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Realistic Racial Depictions in Cartoons

Page history last edited by PBworks 16 years, 7 months ago
Modern Trends of Racial Formation
Shows like "Fat Albert" and the Hannah-Barbera cartoons made popular in the seventies paved the way for a new generation of racially self-conscious cartoons.  These new era cartoons depict minority characters much more accurately than in the past.  In media market flooded with rosy relations between races, the cartoon medium provides sharp contrast those numerous network programs and news sources dominated by political correctness; afraid to explore the reality of race relations for fear of losing commercial viability.  One glaring example of the boldness of cartoons where other media flee is the politically charged comic strip "The Boondocks."  Immediately after 9/11 not a single media outlet would criticize any rhetoric or action of the Bush administration save "The Boondocks," the author of which, a young black man named Aaron McGruder, taunted his critics by changing the main characters into American flags and yellow ribbons (1). 
Like the writings of Joel Chandler Harris, cartoons are able to subvert the zeitgeist that punishes those who make waves and explore sensitive topics (2).  This tendency to punish is not without cause; one can find examples of racism throughout American popular culture, such as minstrel theatre or the various cartoons created before blackface was faux pas.  Indeed the stakes are high when it comes to racial depiction on the screen.  Television - with its history of depicting minorities negatively - holds an iron grip on the American populace and every negative depiction of minorities erodes the influence of positive minority characters upon the viewer (3). 
While the pitfalls are numerous and missteps in today's race sensitive atmosphere can have dire consequences, racially satirical cartoons continue to thrive and push the envelope.  TV is bland and safe for the most part, sanitizing the realism from heated issues.  This leaves niche open for those programs which boldly explore the more volatile topics.  It is for this reason that cartoons succeed in addressing race when live action programs will not; in many respects the cartoon format enables more realistic depictions of race and race relations than prime-time live action programs ever could. 
Comedy Central
Comedy Central is one of the networks spearheading the movement of realism through satire.  Chapelle's Show, though not a cartoon, is typical of those edgy shows on Comedy Central that explore race relations and questions such as "What does it mean to be a black American?"  "Drawn Together" is one such program in which fictitious characters of diverse backgrounds live together and are the subjects of a Real-World type reality show.  Depictions of race, sex, and sexual orientation are highly stereotypical and much of the substance in the show comes from the clashing of wills of the idealized characters.  Ling-ling is a Japanese Pokemon-like animal who has problems pronouncing L's.  Xander is an extremely effeminate adventurer, complete with loincloth and a rather phallic sword.  Foxy Brown, perhaps the most familiar stereotype, is a sassy black character vaguely reminiscent of Josie from Hannah-Barbera's "Josie and the Pussycats".  The primary goal of the show is definitely to entertain, that is the creators aren't looking to break new ground for racial harmony, but the levity that comes from unabashed exploitation of racial stereotypes ultimately reveals the ridiculous nature of those stereotypes. 
The highly controversial Comedy Central staple "Southpark" is a prime example of the subversive nature of the new cartoon. One of the main characters is a racist egomaniacal sociopath named Eric Cartman, or "Cartman" (one of few family friendly names his friends call him).  During the show's ten year history Cartman has used every racial epithet imaginable, condemned the gay community, exploited Asians and Mexicans, dressed as Hitler and a KKK member, made fun of his Jewish and black friends, and attempted several times to exterminate the Jewish race.  On any network sitcom Cartman would solicit lawsuits, FCC sanctions, and the contempt of every civil-rights group in America, but because he is a cartoon the genuineness of his hate is readily transparent as satire.  He then serves not as a model for racist actions but as a tool for probing social ills.  The Cartman archetype is a modern manifestation of minstrel theatre, a cousin of those blackface characters that white society once was so enthralled with.  Much as minstrelsy contributed to a white identity by showcasing a clearly inferior group of "others" (those others being non-whites) that whites could laugh at and distance themselves from, safe and innocuous Cartman functions as that clearly inferior "other"; a larger than life model of bigotry that white America can laugh at and distance its self from (4).
[adult swim]
The brainchild of Ted Turner, Adultswim is a late night network that airs cartoons targeted at young adults.  It began airing as part of Cartoon Network in 2000 and shortly afterwards Turner split the broadcast feed into two separate legal entities for the purpose of ratings, which was a great idea; Adultswim with 850,000 viewers regularly rates higher than the Late Show with its paltry 784,000 viewers (5,6).  Having a younger target audience enables Adultswim to air shows that heed no caution for depictions of race.
"The Boondocks" Aaron McGruder
Left to right; Riley, Huey, Granddad
Aaron McGruder's "The Boondocks" is perhaps the show most blatant when dealing with race.  Originally a comic strip, "The Boondocks" chronicles the lives of two young brothers who move from inner-city Chicago to the suburbs to live with their grandfather.  The three African-Americans characters are alter ego to McGruder who says that they represent the “three different facets of the sort of angry-black-man archetype," those being Huey (named after the co-founder of the Black Panther Party); the serious Che Guevara type intellectual rebel, Riley; "the wanna-be thug," and Granddad Freeman; the resigned pragmatic (7).  Typically Riley, attempting to conform to some black cultural ideal, will do something stupid while Huey acts as the voice of reason; functioning as a critic to both black and white cultural stereotypes.  One show opens with a popular rap star named Thugnificent and his entourage moving in across the street.  Riley becomes fascinated with the Thugnificent's cars, parties, and expensive looking jewelry, but Granddad and Riley are disgusted by the whole spectacle and spurn Thugnificent who then feels slighted.  Thugnificent and then Granddad record beef albums (beef albums, where people basically take verbal shots at each other, have caused much violence in the rap industry in the past) aimed at each other and things escalate until Huey gets the two neighbors to compromise.
The whole episode is a scathing critique of a record industry obsessed with money and image--topics very different from the black empowerment rap trend of the early nineties. Thugnificent is very much a stereotype of an industry that Mcgruder believes to be hollow and fake.  The rap star sits around all day saying ignorant things to his dumb friends; using that vernacular popular among trendy urban blacks and whites, the slang speech that no one naturally uses but nonetheless adopts because it is the black thing to do.  This is the heart of McGruder's art; the centuries long struggle against stereotypes that seemed won after the Civil-rights era has to begin all over again, but this time we fight a racial formation that, however false and manufactured, is readily embraced by those young and naive seeking identity in a consumer society.  The image of black America strewn across MTV is in many ways just as misrepresentative of blacks as was minstrel theatre, but it is an image readily embraced as real by proponents and critics of black culture.  McGruder's genius is that he creates realistic black characters side by side with stereotyped black characters and uses the former to critique the latter.  Like Charlie Chaplin and other stars of the silent film era who fiercely satirized the placid consumer society, McGruder steals the new American minstrel stereotype/corporate money tree that is the hip-hop artist and uses the satirical image to chip away at a still false racial formation (8).



(1) McGruder, Aaron. Interview. Karen Grigsby Bates. “Day to Day,” Madeleine Brands. NPR, 23 Oct, 2003.

(2) Cochran, Robert.  "Black Father: The Subversive Achievement of Joel Chandler Harris." African American Review, 3/1/2004. Vol.38, Iss.1; p.21-34

(3) Ngai, Sianne.  ‘‘A Foul Lump Started Making Promises in My Voice’’: Race, Affect, and the Animated Subject.  American Literature, Duke University Press. Volume 74, Number 3,     September 2002.

(4) Roedigger, David.  "White Skin Black Masks," The Wages of Whiteness, Versd, New York. 1991.

(5) Itzoff, Dave.  "Destroying Television, Toon by Toon," The New Yorker, 13 March, 2005.

(6) Glassman, Mark.  "Cable Shows Are Stealing Male Viewers From Broadcast TV," The New Yorker, 9 May, 2005.

(7) McGrath, Ben.  "The Radical," The New Yorker, 19 April, 2004.

(8) Levine, Lawrence. Unpredictable Past: Explorations in American Cultural History. Oxford University Press, New York. 1993.




Link back to Racial Formation in Modern American Cartoons

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