Tuesday, 11th November 2008
There’s Mohammed Ibn Bornu, from the Cadre of the Immortal. He is the North African hero of the Moslem Equestrian Empire of Kanem-Bornu, with an electronic spear that fires bolts of lightning, who rides a flying robot horse.
And then there’s Maddy, the African-American princess, in Disney’s The Frog Princess. Said to be Disney’s latest attempt at gainsaying the reputation of racism that been dogging it since the glory days in the 1940s and 1950s, this animated feature is set for release next year. Maddy is not the first non-Caucasian embodiment of what is termed “every little girl’s dream of becoming a Princess”.
Let’s not forget Pocahontas, who was supposed to be Native American but was so obviously a clone of Naomi Campbell, and, like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Jasmine from Aladdin, Pocahontas and Mulan, were partly specifically designed as part of a megadollar-manufacturing machine. Jasmine, in Aladdin, had incidentally engendered a plethora of complaints from Arabs and Muslims (and this was not only because the lyrics of one song were particularly offensive, presenting as they did, the Middle East as a place where violence was random and harsh and capricious). Somewhere in between, there was the National Geographic Magazine cover of June, 2005, which featured an accurate “life-picture” head of King Tutankhamen…. with hazel eyes and wheaten-coloured skin.
This was a silicone cast moulded by one of the world’s leading anthropological sculptors, Elisabeth Daynes of Paris. Afro-centrists were up in arms at this, but at the time, Terry Garcia, National Geographic’s executive vice president for mission programs had been quoted as saying that skin tone was the big variable. Since the skin of North Africans goes from very light to very dark, a midrange tone had been chosen on purpose.
A warped nod to accountability often results in token characters being inserted will-nilly into cast lists, so that people from the same ethnic or religious backgrounds (or even medical conditions) may identify with them. Somehow, a story-line is built around them which takes into consideration what might happen in real life if a Catholic with staunch pro-life views, a vegetarian who is allergic to mushrooms and soya, a person who uses a wheelchair, and a Muslim who would only eat Halal and a Jew who will not work on Fridays, ever had to be in the same room at the same time.
A quick zap across the years, at television series aimed at children, ‘tweens, and teens, would indicate that they all had the equivalent of Lisa Turtle (Saved by the Bell).
The bumphs for the new and perhaps improved soap with the most famous postcode of them all as its title show that it follows this hackneyed path too. In the spin-off 90210, Dixon Wilson has been living with Annie and her parents Debbie and Harry, for eight years. Harry is the principal of West Beverley Hills High (WBHH). They move to Beverly Hills to take care of Harry’s mother, an aging, alcoholic actress…
This, after many had been resigned to the fact that “Black people don’t live on Beverly Hills”.
South Park, too, had its own Black Character – who ended up rather badly when his real-life counterpart complained about the way “religion” (read Scientology) was treated in the series, specifically the episode Trapped In the Closet, which had Tom Cruise as guest animated character.
Voiced by the late Isaac Hayes, the character had converted to Islam – but only for a short time, i.e. up to the end of the episode. He had adopted the name Abdul Mohammed Jabar Rauf Kareem Ali, a hotchpotch of the names adopted by some famous African Americans who converted to Islam. Interestingly, at this juncture, Hayes had not complained about how satire had jumped the shark into intolerance. Sesame Street had Bob, the music teacher, and his wife and Susan Johnson. Bob has had the dubious honour of being one of the few humans to enter Oscar’s home (which aficionados would know is a huge dustbin).
He got burnt by Oscar’s pet fire-breathing dragon, and fell into Oscar’s rotten egg collection; and this could easily be misconstrued as “racist” by those inclined to do so. The Simpsons, too, have their balk characters – which is rather surreal, when considering that the rest of the cast is yellow. Only three black characters appear to have a starring role in “the most realistic cartoon show ever” – Carl Carlson, M.Phys., Louie Lucas the policeman, and Dr. Julius Hibbert. After Megan Fox’s fans were led to believe that she would be the new Wonder Woman through photo-shopped images in a well-presented site, the news broke that Beyonce Knowles wants to be the first Black Wonder Woman”.
Despite the fact that there is no such film in the offing, she is known to have approached DC Comics and Warner Brothers saying words to the effect that she would like to do a Superhero film and nothing could beat Wonder Woman…. “I love Wonder Woman and it’d be a dream come true to be that character. It sure would be handy to have that lasso. To make everybody tell the truth? I need that. It would come in very handy. It’s time for that, right?”, she is said to have added.
Suddenly, it’s fashionable to back black. Even Daniel Craig got on the bandwagon when he suggested that the next James Bond ought to be black. During the electoral campaign, Craig had commented that then Senator Obama himself might make a good James Bond – indeed, he would be a better Bond than opponent John McCain.
The fairest Bond of them all insisted that “…. the role could easily be played by a black actor, because the character created by Ian Fleming in the 50s has undergone a great deal of evolution and continues to be updated.” All this claptrap makes me sick to the stomach. Why all the sudden fuss about skin colour? It just underlines attitudes that have racist undertones. I spent twelve years of my life in a classroom with friends of different nationalities, religions – and yes, skin tones too.
Nobody batted an eyelid about why one of us would not swap her lunch with anyone if they had ham sandwiches; why another did not come to the Chapel for Mass; why another was absent during particular days of religious observance for her religion that fell on a school day. Some of us were gleefully envious of particular skin tones or hair textures, too, for that matter. Perhaps that is why I still remember ‘my’ Shylock speech, probably the most disturbing one in all of Shakespeare’s works.
It serves to remind everyone that even those not like the majority are human, too. I have edited it to become a one-size-fits all battle cry, but I draw the line at the part referring to revenge! I am me. Have I not eyes? Have I not hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as anyone else? If you prick me, do I jot bleed? If you tickle me do I not laugh? If you poison me do I not die?