Representation ‘reality’ such as people, places, objects, cultural

Representation refers to the construction of aspects of ‘reality’ such as people, places, objects, cultural identities 1 This was said by Dr Daniel Chandler a lecturer in Media and Communications. Now because of the nature of this construction, to have representations become exploited and exaggerated by the media, as well as be misinterpreted by a larger audience is common practice. Throughout the history of animation the issue with representation has been a lot more clear, in that everything you see in an animation was there for a reason, the world and characters you see were created with the intention of representing a specific reality. It is for this reason many early animations had characters whoms designs relied heavily upon the use of cultural and racial stereotypes, often very exaggerated. In this essay, I will look at the complications of racial representation within animation a medium many believe is a child friendly one, and why this medium highlights them so well. I will take a look at the crude, exaggerated way race is represented within Ralph Bakshi’s Coonskin and how it is used to tackle the social and cultural standing of African American people in 1974. I will attempt to compare it to the more ‘light hearted’ Disney’s Song of the South and show that Intentionally using racist representation to challenge the audiences prejudices can have a positive effect and animation is the perfect medium for this. As I stated before what the audience sees in an animation is all constructed, as animators we are taught to create from our real world experiences. For this reason it is not possible to create a character, even if it’s not human, without representing someone or something that we will find in our own reality. Once these characters have been shown to the mass audience however they are interpreted differently by everyone based on their own stereotypical references, thus making the characters more subjective based on one’s viewpoint and beliefs. The problem with this is that expressions of prejudice are a lot more clear, even if they were not intentional. Paul Wells writes that, ‘Issues of representation are complicated, first by the purpose of representation, and second, by it’s expression.’ HR This quote rings true for many reasons, some being the fact that a character or location would not be able to successfully represent a reality without some form of intent from the creator, so when an issue such as race does come into question it is clear that it was to derogate or extreme negligence. Then there is the issue of ‘expression’ meaning the way the character is portrayed on the screen, either by it’s design or actions. The use of caricatures is nothing new in visual media and within animation it has been very popular to use caricatures of African American people for a comedic effect. The black character is often drawn to be rather wide and have big full lips, and in some cases seen to be very subservient and animalistic. The perfect example of this is the character of Sunflower in Disney’s Fantasia 1940 HR, she is what you would refer to at the time as a ‘pickaninny’ caricature this is a racial slur for black children, in Fantasia she is shown to be very subservient to the graceful, silky haired white character. The last issue with representation is the audience and how they view the work, the majority of the public see animation as a light-hearted and entertaining medium so the way people and locations are represented are often overlooked. It is as Paul Wells states “The idea that animation is an innocent medium, ostensibly for children, andlargely dismissed in film histories, has done much to inhibit the properdiscussion of issues concerning representation.” The problem with this is that by keeping this ridiculous notion and not speaking on representation within the medium, you end up normalising them and they become a trope. When looking at some of the images of black people within Hollywood animation it’s clear that the medium was used to distribute expressions of national and corporate racism. Ralph Bakshi’s film Coonskin shows this excellently with his use of satirical and racist stereotypes that were in the corate animation industry, his film was met with some harsh backlash due to this. Song of the South however fit more with the light-hearted child friendly tone that animated features thought to be. Released in 1946 Song of the South is an American live action animated musical HR, it’s based on a collection of stories by Joel Chandler Harris. The film takes place in the south of the United States during the Reconstruction era, a period of time shortly after the abolition of slavery, here the story tells of a young white boy, Johnny, who befriends Uncle Remus. Uncle Remus tells stories that teaches the kids on the plantation various life lessons. Since release Song of the South has had a lot of controversy surrounding it, critics found the film’s portrayal of African Americans as racist and offensive, pointing out the black vernacular and other stereotypes. Representation regarding race is extremely complex, and dependant on the ideologies of the public it is presented to. Nations such as Britain and America have unspoken ideologies that believe ethnic minority statuses to be an issue to be dealt with, because of this, issues of “inferential” racism HR get brought into question without the conscious knowledge of the creators, even if they set out to do the opposite. I feel this is one of the key issues with how Song of the South represented African Americans, it was quickly labelled an ‘Uncle Tom’ film due to the context in which it represented the characters. An example of this is when the other black characters that live on the plantation leave in the morning, it is never specifically told what they leave to do within the film, all we are shown is them singing merrily as the disappear over a hill, the same happens upon their return. Although this does not come across as offensive, the fact that it is directly avoiding talking about it and treating it as this happy experience is very wishful thinking, this is what inferential racism is. Underlying this attempt to subtly show a positive relationship between African Americans and the ranch owners depicts the issue with western ideology when dealing with minorities, it is an ideology that promotes the tolerance of other race rather than acceptance and embracing the other races. I feel this is only emphasised by the ending of the film being Uncle Remus leaving the plantation. Although I see the reason for him leaving, as the film is set after the abolishment of slavery, however the message I feel it sends across is that the solution to this problem is to leave, rather than integrate, talk and exchange ideas to progress together. Disney brought in Clarence Edouard Muse to help advise on the script, Muse was an African American lawyer, writer, director and composer but Muse parted ways with Disney in 1944 after his ideas to portray the black characters as more dignified and prosperous were rejected by southern writer Dalton Reymond. He wrote letters to the editors of black publications informing them that disney was going to depict Negroes in an inferior capacity and that the film was ‘detrimental to the advancement of the Negro people’. When watching Song of the South it’s clear to see what Muse was talking about, although they were real people in the live action parts the characters all fit the racial trope for black people in the media at that time. Representation in Coonskin is a lot more complex, it shows an early instance of a white writer and director struggling with representing the contradictions of race within a postmodern mode of representation. Released in 1975 Coonskin is mixture of live action and animation similar to Song of the South, directed by Ralph Bakshi the film is about a Rabbit, Fox and Bear who rise to the top of the organised crime racket in Harlem HR. Coonskin attracted much of the same criticism as Song of the South, particularly as white director presented a satirical reality of black people at the time. Many members of CORE HR protested the films release claiming is was a racist depiction of blackness that only shows slaves, hustlers and whores. However that is not what Coonskin is, it is a subversive and satirical reimagining of sorts of Disney’s Song of the South. The film is filled with racial stereotypes that were commonly found in animation, Bakshi actually used the racial caricatures and stereotypes to directly attack racism, it was not just the black characters that were represented in this crude way. Conskin is Bakashi’s chance to take the caricatures that were used in cartoons at this time, every racist character is given an over the top death, either being trapped in a tar baby posing as the lead character Rabbit, being burned to death while wearing black face or being painted black and having the cops unleash a barrage of bullets to slaughter them. He uses an animators greatest tool which is that they can use abstract and iconic images to get a message through more clearly and more effectively than a live action film can. I don’t think the film has a specific political point that it’s trying to make, it has targets that it is trying to attack and destroy, its a pure blast of negative and a frantic energy that has zero patience for tenderness and subtlety unlike Song of the South.  

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