Racist Imagery in Early American Animation

The piece, “Who dat say who dat: Racial masquerade, humor, and the rise of American animation” by Nicholas Sammond explains the common racist tropes of early animation in America. This is done through highlighting typical portrayals of black coded characters and raising the question – For what audience are cartoons like these laughable? One of the cartoons that Sammond analyzes is the Betty Boop short “I’ll be Glad When you’re Dead You Rascal You” in which Betty Boop and her companions are exploring a jungle and are captured by Ubangi-type natives that were common to the racist portrayal of black people as ‘other’ i.e. less intelligent, childlike, uncivilized and existing for white pleasure. In this short, Louis Armstrong and his band are performing while the cartoon continues. Intermittently, Armstrong and his band members are the focus of the camera, and slowly their motions and mannerisms are transformed into cartoon characters, creating the sense that the black band and Armstrong himself are the natives in the cartoon.

Sammond also discusses whether or not good people, who would say they are not racist, can laugh at racist cartoons and imagery. As Sammond touches on, I think that it is important to understand that those who are able to laugh at these cartoons are not directly impacted by the stereotypes and harmful characterization presented in the cartoons. Sammond wrote, “The racist stereotypes that inform this sort of cartoon emerged from a specific iconographic lexicon and have circulated as commonplace expressions of contempt that dismiss the harm they express as ultimately harmless: in cartoons no one bleeds and no one dies. It’s all good fun. The intense effect of racism, instead of evincing either vicious malice or utter horror, is turned aside into a joke, a double-take, a gag, a disavowal.” Laughing at cartoons with explicit or implicit racist tropes also serves to further normalize those assumptions in society. Cartoons that portray black people as unintelligent or Jewish people as greedy reaffirm already present stereotypes, which further deepens racial inequality in American society.

While cartoons today are not as blatantly stereotyped as in the early 20th century, is it fair to say that stereotypes still exist in cartoons today? Are they present in media meant for children, or has potentially racist content shifted towards an adult audience? What does this shift imply about racial attitudes – does it explain heightened tensions? When faced with racist or discriminatory content, does everyone get to laugh? Why or why not?

 

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Carnivalesque humor and “Bad Words”

One of the main focus points in Ethan Thompson’s piece “Good Demo, Bad Taste: South Park as Carnivalesque Satire” is “The all permeating bad taste and offensiveness with which South Park transforms historical reality into animated TV.” Thompson then goes on to explain how groups like the Parents Television Council have publicly criticized South Park for the frequency and extent to which they use “bad words” in a very short amount of time. For example, the Parents Television Council counted 166 instances of “shit” in one evening’s program with 162 of those coming from an episode of South Park interacting with society’s dismay over “bad words.” Thompson does make the point, however, that the perceived offensiveness that South Park deals with so frequently has constructed a different way for dealing with cultural events and issues.
I think that these points are really interesting, especially in the context of carnivalesque Comedy Central shows like South Park that are often viewed without much critical thought by primarily male viewers. The idea that profanity and crude situations can be used to illustrate often complex ideas and make a point is one that I haven’t really thought of before, but it does make sense. I think that it is generally really effective for shows and media in general to engage with audiences in that way, especially because a lot of people wouldn’t be able to critically consume hours of more ‘hardcore’ or serious political and social media.
I also think it could be argued that the critiques of South Park could be explained by Bakhtin’s idea of “heteroglossia” which is the idea of competing discourses in dialogue. Because South Park has created a world where swearing and acting crude is the accepted reality in which to deal with current issues, the show itself is very starkly contrasted to the world that the more conservative members of groups like the Parents Television Council deal in. Because the worlds are so different, people take offense to what isn’t very much like the world they live in, which is very reflective of carnivalesque humor and culture in general.
Do you think that carnivalesque humor is more effective than other types of humor at making people actively think about their beliefs? Or is it simply a way to tune out more serious issues in favor of humor? Do you think that using frequent “bad words” delegitimizes the content of the media or does it allow the viewer to engage with it more thoroughly because swearing in some ways makes it more accessible?

Mixing Politics and Jokes

In the article “How Jokes Won the Election” by Emily Nussbaum, she explains one of the more perplexing and perhaps unsettling aspects of this election cycle – the intersection between jokes and politics. For many people around the world, Donald Trump’s campaign was effectively viewed as a particularly long running joke up until November 9th. This notion is not very surprising, especially when you look towards programs like SNL which frequently runs wild with the material Trump gives when speaking.

The joke of Donald Trump continued with the leak of the “Access Hollywood” tape. What would be considered career ending for most transformed into an opportunity to say the word “pussy” at any available opportunity. Because the tape was instantly treated as a joke any effort to explain the obvious problem associated with having a President who gropes women was waved away with a, “Can’t you take a joke?” or a “He didn’t mean it.” Suddenly and without realizing it, refusing to laugh and play along made you the subject of criticism. Emily Nussbaum touches on this by writing,

“The political journalist Rebecca Traister described this phenomenon to me as “the finger trap.” You are placed loosely within the joke, which is so playful, so light—why protest? It’s only when you pull back—show that you’re hurt, or get angry, or try to argue that the joke is a lie, or, worse, deny that the joke is funny—that the joke tightens. If you object, you’re a censor. If you show pain, you’re a weakling.”

Now, Trump has made his displeasure with SNL and other media outlets obvious by tweeting things like, “Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me. Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks! Media rigging election.” This raises a few important questions:

How do you think people could combat others treating everything Trump does like a joke when what he says has consequences now? Should people be concerned that Trump will try to limit what people say about him in the future? Are people making fun of Trump in order to laugh off nervousness and feel relief or is it something more?