Respectful Insolence

Casual racism in the 1930s

After having been pointed yesterday to a video of an old Betty Boop short that strongly suggests that Boop may have been a homeopath, I couldn’t resist clicking on the links to a couple of other old Betty Boop cartoons. One of them reminded me of just how different our culture was 72 years ago when this cartoon was released. What’s astonishing to me, from the vantage of 2007, is the casual racism, done without a care in the world that it would offend anyone and done with the grossest racial stereotypes played for cheap laughs:

We can be grateful that such stereotypes are no longer considered acceptable (although more subtle, less blatantly offensive stereotypes are still with us), but they remain disturbing reminders of just how pervasive and nasty racist attitudes were until fairly recently in our history.

Comments

  1. #1 Mike
    June 11, 2007

    I’d argue that the stereotypes of gay men in television or the movies are often just as blatantly offensive and narrow.

  2. #2 Nicolas
    June 12, 2007

    Ha. Too true. Fifty years from now, people will be watching 3D neural interface simulations of Will and Grace and going, “What the hell? Did people really laugh at this?”

    And yes, I’m gay, and I do laugh at the show. Just like a lot of Black people laughed at these shorts back in the day.

  3. #3 Graculus
    June 12, 2007

    What’s really amazing is how fast the culture changed. There may be hope for our species yet.

  4. #4 Davis
    June 12, 2007

    I still remember the networks showing the Bugs Bunny (et al.) cartoons with racist elements when I was a kid — characters in blackface, bucktoothed Asians, etc. The crazy thing is that this was in the early 80s; I don’t know how those slid under the radar. Even at that age it was pretty clear to me those cartoons were inappropriate, and I was always a little squeamish when they came on.

  5. #5 James
    June 12, 2007

    One of the fascinating aspects of all this is that a lot of these cartoon studios were a lot more accepting and open to black artists than the rest of Hollywood. Betty Boop was a huge venue for Cab Calloway — sure, this cartoon spoofed him with the “Heidi heidi hi”, but another Boop cartoon was essentially an early music video for “Minnie The Moocher”, the song that line comes from.

    The Warner Bros. cartoons “Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarfs” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_Black_and_De_Sebben_Dwarfs) and “Tin Pan Alley Cats” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tin_Pan_Alley_Cats) got the animation house into some trouble, because they insisted on hiring black jazz musicians for it.

  6. #6 Adam Cuerden
    June 12, 2007

    Don’t get me wrong: This is pretty appalling: They’re drawn like blackface performers, and the three stooges and watermelon business is inexcusable. Still, I kind of wonder if the people who wrote it knew, or whether they thought it was no worse than the treatment of the other babies.

  7. #7 manfred
    June 12, 2007

    Nasty racist attitudes are indeed pervasive in our culture, Orac, but not among Whites.
    Take a look at gangsta rap “music” (I use the term loosely)with their “Kill Whitey” lyrics, sung by “artists” with mile-long rap sheets, providing good role models for the black community. (Come to think of it, ever heard of vastly disporportionate black crime rates compared to Whites?)
    But well, common knowledge (provided by our media masters) has it that only the evil evil Whites can be racists.
    Oh the joys of living in our “glorious” politically correct times!

  8. #8 Lockwood
    June 12, 2007

    Shorter Manfred: Everything whites do is forgivable because I don’t like rap.

  9. #9 John
    June 12, 2007

    Not so amazing if you think that this was a time when most of the population was within only a generation or two of the war between the states and the resulting dislocation. During the childhood of most of the writers, blacks were not citizens or even regarded as people under the constitution. Black exclusion laws and Jim Crow legislation was common in both the North and the south at the turn of the century.

  10. #10 THobbes
    June 13, 2007

    Johnny Cash once wrote a song about shooting his wife while high on cocaine (“Cocaine Blues”); he celebrates uxoricide again in “Delia’s Gone.” One of country music’s earliest precursor songs, “The Banks of the Ohio,” depicts a man who murders his girlfriend when she won’t marry him. Hank Williams Jr. sang about giving a woman an attitude adjustment “on the top of [her] head.” Tammy Wynette famously told women out there to “stand by your man” even when he does things “you don’t understand.” And don’t even get me started on Merle Haggard! Clearly country music promotes misogyny and violence! What the hell kind of role models are these?

  11. #11 THobbes
    June 13, 2007

    More to the topic at hand, I also remember watching “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips” on the Golden Age of Looney Tunes when I was young and thinking at the time, “Japanese people don’t look like that!” Of course, at the time it was produced, most Americans had probably never seen a Japanese person before. Perhaps something similar to that is why it was perfectly reasonable 70 years ago to show black women carrying around watermelon for their children.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.