ON WHITENESS AND HOP
By David J. Leonard
Saturday, April 23, 2011.
I spent my Sunday like so many other days as of late at the movies with my 7-year old daughter. We, like millions of other Americans, headed to the theaters to watch Hop, the most recent offering from the writing-producing-writing group that brought us Despicable Me. The film, a trite and clichéd buddy picture, chronicles the mutual coming of age stories of E.B. (Russell Brand), who longs to be a rock star and not follow in the footsteps of his Easter Bunny father, and Fred (James Marsden), a 20-something loser who is floundering his way through life. Together they not only assist in each other, teaching each to appreciate their own talents and think of others, all while ultimately saving Easter.
The narrative is not especially innovative, although the absence of a princess or a story focusing on a girl being saved by a male protagonist was a refreshing change. That being said, the absence of any females characters of substance and the focus on fathers-sons gave me pause, especially in light of that so many of children’s films centering female characters do so through a patriarchal fantasy. What also gave me pause was how the film depicted the factory located in a remote location deep below Easter Island.
As the factory boss, the Easter Bunny (Hugh Laurie) is a traditionalist who’s English accent, his tie, and his bellowing voice is strikingly colonial. It is hard to avoid the colonial history embodied within the film in its efforts to represent the benevolent and kindhearted English gentle rabbits, whereas the chicks, embodied by heavily accented Carlos (Hank Azaria), are the grunt sweatshop workers. Worse yet, under the leadership of Carlos, the chick unsuccessfully organizes a coup against the Easter bunny, planning to replace the traditional Easter offerings with more chick friendly treats. With rare exception reviews about the film have offered little insight and commentary about the films’ racial meaning. Robert Abele writes, “And why is it that the piece's nominal villain is a coup-organizing Speedy Gonzales-accented factory chick . . . , while his boss rabbit speaks like a posh Brit? Or is that a class-race over-read?”).
Yet, the racial text that defines tradition, virtue, and class-based respectability through colonial whiteness against a racialized colonial otherness that scheme against tradition, goodness, and civilization is instructive as one considers how the film imagines the working conditions of the chocolate factory. Pristine, orderly, happy, clean, and enchanting, the factory is depicted as magical. It is a place where dreams come true, where the treats for millions of children are produced each and every year. Not surprisingly, the film does not represent the chick as enslaved chicks producing chocolate in slave-like conditions. According to Global Exchange, “Approximately 286,000 children between the ages of nine and twelve have been reported to work on cocoa farms on the Ivory Coast alone with as many as 12,000 likely to have arrived in their situation as a result of child trafficking.” Working 80-100 hours per week under horrible conditions, the children who harvest cocoa are modern-day slaves.
The erasure of working conditions that produce the chocolates that fill American Easter baskets is not the only compelling narrative that is absent from Hop and larger understanding of this American commercial holiday. As noted by Kevin Thull, in, the commercialization of Easter is the coming together of a myriad of injustices from the environmental degradation that results from plastic eggs and baskets to the toys produced in sweatshops. Last, but not least, are the cute little stuffed animals and little toys that often find their way into Easter baskets,” Writes Thull, “Those toys are more than likely produced with shamefully cheap foreign labor or by mega-corporations that care more for profits than the environment.”
Hop demonstrates the power and importance of media literacy. It illustrates the power of the white racial frame and narratives that imagine commodities apart from working conditions, struggle, and neo-colonialism.
With thanks to New Black Man
David J. Leonard is an associate professor in the Department of Comparative Ethnic Studies at Washington State University at Pullman. His next book (SUNY Press) is on the NBA after the November 2004 brawl during a Pacers-Pistons game at the The Palace of Auburn Hills. Leonard has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums.