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Aloe? Is this thing on?

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by , 4th August 2010 at 06:47 AM (819 Views)
So! Aloe, then...

I probably should have expected no less from a fandom that genuinely believed the forthcoming games' names would be changed from Black and White to avoid accusations of racism. But the degree of overreaction to the reveal of the series' first black character has astonished even my jaded self.

As far as I'm aware, nobody so far has said "I think Aloe is racist". But plenty of people seem to be convinced that everyone else will find Aloe racist, and this in turn will lead to media hysteria/massive edits and delays/the collapse of Nintendo.

This is all the weirder to me because I recently published a column about Jynx, and the racism controversy that surrounded her original design. And the primary reaction to this on the relevant forum thread was bewilderment that anyone could possibly find Jynx racist. Which seems odd to me. By any measure, Jynx represents a starker, more extreme and obvious racial caricature than Aloe does. And yet the forums are (or were) full of people insisting that the objections raised to Jynx were stupid, while at the same time insisting that Aloe is going to mean trouble for the series.

This confused me until I realised the source for this apparent contradiction: people don't seem to comprehend why Jynx upset people in the first place, and so they've got it into their heads that anything even vaguely resembling a black stereotype is going to spark a witch-hunt. There's an attitude amongst certain posters in my column's thread that Carole Boston Weatherford was only complaining about Jynx to be bloody awkward, and so why wouldn't she complain about Aloe as well?

Well, maybe because she had a perfectly good reason to complain about Jynx. And also because Jynx and Aloe evoke very different imagery.

You know what we need? We need a debunking. I'm a scientist, so I like debunking. It's second nature to me. Creationism's gonna have to wait, though, because what follows is my very own debunking of what I like to call Aloe Hysteria.

Do you get it?

Aloe Hysteria?

Sounds a bit like Aloe vera?

Oh, fine then. Just read the bloody debunking.

1. OMG you guys, this is gonna be like Jynx all over again!!!
In my article, I state a couple of times that Jynx was almost certainly never meant to offend. Nonetheless, she bore enough of a resemblance to 'darky' iconography to cause a stir. The darky is much, much more than a stereotype. It has its roots in one, as it was a caricature of blackface, which was in turn a particularly negative stereotype of blacks in the nineteenth century. The darky was the cartoon equivalent, but this allowed the designs to become progressively less and less human and more... other. Take a look at cartoons of black people from the early twentieth century. They're portrayed as barely human: bug-eyed, thick-lipped, black-skinned monsters. This is why the darky iconography is so uniquely reviled. It was dehumanising.

And hey... Jynx certainly isn't human, right? She's a monster. It's in the name of the show! So Ms. Weatherford turns on the TV and sees what - to her eyes - is a 1930's cartoon black woman that the show actually identifies as being non-human. Can you see now why she hit the roof?

Then we have Aloe. The accusation is that she evokes the Mammy stereotype. Well... I have some reservations about that, but let's assume for now that she does. Is the Mammy stereotype anything like as viscerally loathed as the darky image? Hell, no. It is a stereotype, let me make that clear, and stereotypes should always be avoided. But there's one hell of a difference between these two examples. The Mammy is a big, fat, matronly, cheerful woman, usually in late middle-age. Notably, she's also... you know... human. That helps. Isn't it a bit ridiculous to be likening an utterly vile dehumanisation of a race to an outdated but not-especially-negative stereotype?

2. But... Aloe IS a Mammy, though, right???
Aloe's resemblance to said archetype is... highly arguable. She has an apron! And... er... that seems to be the main thrust of the argument. I would actually argue that Aloe seems to suggest several stereotypes, only one of which is the Mammy. Keep in mind that Mammies are supposed to be big, fat and usually getting on in years... while Aloe seems comparitively young and slim. The stereotype also covers the individual's attitude, as others have pointed out... and we know bugger-all about Aloe's personality.

Now, we know that the Japanese can be a little racially insensitive at times. If they'd wanted to draw a Mammy, they'd have done just that. She'd be fat and old and dressed as a chambermaid. It's only when you imagine just how bad a stereotype we could have been given that you can appreciate how feeble this is by comparison. If Aloe looks like anything, it's a 1970's waitress.

3. Wait... you just admitted that she's a stereotype! We're doomed!!!
American media is full of stereotypes, even today. And way worse stereotypes than anything Aloe could be accused of. The rap industry continues to perpetuate the image of black men as criminals (though it's far from the only guilty party in this regard). Remember 24? Remember its balanced, neutral portrayal of Arabs? Even the Simpsons, a series with quite liberally-minded writers, perpetuates the Indian convenience-store owner stereotype. Is a black maid necessarily any worse than any of these?

Consider the following. If a TV show airing today featured a black maid, would there be protests? Would it be immediately yanked off the air?

Wait, you say there are shows like that airing anyway? Well, in that case, I guess not.

Now, if a TV show airing today featured a cartoon of a black-skinned, pop-eyed, big-lipped... yeah, you get the point. It's a bit different, right?

4. Well... it still doesn't matter! The media will go nuts!!!
Remember the Jynx controversy? Yeah? Remember how the show was taken off the air and all of the games withdrawn from shops? Remember how all of the Pokemon merchandise in the country was piled up on the White House lawn and ceremonially set on fire by the president? Remember how Nintendo was sued and went bankrupt, and then how the US invaded Japan just for good measure?

No? That never happened?

Oh well. What actually happened was that a few episodes of the anime were dropped from rotation and Game Freak eventually got around to revising Jynx's design. And this was at a time when Pokemon fever was at its height; when the media delighted in covering the latest controversy about these crazy kids with their Pokeymanz cards. These days, Pokemon is a dead horse as far as the media's concerned. It would take something way worse than this to trigger a media storm.

Want more proof? Well... how about Ludicolo? I was pretty astonished when I saw Ludicolo for the first time. I mean, that's about as blatant a stereotype as you can get. And yet, there was no fuss about it, because even then the games were no longer big or current enough for anyone in the media to be arsed about.

5. You're only saying this because you don't want Pokemon to be labeled as racist!!!
I don't want it to be falsely labeled as racist, no. But in my article about Jynx, I'm quite happy to acknowledge that (in all likelihood) Jynx was at least partly based on a racist image. She certainly resembled one enough to merit a redesign, and I firmly believe that the redesign was the right thing to do.

This situation is way different. I don't expect to see Aloe significantly altered, if only because she's likely to play some role in the anime too. At most, Nintendo may revise her costume a bit, like they often do with the speedo-flaunting swimmers, but frankly, even that would be a surprise to me.

Please keep in mind that we know nothing about this character, except that she's evidently important enough to merit her own Vs. Screen. This, combined with her plant-based name, suggests she may be a Gym Leader or Elite Four member. That's certainly a far cry from the downtrodden domestic servant people are quick to label her as based on the fact that she's wearing an apron.

So, everybody... calm down. When the man with the anxiety disorder tells you you're panicking unduly, it's time to listen.
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  1. SmearglePaints's Avatar
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    An interesting read and certainly answers (or at least acknowledges) much of the concern over this character.

    However, I've taken it one step further: contacted Carole Weatherford.
  2. Bikini Miltank's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SmearglePaints
    An interesting read and certainly answers (or at least acknowledges) much of the concern over this character.

    However, I've taken it one step further: contacted Carole Weatherford.
    Frankly, I'd have waited until we knew at least something about this character before asking for comment on her. She could be the Champion for all we know. Any reaction to her at this point is going to based soley on appearance.
  3. SmearglePaints's Avatar
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    I very much doubt she'll respond at all, but my E-mail was mostly a request for a discussion on the initial controversy with only a short mention of the setting of the new games and the status of the "first black character".

    I'm not trying to instigate a new controversy (which would likely not get very far anyways), I just felt inspired by your article on Jynx and this new controversy to finally go to one of the sources and get some perspective on the issue.
  4. Archaic's Avatar
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    Methinks this should probably be reworked slightly and thrown up on Bulbanews as an editorial. ;)

    Personally, the first person I thought of when I saw the full picture of her wearing the now infamous apron was Aretha Franklin as Mrs. Murphy in the original Blues Brothers movie.
  5. SmearglePaints's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Archaic
    Methinks this should probably be reworked slightly and thrown up on Bulbanews as an editorial. ;)
    I had the same thought, though not sure if it'd be better to publish it now or later. Most of the heat will likely die down soon enough, so now is probably the more appropriate timing to help ease whatever tensions there may be.
  6. Bikini Miltank's Avatar
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    I dunno, really. It feels like this hysteria is entirely being generated by the fans themselves, and giving it more exposure might just fan the flames. While I'd concede that Aloe's design does have stereotypical elements to it, I don't think she's anything like enough of a stereotype for the media to be arsed about, so this controversy will likely be a fandom-only thing.
  7. Blackjack Gabbiani's Avatar
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    Funny you should mention Apu since he's usually established to be one of the smartest characters in the series. Even with being an Indian convience store owner.
  8. Archaic's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bikini Miltank
    I dunno, really. It feels like this hysteria is entirely being generated by the fans themselves, and giving it more exposure might just fan the flames. While I'd concede that Aloe's design does have stereotypical elements to it, I don't think she's anything like enough of a stereotype for the media to be arsed about, so this controversy will likely be a fandom-only thing.
    Honestly, I do think she is a stereotype of some sort, but that's less out of racism and just because stereotypes are easy to use visual cues in anime, manga and games.

    The hysteria might be something really generated by the fandom only, but I think it's a good thing to point it out for what it is.
  9. Garren's Avatar
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    I don't think she's a mean-spirited attempt at racism, but I definitely think it's a somewhat funny design for our first black character...I mean, Japanese people, on average I assume they don't really know the whole back story of racism against blacks so I can't really fault them for creating a slightly questionable black character with similarities to stereotypes. Even if something isn't intended to be racist, there's still the matter of how people view it. Like Jynx. It may well be based off of the kogal and yuki-onna, but an American mother isn't likely going to know that so obviously she'll compare it to something she's familiar with.

    I don't mean to insult Japanese people with that remark either, but it's kind of how Americans and the like often mix up China and Japan in media without realizing the back story of racism there either.

    Either way, Aloe's a minor character it seems like, a Gym Leader at the most, so I don't think it'll matter much.
  10. Gronarak's Avatar
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    I didn't even know who Aloe was until I looked her up. Given that the three gym leaders before her are waiters, I'm not surprised not offended.

    Great job, btw.

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