Despicable racism

Despicable MeI saw Despicable Me this weekend. I thought the movie was mostly fun and entertaining, though it felt like it was written by a focus group. Going in I was expecting the miscellaneous eastern European accent that tells us the main character, Gru, is a villain. What I wasn’t expecting was a moment of anti-Asian cartoon racism that I found quite frankly surprising in a contemporary movie.

Spoiler alert

Gru needs a shrink ray to complete his plan to steal the moon. So he steals a shrink ray from a topic secret research facility, presumably belonging to another villain. Throughout the scene where Gru steals the shrink ray my jaw was on the floor – the henchmen in the top secret facility are Asian cartoon stereotypes straight out of U.S. World War 2 propaganda. They have monkey-like features, with mouths that split their entire faces, small pig noses, and beady slanted eyes. They are wearing nondescript uniforms that are also evocative of World War 2.

Gru’s minions in the film are little yellow creatures, and I have to wonder if this is why “yellow terror” imagery was used. The possibility these characters were included as a racist pun makes the scene feel even more disturbing.

World War 2 propaganda poster depicting racist cartoon of Japanese soldier in uniform, wringing hands, grinning wide smile with large teeth, glasses, small slanted eyes, and a pig nose. Text reads Go ahead, please - TAKE DAY OFF!I haven’t been able to find an image from this scene in the film, but the soldiers depicted do not look radically different from the World War 2 propaganda poster at right. In the movie the characters aren’t smiling so we don’t see large teeth, and their features are even more monkey-like. Their inspiration is undeniable: these are clearly based on racist wartime cartoons.

U.S. World War 2 propaganda used racist images of Japanese and German soldiers to unite Americans in hatred of them. Comics and animation were perfect tools, since cartoons depend on stereotypes to communicate with the least amount of visual information necessary. This propaganda contributed to a war time culture that allowed the internment of Japanese Americans and the bombing of Japanese civilians. For many Asian Americans the racist stereotype of the “gook” has followed them their whole lives. A film like Despicable Me casually using this imagery reintroduces it to a whole new generation.

I said I was surprised to be confronted with these images in a contemporary kids movie, but I shouldn’t have been. The recent release of The Last Airbender and last summer’s Transformers 2 are reminders that Hollywood racism is still alive and well in kids films.

No doubt the Asian stereotypes in Despicable Me were included by animators who know their history and are fans of World War 2 era cartoons. Which makes sense, as it was a golden age for American cartooning that still greatly informs work being produced today. But artistic nostalgia will never excuse the use of stereotypes that have caused real hurt to real people.

I haven’t seen anything else written about this moment in Despicable Me – it’s brief, so some people may have overlooked it. But I hope parents are aware of the history and meaning of these images, and I hope they use this moment in the film as a teaching opportunity, so kids aren’t just exposed to racist images with no explanation of their meaning. Young viewers may not know the images they are being exposed to are racist, but an unchallenged build up of images, words, and stories like this is how racist ideas are able to take hold in a person’s mind. There’s a long, sad history of racism in children’s cartoons and I don’t want to see these images passed on casually to yet another generation.

ETA: When I wrote this post I assumed the anti-semitic stereotypes on display in Gru and his mother had already been addressed by someone somewhere. However, I haven’t found such an article. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot wrong with this movie!

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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