Asian Americans in Cartoons

December 21, 2019 at 12:57 am Leave a comment



In my childhood, cartoons were very popular. Which – I know – everybody watches cartoons in their youth. But for some reason, I have this inkling feeling (and it could just be projection) that cartoons are more important for millenials and gen-z than the generations that proceeded them. I mean, more content is being produced then ever from webtoons to 3D animated movies, on top of the fact that most of us grew up just after the boom of the Disney princess craze ensured lifelong servitude for many to the Disney name, to the extent that Disney+ is now exploding nationwide despite only housing one original series. My hunch is that cartoons were especially influential for my generation. In that sense, it’s interesting to look at cartoons as an aspect of cultural assimilation.

Because cartoons are targeted towards young children, there are definitely learning implications when depictions of race bound on stereotype. In this blog post I’d like to look at a couple examples of East and South Asian depictions of cartoon characters, and point out potential criticisms of them.

The lowest hanging fruit here for me is Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, from The Simpsons. Almost two years ago, the show-runners for Simpsons announced that they no longer had plans to include the character in future episodes of the show. The character was frequently criticized for being a negative stereotype of Indian culture, and it’s honestly not difficult to understand the criticism.

The problems mostly arose after a documentary featuring a handful of prominent Indian comedians and actors. The Simpsons released a response, in the form of Marge reading Lisa a bedtime story, and in order to keep it PC she had to keep struggling to change the details. The point supposedly is that we shouldn’t criticize characters and themes made over thirty years ago by the same standards that we criticize new things. The ending is sort of… ham fisted? It ends with a closeup on a photo of Apu which simply says “Don’t have a cow!” which many immediately took as a jab at hinduism.

Lisa Simpson

On the flip side of things, the past twenty years have shown a rise to many positive role models for Asian Americans in cartoons. Saleah Blancaflor writing for NBC News made note of how many Asian American role models appeared in early 2000’s Nickelodeon cartoons. In particular, Saleah makes light of Phoebe Heyerdahl – the first Asian American character in nicktoons history. The focus of analysis however is on her father.

Image result for Phoebe Heyerdahl

Her father, Mr. Hyunh is depicted in a interracial marriage. Hyunh is Vietnamese, and as such the Vietnam war actually plays a significant role in his background. English is not his language, but in the words of the show-runner, “Mr. Hyunh had a thick accent, but nobody on the show ever made fun of it and it was never a source of humor.” During the Hey, Arnold! Christmas special, he (and his daughter) gets an entire backstory.

I think, in several ways, these characters are very similar. They are both immigrants, with cultural backgrounds that dramatically inform their character traits and relationships to main cast members. They are both family men, and they both work blue collar jobs. The Simpsons show-runners even claim that to some Indians, Apu isn’t even a stereotype. However, I think largely any defense the show-runners create for Apu is retroactive. A character like Mr. Hyunh is created with love in mind. A character like Apu is made to be the butt of jokes.

I think in cartoons, all characters are a bit stereotypical. It’s the nature of the beast. To break something down into simple shades and shapes demands it. But that doesn’t mean that character and writing doesn’t demand nuance. And sure, maybe to some Indians Apu isn’t a stereotype. But that doesn’t mean that it’s okay to use race as the butt of a joke, at least when that joke isn’t being written by a member of that race. Even then, it could be difficult to defend. Luckily, I’d like to believe we’re moving away from that era of comedy, especially in children’s television.

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