Negative Racial Stereotypes in Popular Kids Movies

Top: L-R Princess Poppy, Cooper, King Peppy from Trolls.
Bottom: Richard the rapping wildebeest from Sing.

I’ve been immersed in watching animated films these days along with my toddler. Two of the movies in our daily rotation include Trolls and Sing (both 2016)Both are very well done. Both went to great lengths to offer something for parents as well as for children. And both, I believe, made efforts to avoid negative racial and cultural stereotypes. Yet, in both movies, some unfortunate mistakes fell through the cracks.

Neither movie features humans as we know them. The cast of Trolls includes fantastical creatures and Sing showcases anthropomorphized animals. Yet in both the characters are obviously drawn from people in the “real world.” Some are recognizably New Yorkers or Southerners. Others are Japanese, African-American or representing other ethnic or racial groups. Stereotypes abound–some good and some not so much.

After watching these movies dozens of times, something struck me:

In Sing and Trolls, the most recognizably young African-American male character in each movie has trouble controlling his bowels in public.

In Trolls, Cooper poops out a stack of cupcakes out of sheer terror just moments before he is captured by the Bergen chef (see picture above). In Singthe wildebeest Richard, who raps and has a full Afro hairstyle, passes so much gas uncontrollably it disqualifies him from the singing competition. He literally propels himself out of the theater with farts.

How in the world did the creators of these movies miss this? They might as well have put those characters in blackface. Not being able to control one’s bowels in public may be an excusable medical event, but historically and culturally it has deep connotations of humiliation. It marks a person as more animalistic, bumbling, uncouth, uncultured, unclean (both literally and socially) and just flat out disgusting. It establishes a person as deserving of being laughed at and, by consequence, less deserving of full rights and inclusion in society.

I actually don’t judge the movie creators too harshly for this. There are some insidious racial stereotypes that are so buried in the cultural consciousness it can take a lifetime to recognize and eradicate them. Case in point: Both Cooper and Richard are shown to be friendly, caring and compassionate. Richard has an obvious gentle side. They are not “dangerous thugs” but decent characters with big hearts. These are good things. This speaks to how difficult it is to eradicate negative racial stereotypes, because while going out of their way to show these characters in a positive light, some other sneaky negative stereotypes crept in, perhaps unknowingly.

Fighting unconscious implicit bias is often like a frustrating game of whack-a-mole–you fight it in one place and it pops up somewhere else. It is still worth fighting it.

I’m actually more upset with how Sing depicts the Japanese band of singers. Those negative caricatures were more obvious and should have been caught. They are as bad as anything out of a 1950s cartoon. However, in most other ways, Sing does a good job. The African-American family of elephants is depicted good-naturedly in all their love and, yes, even their dysfunctions. Most importantly, they are shown as fully “human” and multi-dimensional–you know, just like real people. The gorillas–who happen to be a band of gangsters–speak with an obvious English accent. I’ve always assumed this was done to make it abundantly clear that there were not intended to represent African Americans (although it should be noted that you can have an English accent AND be of African descent).

You might say:  “What’s the big deal?” Why can’t we laugh at ourselves and each other? You might say the politically-correct world is taking all the fun out of life, leading us chasing wild geese in word choices while “real” social problems are left unaddressed.

But answer me this:  Can you for even one second imagine that the white, young princess girl would have difficulty controlling her bowels in public? After all, Princess Poppy was standing right next to Cooper when he defecated out of fear. Why couldn’t it have been her character who did that? It’s simply inconceivable. It just would not happen. We would never want to see her lowered like that, would we? It would just feel wrong, wouldn’t it? Why are all the kings in Trolls very obviously white guys?

The problem is that these word choices and public images come from–and dig very deeply into–our unconsciousness. They impact theway we perceive and treat each other. When we assume that African-American males are not to be taken seriously, that they are not worthy of the same dignity as others, then that has real-world consequences. It impacts their experiences in school, in the hiring process, and in how they are treated by the police and criminal justice system. When a group of people is understood to be second-class citizens, they get second-class treatment. One follows the other. Their lives don’t matter. They are just comical, sideshow characters–good for a laugh, perhaps, but not ever for power-sharing and true inclusion in society. Cooper is the funny, somewhat dim witted, buck toothed (yes.) guy on the side, but he’s not the king. Richard is not the manager of the bank or the theater. It’s not an exaggeration to say these images and word choices translate into dead bodies in the streets, unfair legislation and systemic, multi-generational poverty. That’s why this matters. That’s why it’s not nit-picky but of central importance.

Continuing Thoughts

There is no scientific basis to suggest that African-American males have more trouble controlling their bowels in public than anyone else. So why are they being depicted that way in otherwise fine movies such as Trolls and Sing? If it’s just innocent humor, why is the mockery not more evenly spread out?

The strong African-American male is a threat to the white consciousness. He therefore must be lowered, he must be taken down, he must be humbled somehow. Why? What would happen if African-American males were seen as expressing their full power and dignity in all circumstances? Is the white world so fragile that it can’t handle that?

I had a friend like that when I was younger. He was so insecure and judgmental that I instinctively knew that the only way I could “fit in” was that I had to act dopey, silly and laughable. I had to constantly employ self-deprecating humor. He just couldn’t relate to me eye-to-eye as an equal, so I had to act “lower.” As my confidence developed, the relationship strained and eventually ended as he just couldn’t hang in there on those terms (thankfully, I’ve also worked through enough of my personal demons at this point in my life not to do that anyone to secure a friendship).

So how far do we want to take these comparisons? You could argue the very nasty Bergens in Trolls are almost entirely based on white people. You could, in contrast, also ask why the African-American-seeming Cooper is a four-legged animal who hangs out with the two-legged, more hominid–and more seemingly white–trolls? Where do we stop with the comparisons?

As final thought, I recommend folks check out the animated movie Shrek. It attempted to turn many of these common stereotypes on their heads. Did it work? Is it worth doing something like that again and again until stereotypes are overturned for good? Or is that just fighting fire with fire?

Visit Frank Lesko’s website here.

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