The BBC Complains About Racial Stereotypes in Old Cartoons


The BBC’s published a politically correct article about the history of animation examples that had, as they claim, racist subtexts in the scripts and/or visuals. The discussion brings up how there’s still not many Black Americans working in Hollywood’s animation:


Behind the camera, it was also notable for having an animation co-director, Bruce W Smith, who was one of the few black animators working in Hollywood – something that is, depressingly, still the case today. “I realise that our animation business is probably made up of 3-5% African Americans,” said Smith, who also created Disney’s pioneering black cartoon series The Proud Family, at an event last year. “Therefore, you won’t get a lot of African-American content on the screen from an African-American standpoint because the people aren’t there at the table to put us in primary parts of films.”


Well I wouldn’t advise working in Hollywood to achieve that goal. Considering how PC they’ve become, what’s the use? You probably wouldn’t get the creative freedom you want and need, if at all. The way the Space Jam sequel – a subject of this piece – was put together, is pathetic. There’s film specialists who’ve made the case that you don’t need to go to Hollywood anymore to make movies and TV programs, and maybe African-American animators should consider helping to build animation outfits that can do what Hollywood won’t, and even make adult cartoons to boot. Why don’t enough people consider the possibilities of alternative industries?



The result is a sequel that, without giving too much away, handles race with a deft touch. Meanwhile its characterisation of James’ protagonist is more nuanced than Jordan’s driven sportsman. He’s shown to be a secret “nerd” who regrets repressing his childhood love for Gameboys and adores Harry Potter, while central to the fanciful plot this time is his relationship with his son, Dom (played by Cedric Joe), as both are sucked into Warner Bros’ servers where they have to play a basketball match to defeat the evil Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle) who controls Warner Bros’ virtual world. The only real problem with this film is the endless nods to other Warner Bros properties – with characters from The Flintstones and King Kong to, mind-bogglingly, the droogs from A Clockwork Orange popping up. These seem less like meta-jokes than adverts for the studio’s back catalogue and obstruct the film’s pleasures.


Whereas, in the mid-1990s, the original Space Jam felt like a lone pioneer, its sequel is part of an era in Hollywood animation that is beginning to show signs of change. There are more new films including characters of colour just as the racist tropes of some of the genre’s most famous old films are being reckoned with – to the point now where some even come with warnings when accessed on streaming platforms.


Would those happen to be the race-swapping “experiments” we’ve seen of recent, where a white character is deliberately replaced by POC, or gender-swapped? If memory serves, it happened with Mary Jane Watson in the Spider-Man reboots, and it’s honestly not amusing anymore. Say, I notice they mentioned the Clockwork Orange villains, very much without committal to the subject of whether it’s appropriate to put ingredients from a film laced with sexual violence into a movie aimed at children? That aside, if New Legacy was intended as a whole catalog rather than serious entertainment, surely there’s something rotten in Denmark? The original Space Jam from 1996 wasn’t the first blend of live action with animation anyway; Who Framed Roger Rabbit preceded it by several years.



Now here’s where they turn to more about racial elements in early cartoons:


Racism within the animation genre is certainly deeply ingrained. Looking at Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse it would be hard to imagine anything other than innocent fun, yet their conception was based entirely on racial stereotyping. As Nicholas Sammond, Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto, explored in his 2015 book Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation, many cartoon characters from the early days of film and TV, such as Mickey and Bugs, have their roots in minstrel shows. He writes how these characters began “visually and gesturally act[ing] as minstrels but over time lose a direct association with blackface itself”. This influence is also partly the reason why characters like Mickey and Goofy are always depicted wearing white gloves.


I do think it’s a bit odd why male protagonists would wear gloves, since that was far more a women’s fashion that you’d see at least until the mid-60s, much like fedora hats. But didn’t pantomime performers also wear gloves? I seem to recall some acts on TV where mimes would wear them to distinguish from a dark background, and what if the Disney animal cast wore them in as an allusion such performances? Sure, some cartoon figures may have drawn from racial stereotypes, but it’s still a stretch to suggest they all were, and didn’t take inspiration from other concepts in entertainment like pantomime gimmicks. By the way, if they think racial blackface is bad, do they also consider gender blackface like female impersonation by men bad too? Look where it’s got us now.


And when they get around to discussing Song of the South’s banishment from commercial distribution in the USA (it may be available overseas, surprisingly enough), they say:


Despite that film being excised from the family canon, however, there are still plenty of films within it that have a pretty obviously troubling relationship with race. Take another much-loved film from the same era, 1941’s Dumbo, which features crows acting out minstrel show routines – led by ‘Jim’ Crow, a character name riffing off the notorious pejorative term for black people that came to be associated with racial segregation laws in the US – and a song with the lyrics “We slave until we’re almost dead/ We’re happy-hearted roustabouts”. And all through the rest of the 20th Century, people of colour continued to be egregiously stereotyped. “The film that radicalised me against Disney was [1992’s] Aladdin,” says Hemant Shah, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies portrayals of race and ethnicity in film and media. “Because that’s where the imagery of the Middle East was so highly problematic. Even the theme song [Arabian Nights] would talk about how barbaric the Middle East was and how they would cut off your ear if they don’t like your face.” It also featured an all-white cast of voice actors.


It’s just like the BBC to obscure the barbaric situation of Islamic countries, which is presumably what the song alluded to, and that includes countries like Brunei. (The complaint about all-white voice casts is predictable too.) That aside, if they believe all of Disney and WB’s past cartoons are that problematic, do they believe they should all be locked away in the vault till the bitter end of time, and nobody allowed to judge them? They don’t actually say so, but neither do they make clear if they think the films are still watchable, and should be evaluated with parental guidance for children to what’s appropriate or not.


In the last decade or so, some progress has been made. Major new animated releases, from 2009’s The Princess and the Frog to 2020’s Soul, have centred black characters and characters of colour. And Disney, in particular, has conspicuously tried to correct itself: two years ago, Aladdin was reworked with a live action remake; it featured Will Smith as the genie as part of a diverse cast including numerous actors of Middle Eastern descent, and cut the more problematic lyrics from its songbook.

However whether these efforts count as truly progressive is debatable. In Aladdin’s case, it could be argued that the very aesthetic of it is inherently racist, says Dan Hassler-Forest, pop cultural theorist and assistant professor of media studies at Utrecht University. “To cater to fans [Disney] make minor adjustments but [there is still the fact] that the whole framework of Aladdin is this Western Orientalist playground that is presented as a kind of amusement park of stereotypes.”


I’m sure some PC advocates will argue it wasn’t right to make Will Smith the genie in Aladdin’s live action remake either, because he’d be in a part where he’d have to do the bidding of the main star, and wouldn’t exactly have independent agency of his own. Although the ancient inhabitants of Persia were an Aryan race, and hardly of Arabic background, they make it sound like the story really was some sort of attack on Arabic/Islamic societies, even though it was part of the original Tales of the Arabian Nights, just like Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, and the Voyages of Sinbad. And a lot of those stories had roots in what became Arabic/Islamic countries over the past centuries. So basically, they’d be authored by inhabitants of those very countries, and the original stories had nasty mayhem occurring too. So what’s the BBC’s complaint? Interestingly, they’re not very favorable to some of the live action remakes of an art form that must be getting rejected by the PC crowd in today’s less accepting liberal society:


As for 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, with its lead character Tiana, the first African-American Disney princess, it certainly challenged the default of white blonde princesses, but that attempt at diversity suffered from Tiana being transformed into a frog for most of the movie and the use of racially stereotypical tropes, such as voodoo, and a cliched New Orleans jazz setting. Similarly, Pixar’s Soul has a black lead, music teacher-cum-jazz pianist Joe, but then kills him almost immediately and turns him into a posthumous blob, while then putting another soul, voiced by a white woman, Tina Fey, into his body. What’s more, in one scene Joe is mistaken for another black man, an archetypal racist microaggression, which feels like it is scripted without any awareness of that fact.



And what’s this about microaggressions? Sounds like some of the propaganda they indoctrinate on college campuses these days; simply atrocious. If you want to make a good point, you shouldn’t put in such politically motivated elements.


They even brought up Brian Bendis’ diversity-pandering creation, Miles Morales:


Before that, in 2018, the animated Marvel and Sony Pictures release Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse offered the progressive template for how to successfully create a more diverse story that addresses race and racial prejudice in a subtle yet thoughtful manner. Co-directed by trailblazer Peter Ramsey, who was the first African-American to both be nominated for and win the best animated feature Academy Award for it, it tells the story of a young Afro-Latino boy, Miles Morales, who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and acquires power similar to Spiderman. Among the superhero antics, it shows Morales struggling with fitting in in his majority white elite school, while he has a touching relationship with his policeman father, who is focused on providing his son with academic opportunities, that rebuffs negative stereotypes about black fatherhood. “It’s a terrific example of how a story can draw on [a familiar franchise] while reframing it in a way that is really meaningfully about race without being didactic about it.” says Hassler-Forest.


Hmm, so the cartoon built on potentially political themes, did it? Well in that case, I’m not sure what the point is to such a production, other than to further the apparent goals Bendis set in place when he first came up with the idea a decade ago. And when they start bringing up “progressive”, you know something’s wrong, especially when there have been tons of examples of POC featured in various forms of US entertainment in past decades, and these disgraceful propagandists make it sound like none of that ever happened. It’s fine to present a positive example of black fatherhood, but that doesn’t mean the story should be done at whites’ expense. And then:


The importance of diverse representation in animation has truly hit home to me since I became a parent. Unfortunately, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is aimed at an older age-group than that of my daughter and, while it’s heartening that a film like Raya and the Last Dragon now exists, it is difficult to get a child of that age to deviate from the familiar when they are already obsessed with a cultural juggernaut like Frozen, whose merchandise and marketing is everywhere. That obsession has become a bigger problem than I thought it would be as, in her love for Elsa, my daughter has started to equate blondeness with beauty, power and strength which has led her to always try to seek out friends who are white girls.



Really, Spider-Verse is aimed at older folks?!? Depending how you view this, that’s not the biggest problem, since if US producers wanted to, they could market animation to older viewers, and not selectively monopolize the medium for indoctrinating propaganda to youngsters. But the reason I doubt it’s truly aimed at older folks is because of all the political correctness it carries. And why does the writer think Frozen equates blondness with beauty? There were films in the past with brunette stars, and while I may not think much of Gal Gadot due to her politics, she’s dark-haired and played the film role of Wonder Woman, easily the most recognizable brunette in comicdom, with Donna Troy coming a close second. And is something wrong with befriending white girls? There’s something mighty fishy about that part. What, aren’t all races created equal, and the only difference is ideology? Towards the end:


In the meantime we’re left with a situation in which new animation films are pushing to create a more diverse landscape, with mixed results, while systemic racism still casts a shadow over the genre. The Space Jam films are actually the perfect amalgamation of this problem, featuring as they do both strong black role models and outdated cartoon characters, like Speedy Gonzales (based on offensive Mexican stereotypes) and Bugs Bunny, who, as mentioned above, was originally inspired by minstrel performers. “[With Bugs Bunny alongside Michael Jordan and LeBron James] we’re seeing two different versions of how America views blackness and one version that doesn’t really acknowledge their race or racial identity,” as Hassler-Forest puts it.



So they believe Speedy’s just a mere stereotype, huh? And ignore his defenders, of course. They likely don’t have an issue with the antics of Sylvester the cat, who in many entries was trying to eat Speedy, which is far worse than stereotypes based on accents. And wouldn’t it be better not to make issues of race and racial ID? That’s how you depict a society that views all races equally. Unfortunately, it means nothing to the charlatans at the BBC, who’ve really scraped bottom with a propaganda piece that’s little more than a subtle dismissal of the past, while not making the future any better. All that aside, the Space Jam sequel’s faring pretty poorly at the box office (and Black Widow’s not doing well either), so why do they think this is such an achievement when very few care? It’s just a load of frustration, is all.


Originally published here.

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Avi Green

Avi Green was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. He enjoyed reading comics when he was young, the first being Fantastic Four. He maintains a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy of facts. He considers himself a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. Follow him on his blog at Four Color Media Monitor or on Twitter at @avigreen1