April 15, 2007

Bugs Bunny and the State of Race Relations in America

I attended a barbeque last weekend where the subject of the Johnny Quest cartoon arose. Not having seen Johnny Quest for many years, I jokingly asked whether Johnny Quest has racist or homosexual undertones that we as kids did not identify. This led to a roundtable discussion about examples of racism in cartoons, movies and tv shows over the years. Some of the examples thrown around were:

--The Bugs Bunny episode where a explosion takes place in front of a bunch of white guys. When the smoke clears, their faces are black, whereupon they become minstrels and start playing Negro spiritual songs.

--Mickey Rooney as Japanese landlord Mr. Yunioshi in the 1961 film "Breakfast at Tiffany's." This over-the-top portrayal ("Miss Gorightry!") was typical of the entertainment industry's treament of minorities at the time. Rooney's character also brought up a secondary form of racism, that of casting white people as minorities, instead of employing minority actors to fill the bill. One example that stands out is the casting of Canadian actor Joseph Wiseman as Chinese villain Dr. No. in the 1962 James Bond film "Dr. No." Wiseman's prosthetic Asian eyefolds are pretty embarrassing to see today.

--The portrayal of Native Americans ("Injuns") in just about every western movie and television program before "Dances With Wolves." The Native Americans were largely portrayed as screaming, savage, one-dimensional cutouts. There was little or no attempt to differentiate them by tribe, tribal customs or otherwise. They merely wore feathers and chanted "Hi-how-are-ya Hi how-are-ya." Even worse, as was the case with Mr. Yunioshi, the Native Americans were often played by white actors, sometimes ones with blue eyes.

--Mr. Magoo's Chinese houseboy Charlie, with two buck teeth, Coke bottle glasses, and traditional Chinese clothing. "Cholly" would use his martial arts skills to flip passersby, repeatedly saying "So solly, so solly" as he did so.

These are just a few examples that we came up with. There are countless others. It is useful to think about this in an age where a racist comment by a popular radio personality justifiably causes a massive public outcry and results in his firing. Just a few decades ago or less, the same behavior would have been handsomely rewarded. Although we have a long way to go, that is some progress.


At 7:33 PM, Blogger Aileen said...

I'm not completely sure how I feel about this issue (not the issue of racism in cartoons, the issue of race relations in general). Part of me feels we've gone too far with political correctness, and all the suppressed feelings are exploding. Then there's the issue of free speech, and the question of where do you draw the line? Then as soon as I think that, I also think "but what about just treating each other with decency and respect?" There are just so many layers to this subject.

At 8:37 PM, Blogger media concepts said...

Hopefully there's a happy medium between racism and PC. I remember a bit years ago from comedian turned director David Steinberg, who is from Canada and in a good position to observe us. He said: "You will never get a liberal to admit that some Blacks have rhythm. You will never get a liberal to admit that some Jews have money. And you will never get a liberal to admit that some Puerto Ricans are naturally good with cockroaches."

At 1:44 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

I was never the one being made fun of in any of the examples you gave. In fact, I grew up in a southern town that had a black-face minstrel show put on each year by the local (all-white) Women's Club. I sat with all the other white faces and laughed. However, once you picture yourself as a minority (of any kind), this issue takes on a new clarity. I too echo Aileen's call for decency and respect for all. That will take care of it nicely.


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