When I was a child, I loved watching anime. Every day after school, I would watch shows such as Dragon Ball Z, Pokemon, etc. While these shows captured my imagination, I noticed many of these shows perpetuated racial stereotypes. For example, in Dragon Ball Z, the character of Mr. Popo strongly resembles a character out of a minstrel show. For those who are unfamiliar with the character of Mr. Popo, he is a servant of the guardian of the earth and his entire aesthetic is that of blackface. Many Dragon Ball Z fans argue that Mr. Popo is not human and therefore is not a racist character.
While it is true that Mr. Popo is not a human, the fact remains that Mr. Popo is a caricature of Black people. It is also a fact that Dragon Ball Z creator Akira Toriyama is a huge fan of American movies. Therefore, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Toriyama drew inspiration from a minstrel show when designing Mr. Popo. As an aside, I want to make it clear that this article is not written to smear Akira Toriyama or to create controversy around the character of Mr. Popo, but to show how images can socialize the masses and create negative perceptions.
Mr. Popo is not the only blackface character in anime. The Pokemon character of Jynx draws inspiration from blackface for its character design. Like Mr. Popo, Jynx is not a human. In fact, Jynx is a joke character and therefore is even more problematic than Mr. Popo. I cannot definitively say that Jynx’s design was inspired by blackface, but the similarities are overwhelming.
Blackface was popularized in the 1830s as a form of entertainment exaggerating Black features for comedic purposes. White comedians would wear grease makeup to exaggerate their eyes and lips. Similarly, Jynx`s eyes and lips are exaggerated. Jynx’s skin is dark, and like a minstrel character, Jynx also wears gloves.
Although there are Pokemon fans who argue Jynx is not a racist character, I would like to mention a popular fashion fad amongst Japanese girls. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Ganguro is a popular fashion fad where Japanese girls darkened their skin by tanning heavily and embellish their features by wearing light makeup. Ganguro was inspired by the global popularity of hip hop and Japanese girls partake in this fashion fad to resemble black women. Given that many Pokemon fans argue that Jynx was inspired by Ganguro and not blackface, the character of Jynx is still a racist stereotype as Ganguro translates to blackface.
However, Jynx and Mr. Popo are not the only racist stereotypes in the media. Eleven episodes of the “Looney Tunes” and the “Merrie Melodies” embraced the tradition of the minstrel show. While these episodes are no longer in syndication, they are a perfect example of cartoons reflecting the attitudes of its time.
Beyond cartoons, movies such as “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind” set the standard of stereotypes in modern-day media. The 1915 film “Birth of a Nation” served as propaganda for the Ku Klux Klan, and romanticized the Klan as the savior of the white race. The film portrayed Black men as sexual predators and lay the foundation for a harmful stereotype that has legal ramifications to this day.
Regarded as a cinema classic, “Gone with the Wind” laments the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy, and as far as the film is concerned, establishes the mammy archetype that presents Black women as the heavy-set authority figure within the household. Without a question, both “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind” romanticize the stereotypes of black people.
Centuries-long stereotypes not only influence artists, but they also influence policymakers. For example, since the 1970s, every American government has promised tough-on-crime policies. The most prominent of these policies is the War on Drugs. It is well-known that Nixon launched his War on Drugs as an appeal to the “silent majority.”
In an interview with Dan Baum of Harper’s Magazine, former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman is quoted as saying, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” Nixon’s campaign of criminalizing Black people was successful as incarceration rates increased, and the inner cities were associated with crime.
As propaganda in the nightly news criminalized the actions of the Black community, the call for tougher crime laws continued to rise. Arguably, the 1994 crime bill was the greatest achievement of the War on Drugs. As more non-violent drug offenders were incarcerated, entire communities were disrupted. A cyclical effect of media images and policy influencing one another began to occur. The policy of criminalizing non-violent drug behavior influenced the images shown in the media, and images of communities associated with drugs influenced policymakers.
In a 1993 speech on the Senate floor, Joe Biden passionately argued for the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Biden asserts, “It doesn’t matter whether or not the person that is accosting your son or daughter, my wife, your husband, my mother, your parents, it doesn’t matter whether or not they were deprived as a youth. It doesn’t matter whether or not they had no background that enabled them to become socialized into the fabric of society. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re the victims of society. The end result is they’re about to knock my mother on the head with a lead pipe, shoot my sister, beat up my wife, take on my sons.”
The segregationist language used to argue for the 1994 crime bill hearkens back to centuries-long stereotypes of Black people being violent and dangerous. Joe Biden’s 1993 speech shows how centuries-long stereotypes can form an unconscious bias, and those biases inform the policies that govern society.
Images are powerful tools in shaping public opinions. They form narratives and inform public policy. Indeed, they create social caste systems. As images are used to fuel propaganda, they can also serve as a tool for social change. As society continues to progress in a positive manner, the narratives within the media must reflect an ever-changing world. A society can only call itself a just society when all of its members are seen as human beings and not as stereotypes.