Yesterday I ran the first part of an interview with media scholar Nicholas Sammond about the cultural politics of professional wrestling. In today’s installment, we extend our discussion to deal with his new project — a book in progress dealing with the connections between black-faced ministrels and the American animation tradition. For those interested in what he has to say below about Disney, you might want to check out his first book, Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960 (Duke University Press, 2005).
Tell us a bit more about your new project which deals with animation and race. How can we understand cartoons as bound up with the history of racial stereotypes in American culture?
The new project is one that looks at the beginnings of American animation in the early 20th century, and how those beginnings are bound up with another American performance tradition that some would like to forget–blackface minstrelsy. Blackface minstrelsy was a tradition that stretched back to at least the early 19th century, in which white men covered their faces and hands with black makeup, put on curly-headed wigs, and acted as if they were African Americans. This was not complimentary: the African Americans they portrayed were stupid and lazy, the usual stereotypes of the poor, stupid Southern Negro, the watermelon-eating, chicken stealing, singing and dancing plantation stereotype. Spike Lee made a whole movie–Bamboozled–about this stereotype.
Now, if you look at some of our most famous cartoon characters–such as Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse–you’ll see that they have characteristics that the minstrel had: white gloves, wide eyes and a huge painted-on mouth, and a complete lack of respect for authority. (This was truer of early Mickey of the late 1920s and early 1930s than it was of later Mickey.)
What I am interested in is why those qualities of the minstrel were first used in creating trademark characters, and why, even after some of those explicit racial stereotypes became unacceptable to us, those markers of minstrelsy continued. It’s important to make a distinction here, though. In the 1930s and 1940s in particular, there were some really racist stereotypes used in animation,particularly in relation to jazz music, which was called “jungle music” by some folks.
So, there were a whole range of associations of blackness with the jungle, with the plantation, with being primitive and close to nature, that had operated in blackface minstrelsy, but also showed up in other racist stereotypes. What interests me is that while those racist stereotypes eventually became widely unacceptable, and even though blackface minstrelsy became an unacceptable performance form, the idea of the minstrel continued in cartoon characters. And you can see it continuing long after in cartoons such as Animaniacs and the feature Space Jams, to name a couple.
But even though I see what I call “vestigial minstrels” like Bugs or Mickey as different from racist caricatures such as those I mentioned above, there is a connection. The minstrel character has always been part of a system of what Eric Lott has called “love and theft,” or what Stuart Hall has called the “ambivalence of stereotype.” Even though the act of a white man imitating a black man is both offensive and oppressive, and always was, there is an element of desire and envy built into it that we have to look at squarely.
What I am looking at, trying to understand as an historical phenomenon, is how the figure behind the minstrel–basically a slave or ex-slave–could be something that a white man, either a minstrel or an animator, could envy. And the very short answer to that is, I think, that they didn’t envy the incredible oppression of the African Americans, but the modes of resistance to that oppression that they represented. And, references to the jungle and the plantation were about a fantasy of African Americans as being closer to nature than white people (just like “white men can’t jump/dance…”), closer to the jungle or the cotton field.
Minstrelsy as a performance form became widespread and popular as the United States industrialized, and workers who were white or becoming white were moving from agricultural and craft labor to brutal, routinized industrial labor. The minstrel, who was performed as lazy, shiftless, and slyly resistant to work of any kind, was a fantasy of escape from the rigors of that new economy. Something similar is true for animation, which in the first couple of decades of the 20th century shifted from a artisanal and craft model to an industrial model of production (Donald Crafton has described this history beautifully). So, the minstrel figure–itself a dehumanizing stereotype–represents resistance to dehumanizing regimes of labor.
Now, that’s obscene and wrong, but if we don’t examine it closely, then it’s a part of our history that we refuse to examine fully. An example of that might be Ted Turner’s decision, a long time ago, to remove those racist Warner Brothers and MGM cartoons from circulation, to spare us the pain of looking at what our culture has produced. He made that decision when the mode of distribution was VHS. But now, with DVDs that contain commentaries and other interactive features, I think it might be possible to re-release them in a critical edition, to begin to confront that piece of our history in a constructive fashion.
Is this legacy something that still haunts contemporary animation? Is it possible to represent race in cartoons, which after all depend on high levels of stylization and simplification, without falling back on this vocabulary of racial stereotypes?
First off, I think this legacy still haunts many parts of our culture. Look at the recent Don Imus event. What was it that made McGuirk and him go after successful young black women, to refer to them as “nappy-headed hos”? Here were some women who were actually fulfilling the American dream: through hard work, determination, and talent, they were making a mark. I think it’s reasonable to ask whether the attack on them was because that dream is still primarily conceived of as white property.
But more than that: we have to look at the reaction, too. Imus had been saying grossly inappropriate things for years, and a lot of quite famous people had played along with him. Suddenly, he’s a sacrificial lamb for a set of social ills of which he is a symptom, not a cause. (The critic Gary Yonge said something very much like this in The Nation recently.) But if we treat him as a cause and not a symptom, then we don’t have to look at endemic strains of racism built into the institutions of American society. What those guys did was offensive and wrong, and I have no problem with them being punished for it. But it’s free speech that CBS and MSNBC had been making a lot of money off of for years, and if you don’t look at that–at the profitability of racial (and gender and sexual) hostility and the willingness of large corporations to cash in on it–then you’re really missing the larger picture.
So, to get back to animation. I think it’s possible to produce animation that minimizes or avoids stereotypes. But that’s not the same thing as producing those seven-minute stories (or Disney features) we call cartoons. There, I think you do get stereotyping because, as you point out, there is a visual economy that the stereotype provides. But this then raises a couple of issues.
First, what is the story story in which those images are deployed? We should ask whether it is possible to deploy stereotypes in stories that simultaneously challenge them. I think that might be possible, but it’s very tricky. Consider, for instance, Ralph Bakshi’s Coonskin. He believed that he was really trying to produce a hip, culturally progressive redeployment of stereotypes, in this case the Brer Rabbit stories (with Barry White starring, and apparently Bakshi has talked with Wu Tang Clan about a sequel). But the film met with controversy when it was released, and there was no consensus as to whether it was racist, or whether it challenged racial stereotypes through its story.
This brings us to the second point: what the stereotypes accomplish very much depends on what sort of skills we as viewers bring to seeing those stories, and what sort of space is available for discussing them after we’ve seen them. When Coonskin was shown at the Museum of Modern Art, a fierce debate apparently broke out. That’s good. And the Committee on Racial Equality condemned it, while the NAACP very cautiously endorsed it as a satire. That’s good: it leads to more discussion about the meaning and potential of stereotypes. So, for me, the question is not so much whether we can make cartoons without resorting to stereotypes, but whether we can use stereotypes in a productive fashion.
But this also brings me to an interesting issue of race and the production of animation. Many of us know that The Simpsons, for instance, has been produced in South Korea for years. A lot of TV animation, which has a very tight turnaround schedule, has been produced in South Korea. What I didn’t realize till recently, though, is that a lot of production is moving to North Korea, Malaysia, and China, where labor is even cheaper. So, there is an issue of race and animation that has to do with the politics of its production as well as its politics of reception.
Animation as a profession is very much caught up in struggles over the exportation of labor that other industries in the U.S. are engaged in. I’m not making a nativist argument about American labor here. But I am saying that issues of race and labor in animation aren’t limited to its images. When we consider the choices and direction the industry is taking–for instance, if we engage in a debate about drawn versus computer-generated animation–part of what we have to bear in mind is that, besides being issues of aesthetics, these are issues of industrial labor, too. And, as I’ve suggested, in some cases there is a relationship between the two.
What did you think of the news that Disney would be producing an African-American “Princess” in a future feature film set in New Orleans? As someone who has written about the history of Disney’s construction of American childhood, what can you tell us about how such a project might fit within Disney’s long term vision of American society? What challenges does Disney face if it wants to create a credible representation of African-American identity that doesn’t fall back on the Minstrel stereotypes that shaped its previous minority characters?
You know, there’s something funny here. I was reading around about this movie, The Frog Princess, and one of the articles on it, in a Baltimore newspaper, quoted the director of an all-girls school as saying that maybe the movie would allow young girls to ask, “Can I be like this Disney character?” That is, a princess. Which would suit Disney just fine, because the company has a huge line of princess-related goods and services to sell. Now, I imagine that what the director of the school meant was something like, “Wouldn’t it be great if African American girls could dream of being princesses, too?” Or, “Wouldn’t it be great if white girls imagined themselves as African American princesses?” Underneath that is a desire for girls to see themselves as powerful and capable, and to live in a color-blind society.
But woven into those ideas is Disney’s skill at tapping into powerful social expectations and anxieties to sell its products. That is Disney’s long-term vision of American society: as a market for its products. And one of the greatest anxieties that many people share in a highly competitive capitalist society is whether they and their children (if they have children) will be able to secure a good living for themselves–that they will have economic and social security.
You can read those concerns being circulated and laid at Disney’s feet in the comments of the school director. Somehow, regardless of other economic, social, and institutional circumstances, seeing this film could be empowering for a little girl. Why? How?
Will the film feed into minstrel traditions? Given that it is set in New Orleans in the 1920s, and is supposed to be about jazz, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. Minstrelsy was built on the idea of white “researchers” going to the south to witness real black behavior on the plantation. Cartoon shorts like Tin Pan Alley Cats or Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs played on stereotypes of the 1930s and 40s that referred to jazz as “jungle music.” According to the most current info, the film’s villain is a voodoo priest (named “Dr. Duvalier”…as in Papa or Baby Doc?) and another character is a jazz singing alligator (straight out of the swamp?) named Louis, so the minstrel possibilities seem rich.
I don’t think that means that Disney has racist intent. I think the company is playing on the contradictory desires of its viewing public. The American middle class–regardless of race–wants to believe that we live in a color-blind society in which anyone can get ahead if they try hard enough. If stereotypes are used in perpetuating this fantasy, this sort of thinking goes, the positive message of self-realization will outweigh any misconceptions…and after all they’re only animated characters.
This would be a good example of the point that Spike Lee was trying to make in Bamboozled: in a society that thinks in racist terms without realizing it is doing so, it is impossible not to make popular art that perpetuates stereotypes.
Bringing this full circle, how would you compare the role which stereotypes (racial or otherwise) play in animation and in professional wrestling?
There were two ideas (among others) in your book on vaudeville, What Made Pistachio Nuts?, that I really liked: affective immediacy and an economy of signs. Affective immediacy is the idea that to be successful, bits in vaudeville had to hit you in the gut: they had to make you laugh, cry, gasp…right away. An economy of signs is simply the concept that in a format where you only have a couple of minutes to do your thing, you have to have ideas, signs, that read really clearly, quickly.
The cartoon short is about 7 minutes. A wrestling match is over fairly quickly, too. Both depend on stereotypes to have that punch, and to be legible. If one of those stereotypes causes pain, we ought to have a forum in which we can address that in a meaningful fashion. The problem is, we have forums for addressing stereotypes–online spaces and places, editorial pages–but not necessarily in a meaningful fashion. What we don’t have is a political space in which we can call out the hurt behind the stereotype–the economic and social injuries that make stereotypes sting–and obtain real redress.
What animation and wrestling both permit is a chance to really feel stereotypes. What they also share is a space that is like the real world, that exists parallel to it, but is not the same as the real world. Potentially, and at their best, they become spaces in which ideas duke it out, and we have fun participating in the process.