Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Immigration Stan Smith Style

How do animated characters lean politically? Are animated characters as a demographic mostly liberal? Maybe their more conservative? This question is rarely addressed, but it is at the forefront of the animated series American Dad.

American Dad is part of the Seth McFarlane animated series dynasty. After Family Guy had been resurrected from two cancellations and become a ratings success, McFarlane created a new family the Smiths. American Dad follows the McFarlane animated family formula of screw-up father, hot wife, socially awkward child (usually a teenaged son), hot daughter (Meg is the exception on this one), and a family pet who talks. 

 On this show its the Smith family. The head of the family is Stan Smith a devoutly conservative Republican CIA agent (think Glenn Beck only slightly less annoying), his hot wife Francine, children teen geek Steve and ultra-liberal hot daughter Hayley. The Smiths have a pet goldfish Klaus and Roger a cross-dressing illegal alien (he's an actual alien creature of the other-world sorts.)

 Naturally, Stan and Hayley's opposing ideologies bump heads a lot of the time. While politics is often referenced (both President Obama and former President George W. Bush have made cameos) the show is primarily about the inner workings of the family.

 Perhaps the most interesting member of this family is Roger. Roger is an illegal alien of the E.T. sort, but I've always felt that Roger was in a way a representative of how we Americans see immigrants and people who come to our country. One of Roger's talents is his ability to assume different identities. He changes his clothes and his voice, goes back and forth between gender, throws on a wig and he's a completely different person. It's hilarious on the show. On the surface he can seem a bit schizophrenic. But I think the show is in a sense saying this is what you illegal aliens have to do to fit in with us. If you look like us and talk like us, we are willing to let your be. But the minute you appear to be different (i.e. be who you really are) or try to impose your culture on us then we have a problem. Roger's constant costume changes are, to me, symbolic of his assimilation. He can only truly be who he is when he's home with the Smith family. Meanwhile the rest of the world is missing out on this funny, insanely creative character.

 The Time magazine article referenced in our articles that immigrations gift of "wealth," "brain power," and "culture" are the "gift that keep on giving." I agree. I don't think appreciating another culture means that you are diminishing or devaluing your own. Symbolically American Dad represents the all-American family  welcoming the aliens in with open arms. They appreciate his contributions to their family. He brings out the best in them. They don't stop being an American family because they welcome in someone from another place, they become an even richer family as a whole. That's just the way we could be if we adopted the same mentality.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Cleveland Show and the sorry state of black television

 The news of "The Cleveland Show" getting a second season is bittersweet actually.

 Seth McFarlane's "Family Guy" spinoff "The Clevelend Show" was a hit and its returning for a second season. Great news right? Especially in a television landscape where there are so few predominantly black casted television shows. And Cleveland marked perhaps the first time a black cartoon family was in primetime.

It's a little sad though because that season Cleveland was the only minority lead character for a television show. Is this the best we can do?

 This isn't to knock Cleveland, I enjoy the show. It's just a little sad that in 2010 when we've got a black president and plenty of black entertainers that the only representation we're seeing of the black or any minority family on primetime television comes in the form of a African American cartoon family. We can consider "The Boondocks" and the Tyler Perry franchise of TBS television shows, "Meet the Browns" and "House of Payne" but neither of those shows are broadcast in the big four primetime networks. Cleveland's all we got. (And he's not even voiced by a black man, but I digress).

It's always been interesting to me how black Americans have almost always been able to garner mainstream appeal with our music, but for some reason we've never totally been able to crossover with our movies and television. There are a few actors who have done it: Will Smith, Denzell Washington, Halle Berry, but there are so many more talented people in front and behind the scenes that have been overlooked.

 In Stuart Hall's "What is this Black in Black popular culture?" he discusses cultural hegemony and how we a Americans tend to wrap ourselves in this shell of "nothing ever changes" because we're afraid to take a chance on something and not succeed. I think that's fascinating that in 2010 networks execs still don't see black television as being something that would interest the masses. CW and the WB began as networks with almost exclusively black programming. Today its just Gossip Girl, 90210, and America's Next Top Model. A totally different demographic altogether. At some point they realized that it wasn't profitable to make television featuring African Americans. I can't help but wonder how much of that is because there are so few African Americans in television to offer a vast offering of all the great possibilities we have to offer. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cartoons as real life reflections in "Ghost Dog"

Watching the movie "Ghost Dog" you will notice that the characters watch a lot of cartoons. Almost anytime you see a television the character is watching cartoons: Felix the Cat, Betty Boop, Woody Woodpecker, and even Itchy and Scratchy.

 You'd think with this being a blog about animated series and cartoons it'd be easy to make a connection to the two. I found the opposite to be true however. It took my brilliant professor and some research for me to realize that all the of the cartoons in the movie either forshadowed or reflected the previous or upcoming scene.

 My thought initially was that these mobsters were laughable at best and that the cartoons only exhibited that. I can't honestly say why he did this, but Jarmusch's use of cartoons is actually pretty freaking brilliant. He's showing throughout the movie, what I've been saying in this blog all along. Animated series are a reflection of our real lives. It's often symbolic, but with the examples of the shows I use in this blog it can also be pretty in-your-face.

 Every blog up to this point has shown that the lives that exist in animation are reflections of the way we look at subcultures, hip hop, gender, families, homosexuality, etc. Even in series where the characters are not people they relate on these issues.

 Perhaps the most symbolic example of this in the movie "Ghost Dog" is the final showdown scene between Louie and Ghost Dog. (Spoiler alert if you haven't seen the movie). They use an scene from Itchy and Scratchy show, a fictional cartoon series within the cartoon series "The Simpsons." The Itchy and Scratchy episode has the typical back and forth fighting between the animated cat and mouse, each one grabbing a bigger weapon. Eventually they grab guns and each one grabs a bigger gun until we see the planet Earth and the guns are bigger than Earth. Eventually someone has to lose, it turns out to be Scratchy. Who symbolically is the bigger guy (and he's black, just like Ghost Dog) not sure if this correlation was intended? But the cartoon result ends up exactly how the movie ends.

 What you can ultimately read from this that the winner is not always gonna be the biggest guy in the room. Its gonna be the person with the most powerful weapons. That weapon can (and usually is) the biggest physical weapon. But we also see in pop culture examples where the mind can be a metaphorical weapon. It was the person who was able to outsmart the situation that is ultimately victorious. Or the one with the biggest heart, who wanted it the most. In that instance the heart and the desire to achieve is the weapon. It can vary from film to film and situation to situation.

 (Spoiler over)

 As a cartoon lover, I loved what Jarmusch did with the cartoons. I think it was a fantastically creative and unusually genius move for a film of this kind. I also imagine it took lots of time to find the clips.
I was able to track down the Simpsons episode where the movie clip shown, click here to see it.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Stewie Does Drag

 One of my favorite movies of all time is Tootsie. I'm a little on the older side, so for those who aren't familiar with the movie Dustin Hoffman is a struggling actor who can't get work so he decides to dress up like a woman and audition for a soap opera. Surprise, surprise he gets hired and mayhem ensues as he tries to simultaneously keep up the charade while juggling three potential love interests (one who thinks he's gay, one who thinks he's a lesbian, and one who thinks he's a woman). Oy.

 Apparently Seth McFarlane shares my love of the film, because the recent Family Guy episode, "Go Stewie Go," takes this plot almost directly as a story for Stewie. He wants to be cast on his favorite children's show Jolly Farms. Unfortunately, the show is only looking to hire little girls. Not to be discouraged, Stewie dresses up like a girl and is cast for the role. He's a big success, but soon develops a crush on one of his co-workers (a little girl who could be the animated double for Jessica Lange, it was so adorable).

 Both shows end the same way with Dustin and Stewie, unmasking themselves as men on camera during live tapings of their respective programs.

 As we explored the concept of Drag Kings, crossdressing, and androgyny in class this week, I thought this was a fascinating example for several reasons. First, while we know that Stewie opted to dress as a girl out of percieved necessity, its fascinating because Stewie's sexuality is at times questionable. Despite being a baby the show has on many instances hinted at him having same-sex attractions. On the other hand the show has also shown him having crushes on girls. Maybe we're to assume that Stewie is bisexual. I don't know. The point is the decision to dress up as a woman did not come out of him expressing his sexuality, whatever it may be. It was out of the desire to get a part on the show.

 While we're discussing Stewie's desires, I've always found his relationship with Brian very interesting. My personal belief is that Stewie might have a bit of a crush on Brian. This adds complexity to the show because we all know that Brian has a thing for Lois who is  married to Peter who just happens to be Brian's best friend and Stewie's dad. I've read analysis of the show that says the Brian/Stewie relationship is more of a father/son relationships since Peter is such a screwup. If you notice we almost never see scenes of Peter and Stewie together, always Brian and Stewie. Maybe that relationship can be interpreted as a Stewie looking to Brian as a surrogate father.

 As we discuss androgyny, I think Meg is a good case study. We know that she's a girl, but not necessarily by her attire. She wears the cap and glasses with t-shirt and jeans. Its not particularly fitted of feminine. She acts like a teenage girl, but her appearance doesn't really do much to emphasize that she is.

You can see the Family Guy episode discussed in this blog by clicking here.

Who says you can't learn anything from television?

 About two weeks ago the Simpson did something it had never done before.

 In more than 20 years on television, few things have changed about the Simpsons. No one ever ages. No one ever changes clothes. No one ever changes their hair. The show is pretty consistent.

 The one thing that does change from week to week is their opening sequence. For each of the nearly 500 episodes (484 to date) there has been a completely different opening sequence. The show has one opening that it makes variations to each week. Each week Bart is writing something different on the chalkboard, sometimes Lisa plays a different song on her saxophone, and at the end the family always comes to the couch in a different way.

 The powers-that-be at the Simpson invited British graffiti artist and political activist Banksy to storyboard the opening sequence. This was the first time the show'd ever invited an artist to create the opening sequence.

What resulted was quite controversial. Have a look for yourself:

 Kind of a downer right? But child labor laws and deplorable working conditions exist. Sure no ones using unicorns to put the holes in DVDs, but its pretty inhumane in some places. We as Americans benefit from it and don't even realize it. This two-minute snippet brought more awareness to this issue than any legislation or books or magazine article ever did. Millions of viewers tuned into watch this. The sequence made news worldwide, online news outlets, etc. At the time of this blog post more than 4 million people had watched the clip on YouTube. That alone could be enough to mobilize a movement and create pretty significant social change.

 Television is powerful. Just because a show is animated doesn't mean that it can't teach us about the world and the society we live in. All semester I've tried to demonstate how animated shows critique the culture of our society. The shows tend to be more subtle and less blatant than this, but they're a commentary all the same.

 I get really passionate when people say you can't learn anything from television. I completely disagree. Intellectual people understand there are lessons in everything. Some might consider Jersey Shore trash TV at its worst. I say that its introduced us to a regional subculture and lingo I'd previously been unfamiliar with. (GTL, anyone?) One can analyze this show for lots of interesting sociological themes like the representations of gender and masculinity, surveillance culture, human sexuality, etc. Its all in your perspective.

 I guess the point I'm making is you can't discount television as an idiot box and you can't discount animation as being purely for kids. There's a lot we can learn from television whether Banksy or Snooki's doing the teaching.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Robert Smith from the Cure vs. Barbara Streisand

     During our class discussion of Dick Hedbidge and subcultures, someone brought up Robert Smith and the Cure. It reminded me of the episode of South Park where Robert Smith came to rescue the city from certain destruction by an evil, giant Barbara Streisand robot.

    At face value this could appear to be an opportunity for some cool fight scenes between celebrity robot parodies. Barbara Streisand is probably a metaphor for the worst things about commercial and mainstream and Robert Smith is an example of alternative (i.e. the subculture). In the episode Barbara Streisand manages to steal this powerful triangle that turns her into this all-powerful, evil robot. She's mean and she's picking off the little guys trying to go up against her, but they're no match for her powers. That is until Robert Smith, who himself becomes a giant robot is able to take her out with a robot punch to the nose.

    We've learned that the best way to battle the dangerous, uncreative, often untalented, formulaic mainstream is for it to be met with some resistance from a subculture. In this instance its pop music versus alternative rock. The subculture was able to defeat the mainstream, but only after it in a sense took on elements of the mainstream. Robert Smith had to himself become an evil giant robot in order to beat the evil Streisand robot. This is particularly interesting for several reasons. Particularly The Cure went from being this subculture alternative until it gained some commercial success and ultimately defined a genre of music that would itself become mainstream through its popularity.

   What makes the Cure an interesting example for this case is the fact that the band is a subculture of a subculture.  If rock is a subculture to some, alternative rock is the subculture of that subculture. Even deeper is the fact that The Cure's musical style has been described as Gothic rock (Smith decries this label). That's an even deeper a subculture. Despite that the band has enjoyed great success and its been through becoming a giant evil robot (the mainstream) in a sense.

 Ok, now here's a cool, animated fight scene.     


Friday, October 15, 2010

The Boondocks vs. Hip Hop: The Battle for Black Folk's Soul

 The Boondocks follows the story of Huey Freeman, his brother Riley and grandfather Grandad. Huey, is ten years old but militantly Afro-centric, staunchly pro-Black, and extremely critical of black pop culture. The show began was a nationally syndicated comic strip by cartoonist Aaron McGruder before becoming a popular cartoon series on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim.

 As a black television show The Boondocks accomplishes something few other black television shows have been able to get away with. Its a social critique on black culture and its not usually a favorable one. McGruder has found a clever way to chide black people without seeming preachy, turning them off or seeming like he's pandering to whites. The show is able to do this because it uses humor and honesty to call out black people on some of our ridiculousness and ignorance. McGruder has made it cool to question the things we've been conditioned to believe represent black culture. It's hip, edgy and hilarious, and as a result has created a cult following and lots of controversy.

 The show has taken on self-hating blacks via his character Uncle Ruckus. He shamed the race for their support of R.Kelly during his child molestation trial and he even brought back Dr. Martin Luther King from the dead to scold blacks for their lack of progress despite all the work he'd done to move them forward. He even made fun of our love of chicken.

 One of the show's frequent targets is hip hop culture. Two fictional rappers, Gangstalicious and Thugnificent, were the source of two separate episodes. The Gangstalicious episode called gangster rappers out for using exaggerated masculinity to hide their homosexuality. In the Thugnificent episode there's a beef between the rapper and Grandad. Thugnificent goes on to release a popular dis record called "Eff Grandad" after the two get neighbors get into a spat over loud music. The show was mocking how asinine rap rivalries can be.

 It's obvious McGruder loves the genre (just listen to the show's theme song), but he has some issues with it. This was evidenced most notably when the show targeted BET, or as he called it Black Evil Television. This resonated with me because I boycotted the network for years. I refused to watch BET or promote its platform until just recently. And even now I watch on a very limited basis There's a line in Tricia Rose's piece: "A Style No One Can Deal with," where she says "as an alternative  means of status formation, hip hop style forges local identities for teenagers who understand their limited access to traditional access to social status attainment."That's BET  is problematic for me.

 If you want to crown yourselves the network of blacks you need to offer more representations of us than Moet-drinking, weed-smoking, materialistic, hypersexed creatures. As a black woman the constant image of my sisters dressed in thongs and bent over rented Bentleys became too much for me. Especially since it was one of the few images of black women being presented on the network. Tricia Rose speaks to authenticity, but what's more authentic is the idea that we are not just one thing we're multi-faceted. I'm sure some of us smoke weed and dance on cars in thongs, but most of us don't. BET lacked the balance. It subconsciously created a generation of youth raised to believe the route to status, money, and big-bootied girls is through rap music or the drug game. This was a problem for me

Apparently it was a problem for Aaron McGruder too:

The Boondocks is referencing an episode of the show he created where the heads of BET were depicted as Dr. Evil and No. 2 and their mission was the destruction of the black race. For reasons never really discussed the episode was banned and never aired. I looked for an episode of the show to include for this post, but could only find small clips. Its unfortunate, because I know a lot of people who could probably benefit from seeing it.

Oh well, in the words of Huey Freeman, "I guess I can dream, right."

Click here for a clip of the video "Eff Grandad" by Thugnificent and Lethal Interjection.