Friday, April 16, 2010

People of Weird Color

There’s a trend in shows, mainly cartoons, to attempt to challenge racism by creating new races, humanoid people with incredibly unusual skin colors like blue or green. The idea is that by accepting characters of widely different skin colors, viewers will be inclined to accept people of different races in the real world. Examples of this trend show up in cartoons such as Doug and ReBoot. Aside from cartoons, science-fiction movies like Avatar use this device to some extent, albeit with the explanation that such unusually colored people are aliens.

Doug is a cartoon about an average boy whose family moves to a strange town, literally strange, and how he fits into the community there. Doug and his family are Caucasian, but they’re the only ones. In this town, races are strange and bright colors. Doug’s new best friend is blue, he has a crush on an orange girl, and the school bully is green and owns a pink cat. There are varying shades of green, blue, purple, pink, brown, etc. This is never commented on in the story itself. It’s simply accepted that different families look different. I recall seeing a behind the scenes short in which one of the show creators describes the rationale behind the oddly colored characters as to help kids accept other kids who may seem to be of a strange color as well. The problem with this, though, is that the protagonist Doug is Caucasian. The audience, which is not comprised entirely of white people, is expected to fit into this role as a white person encountering all the strange-colored people. Their intent was to challenge racism, but the exact manner in which they pulled it off is rather self-defeating.
ReBoot is better in its concept, which is somewhat the reverse of Doug. In ReBoot, the main protagonists are weird colors blue and green, while a few secondary characters are Caucasian-looking. In the city of Mainframe, the only Caucasian sprites seen are in the Games, where everything is thematically stylized. Such sprites are game sprites, like AndrAIa, or game avatars used by sprites and the User, such as Enzo’s Elmer Fudd look and the User’s Evil Dead homage. When AndrAIa comes out of her Game, her Caucasian coloration honestly makes her look more alien to her surroundings. The only other Caucasian sprites are in a foreign system seen in season 3, the sprites acting as avatars to ethereal entities, one of which happens to be a virus. To top it off, these characters are parodies of Star Trek characters and superheroes, making the lot of them very unusual. While ReBoot doesn’t actually have any characters besides Caucasian ones to emulate real races, it at least takes the interesting stance of making Caucasian characters the minority and focusing on characters of (weird) color.
ReBoot also uses its unusually colored characters to explicitly address racism. When blue-colored Bob leaves green-colored Enzo with Guardian duty, the virus Megabyte tries to have him discredited through propaganda. This leads to the somewhat surreal moment in which a citizen comments that Bob was better suited for being a Guardian because he was blue and a green-colored person could never be a good Guardian. Not that Bob was better because he went through training and was more experienced, as is the reason evident from the plot, but because of some supposed inherent quality of skin-color. It is clearly ridiculous, which is perhaps easier for kids to see because of the strange colors involved. No one in real life is blue or green, making a racist statement about blue or green people just sound weird. Maybe this could make the viewer question racism in general. What’s also interesting is that the racist comment isn’t directly objected to, the message not shoved down the viewer’s throat, but rather it’s just left out there in its ridiculousness. It’s only somewhat symbolically referenced with a baby holding a blue teddy bear, clearly meant to represent Bob, and by the end of the episode the same baby holds a green teddy bear to show that Enzo’s been accepted by the people.
James Cameron’s Avatar is similar to Star Trek and other science-fiction shows with its blue Na’vi people. The Na’vi are large humanoid aliens that presumably represent Native Americans, although they can be applied to any native peoples wiped out by European colonialism. They have a low level of technology, but are in touch with nature and have an intense spirituality. When Western civilization attempts to take over their moon in order to mine a precious mineral, the Na’vi fight back. With the help of a few turncoat humans and their mother goddess, the Na’vi force the enemy off their land for good. Avatar appeals to the white guilt phenomenon (gone into here), and while the Na’vi are distinctly humanoid, if a bit cat-like, the blue coloration is used to keep them different from the audience as if an as of yet undiscovered minority.
So, here we are: three shows that use the artistic device of having weird-colored characters as stand-ins for minority races. These are the best examples of which I can think, though I know of other shows that use it. The problem with Doug and ReBoot using this device is that even though they’re most likely trying to challenge racism, the lack of any actual minorities (voice-actors or characters) coupled with the inclusion of Caucasian characters makes this attempt work against itself and end up being a product of racism. James Cameron’s Avatar has a lot of issues that aren’t to be ignored, but one thing going for it is the actual people of color in the movie, both in the humans and as the Na’vi. I think the reason for this contrast is the time in which they came out, Doug being made in 1991, ReBoot made in 1994, and Avatar in 2009. Progress is slow, but you can see the effects over time.
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