Sunday, June 20, 2010

Ethnic Stereotyping and Classic Film

It is a sad fact of American society that for much of its history we have stereotyped several different ethnic groups. Many of these stereotypes developed even before the United States existed. Others would develop later. At their core ethnic stereotypes are generalisations of ethnicities, based on what is to be believed to be characteristics common to that ethnic group. By their very nature ethnic stereotypes tend to dehumanise the ethnicities they falsely portray, through asserting their inferiority to the dominant ethnicity of a culture. Ultimately, ethnic stereotyping is rooted in ethnic hatred and the belief that certain ethnicities are inferior to others.

From the end of the 19th Century into the beginning of the 20th Century, several different ethnic stereotypes were already well established in the United States. African Americans were stereotyped as child like, lazy, superstitious, happy, and ignorant (as typified by the characters played by actor Stepin Fetchit, shown above). East Asians were alternately stereotyped as malevolent, cunning, conniving, and sexualised, or as submissive, subservient, and docile. Native Americans were stereotyped alternately as hostile barbarians or noble savages at one with nature or quite simply drunks, and regardless of their ethnicity, in most movies prior to the Sixties Native Americans were always portryaed as if they were all Plains Natives. Here it must be pointed out that stereotyping was not limited to those ethnicities who had originated outside of Europe. The Scots were stereotyped as cheap. The Irish were stereotyped as drunks. The French were stereotyped as womanisers. Indeed, among the ethnicities to suffer the most from stereotyping in the United States were those of Hispanic descent. Mexicans were often stereotyped as slow, lazy, none too bright, and often drunk. Other times Mexicans were stereotyped as banditos, dirty, dishonest, irrational, and violent. Those of Spanish descent in general were also stereotyped as the "Latin lover," individuals who were highly sexualised, emotional, and often hot tempered. Ethnic stereotypes were very prevalent in the United States at the start of the 20th Century, appearing in advertising, comic strips, and the literature of the day. While many would fall into disuse shortly before the beginning or a shortly after World War II, others would persist well into the Sixties. Sadly, others would persist to this day.

Here it must be pointed out that while ethnic stereotypes were common in film for much of the 20th Century, often particular ethnicities were played by members of other ethnicities. While the use of performers of European in blackface to play African Americans largely ceased with Birth of a Nation (1915) , it was not unusual for performers of European or West Asian descent to play characters who were ethnically East Asian, Hispanic, or Native American. Indeed, the practice of yellowface, in which individuals of European, West Asian, and even Native American descent played East Asian characters, was well established in Hollywood from an early period. Indeed, some actors, such as Warner Oland (who played both Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan) played several roles in yellowface. Indeed, while blackface would only rarely be seen in movies after the 1910's, yellowface would persist into the Seventies and has been seen as recently as the film Crank: High Voltage (2009, in which David Carradine played the head of a Hong Kong Triad). Similarly, Hispanics were often played by individuals of Northern European, Itlalian, West Asian, and Native American descent were, a practice Raqeulle of Out of the Past has termed "brownface." Indeed, rather jarring instances of brownface existed as late as Giant (1956, with Sal Mineo, Sicilian in descent, playing a Mexican American) and West Side Story (1961, Natalie Wood, who was Russian in descent, playing a Puerto Rican). Fortunately, the practice of brownface would decline with the Sixties. While the practices of yellowface and brownface were common in Hollywood and would persist well into the Sixties, perhaps no other ethnic groups were played by individuals not belonging to those ethnic groups as Native Americans. Indeed, prior to the Sixties one would often be hard pressed to find a Native American character in a film who was played by a Native American. I call this practice "redface." Many well known actors who were not ethnically Native American would play Native Americans over the years, including Ricardo Montalban (Castilian in descent), Michael Ansara (Syrian in descent) , Jeff Chandler (Jewish in descent), and Henry Brandon (who was German).

Given how prevalent ethnic stereotypes were in American culture from the 19th Century into much of the 20th Century, it was inevitable that many ethnic stereotypes would find their way into film. This presents a problem for the classic movie fan, who is often faced with offensive ethnic stereotypes, even in movies we love. Indeed, I cannot remember the first time I watched a classic film in which one or more stereotypes were present. I may well have been Gone With the Wind, with the character of Mammy, as a child. I do remember the first time I was extremely offended by the presence of a stereotype in one of my favourite films. The movie was Breakfast at Tiffany's. The stereotype in question was Mr. Yunioshi, played by Mickey Rooney in yellowface, complete with buckteeth, and speaking with an extremely bad imitation of a thick Japanese accent.

Like Gone With the Wind and many other classics, I had first seen Breakfast at Tiffany's as a child. As a child I knew that people of Japanese descent did not look like Mr. Yunioshi (who was downright cartoonish in appearance). I also realised that in reality the Japanese did not behave as Mr. Yunioshi does in the movie, highly emotional and prone to tantrums. That having been said, as a child it did not occur to me that Mr. Yunioshi was not only an ethnic stereotype, but an extremely offensive one as well. When I first watched Breakfast at Tiffany's as an adult, upon first seeing Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi, I felt as if I had been hit with a brick. Indeed, I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach every time he appeared on the screen. It wasn't that seeing Mickey Rooney in yellowface, looking downright cartoonish, and speaking with a thick, stereotypical Japanese accent was simply jarring, it downright offended me.

My experience with Breakfast at Tiffany's would not be the last time I would be offended by a stereotype present in one of  the films I had loved as a child. Sadly, there would be many more times. Given the prevalence of ethnic stereotypes well into the Sixties and the widespread use of actors to play ethnicities not their own, it is impossible for the average classic film fan to avoid seeing several films in which ethnic stereotypes are present or, at the very least, actors performing in yellowface, brownface, or redface. Sadly, this can make watching many classic films difficult for the classic movie fan, who may react in any number of ways. Many classic film fans seeing a movie for the first time which includes an ethnic stereotype may have a knee jerk reaction to the point that he or she ignore any of a film's finer qualities and focus entirely on the  presence of the stereotype, even if the stereotype only appears briefly As a result he or she might entirely dismiss the film. Other classic movie buffs may have a more complex reaction upon watching a classic film which includes ethnic stereotypes. While they may enjoy the film,  perhaps even love the film, he or she may well feel guilty for doing so, even if they were very offended by the stereotype which appeared in the film. Such mixed feelings were exactly what I felt when I first watched Breakfast at Tiffany's as an adult, not to mention numerous other films.

The reaction a classic movie fan has when confronted with an ethnic stereotype can be even more intense when the particular stereotype is falsely portraying an ethnic group to which they belong. I cannot say I have a great deal of experience with this, as English and German stereotypes are more or less unknown in American cinema, while Cherokee stereotypes are rare. That having been said, being part Cherokee I do feel a bit of a kinship with other Native American ethnicities so that Native American stereotypes in general do evoke a strong reaction from me. Indeed, as much as I have always enjoyed the movie McLintock (1963), I cannot help but feel insulted at the portrayal of Running Buffalo (played by John Stanley), a stereotypical drunken Native whose primary concern is the presence of whiskey (the film also features a stereotypical, emotional Chinese cook in the form of Ching, played by H. W. Gim). I can imagine how a full blooded Comanche would feel seeing Running Buffalo's drunken antics on the screen.

Given the at times visceral reactions that ethnic stereotypes often evoke in viewers, it should be little wonder that many older films featuring stereotypes have been subject to self censorship by studios and television outlets in the past. Often this has consisted of simply cutting scenes which feature ethnic stereotypes. This was the case with the "Tom and Jerry" cartoons released by MGM in the Forties and Fifties. From 1940 (the very first "Tom and Jerry" cartoon "Puss Gets the Boot") to 1952,  Tom and Jerry's owner was an overweight, middle aged African American woman called "Mammy Two Shoes." Mammy Two Shoes was almost always shown only partially (she was only seen completely in three "Tom and Jerry" shorts), but she was voiced by actress Lillian Randolph using the stereotypical African American dialect. In the Sixties MGM hired Chuck Jones to re-animate Mammy Two Shoes' appearances in the Tom and Jerry shorts, replacing her with a slender, European American woman with a vaguely Irish accent (voiced by June Foray). The editing of the old "Tom and Jerry" cartoons to remove Mammy Two Shoes was not the only instance of a company making cuts due to concerns over ethnic stereotyping. In 1971 King's World Entertainment made significant cuts to the Our Gang comedies (syndicated under the name The Little Rascals), removing any humour derived from ethnicity. Feature films would even be cut due to ethnic stereotyping, as was the instance of many of the films which featured Stepin Fetchit. Often Stepin Fetchit's scenes would be cut completely from these films.

More extreme than simply editing sensitive ethnic material out of movies was the complete removal of films from circulation. At the same time that King's World Entertainment edited many of the Our Gang shorts, they removed seven of the shorts from syndication completely (including "A Tough Winter," which guest starred Stepin Fetchit). The removal of "A Tough Winter" from The Little Rascals syndication package should not be surprising, as Stepin Fethcit's films have not only been subject to editing, but to being taken out of circulation completely. Indeed, a  Warner Brothers short featuring Stepin Fetchit ("Clean Pastures") is among what has become known in animation circles as the "Censored 11," eleven Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies which United Artists removed from syndication in 1968 for ethnic stereotyping. Similarly, Walt Disney has never released the movie Song of the South on home video (neither VHS nor DVD) because of accusations of racism towards the film. Indeed, Song of the South was last released in theatres in 1986 and the film in its entirety has never been shown on television. A more recent case of films being removed from a television venue for alleged racism occurred in 2003. That year the Fox Movie Channel began regularly showing the Charlie Chan films each Monday as part of a summer film festival. Fox axed the film festival after complaints from Asian American activists.That having been said, the Charlie Chan films would later be shown on the Fox Movie Channel with round table discussions and still later released on DVD.

While I am offended by the appearance of ethnic stereotypes in films and I feel sympathy to others offended by ethnic stereotypes, I cannot say I am in favour of either editing classic films for content, removing them entirely from circulation, or, as I have seen a few suggested, rating them "R." One small objection I have to editing classic films, withdrawing them from circulation, or rating them "R" due to such content is that it seems to me that at times there is sometimes disagreement as to when a particular character is a stereotype. Okay, I think all of us can agree that Gold Hat in The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Running Buffalo in McLintock and Long Duck Dong in Sixteen Candles are extremely offensive stereotypes. With other characters in classic film it is not so clear. The perfect example of this is Charlie Chan. Many Asian American activists have long claimed that Mr. Chan is an ethnic stereotype. They claim that he is submissive, non-aggressive, and even emasculated. In short, he is an early manifestation of the model minority stereotype. On the other hand, Charlie Chan's many fans, including myself, insist that he is not a stereotype. Indeed, having watched the entirety of the Charlie Chan series, it is hard for me to understand how he can be considered a stereotype. For one thing, while he may be overly apologetic (as a Southern gentleman I can be as well), Charlie Chan was not submissive. Not only in the films does Mr. Chan take charge of crime scenes, but it is not unusual for him to bark orders to individuals of European descent. Similarly, I think to describe Charlie Chan as non-aggressive is missing the mark. It is true Mr. Chan was not a violent man, but he was among the most dogged of detective in pursuing criminals--nothing could deter him. Finally, Charlie Chan was definitely not emasculated--he is hardly comparable to Mr. Yunoshi or Long Duck Dong. Charlie Chan was married and had ten children. He was also known to flirt with women on occasion.

In the end, the only thing I find about Charlie Chan that can be considered stereotypical s his somewhat stilted English (after living in Hawaii for so long, one would think his English would be flawless). While I must admit I am  offended by the fact that Charlie Chan has primarily been played by Europeans and European Americans, I must point out that this was a very common practice at the time and was largely an outgrowth of the studio system. While that does not necessarily make it right, it at least makes it understandable.While I realise that there are many who disagree with me (and I am sorry if I have offended anyone with my defence of Charlie Chan), the plain truth is that I don't see Charlie Chan as a stereotype at all.  Since there are a few characters such as Charlie Chan that no one can seem to agree is a stereotype, the idea of editing movies or removing them entirely from circulation seems wrong to me.

A much more serious objection I have to editing classic films or removing them from circulation entirely is the simple fact that in doing so it is nearly the same as saying that racism in film never happened. Certainly ethnic stereotyping is wrong. Certainly it offends people (myself included), but I cannot condone anything that essentially comes down to ignoring past wrongs. As for myself, I prefer a different approach to movies featuring ethnic stereotypes, one that does not pretend it never happened but at the same time makes it clear that it is unacceptable. On Warner Brother's Looney Tunes Golden Collection volumes of DVDs there is a disclaimer from Whoopi Goldberg explaining that while ethnic stereotyping is wrong, the animated shorts included in the collection are an important part of film history and editing the shorts would in effect be denying that such racism ever happened. While I do not believe the character of Charlie Chan to be an ethnic stereotype, I have to applaud the Fox Movie Channel for airing panel discussions to accompany the films. As I see it, by continuing to show films which include ethnic stereotyping while making it clear that such ethnic stereotyping is wrong, we can not only open up dialogues between various ethnic groups, but also insure that ethnic stereotyping never happens again.

To a degree I think we must approach classic films with a degree of cultural relativism, a sociological and anthropological principle in which an individual's beliefs and behaviour must be understood in terms of his or her culture. I think most of us can agree that ethic stereotyping is wrong. I think most of us are offended by ethnic stereotypes, even when it is not our ethnicity which is being stereotyped. In the end, however, I think we must accept that ethnic stereotyping was prevalent in the United States for much of the 20th Century and as a result ethnic stereotypes permeate most of the films made during this period. This is not to condone ethnic stereotyping and especially not to say that ethnic stereotyping is acceptable. Instead , it is an acknowledgement that ethnic stereotyping took place and was even very common for some time. In this way I believe we can move forward and insure that such ethnic insensitivity never happens again.


Unknown said...

Fantastic post! Especially in classic films, ethnic stereotypes pop up all the time and they're incredibly offensive. I hate when a perfectly good movie includes a racial joke or stereotype. It takes you out of the film; keeps you from really enjoying it (I know every time Mickey Rooney comes onscreen during Breakfast at Tiffanys I want to gag)

But I totally agree that these things shouldn't be hidden or edited out -- I like that solution you mentioned with the WB dvds, just having a simple disclaimer that explains why they chose to include it in the dvd. Although... I have to say, as great as a "heads up! this is offensive stuff" might be, it's still going to be hard to enjoy the cartoon if they're making offensive jokes about ethnic groups, you know? Any way you look at it, it's just a disgusting part of our past.

One teeny tiny thing... you mentioned that Ricardo Montalban was Castilian, Henry Brandon was German and Michael Ansara was Syrian, but then that Jeff Chandler was Jewish...that's not actually a nationality or race, it's a religion :)
(Sorry, that just always bothers me :)

Raquel Stecher said...

Superb post, yet again. You really put a lot of hard work into your posts and it shows.

Thanks for linking to my brownface article!

As a Latina, I am surprised sometimes that I love classic films as I do. Because they are predominately for whites and in favor of whites. It's not only difficult to find classic films about Latinos, but also ones that don't stereotype us. However, I am emotional, sexual and hot tempered so maybe I shouldn't complain because I am a living example of the stereotype.

Blackface always ruins a film for me. ALWAYS.

Raquel Stecher said...

Sorry another comment!

I agree with you RE: Charlie Chan. I think the series is not offensive. Charlie Chan knows better than everyone including the white characters!

Also, I agree with you RE: editing. I think these films are a sign of the times and they should stay as they were in their original form. Editing them is in fact editing history and that's a big no-no to me!

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thank you for the kind comments, Kate! I think WB hit upon a great solution with their Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies Collections. I really wish others would follow their lead.

Anyhow, as I understand it from Jewish friends, Jewishness is an ethnicity, or to be more accurate an ethnoreligious group. Jewishness isn't defined by ancestry or religious affiliation, but more a combination of both.

Raquelle, I think we're in the same boat to a small degree with regards to classic film. I love Westerns, but being part Cherokee it's kind of hard seeing the portrayal of Native Americans in many of the films!