Friday, April 17, 2009

An MultiMedia Exposé : Are All Stereotypes Racist?!?

Like most boys under age 5, my sons are absolutely obsessed with Disney Pixar's Cars. We've run through no fewer than a half dozen copies of the DVD, and my wife has bought them Cars-related merchandise ranging from bath mats, to toothbrushes, to Easter baskets. The movie probably gets played at least once a day in our house.[1]

While Cars is more innocent kiddie entertainment, and less appealing to adults than, say, Shrek, I actually enjoy watching it myself. It's a great story of selflessness and teamwork that sends a really positive message to young kids. But one thing sorta irks me about the movie: the lack of "minority" characters.

Yeah, the movie is animated, and yeah, it's about talking cars not real people, but it's still pretty easy to deduce the race/ethnicity of the characters. The star, Lightning McQueen, is voiced by Owen Wilson. Grouchy old man Doc Hudson is Paul Newman. Larry The Cable Guy is Mater, the whimsical tow truck.

The "minority" characters are limited to an interracial couple, Flo (Jennifer Lewis) and Ramone (Cheech Marin). There's also a minor uncredited black character who plays a Hummer in the closing credits.

The problem with each of these characters, if you consider it a problem, is that each of them confirms to stock racial stereotypes. The Hummer who appears in a "bootcamp" outtake during the closing credits just happens to sit on 40 inch spinning rims and complains about getting himself dirty when asked to drive an obstacle course. Flo is a sassy, saucy mouthed big body Cadillac who owns the town gas station, which or more or less treated like a bar. Ramone is a lowrider who owns a body shop, and paints himself in the sorta flames and candy paint that you'd associate with an LA gangbanger. Both talk in somewhat exaggerated and stereotypically black and Hispanic tones and voice inflections.

In case you're clueless about all this, peep the following video and fast forward to around the 3:20 mark.

Taken at face value, there's nothing even remotely offensive about any of these characters. Flo and Ramone are a loving couple, and are universally welcomed by the other residents of Radiator Springs. Except for the over-the-top typecasting, there's nothing really bad about this.

So I guess the question is, if we can agree that these characters are stereotypical, does that make the decision to write them in the manner they were written racist? I don't personally think so. But then I'll admit I'm highly offended by the following nonsense in the very next breath.

I guess the puzzling thing is that we can all mutually agree that the proceeding sitcoms dip pretty deep in the well of stereotypical Negro humor. On some level, large or small, each of those shows was either widely ridiculed or downright boycotted by respectable Negroes coast-to-coast. None of them lasted more than one season, and are Exhibits A, B, and C of why more "diverse images" of black folks need to be put on TeeVee.

But what about these shows? Aren't they also stereotypical in some manner?

Other than the fact that we happen to like those 3 shows, how are they really any different or better than the 3 prior? Same stereotypes, just funnier.

Question: Exactly what makes some things "offensive" or even "racist" and not others? Is it context? Is it irony/satire? Is it just general likability? How much does the person making (directing/starring) the stereotypical act determine whether or not it's bad or good?

[1] Save the typing. Yes, they have plenty of books too.

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