Martin “Dr. Toon” Goodman takes on taboo racial topics in light of the debut of Adult Swim’s Minoriteam.
American culture has taken a large step backwards where animation is concerned. I do not mean that the genre has regressed in any way; what I am referring to is a step backwards in time, to an age where ethnicity, religion, race, and sexual preference are once again targets for uncensored lampoonery. The bonds have been loosening for quite some time. Many hands have undone the knots that held a sheet of civility over these once-forbidden subjects. A concerted, 30 year effort to instill a sense of multicultural respect and tolerance for diversity seems to have spurred a backlash, one that is almost predictable in its timing. Since a cultures trends inevitably filter down into its artifacts, it was foreseeable that animation would soon reflect a new irreverence towards subjects once taboo.
There is no religion, ethnic group, or sexual orientation safe from South Park of late. Although the headlines were recently crammed with tales of riots ranging throughout the Muslim world due to cartoons depicting Muhammad, many in the media forgot that Matt Stone and Trey Parker did the same thing on July 4, 2001. The Prophet appeared as a member of the Super Best Friends, a team of deities that helped Kyle to defeat a cult of Blaintologists. Recently, the series featured a bleeding Virgin Mary menstruating on the Pope. Isaac Hayes, the long-time voice of Chef, quit the show after it lampooned the Church of Scientology. In one episode of Comedy Centrals Drawn Together, a series itself peppered with racial and ethnic innuendo, we witnessed an episode in which Foxxy Love (herself a blatant stereotype) encountered a Board of Education that viewed blacks as characters straight out of a 1940s Walter Lantz Cartune.
The latest flogger of political correctness is Adult Swims Minoriteam. This series is either the most confused (and confusing) manifestation of cultural backlash in animation, or one of the final steps in bringing long-suppressed wellsprings of ethnic and racial humor back into public entertainment. Many comic book aficionados admire the series, which appears to pay homage to Marvel Comics immortal Jack Kirby; while this is undeniably true, Minoriteam is more a knockoff of the 1966 Grantray-Lawrence series Marvel Superheroes. In this case, Flash animation replaces the Xerographic process of the latter show, but the visual reference to moving comic panels is much the same. I find it a rather interesting coincidence that creators Adam de la Peña, Peter Girardi, and Todd James (all late of Comedy Centrals Crank Yankers) channeled an animated series syndicated during a period in which America suffered her most convulsive spate of race riots.
According to the press release, Minoriteam is a cadre of five superheroes under the leadership of wheelchair-bound Dr. Wang (an obvious reference to Charles Xavier, founder of the X-Men). Dr. Wang is an Asian savant with a 40-pound brain who runs the super team from his Laundromat (thus tying present and past Asian stereotypes neatly together). Wangs legion consists of himself, Jewcano (Jewish), Fasto (Black), El Jefe (Hispanic), and Nonstop (Indian). The aforementioned heroes are shameless, gleefully presented stereotypes that would have surely been quashed by the forces of PC only a few short years ago. They face off in comical combat against The White Shadow and his (inept) minions including Racist Frankenstein, The Corporate Ladder and The Standardized Test (I wonder why The Bell Curve didnt join up?), all representations of obstacles or enemies to minorities. I wish I could say I understand this cartoon but I do not, except as an artifact that represents the confusion underlying the increasing collisions between free speech, diversity, political correctness, and changing societal mores.
The press release avers that Minoriteam is a group of superheroes who uses racial stereotypes to fight racial stereotypes and that Using the power of racial stereotypes, they set out to destroy racism itself. This is inherently nonsensical. Does this imply that some racial stereotypes can conquer others, and that the strongest (and logically most virulent) get to survive and propagate? If Minoriteam is eventually victorious and achieves its goal of destroying racism, dont they then have to commit suicide? Alternatively, does a speedy African-American braggart with unlimited sexual appetites get to continue his reign as champion and representative of the race? Is a Jewish superhero enslaved by his uncontrollable passion for a giant nickel more desirable than a Racist Frankenstein? Finally, did men as intelligent as Mike Lazzo, Keith Crofford, and Nick Weidenfeld really take this pitch so uncritically?
In the end, Minoriteam is not very good, save for its throwback visuals. I am not accusing its creators of racism, because their show is not truly racist, merely careless and confused. Minoriteam is not shocking nor is it particularly funny, and is not even worthy of being controversial. I suppose that the operative definition would be sophomoric. The laughter it provides is equivalent to that experienced by a three year-old child who gets away with saying cocky-doody or something equally naughty. The point is, if shows that take serious shots at race, creed, and religion are now acceptable to televise, if the culture wars are over, if PC is truly dead and the public is ready to accept a new paradigm, then let us stop upholding the long-standing prohibitions against proscribed cartoons of yore.
The battle to respect diversity seems to be over; the public has chosen to chortle instead. Coal Black, you can come out now, and you can bring your sebben friends with you. If Minoriteam can depict a fat, bossy black momma the size of Godzilla, surely we can see a Prince Chawmin with dice in place of his front teeth. Speedy Gonzales, meet El Jefe. Im sure youll have a lot to share over a plate of Fritos; Friz Frelengs Bandito will be serving them shortly. The Tin Pan Alley Cats can now perform on the island where Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, and even Huey and Riley can take a break from the Boondocks to visit the Clean Pastures. Lets go to Uncle Toms Cabana, you Big Heel-Watha and when we get there you can Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat. Hit the vaults, crank up the digital restoration software, and let the DVDs play over the cries of Racism! Well lets slow down for just a moment and think this over.
Even in an area as odious as censorship, there cannot be double standards (like those surrounding the classic cartoons) lest the whole concept be exposed as a sham. I continue to support the release of previously banned material, as well as the new wave of racial, religious, and ethnic humor (yes, including Minoriteam) as long as there are appropriate disclaimers, judicious viewing hours, and discreet labeling of DVD covers. If this is what we think we are ready for, and todays programming seems to suggest just that, then let us at least do it wisely and with a modicum of consideration.
Long-time readers of mine know that I have little patience with half-baked research and studies. I have done my share, and I know bad science when I see it. Of late, the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum made much of a study comparing the publics ability to name members of the Simpsons as opposed to the five freedoms listed in the First Amendment. It was found that only one in four Americans (of the 1,000 polled) can name more than one of the five freedoms, while more than half can name at least two members of the family Simpson. Joe Madiera, who is director of exhibition at the museum, professed to be amazed. In old Dr. Toons view, my only amazement is at the research itself.
Faulty science begins when you believe you are comparing apples to oranges, but are actually comparing apples to footballs. The five freedoms are a political/legal artifact while the Simpsons belong to the world of media and entertainment. The correct study would have compared the publics ability to name members of the Simpsons against their abilities to name members of the Flintstones, Jetsons, or the cast of Spongebob Squarepants. The First Amendment should have gone up against something such as the following amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights. The same survey laments that more people can name the three judges on American Idol better than they can identify three First Amendment rights, and that they were more apt to remember popular advertising slogans, as if this should be surprising. Well, nothing like compounding your mistakes, I always say.
This brings us to the next point. Let me familiarize you with a research concept called a confound. Simply put, a confound is an unforeseen or unconsidered factor that contaminates research by providing an alternative explanation for your results or an alternative argument against them. For example, it is virtually certain that every American who died of cancer from 1960 until now watched television at some time. Therefore, one could publish a study that TV viewing causes cancer. Im sure all of you out there can come up with at least five confounds (as opposed to freedoms or members of the Simpsons) that would render this study invalid.
In the case were discussing, a major confound is media exposure. Simply put, the Simpsons have been in the public eye continuously since 1990 (longer than that if you count the interstitials on Tracy Ullmans show). Not only has the show broken the record for network longevity in an animated series, it has been running in syndication daily. The five freedoms are typically learned in middle and high school civics classes (or in independent study if one were so inclined). If we compare the time that the average American has spent watching The Simpsons as opposed to the time spent studying the Constitution, the results would be as expected. I wager that there are several TV sets in every American home. Quick without using the Web, can you find a copy of the Constitution in your own home?
Then there is a confound called merchandising. There are many products bearing the likenesses of Bart and Homer, and very few T-shirts, mugs, action figures, towels, clocks, and watches depicting the five freedoms. There are now multiple seasons of The Simpsons available on DVD, but I have yet to see a First Amendment video at the local Best Buy. Lots of people stand around the schoolyard, campus, or proverbial water cooler discussing the frustrations of Lisa and Marge, but very few discussing the finer points of Constitutional guarantees.
The point of the survey, at least as reported by the Associated Press, is that America (is) more familiar with cartoon family than First Amendment. Well, doh! The same can be said for the NFL, NASCAR, 50 Cent, Survivor, Garth Brooks, the Hulk, Jennifer Aniston, SUVs, Barry Bonds, Jay Leno, Desperate Housewives, Paris Hilton, and whichever performer is Jessica Simpson or Britney Spears (I honestly cant tell the two apart).
If there were a TV show called CSI First Amendment, Americans would pass the survey with ease. However, there isnt, and nothing will pull most of us away from immersion in the celebrity, sports event, or lurid mystery involving a missing young beauty of the moment. The First Amendment was not created to entertain us, nor was it written to compete with entertainment. Any contest with the Simpsons is inherently a mismatch.
What bothers me is that much is made of the fact that freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition for redress of grievances were depicted as losing out to an animated cartoon, as if this was the ultimate debasement possible. All this study truly reveals is what commands attention in an entertainment culture, not how little people do or do not know about the Constitution. Measuring the latter would take a different, more tightly constructed study. Therefore, my friends at the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum, leave Homer, Bart, Lisa, Maggie, and Marge alone, already. While you are at it, you can lay off Snowball and Santas Little Helper as well. The Simpsons will never make us a more ignorant nation, but bad surveys can make us look as if we are.
Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.