffman up on screen putting across the character. They're watching a bunch of drawings. So we've got to push the performance or it won't sell. ..."

"Pushing the performance" (another word for caricature) leads in a straight line to ... dare I say it? ... stereotypes.

Animation is many things, but subtlety has not been one of its stronger suits. So when Steve Rose gripes about "racial stereotypes," he's really complaining about the medium itself. Because, honest to God, animated features have been no more nor less racially insensitive than their live-action cousins. They've mainly been in lock-step with them for the past eighty-plus years.

Add On: Ah. And now "Voice of Russia" recaps the article:

For campaigners such as the NAACP, Frozen represents a step backwards, says Robin Harrison, of its Hollywood Bureau. "It was just a few short years ago that we were finally introduced to the first African-American Disney Princess, Tiana, portrayed by Anika Noni Rose," she says. "We had hoped this was a turning point for the industry. Unfortunately, what has now become the most successfully animated feature of all time, Frozen, is probably the least diverse. ...

I've got a simpler idea about Frozen. It was a movie based on a Danish writer's short story about a Norwegian princess in the 19th century. Given the subject matter, it was difficult to work in many brown-skinned characters.

But it's good Russia is pointing out the horrid lack of other ethnic groups in Snow Queen/Frozen, since it's got a bit of non-diversity in its own checkered past to worry about:

... On June 5, 1959, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Universal had purchased outright the United States and Canadian rights to The Snow Queen, which had been produced in Russia in 1957. ...

Soyuzmultfilm Productions, the Russian production company, entered the film in the Vancouver Film Festival on August 3, 1959, and Universal ran the picture at the San Francisco Film Festival in November 1959. ... In Washington, D.C. in April 1960, Idaho Democratic Senator Frank Church highlighted the film's appeal to Idaho's high percentage of Danish citizens by hosting an invitational screening at the Motion Picture Association headquarters, attended by the Ambassador of Denmark. Reviews widely praised the film's animation and noted its similarity to Walt Disney's methods and style. ...

I'm shocked and saddened that Senator Church, good progressive that he was, didn't point out the lack of diversity in the Russian picture. Sadly, he didn't have Steve Rose cluing him in about how over-weighted with white people the Russkis' animated feature was.


Unknown said...

There is a difference between "Stereotype" and "Caricature." Stereotypes exist because the masses are too lazy to concern themselves with detail. Caricature is exactly the opposite--yet not with more detail, just specific detail s to specific issues. Both can, of course, be racially tinged. But the ones mentioned in this article are either mild or of their time. Look what cartoon is more racist than the average (awful) spike lee film? Not many.

b. Touch said...

The average Spike Lee film is typically a direct and attack on racism; often blatant to the point of didacticism.

I can name dozens of cartoons more racist than the average Spike Lee film. In fact, Lee himself compiled several of them for the closing montage of his 2000 film "Bamboozled".

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