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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When I was a kid, the bindi was how I told Indians apart from Mexicans. This is what happens when you grow up in an all-white town.
NO NO NO NO NO NO NO *holds head, rocks in corner*
Lol at the white girl wearing a bindi (or phota/tip, in bengali). So lame. I love that she is so terribly Aryan, too. xD

The whole "religious/cultural" reasons thing was my excuse for going through med school with a nose stud. ;D

I personally have more issue with characters being given accents to indicate where they're from, as opposed to the bindi. Because accents carry a whole level of stereotyped (and sometimes insulting) meaning, implying levels of intelligence, modernity and morality.
God that girl needs SERIOUS help. I can't believe that she painted herself in blackface on her Flickr and that people ACTUALLY CONGRATULATED HER ON IT. GYAIDHSKFHDSKIFHDS.

Anyway - ahahah I use the religious thing as my excuse for my nose ring!! It's like SUCK IT, LOSERS. I LOOKS COOL - but oh, it's cultural!!

You know, it would be REALLY awesome to have a cartoon character wearing a bindi or a chador or a salwar or any sort of cultural indicator...and NOT have it paired with an 'exotic' accent. I mean, that would seriously confuse so many people because they'd be all "Lookit that head covering! She's clearly Muslim! Why isn't she speaking in some sort of Muslim accent? WHY DOES SHE SOUND *gasp* NORMAL?!" (after reading this article, I SO believe people would be confused by a character with a bindi-but-no-accent, lol).


9 years ago


9 years ago

Oh, also, I just remembered I read this article in the paper today. Kinda relevant, the journalist talks about how when she appeared on Fox News, people were e-mailing her afterwards asking her why she wasn't wearing a Burqa if she was Muslim.

I guess maybe the reasoning is that if you can identify how another person is different from you, it can theoretically give you a better idea of what that person is like. But that's kinda crap, because then you're falling back on stereotypes to create a picture of that other person, rather than actually getting to know them. And stereotypes and generalizations can *sometimes* provide information about a group of people at large, they pretty much always fail at the individual level.

So maybe for these minor characters, they want to make them seem more real or fully-rounded, so they go for the Bindi to identify a specific cultural or ethnic background, rather than spending the limited amount of time to develop the character? IDK. I think I had point further to this, but I've forgotten it!
Thank you for the link! My dad usually passes on news tidbits he thinks I'd like from the Metro and 24, but he's out of town, so it's kind of comforting to see this, too. *g*


9 years ago

Is it necessary? Can we have a speaking!brown character without providing cultural indicators?
Thank you!

It seriously trips me up sometimes. One one hand, I'm like 'yay, it's a brown person!' and on the other I'm like 'oh, they're not "from here".' :(
This reminds me of a real bizarre translation of a cartoon I've once seen on tv here. It was one of these Christmas episodes, and the cartoon was iirc Disney's Recess. There was this Christmas performance at the school, and the kids appear as seasonal characters, and sing a line. There were some reindeer, then a green-clad elf, some druids, then comes a kid in sort of traditional African clothing for Kwanzaa, then a kid dressed as menorah, and the climax is Santa Claus. (And okay, you can do a critique of how they lump everything under Christmas in their eps, or the rather clumsy "lets make our Christmas episode diverse" but that didn't get to me.)

In the translation the song line of the menorah-clad kid was "I am a shining Christmas tree" or something like that. Srsly. The costume had no resemblance whatsoever to a tree. I'm fairly sure in the original the line must have been something about Chanukah. And sure Chanukah references aren't as common here as in the US, and menorahs not that common, and maybe some children would have been confused, but they had no problem leaving Kwanzaa as Kwanzaa in their translation, and that holiday is far less known here. I have no idea why they felt the need to edit out the Jewish holiday, or what the they thought when had a candleholder costume sing about being a Christmas tree.
That is seriously bizarre! Why the change of Chanukah but not of the other holidays? Like, was Chanukah worldwide and therefore comprehensible/changeable, whereas Kwanzaa is so totally American that it's like 'eh. No one outside of the States knows what that is anyway.'

I wish media had training in taking responsibility/ethics for what they choose to show to their audiences. But then, saying 'ethical media' is kinda like saying 'flying pig'. It ain't gonna happen.


March 24 2009, 17:35:33 UTC 9 years ago Edited:  March 24 2009, 20:47:42 UTC

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

I think Avatar has already proved that even WITH cultural indicators, children/teens/adults can't comprehend a character is a certain race.

ETA: Oh, unless they're speaking with The Accent. Perpetual Foreigner syndrome always reads well, whereas if they're just wearing the clothes/have an "ethnic" name? Eh, probably just some white kid wearing pretty exotic clothing and WHAT, WHITE KIDS CAN'T HAVE FRUITY ETHNIC NAMES TOO?

My bitterness isn't contributing very productively to this thread, I apologize.

If you win the lottery, HOARD it and, I dunno, buy stock in animation studios or whatever it is you need to do for them to actually care about the opinions of people concerned about the long-run harms of prevailing racial shortcuts in media. (I'll still take $5 Canadian though.)
OH SWEETIE. *gives you lots of love* Don't apologize, I've been in the pool of bitterness as well, swimming about, knowing I should get out but I just KEEP getting pushed back in.

Avatar, man. I love love LOVE how people think it's perfectly reasonable to have a white character in full 'ethnic' clothes. No questions asked, no weird feelings about whitey playing dress-up in 'Oriental stuff'. Why not, that's just the way it is, deal with it! It's prefectly okay! But if WE ask for an actor from that cultural background to represent the character in live-action and suddenly WE'RE the ones being 'racist against white people'. *SMACKS STUPID PEOPLE HARD, SO HARD*

Deleted comment

ahahahahahhahhahah WIN!!


9 years ago

Oh, very interesting post! (I still need to reply to a comment of yours but that'll have to wait till.. later. :P)

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

I think this really depends on a) age and b) the surroundings a child grew up in.

Re b): I've mentioned before (in one of my Avatar-related comments) that racism "works differently" here (here being Central Europe). The reason it works differently here is that the "mixture" of ethnic groups here was (and is) totally different from the one in, say, the US or Canada.

Like.. I was in my early teens when I first met a black person IRL. (Imagine that!) And I only did so because in the city I lived in, there was sort of institute/organisation/something (sorry, don't remember what it exactly it was) that provided housing for students from Africa (err.. or something along those lines!). Those (few) students were the only black people you'd see around our city. A friend of mine who grew up on the countryside (where things were/are generally a bit more "backwards" and people were/are more conservative) told me she was actually "shocked" when she first found herself face to face with a black person because it was totally out of the blue and there simply were no PoC around where she lived. (She was also in her teens then, and we're both in our late twenties now.)

When I first went to the UK (and later France), I was totally surprised (in a positive, "how awesome is that?!" way) at the ethnic diversity there. I remember sitting on the Paris Metro during rush hour, thinking to myself, "OMG, there's not only all kinds of black people riding on this subway, but also so many people with Asian features! It's the whole melting pot/salad bowl/prism thing I learned about at school! Why can't we have that at home, too?" The explanation was/is simple, but I didn't know or think of that back then. Reason is: unlike the UK or France (for example), the country I'm from never had colonies.

Of course things are different now, but the situation here still isn't comparable to that of the US or Canada etc.. And many people - even those of colour! - don't even know that it's different even in other European countries! Like.. a former colleague of mine, who is black, went on a weekend trip to Paris in 2007 (!!) and was all "I couldn't believe my eyes! There were so many people on the streets who looked just like me!" when she came back. (This was something that took me quite a bit by surprise because we're the same age [!!] and I was sure she'd know. I think what I didn't realise back then was that we were brought up very differently, i.e. I'm pretty sure she's never travelled much outside our country, or at least not as much as I did when I was a child/teenager.)

But ok, back to the actual point: I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have figured out where a PoC in a cartoon was supposed to be from when I was a child. And I wouldn't be surprised if that were still the case for many children in countries where there isn't such an ethnic diversity as in other countries.

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

I was going to answer this question with "no" but huh, now I'm not so sure anymore. Keeping in mind everything I said above.. maybe this sort of thing can actually teach a child (which is growing up in similar circumstances) that there's also "other" people out there? People who look or dress differently? Using cliches is certainly not a very good way to transport that kind of message, but hmm.. I'm not sure if such "cultural indicators" (even if they're insignificant to the story) are a bad thing in general.

?! Hm.
It's all definitely one big "HMM"!

the country I'm from never had colonies.

ding ding ding ding ding ding ding!!! It wasn't very hard for you to see this - a plain and clear fact that many, many, MANY people in imperialistic countries have conveniently forgotten and now are under some impression that PoC have 'invaded' their countries. Feh. More people should be as awesome as you.


9 years ago

I am pro de-racifying cartoons, but even in India these days bindis are becoming more of a fashion statement that a religious marker, so I'm not really bothered by the non-religious usage of them.
I'm not bothered by non-religious usage of them either! Not in the least; which is why I'm not criticizing their fashionable usage at all in this post. :D


9 years ago

At least we're beyond characters like Hadji. ...Right?

Race and racial short cuts in cartoons and animation is actually a topic I had a lecture on in my "Race, Racism, and Popular Culture" class. We talked about Disney and lots of things and I would totally sit down and discuss it right here right now... only I'm so damned tired. But I will return to this post tomorrow!
WOW I WANT TO ATTEND THAT CLASS!! It sounds keen. :D :D :D

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
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, 10:28:03 UTC 9 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, 10:29:14 UTC 9 years ago

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


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