Monday, July 5, 2010
Classic cartoons from the golden age were riddled with clumsy national stereotypes, so that non-American characters were instantly recognizable by their accent, dress, actions and even profession. Mostly harmless, these stereotypes formed the minds of generations and created myths that persist even today.
Take, for example, the myth of the mandolin-playing, singing Italian waiter. I have been in restaurants in the US where waiters sing because "that's what they do in Italy", but though I lived a long time in Italy I never saw a waiter sing there. In fact the source of this myth for a generation of people is the restaurant scene in Disney's Lady and The Tramp -- the scene where the dogs eat spaghetti and meatballs. Just for the record, spaghetti and meatballs is also not something you would ever find it Italy, but that's another story.
Over the years the most offensive stereotypes were eliminated, even to the extent of censoring existing cartoons, but what surprises and disappoints me is that TV shows and movies aimed at children persist in repeating the same, stale stereotypes. Some shows are a little bit older so I am more forgiving, assuming that the creators grew up when casual racism was the norm. But I am very surprised when I see them returning in completely new shows.
Take, for example, Ludorum's recent animated children's TV show "Chuggington", created in 2008, a very popular series about young locomotives apparently in some kind of school for would-be locomotives -- called "trainees", a pun that the target viewers probably miss. As the father of a Chuggington-age child I can confirm that children love it; parents are less enthusiastic, preferring Shaun the Sheep.
One of the supporting characters in Chuggington is a locomotive called "Frostini", who talks with a clumsy Italian accent peppered with ciao, bongiorno, magnifico and so on. But the sad part is that Frostini works in an ice-cream factory making ice cream. This permanently wires the brains of yet another generation that if someone has an Italian accent or name then they must make ice cream. You don't need to be a genius to work out that you can't run a country with just ice cream makers, there also has to be doctors, lawyers, teacher and even consultants. In all my years in Italy I only met once someone who had an ice cream business. He was also a pilot.
Yet still I hope. OK, maybe in the twenty-oneties we are not going to get a children's show that is free of such stereotypes, but I am hoping that I will live to see the day when there is a character with an Italian name who does not make ice cream or play the mandolin.
You can see samples from Chuggington on the official website chuggington.com. There are also some samples on YouTube (search "chuggington").