Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Race in Cartoons

So I was moseying on to work this morning when I started hearing the theme song to 6teen in my head, and I was reminiscing on the time I used to have cable TV and I watched cartoons and the SciFi channel just about incessantly (okay, I also watched TLC).

6teen was an interesting show to me. The basic premise is that of six teens who hang out at a fancy lemonade stall one of them works at, and it follows their trials and travails as they figure out how to get by on their own, holding their jobs (or not) and how they work through their problems. It also happens to follow a very smart comedy formula, with multiple storyarcs within a single episode. The creators did a good job realizing that yes, a younger audience could indeed appreciate smart shows.



The characters, being cartoon characters in themselves, are not exactly what one might call nuanced, but the creators certainly did try to explore different aspects of their characters. Jen, for example, works in the sporting goods store. She should be the jock of the group. She eventually wants to own her own sporting goods store. She's sportsy. She gets sports. But she's also responsible and she also loves her job.

Anyways, the point of this post isn't to talk about 6teen (although I will certainly explore this show further, because I like it).

Two of the characters in the show, Nikki and Wyatt, are clearly PoC. Jonesy is also possibly PoC, although he might pass as white. Jonesy's last name is Garcia, but his ethnicity isn't as visible as Wyatt's or Nikki's.

Wyatt Williams is clearly black. Nikki Wong is clearly Asian (though with her purple hair...).

And.

Well.

Clearly, their racial identities make no difference in their lives whatsoever.

Now, I find this cool on one level, and really odd on another level.

Cool because it's so neat to see a bunch of teens hanging out with each other, nice, somewhat stable, probably middle-class teens, who get up to hijinks that don't actually have any lasting ill consequences. They're racially diverse, whatever. It sends a message out to their audience that race and skin colour don't matter, and friendship matters the most.

However, being a PoC myself in a white white land, I occasionally do see how my ethnicity and cultural upbringing affect my day-to-day thoughts. For example, when I see Nikki being all individualistic, I can't help but wonder why - was she, like myself, rebelling against the conformity that's usually demanded in Asian families? Wyatt is the meekest, gentlest of the three guys, stereotypically sensitive (without being gay! Can you imagine that!) musician and music nerd - was this portrayal purposefully chosen to create a black character that didn't fit into the common thug stereotypes? Or did his skin colour just so happen to be black?

These are fascinating questions to me. It doesn't actually detract from the show at all, but adds a new element to the show which I personally love. Remember Friends? Friends only had white people, ya'll.

This doesn't mean 6teen is devoid of racial stereotypes. Hiro, for example, is the owner of the mall's sushi restaurant. He dresses like a samurai, talks with a stereotypical accent. Jonesy, who once worked for him, was taught "samurai" skills (all of which involved trying to learn how to be a good sushi restaurant worker. It was ridiculous and absurd, and I'm still not sure how much of the parody is awful). Granted, that's not all his character is predicated on. For example, when Starr and Jude play "fish theatre" at his restaurant (wherein they provided voices to a couple of fish in the sushi place's aquarium, much to the entertainment of the others), he tries to chase them away, but at the end of the episode when Jude gets back together in the form of "blue fish" returning, Hiro is there having an emotional moment because he "loves happy endings". Also, in an episode where the boys are freaking out over the girls PMS-ing, he offers them advice.

Now, this wasn't the only cartoon in which I noted PoC. Another big one for me was Codename: Kids Next Door.



Two PoC here - Number 3, Kuki Sanban, a girly girl of Japanese descent with uptight parents, and Number 5, Abigail Lincoln, a wise-talking girl "of South African desecnt", according to Wikipedia.

Again, ethnicity doesn't seem to play a role in what goes on here, except to give interesting quirks to the characters - it's quite stereotypical, in a sense, to have repressed Asian parents, although Kuki expresses herself in happy-happy-joy-joy ways. Abigail's mother is French-speaking (Creole? Cajun?) and her father is an apparent parody of Bill Cosby - these could be purposeful stereotypes as well. Do these factor in to their characters as a whole?

(And they get married to white boys. Don't ask me how this works.)

Now, I do wonder about several things - are cartoons which feature PoC characters as part of a cast (invariably a minority) a recent development? Are they purposefully done that way? Or do they just so happened to have ended up with PoC? (If the latter, I think it's pretty good.)

Then there are the cartoons which are clearly Orientalist - Jake Long: American Dragon and Life and Times of Juniper Lee:





Note the "magical teen" theme that runs in both, which sort of remind me of the "magical girl" genre of anime in Japan. (Not that this is any improvement, but hey, I just thought I'd point that out.) Maybe I haven't drawn from enough samples, but the fact that both Disney and Cartoon Network decided to release two Asian-oriented (haha, pun) shows, both with Asian-American teens as leads, who have Asian grandparents as mentors in their duties to protect humanity - I mean, come on. Wotta coincidence eh?

In both of these shows, their race isn't so much important to who they are, as it is to what they are, or rather, what powers they have. In Jake's case, he transforms into a dragon. In Juniper's (also, seriously, what's with the J-names? Not that I have a problem with it...) she can see demons.

I have trouble parsing the fact that these characters are even in America to start with - one would assume they'd be locked away in some monastery somewhere in Tibet in order to hone their skills without distractions, but I guess that's stereotypical.

And do their race factor in at all? Only in how they look like. (Although I did watch one amusing Juniper episode where there was a family reunion at her house, and I was quite pleased to note that the uncle-who-can't-speak-a-lick-of-English-apparently speaks in actual Cantonese. They could have seriously fucked that one up with Ching-chong but they didn't!) They are typical American teens - they navigate their lives like.... regular white middle-class teens who don't have to face any racism at all.

The oddest occurence of race in a cartoon that really boggled me though?

Class of the Titans.



Setting aside that the Titans weren't the Olympians, Narcissus probably never procreated, Atlanta was probably really the descendent of Atalanta (I'll buy gods spreading semen around, but goddesses birthing mortals? Hmmmm), and why are they in America, Odie, the descendent of Odysseus, is black.

And they notice it too! (Which is good, because it would have been stupid to ignore it completely!) I'm still not sure what I think about that.

Well, I guess racism isn't a real problem for kids. Which is why it's so absent from the cartoons we feed them.

So on the one hand - yay, racial diversity. On the other, boo for covering up the very real racial issues that most PoC face even today, in diverse America.

(Okay, 6teen and Class of the Titans were Canadian.)

1 comment:

  1. Static Shock actually dealt with racism a few times, though the targeted age group for this might have been a slight bit higher than what you mention here.

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