Saturday, 2 January 2016

Nerdversity Discussion: Racism, Hollywood and Cosplayers

For our first major discussion of 2016, we're going to tackle the controversial topic of Racism in Hollywood and Cosplay and it's impact on pop culture since. Now, before we get into, I'm going to do a little bit of history and what to look out for.

Lets start right at the beginning. The above images are Blackface on the left and Yellowface on the right. Blackface originated at the end of the 19th century and continued well into the 20th century. Some sources indicate that blackface had it's origins in 15th century theater, Many Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre actors would darken their skin to play characters like Othello. This practice continued well into the 1800s when it became popular to mock black people through the use of Minstrel shows. This is the most common and well known form of black face, where actors would darken their face, give themselves exaggerated ruby lips, mess up their hair or give themselves an afro and wear a ragged suit. They would also bring in the "creole" dialect to further enhance the character, examples of which would include "Yes Massa" and "Ah reck'n" This is purely designed to mock.

One of the most iconic black face roles was Al Jolson's portrayal of Jack Robin in 1927's The Jazz Singer. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, many of Hollywood's greats including Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Bing Crosby and Shirley Temple routinely played characters in black face and it became that ingrained in the pop culture of the 1930s and 40s that it appeared in cartoons from Warner Brothers, Tex Avery and MGM. Although black herself, the unseen "mammy" from the Tom and Jerry Cartoons of that era do conform to the stereotypes of that era.

While many pass him off as a comedic character, Jar Jar Binks is actually a modern day representation of the black face character. Although he doesn't possess the painted face, the ruby lips and the afro, he does wear a ragged suit and he does talk in a stereotypical "creole" dialect, His personality throughout the movies still follows on from the bumbling, but good natured plantation slave. Throughout the movie, Jar Jar is good natured and wants to help as much as he can, but is clumsy. It really doesn't help that the rest of the Gungan people share the same "creole" dialect while speaking. 

Skids and Mudflap from the Michael Bay Transformers movies also fit into this casual racism stereotype. Although they are alien Transforming robots, They fit in the the "gangsta" black face stereotype of talking in street talk, have gold teeth and a penchant of playing rap and hip hop through their speakers. 

Yellowface was popularised in the 1930s. It's the idea of lightening skin tones, often paired with narrowing the eyes, buck teeth and often using the L and R switch in phrases like "Amelicans" for Americans. The narrowing of the eyes and buck teeth were for comedic roles. However, it wasn't uncommon for actors in Hollywood to alter their appearance through the use of make up to achieve a vaguely East Asian look. Famous examples outside of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's are: Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu and Warner Oland as Charlie Chan.

Before we get any further, this is Robert Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder and Sherlock Holmes. Neither of these can be considered racist as they aren't exaggerated features on either of them that match black face or yellow face. Plus the characters do NOT portray the respective races in a negative or stereotypical way. Much in the same way that the Fisher Stevens character of Ben was NOT racist in that even though he was a white man wearing make up, he was portraying a very intelligent man who built Johnny 5.

Lets take a look at the opposite side of the coin. White face was created in 1895 and was used for when black and even Asian actors of the stage would use make up to whiten their skin to portray white people. Recent examples of this include the Wayans Brothers in the movie White Chicks and America's Got Talent Host Nick Cannon promoting his new album. 

What does all this have to do with cosplay? well, on the left we have a black cosplayer cosplaying as a white Japanese character, Sailor Venus. On the right, we have white German cosplayer Purple Sky Cosplay who darkened her skin via make up to become Michonne. The cosplayer on the left was applauded for her work, whilst Purple Sky was called a racist.

Now, digging deeper, this is where I can see the hypocrisy from within the community. There are many people that state "people are free to cosplay whoever and whatever they want.". This is why cosplayers are damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they alter their skin tone, then it's racist, if they don't, they are accused of cultural appropriation of that character. So I ask, why is the cosplayer on the left fine as she is? yet the one on the right, doing a very accurate cosplay that isn't racist or offenive, considered it? If Purple Sky had made the character white, to match her skin tone, then she would have been considered even worse for appropriating the character. Either both are OK or neither are OK.