Friday, April 13, 2012

Cultural Stereotypes in Cartoons; Do Germans Really Wear Monocles?

A few years ago in  National Stereotypes and Chuggington's Frostini I wrote about the cultural stereotypes in children's cartoons. Perhaps, I argued, that this was understandable in the 1940s but out of place in a computer-generated animation introduced in 2008. Chuggington executive producer Dick Rothkopf was gracious enough to concede the point and added that they would work on this issue.

Perhaps they have, but the use of dubious stereotypes is still thriving elsewhere. Disney/Pixar's Cars 2 released in 2011 seems to be entirely written around cultural stereotypes. Most of them are based at least partly on genuine cultural differences, but one character stands out from all the others: Professor Zündapp.

Professor Zündapp is one of the leading villains of the movie and is represented as a Zundapp Janus microcar. The professor is clearly meant to be German, having a German accent, a German name and, of course, a monocle.

Many times I have visited Germany and I have met many German people, but I have never seen one wearing a monocle.  Why, I wondered, did the creators of Cars 2 get this idea that Germans wear monocles? Must be they are thinking of Otto von Bismarck, said a friend who has lived in Germany. Actually he didn't -- at least not when he was being photographed -- but some WW2 German generals did wear monocles.  It is hardly likely, though, that writers working in the noughties are familiar with long-dead German generals. It is much more probable that they were inspired by another "German" -- Colonel Klink of Hogan's Heroes, a TV comedy series from the 1960s set in a WW2 prison camp in Germany. Any writer growing up in the seventies or eighties must have seen re-runs of this show on TV and learnt to associate monocles with Germany.

I can understand why comedy writers fall back on cultural stereotypes. It must be much easier to build on established conventions than to create a character from scratch. Some stereotypes actually make sense, like when the British characters are more reserved than the Italian ones. Others, like the monocle, are not so easy to defend. The target audience of the movie is unlikely to have seen Hogan's Heroes so they just don't "get" the monocle. The monocle in this case doesn't really add anything to the character. A Professor Zündapp with no monocle would be just as German and his role as a villain would be no less clear.

Perhaps one day comedy writers will learn that maybe it is ok to use some tired old stereotypes to save time, but that they can also be more careful to drop the more pointless ones. Whatever they do, I will be watching carefully to see what happens and I am sure that I will come back to this topic, either here in this blog or in lectures.


Related posts about intercultural issues:
How Building Team Culture Makes Global Teams More Effective
Culture and Technology. How Cultural Factors Impact Engineering Decisions
Why the Office Weasel Can Play a Useful Role in Hierarchical Organizations
Managing Across Cultures Three Non-obvious Issues to Watch For
Three Non-Obvious Ways Culture Affects Email 
Three Non-Obvious Issues in Multicultural Meetings  
Culture, Innovation and the Curious Case of Pandora Radio.  
National Stereotypes, Chuggington's Frostini and Why We Still Have a Long Way to Go


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4 comments:

Kristen Sukalac said...

I think this is the first time that I haven't said "Yes, I agree 100%" after reading your post. I take your point about stereotypes, but is this really one? Most stereotypes are based on some grain of truth, and you seemed to have had a really hard time pinning this one down. Is it even about being German? Or is the monocle a stereotype of a professor? Or is it just a physical character trait of this car. What if he had worn glasses? If I were you, I'd be much more worried about the fact that the villain was German, which is a stereotype, and one that can easily be traced back to anti-German feelings related to the two world wars as well as the Franco-Prussian wars before that.

Andrew Hennigan said...

Thanks for the comment.

I agree that it is unfortunate that the #2 bad guy is German but [SPOILER ALERT] the real villain in this movie is actually British -- quite common in Hollywood -- so this softens the anti-German sentiment.

And yes, there is a grain of truth in the German monocle connection because it was quite common among generals in both the first and second world wars. But that was a long time ago, and while many cultural traits persist the wearing of monocles died out in the middle of the last century.

Kristen Sukalac said...

As far as I can tell, Hollywood villains are almost always one of the following: British, Russian, German, African warlords, Chinese, Colombian, Islamic terrorists (although I have been pretty impressed by the fairly even-handed treatment of Muslims on NCIS). That's pretty limited profiling given how big the world is. But it's interesting how the list reflects socio-political anxieties. It's not quite clear to me why the British and Germans are still considered scary, but you could see how the others could be some sort of collective psychological projection of anxieties on the basis of current events.

Andrew Hennigan said...

I have also wondered why so many movie bad guys are English. Is it just because they are at the same time strange but easy to source?