NO KILL I (glockgal) wrote,

unlocked, to promote discussion

DISCLAIMER: I'm using 'Wolverine and the X-Men' as an example. I'm not offended by the cartoon, I just laugh at the story/characterization of the X-Men. My personal opinion, which doesn't affect this discussion and doesn't judge your enjoyment of the cartoon. (in short: I like tons of stuff others laugh at; but I know you don't judge me for it. ;D)

I've watched a few modern-day cartoons (most recently the laughable Wolverine and the X-Men) and noticed a vaguely delightful increase in speaking, Asian-varieties of NPCs*. In particular, Indian women (generally depicted as scientists, teachers, doctors). And generally they:

a) wear a bindi**
b) have an Indian accent

**Digress to a LOLwtf about the Wiki entry on bindiCollapse )

So like, okay. It's a cartoon, right? Cartoons need to simplify, stylise and provide easy indicators so children can immediately understand that a character is heroic or evil or a boy or a girl. So a brown character, she could essentially be any variation of brown-skinned races in the world - until the creators slap on a bindi and give her an Indian accent.

Is it necessary? Can we have a speaking!brown character without providing cultural indicators? What I mean is:
  • can a child watching the cartoon comprehend that the character is a certain race without the cultural indicator?
  • for a child, can it be a subtle, subconscious form of Othering?
  • and, is it really necessary for the child to comprehend the culture of the character if it's not particularly necessary to the story?
Most of the speaking!NPCs are just that - NPCs. They forward plot and no complex characterization. Interestingly, - most of the cartoons I watch being American cartoons - this cultural indicating/branding applies to white NPCs, as long as they're outside of America. In Wolverine and the XMen for example, scenes/people of Germany where hilariously situated in some olde tyme burg and the NPCs all dressed like peasants from 1896. And...I'm pretty sure they carried torches (not flashlights - actual fire).

Last question - if I win the lottery, should I commit myself to the research and investigation of race and racial shortcuts in cartoons? Because now I really really want to. And if I enlist you guys to help, I'll totally give you $5 (Canadian).

PS - 'NPC' means 'non-player character'. If you didn't already know that, your nerd-level has just dropped by 5 points. XD
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I think the more "stripped-down" the art is, the more it depends on the viewer to, uh... fill in the blanks. And that's where you learn what a person's (usually subconscious) "default" is. I think this is why there are those people who think anime characters "look caucasian" (and that the Avatar people look white).

I think it can be pretty insidious, and I know I'm not immune myself--I mean, show me a smile-y face and I'll assume it's male until you add eyelashes, which is pretty dumb when I think about it (how does that even make sense as a gender marker). Or that I know a plain stick-figure in xkcd is male unless it has hair. How does that make sense when I'm a chick? I figure it's because growing up (and now), where I am, the storytelling default/blank slate is white male.

can a child watching the cartoon comprehend that the character is a certain race without the cultural indicator?

I think it'll always depend of the specific child in question and their environment. The less detail given, the more they'll fill in the blanks with whatever available info they have. If the artist and the audience are on the same page--they'll get the cultural markers (ie I think I can usually tell when anime characters are supposed to be white now), but if not... there'll be a miscommunication (USans thinking certain anime characters or Avatar characters are white). So if you're trying to communicate "this character is x culture/race," it'll take whatever indicators your audience needs to get it.

Still, it seems lazy storytelling (and tokenism) to resort to stereotypes. If the audience is so ignorant they can't get that someone is x culture without every overt bell and whistle possible (bindi/accent/lederhosen), is the storyteller really doing anything of value by presenting this caricature? Should the storyteller be encouraging their audience by reinforcing this shortcut as valid, like bindi+accent=Indian woman, done?

Seems in that case that the storyteller is trying to satisfy some quota/ideal, rather than portraying a realistic character (even a NPC). I guess trying to satisfy some imagined quota of "diversity" is better than not trying at all for different types of people... but still not ideal.

for a child, can it be a subtle, subconscious form of Othering

I think yeah. And depending on where you fall compared to what your society thinks is "default" you'll be better or worse at identifying with people who are different. Just by what people are exposed to in the media they grow up with. (ie by necessity Indian girls can prob more easily identify w/ the white male hero in HP, than a white male would be identifying with a Indian female heroine). Though maybe this is just marketing pessimism (or self-fulfilling), and kids would identify with almost any cool character given the chance?

and, is it really necessary for the child to comprehend the culture of the character if it's not particularly necessary to the story

IDK about this! But I don't think it can be good storytelling to not have at least a realistic reflection of the different mix of people out there. It's a passive form of discrimination to ignore the "non-default," but still bad, and making people who are not themselves the "default" a little heart-sick when they see there are no girls/non-whites/non-Christians/non-straights/etc like them in the story's universe. Though even better if it's not just NPCs.

Sorry if this got ramble-y and disorganized. I'm still learning and changing my thoughts on this. :|

Good luck w/ the lottery. :D

Deleted comment

is it really necessary for the child to comprehend the culture of the character if it's not particularly necessary to the story?

I feel like that's really the key here. Sometimes it bothers me how much people AREN'T CAPABLE of looking past characters' skin colors and ethnicities and so on in fiction, TV, movies, or whatever. I not long ago wrote a short story that had a black character in it and was criticized for not "emphasizing his blackness," or something along those lines. Since race wasn't the point of the story at all, I was rather T__T about the advice.


March 26 2009, 13:28:03 UTC 8 years ago

Well, over here in the UK, I do remember watching the new Famous Five (decedents of the originals) on the disney channel, and I had assumed that one of the main characters - Jo was mixed race (brown skin, green eyes) until, in one ep, someone called her by her real name - Jothi, and I realised she was actually Anglo-Indian.

She is one of the main characters, a tomboy and she has a British accent, not the silly sterotypical Indian accent (no-one in my family talks like that) and no bindi either. I guess I was so used to Indians being sterotyped in cartoons, that when one character came along that was more like me, I didn't really clock she was of Indian decent until about 5 episodes in.

Another kids programme in the UK, Sarah Jane Adventures, has a British Asian family as well in the main cast, but it was a bit more obvious due to the names (eg, Rani). Luckily they're not walking around with a funny accent and wearing bindi's either. Also, it's live-action, not a cartoon.


March 26 2009, 13:29:14 UTC 8 years ago

But the Famous Five on the case is actually a cartoon, just in case that wasn't clear.


March 26 2009, 13:32:45 UTC 8 years ago

I just found a picture of the character, if anyone wants a look:


Sorry if it seems like I'm spaming.
NOT SPAM AT ALL. This is pure gold and I am SO writing another post purely dedicated to the writings of Enid Blyton. Holy take-me-back-to-my-childhood! Holy George having a baby with an SE Asian guy! *gfurbles* HOLY DISNEY AND THEIR NEED TO AMERICANISE THINGS!!!

Thank you for linking to this!


March 28 2009, 15:00:24 UTC 8 years ago

For some reason, according to wiki, its not aired in US, only in Europe and India.I'm not really sure why though.

"I don’t really see how you can take the Famous Five out of their era, which is 1940s Britain, anybody can write about four children and a dog, and my concern is that modern kids who watch this will think that the Famous Five is all about gadgets and multi-culturalism." (From the article)

Why does this person seem to think multi-culturalism is a bad thing? I've noticed that in the current UK kids programmes, there's a bit more diversity, which actually reflects real life, as far I am aware, being in inner city London.
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