Monday, 29 September 2014

Racism, Hidden and Overt

I originally wrote this piece three years ago but it continues to be relevant.

"I saw a peanut stand, heard a rubber band, I saw a needle that winked its eye! But I think I will have seen everything when I see an elephant fly!" -- Jim Crow, from Dumbo

I was actually looking for something completely different (yes, I know, we all say that) when I happened across a YouTube video that had been posted as part of a sociology project on racism in the media, particularly in children's cartoons.  Of the examples depicted, I personally found most of them to be stereotypical but only one was truly justifiable as being racist.

1. "All this and Rabbit Stew" Merrie Melodies (1941).  This is one of the (in)famous Censored Eleven cartoons that were deemed as too offensive to be shown to modern audiences.  It depicts a slow-witted dark-skinned hunter trying to shoot Bugs Bunny.  Yes, this can be interpreted as racist.  But what many people forget is that these shorts were NOT meant to be children's cartoons in the first place: they were aired for adults before the showing of a film. Plus they tend to reflect the general attitude of the time, as wrong as it was. This leads into the following:

2. "You're a Sap Mr. Jap" Popeye the Sailor (1942).  This shows Popeye single-handedly defeating a Japanese boat.  The date and subject matter indicates that this was war-time propaganda.  How better to get people riled up against an enemy than to portray that enemy as stupid?  Bugs Bunny did the same as he flew airplane battles against a German-clad Yosemite Sam.  Many characters were used to drum up patriotism during this time, even Superman.

3. "When I See an Elephant Fly" from Dumbo (1941). The song featuring the character of Jim Crow is too-often seen as racist.  But it's not at all.   A tad stereotypical, yes - after all, the very name was a reference to segregation laws, plus the "southern" language the crows used.  But nowhere in the entire scene are there any slurs or offensive language.  It's a bunch of birds expressing their doubt, in a humourous way, that an elephant can actually fly.  In the end they even help out.

4. "I Wanna Be like You" from The Jungle Book (1967).  I had to shake my head in disbelief at this one.  The song is about King Louie the orangutan wanting the secret of fire so that he can be respected like a human. Never mind that the characters can be considered racially diverse, from Mowgli the Indian boy, to Louie who was voiced by an Italian jazz singer.

5. The Chinatown scene from Rescue Rangers to the Rescue (1989).  Here, the heroes Chip and Dale track their enemy to Chinatown where they meet all manner of characters from a straw-hatted laundromat proprietor to a pair of Siamese cats who speak in unison.  Racism, no.  More stereotypes, yes.  Asian and martial arts films were becoming more popular and the depiction of the culture was bound to create stereotypical situations and characters.  If you REALLY want evil Siamese cats, watch Lady and the Tramp (1955).

6. The Amigos, Happy Feet (2006).  Anyone who believes the quintet of dancing Adele penguins to be a depiction of racism must be seeing something that I don't.  They are bachelors who decide to impress the ladies with dance moves instead of song, and they take in the vocally-challenged protagonist Mumble as part of their troupe.  I highly doubt this film could have won the Academy for Best Animated Feature if it contained any truly racist overtones.

If I could I would tell the creator of the project that if he wanted a more racially unifying piece, listen to "We Are One" from The Lion King II.

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