NEW MEDIA TECHNOLOGY AND THE PERSISTENCE OF RACIST REPRESENTATIONS
By David J. Leonard |With thanks to NewBlackMan
Wednesday, August 24, 2011.
New media technology is changing the landscape of television. At one level, the emergence of web-based television, along with platforms like YouTube, provides a space for historically ignored themes and silenced voices within popular culture. I previously wrote about the potential during a discussion of The LeBrons, which “highlights how new media technologies provide modern black athletes (among others) tools to define their own image and message, partially apart from those ‘restrictive script,’ yet bound by the dominant discourse and accepted images.”
Reflecting on this cultural and technological shift, Aymar Christen Jean argues that the golden age of black television has ended. He notes further that the potential afforded by new media technologies are significant in challenging the white hegemony of American television culture: “In this early stage, the writing and production values are uneven. But when you throw in social-networking possibilities online, the emergence of original Web programming can only be good news for black art and expression.” Writing about the brilliant and rightly celebrated The Misadventures of AWKWARD Black Girl, Britni Danielle highlights the transformative potential residing in Web 2.0:
“It’s official, the best shows featuring Black people are not on BET, TVOne, NBC, or any other TV channel. The best shows featuring interesting Black characters are on the web,” writes Danielle. “In times like these, when TV shows and films featuring interesting Black characters are missing from most mainstream outlets, it’s nice to see that many (and I do mean many) are taking matters into their own hands and making their own way.”
While clear, from The Misadventures of AWKWARD Black Girl, The New 20s, The LeBrons, Kindred, and Road to the Alter, that the web is emerging as the promise land for the production of black-themed shows and the dissemination of counter-narratives and representations, the frontier of new media technology is also littered with dehumanizing shows as well.
The advance of new media technology, whether on YouTube, I-Tunes, or the totality of the Internet provides a space for the dissemination of racist shows of yesterday, narratives, stereotypes, and episodes that artists fought long and hard to remove from public consumption. William Van De Burg, in New Day in Babylon, documents the ways in which organizations, like the National Black Media Coalition and Black Citizens for Fair Media, fought the continued dissemination of racist imagery. They, along with Asian Americans for Fair Media and others, worked hard to counter those racial images that represented “an explosive psychological force that warps human relationships and wreaks havoc on one’s personal dignity” (Wei, 1993; 51). While movements of the 1960s and 1970s were successful in challenging the presence of dehumanizing representations within network television, the advance of new media has proven to given life to many shows of past generations.
On YouTube, you can find a number of cartoons from the mid-20th century, some of which are explicitly labeled as racist (or banned/censored) cartoons, while others lack specific marking. These cartoons bring into wide circulation the otherwise put into the grave racist televisual moments of yesteryear. For example, on YouTube, “Southern Fried Rabbit” where bugs sings, “I wish I was in Dixie,” also depicts the South as a beautiful oasis in juxtaposition to the barren wasteland of the North. In this episode, Bugs Bunny is presented in blackface, ultimately impersonating a happy slave. At one level, this particular episode is keeping “past” images and narratives alive (the happy slave is clear in circulation as evidence by “pledge”); at another level, it facilitates a space where commentators can rehash and deploy their own racial narratives and ideologies. Claims about permissibility of racist images back then, that it was just entertainment, and simply kid’s stuff are commonplace on YouTube. Likewise, in this episode and in countless others found on YouTube, the history of blackface, of imagining and depicting blackness through dehumanizing imagery is evident.
Bugs Bunny is not the only example with terribly racist episodes of The Flintstones, Tom and Jerry, and Popeye, some of which you can find on not only YouTube but iTunes as well. For example, “Frigid Hare,” a Bugs Bunny episode that portrays Eskimos as bucktooth savages is available for purchase today. Tom and Jerry is also available on iTunes, including “His Mouse Friday” where in an effort to defeat Tom, Jerry dons blackface only to see the “real savages” of the Island handle his nemesis. Likewise, a number of Popeye episodes, including “You're A Sap, Mr. Jap,” “Scrap the Japs,” “I Yam what I Yam,” “Popeye the Sailor” all which deploy dehumanizing stereotypes of Japanese, Native Americans and African Americans, representing them as the enemy, as savages, as foils to the heroism/ righteousness of Popeye, and ultimately as the Other. Having recently purchased Popeye, unaware to the racist content several shows, I was horrified at the sight of my children watching a show that portrayed Native Americans as racist savages who threatened the civilization, goodness, and whiteness embodied by Popeye.
The preservation of these shows via YouTube and iTunes demonstrates how new media is making available the very harmful and violent representations of yesteryear to future generations. While defenders like to talk about these cartoons being sixty years old and that blackface, representations of Native Americans, African Americans, Chinese, and Japanese as savages, and countless other racist tropes were all acceptable back then, the persistent availability of these shows illustrates how indeed these images and ideologies remain alive and well in the twenty-first century. The continued availability of these shows counters those who dismiss Popeye, Bugs Bunny, and Tom and Jerry as a product of their times, and therefore insignificant today, given the continued consumption of these racist stereotypes. Sure, these shows tell us something about the ideologies of race in the 1930s and 1940s during production, but also the ways in which race operates in 2011, the moment of consumption.
To me, the willingness and desire to watch shows that dehumanize is telling. It is disheartening as generations forward will continue to consume those overtly racist caricatures of people of color all while consuming the often more subtle, yet equally harmful, representations of our current moment, perpetuating white racial frames and stereotypes. So next time the kids are searching for something to watch on YouTube or buy a cartoon from iTunes be aware because racist images are just one click away.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs @ No Tsuris.