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Read and relax with John K

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Legendary animator and curmudgeon John Kricfalusi has a lot of strongly held beliefs, and writes about them on his blog. Here, hs talks about stereotypes in cartoons…through the lens of Sven Hoek.:

When I created Sven Hoek, I didn’t go and study all Nordic cultures. I had a conglomerate stereotype in my head of what I thought was funny about nordic white folks. I combined the funniest stereotypical attributes from different branches of Germanic peoples.

  1. Great article!

    There may indeed be some point beyond which a stereotype is used not to simply “downgrade” the emulated for purposes of simple comedy, but to “degrade” for purposes of political hegemony– but many academic critics don’t know the difference.

    “Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarves,” the crows in DUMBO– these are not on a par with the black congressmen in BIRTH OF A NATION.

  2. While I agree with John K. in principle, I also find most of his observations are the kind that only white people in America can make because white people are the default, and a whole lot of them really have no idea what it’s like to see a gross caricature of yourself on screen. No white people identified with Beavis and Butthead as white people because there were just two white people among hundreds on TV. When the only Asian people you see on TV are running restaurants or speaking in Engrish, I think I have a right to get at least a little upset about that.

    One of these days, I will figure out the Chico Marx effect, which (summarized) is the fact that Charlie Chan really pisses me off while I think Chico Marx is hilarious, despite the fact that they’re really doing the exact same schtick of an ethnic exaggeration in their roles.

    I can’t quite rule out the possibility that it’s just as simple as Charlie Chan is supposed to look like me and Chico Marx isn’t. However, there are gross Asian stereotypes elsewhere that I find funny (like on South Park or “Miss Chinglish” in Black Lagoon), so it might just be the rule of funny at work, too.

  3. The South Park stuff is done ironically, and the Chico stuff was done half tongue in cheek, which his nationality being as real as Groucho’s moustache or Harpo’s hair. Charlie Chan was meant to seriously portray an Asian man however. Similarly, Chico is much less offensive than the ‘Mammy’ character of the 1920’s.

  4. That’s always baffled me. Why exactly is Charlie Chan offensive? Ok, they should have gotten a chinese guy to play him, by now. People were really incensed in the 1970s when they got Peter Ustinov to play the part in Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen — but since the movie bombed so badly, it didn’t make much difference.

    In fact, I pointed out, at an SF convention, that Zorro has usually been played by white guys, also. But hispanic audiences seem to love the character. Some blonde in a Power-Girl top with a MST3K button scolded me with, “I would rather have a positive stereotype of me than a negative stereotype.” In her finite wisdom, she missed the point completely.

    Charlie Chan was usually the smartest guy in the room. He was a lieutenant. He seemed to be quite famous. He was one of the first oriental characters who was on the side of law and order, as opposed to the well-established “sinister oriental” stereotype.

    If you hate Asian stereotypes, fine — but you’re gonna have to come up with a better example than Charlie Chan.

  5. (I apologize if this is kind of incoherent. I’ve been swinging back to it periodically, and it’s probably horribly over-edited by now.)

    rich asks: “That’s always baffled me. Why exactly is Charlie Chan offensive? Ok, they should have gotten a chinese guy to play him, by now.”

    1. I need more than the fact that Charlie Chan has been always been played by white guys in yellowface to find Charlie Chan offensive? Really?

    2. OK, how’s this for an analogy. If I want to compliment the films of Martin Scorsese because I think he’s a brilliant director, and do so by saying, “Martin Scorsese is the greatest wop filmmaker who ever lived,” nobody will notice how much I like Martin Scorsese, nor should they. Now replace Martin Scorsese with Spike Lee and insert the corresponding ethnic slur and see how far you get with that one. That is how I feel when people ask me how I can dislike Charlie Chan since “he was meant to be positive.” Just because Fu Manchu offends me MORE doesn’t mean Charlie Chan can’t offend me at all.

    However, since you asked, I dislike the fact that his prodigiously gifted Oriental mind is apparently incapable of learning proper English grammar, so he has to speak in a ludicrous pidgin (as a counter-example, Col. Saito in “Bridge on the River Kwai” has an accent, but does not use the idiot-speak of Charlie Chan). I dislike the fact that, despite his enormous brood of children, he is a completely desexualized character. I dislike that his pack of children have numbers and not names, because that’s just a less negative spin on “Yellow Horde” sentiments. I dislike that they made him spout a bunch of made-up “Confucius say” crap when Sherlock Holmes never needed to regularly quote Plato to demonstrate how smart he was. And even if none of these things are all that bad, I’m ticked off that for decades, he was the best lead Asian character we got, and that other than the kung-fu ass kickers, he kind of still is. I hear good things about Hiro on “Heroes,” but most of what I saw on the premiere was the same fat, nerdy, desexualized Asian guy I’ve seen everywhere else, which was only one of many reasons why I couldn’t sit through that show. After that, I got Harold (of Harold and Kumar), and that’s it.

    I can’t speak for why Zorro doesn’t offend Hispanic people. I always thought he was Spanish (as in “from Spain” as opposed to Mexico/Latin America), so skin color isn’t necessarily a defining characteristic for him. You can put a white guy in the role, just like you could cast a French guy for a Brit as long as he could do the accent right.

  6. Edward is right about Zorro. Originally, he was a Spaniard colonist. It was only Antonio Banderas who made him into a peasant hero in name AND origin – and that was as Zorro’s quote unquote successor.

    But skin color matters far less to Latinos. Heck, I’m Mexican-American, and I’m as pasty as you can get (half Irish). My buddy is full Puerto Rican, and he’s as white as I am. His girlfriend is Dominican, and she’s dark-skinned as they come. Two of my coworkers are Puerto Rican, and everyone thinks they’re black (they are; what they aren’t is African-American).

    Traditionally the lighter your skin the more Spanish (from Spain) you are, and the wealthier you are – that’s why all the telenovela stars are white white white…

  7. one of the commenters over there quotes George Carlin saying “either everything can be funny, or nothing is” and I agree with that. However, just because everything CAN be funny doesn’t mean everything IS funny. Its not unreasonable to expect the uses of any stereotype to be questioned, just as its not unreasonable to expect the use of any stereotype to be defended, and no one has the right to tell someone what they can or cannot be offended by (or, to be fair, vice versa).

    really, you can’t break down something as complicated and personal as human sociology to a binary “yes/no” equation. Especially if you’re trying to do it the John K way where you ramble about the demmy-crats and how black people shouldn’t care about blackface because you once made vaguely nordic joke and no one got mad.

  8. Its not like there’s a heavy Nordic population in America.

    Also, most people in European countries only wear lederhosen on special occasions, just like we wear our uncle sam stilts on special occasions.

    I dunno. He had some good points, be he stereotyped Europe in the non joke part of the article.

  9. Edward: “However, since you asked, I dislike the fact that his prodigiously gifted Oriental mind is apparently incapable of learning proper English grammar, so he has to speak in a ludicrous pidgin —”

    Well, this argument never held up. Same with Tonto.

    I work at a newspaper where we have a number of people who speak English as a second language. One woman, who is quite bright, is a great graphic designer and “production coordinator” — on the other hand, she couldn’t put together a coherent sentence in English to save her life. Well, she could put together a coherent english sentence, but (with her heavy accent) she has this peculiar habit of dropping the last syllable on words. When explaining to me that a file was “a photo saved in photoshop,” she told me it was “a phot [phote] saved in photo.” Eh??

    If I accused her of having a “hispanic mind that is apparently incapable of learning proper English grammar,” I’d be fired on the spot. And with good reason … So, if we can give our friends, neighbors, and co-workers a pass, I vote for Charlie Chan and Tonto, and all the other English Second Speakers in Pop Fiction to be given a pass.

  10. Alright Rich, but I also know many many immigrants who know English just fine. Here’s the big huge diffirence. Charlie Chan is a fictional character. He can be written to have any accent or style of speech in the world, but they give him, not just broken English or an accent, but something insane. Charlie Chan is also one of the few Asian cinema figures of that era, and of course he’s a joke. Its as if black culture was represented by Soulja Boy, and only by Soulja Boy. Soulja Boy isn’t too awful, but that’s because there are respectable black people in the spotlight. Between Chan and Fu Manchu in the 40’s-50’s, it was slim pickens.

    Besides, why can Batman learn perfect Japanese and Chan not learn perfect English. Again, they’re not real.

    Also, he’s played by a white guy.

  11. “one of the commenters over there quotes George Carlin saying “either everything can be funny, or nothing is” and I agree with that. However, just because everything CAN be funny doesn’t mean everything IS funny. Its not unreasonable to expect the uses of any stereotype to be questioned, just as its not unreasonable to expect the use of any stereotype to be defended, and no one has the right to tell someone what they can or cannot be offended by (or, to be fair, vice versa).”

    so every argument about stereotypes is going to sound like this,

    “I’m offended by this stereotype”

    “It’s not offensive”

    “yes, it is”

    “no, it’s not”

    “Well I’m offended, so deal with it”

    “fair enough, but you should get over it”

    “no, you should stop encouraging offensive things”

    “no, you should not get offended all the time”

    …. and so on into infinity.

  12. If you don’t like the way Asians are stereotyped in film, even when their roles are heroic and positive, then your solution is to go into film and right the situation. There is no point in ragging on filmmakers and producers who generally mean well toward your people but might be falling into a bit of a typecasting trap. Get over it, and pick a better battle.

  13. Charlie Chan, I always assumed, was a guy who began learning English later in life. I’ve heard that it becomes more difficult to learn other languages as we grow older — probably because we become more set in our ways? I just turned 40 and was thinking of studying Russian. I’ll let you know how it goes.

    Also, his son Jimmy Chan usually speaks perfect English — the product of an upbringing in a Chinese family but taught in a school system that (I presume) is pushing English.

    I’ve read a few of the original Chan novels by Earl Derr Biggers. In the first, Chan is pretty over the top with his words of wisdom. But then, he was a minor character who caught the attention of the reading public. As he becomes the major character in the stories, the Confuscious quotes are less frequent. For a more modern interpretation, try reading (if you can find a copy) CHARLIE CHAN RETURNS by Dennis Lynds — a novel based on an unproduced screenplay. Chan steps into the 1970s with aplomb, as he investigates a series of murders (and dodges a determined assassin) in New York City, where Jimmy Chan is now a lieutenant! It’s a great story, and should have been filmed …

    OK … Chan may be a dated portrayal … no arguement there … but I could never wrap my head around offensive since this particular white kid (me) grew up thinking Charlie Chan was among the coolest of fictional detectives.

  14. DBL: “If you don’t like the way Asians are stereotyped in film, even when their roles are heroic and positive, then your solution is to go into film and right the situation. There is no point in ragging on filmmakers and producers who generally mean well toward your people but might be falling into a bit of a typecasting trap. Get over it, and pick a better battle.”

    Yes, because making her own show worked out so well for Margaret Cho with “All American Girl,” didn’t it? This is why Wayne Wang and Amy Tan had such a hard time getting funding and distribution for the movie based on the #1 best-selling novel at the time. There’s no demand for Asian roles because there are no actors to fill them, because there are no roles for them to play.

    Even if Charlie Chan’s creators thought he was positive, that doesn’t really make it a whole lot better. I am quite sure that the people who made “Super Friends” really intended for the Samurai, Apache Chief, and El Dorado to be positive figures that injected some ethnic diversity into the DC Comics lineup. They get full points for effort, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still laughably bad, borderline insulting stereotypes.

    There is racism of ignorance and there is racism of malice. Racism of ignorance doesn’t burn crosses or form lynch mobs or pass anti-immigration laws specifically targeted at one group of people, but it is still racism nonetheless. I don’t think Charlie Chan was a “racism of malice” figure like Fu Manchu or Shiwan Khan or any of his other Yellow Peril contemporaries. Apache Chief or Charlie Chan may be racism of ignorance figures, but that doesn’t make the racism any less stinging. At the very least, you can correct racism of ignorance by removing the ignorance.

  15. “Yes, because making her own show worked out so well for Margaret Cho with “All American Girl,” didn’t it?”

    As I understand it, she didn’t make her own show (unless you count the current one). She was approached to turn her stand-up routines into a sitcom (same as Tim Allen, Ray Romano, et al). There’s a big difference. Television is awful to everyone, and when they’re trying to sell a minority viewpoint to the moronic majority, they’re even more awful. There were a lot of talented asian actors on her show, and it’s not their fault that the material was white-washed (in more ways than one). Maybe what is needed is more asian producers to support asian writers, directors, and actors.

    Simply crying about past or even current transgressions instead of looking for ways to make things better makes you come off as whiny and unsympathetic because people get tired of hearing about it….especially those people who aren’t racist and agree that improvement has been or could still be made. You begin to alienate those which have already been converted, so what is gained by crying foul to people who refuse to listen at the expense of those who have already heard becoming so tired of hearing about it that they begin to think it’s all in your head after all?

  16. Well, I’m not racist or ignorant … and still like Charlie Chan … so, I suppose that I, too, must invoke the “Get Over It” amendment.

  17. Why do people always have to get so involved with fucking races? I am white… black people are black… blah blah… who care’s if John K or even the early Looney Tunes cartoons make race-based stereotypical characters? The mere fact that people take time to point out race-based things (no matter what they may be) further perpetuates the idea of drawing differences between cultures and races. This is the new age of racism; people thinking they are helping, but instead obliviously just continuing the idea of differentiating people based on their race.

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