Thursday, May 10, 2007

Something is Missing Here...

I have a sick kid.

#2 son has missed the last two days of school with a fever and cough.

What does this have to do with Tom and Jerry you ask?

Thanks for asking.

I’ll tell you.

I normally do not have the TV on at lunch. In fact, I usually only stay home at lunch long enough to check the mail or unload the dishwasher. But, since he is home on the sofa, the TV is on when I get home, and at 12:00 noon, Tom and Jerry is on.

Today was an episode where they were tearing up the house and the black housekeeper was getting onto Tom and eventually threw him out of the house. This is what I noticed; the housekeeper’s voice has been dubbed. Those of us old enough to remember these cartoons will remember the voice was a stereotypical “mammy” voice. It has been re-dubbed and it didn’t sound black at all. In fact, the words were probably changed altogether.

How long has this been going on? Is it a good thing? Is it bowing down to the big bad “P.C.” police?

I can see where the “Mammy” voice could be offensive, yet the picture still clearly showed the large black, apron wearing housekeeper, only with a June Cleaver voice. It was discerning.

Please, discuss. How do you feel about this? Are these clearly dated cartoons racist? Offensive? I know Disney’s Song Of The South is unavailable in the USA, but apparently is available overseas. (I bought a DVD from China – don’t ask) Should they be removed from view? Should they be left alone?

It is hard for me, as a white male to write about race issues. If someone is offended, I understand and would generally want to err on the side of caution. Is this any different than a Christian being offended by a “racy” cartoon? There is always the option of simply not watching. Does it being a children’s program make the rules different?

Good questions. I don’t claim to have the answers, but if they are going to show it, I wish they would leave it uncut. I was never offended by Mammy Two Shoes, but then I guess that’s the point. I wouldn’t be.

UPDATE - The voice has been dubbed in America for several years by veteran voice actress June Foray.


Mustang Bobby said...

I think we need to keep at least the originals as a reminder of how blacks were portrayed in the past. If you're going to air them and the original producer does not object, then I don't have a problem with updating the voice since the kids who watch the cartoons aren't going to be aware of the historical context.

That's my $.02.

Brave Sir Robin said...

the kids who watch the cartoons aren't going to be aware of the historical context.

True enough.

I personally wouldn’t mind seeing a DVD release where these types of portrayals could be grouped together with some commentary on the time and the context of the original.

I know for instance, that during WWII there were quite a few Warner Brothers cartoons lampooning the Germans and Japanese.

We’ve come a long way.

Batocchio said...

It can be a tough call, but I think the key element here is that the cartoons are going out to kids who don't necessarily have the framework to understand it. My first inclination is just not to show that particular cartoon. I'm not that troubled by the dubbing, but it sounds like they should have found a better match! I also agree the originals should be preserved somewhere.

I'm reminded of the gollywog preservation society in Britain (think Raggedly Ann and Andy in blackface, basically a tarbaby doll) and also of Herge's Tintin. In later installments such as The Blue Lotus Herge explicitly opposed racism and mocked Western stereotypes of the Chinese, but in one of his earliest works, Tintin au Congo, Snowy the dog (Milou I think it is in French) speaks better French than the Africans! I don't think that one has ever been translated into English (I read it in French in high school as part of an independent project). Then there's Gone With the Wind, Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In the case of Birth and Jazz, any film history class has to cover them at least briefly, but a teacher can provide some context. The same goes for Huck Finn. I remember reading that in third grade, and our teachers simply explained that 'the N word' was not something we said nowadays, and I think we all got it. The who's-the-audience children-versus-adult aspect is crucial.

One more thought on this – back a few years ago when I was teaching high school, I taught and later directed The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance (Lynch's film isn't based on it, but both are superb). There's a line in one scene of the play where the "pinheads," a group of female circus "freaks," sing a line about coming to some country in Africa where "Our niggers are bigger." A nurse interviewing to treat Merrick, the Elephant Man, also utters a very Victorian line about how she won't be fazed by Merrick's condition because she's attended to rotting blacks in Africa or something like that. Pomerance is being highly sardonic and going for shock value in the first instance, and revealing but not advocating the attitudes of a specific character in the second. In class, with upperclassmen, I think we discussed these lines briefly, but everyone pretty much got it off the bat. For directing, since this was out to the whole school including middle schoolers and faculty kids, I changed the lines, although I was torn about this, and one of my actresses wasn't initially happy about it. Were I directing the play in college or professionally, I'd leave the lines intact. My reasoning was that in the classroom, I could provide context, answer questions, and I knew my kids could handle it. In the context of a performance, I knew some of the kids in the audience wouldn't get the irony element and just be upset. I had discussed the matter with a few colleagues and they agreed. Actually, we discussed race quite a bit at the school, and for MLK day would show a film, a school meeting and hold mock classes (some taught by students) on all sorts of human and civil rights issues. I remember for some school meeting someone wanted to kick off a discussion on race with a film clip or two. A colleague and I suggested the six-people-spewing-insults-to-the-camera sequence from Do the Right Thing as a way of discussing the absurdity of stereotypes and all that. Another teacher nixed the idea, saying he had seen that done in a large high school group and it just got kids riled up. He was absolutely right. Again, I wouldn't hesitate to show the scene and discuss it with upperclassmen (I actually studied the film as a student in my English 12 class), but it's crucial to know the audience/discussion group. When race is the issue, it can raise powerful emotions, and younger students often don't have the vocabulary and framework to discuss them. I still remember a school meeting where a student misunderstood something a teacher said and accused him of being a racist. She was wrong, but her emotion was very real. None of this is to say such matters shouldn't be discussed, because they should, but sadly or wisely, they often have to be discussed with care. (In the case of the student and the teacher, they spoke afterward and cleared everything up, but there was no way that going to happen in the heat of the moment in a large forum.)

Anyway, sorry for a long comment, but thanks for a thought-provoking question!

Brave Sir Robin said...

Batocchio -

Thanks for the insightful comment. No need to apologize for the length. This is exactly what I was hoping for in the way of discussion.

I don't know if you followed the links, but apparently some of the Mammy cartoons were completely edited to show a Caucasian person. The thing that made me even notice it, was the Mammy character with an Anglo voice.

I have had to change or take out verbiage in plays I’ve directed as well. I don’t like it, but gratuitous f bomb here or there isn’t reason enough to avoid the entire work.

Times do change.

Batocchio said...

Checking back in...

Wow! I read some of the links, but I must have read too quickly. I had missed the editing in of a Caucasian person. That's pretty striking.

Yeah, with plays it can be a tough call, and I'd have conversations with the headmaster about how we'd cover material in classes we wouldn't present to the school as a whole. They were pretty amicable talks, actually, since he was quite a good teacher and coach himself (biology and track). As hostile as some administrators were to teachers (sadly common) good teachers were pretty much trusted when it came to the material they chose, and with good reason.

Actually, at the same school, we taught Sam Shepherd fairly often in upper level English classes. At one point a teacher wanted to mount a faculty play and suggested Buried Child or Curse of the Starving Class! Again, that could have played in college, but was the wrong choice for that school... although I laughed at the idea of me wandering onstage nude with my privates covered up by a sheep. ;-)