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Hilarity, Histeria, and Huck Finn

In Indian Comics Irregular #22 I reviewed an episode of the children's show Histeria. It featured an imagined battle between "good" writers (healthy, white males) and "evil" ones (the rest). Now a critic tackles the claims I made:

>> Evidently, my vision must be clouded because I thought that this episode in particular and Histeria in general is hilarious. <<

Humor and stereotyping may or may not be related. And, of course, you can laugh yourself silly at stereotypes. People thought minstrel shows and Amos 'n' Andy were hilarious too. Does that excuse or justify them?

>> (In fact, I think all of these WB/Speilberg shows like Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, to some degree Tiny Toons, and another I can't remember right now were extremely well written.) <<

They are well-written, in general. They also have an uncomfortable tendency to perpetuate stereotypes. Mark Twain is arguably the greatest writer in American history, yet his character Jim perpetuated Negro stereotypes in the classic Huckleberry Finn.

>> I see it as parody. These are characatures, not intended to be excepted as fact. <<

That's the time-honored rationalization for most stereotyping. I bet you weren't supposed to take the "darkies" in minstrel shows or the savage Indians in Westerns seriously, either. It was all "just entertainment."

So were bear-baiting and the drawing and quartering of criminals in medieval Europe, for that matter. Maybe we should reinstitute those forms of entertainment too. Just slap the label "entertainment" on them and it'll render them harmless, I guess.

>> It is very obvious hyperbole and there is nothing subtle about it at all. <<

The contrived good vs. evil conflict was "obvious hyperbole," perhaps. The subtle stereotyping wasn't obvious at all. I doubt it crossed your mind at the time, and I'm pretty darn sure the average child couldn't detect it.

>> For the most part they paint everyone, every race with the same brush. <<

Why don't you address the specific example instead of painting the cartoon universe with your brush? The healthy, Anglo-Saxon men were the heroes and the mentally ill, lesbian, and Japanese persons were the villains. How do you defend that, specifically?

In particular, why didn't the episode poke fun at Hemingway's suicidal tendencies, since that was the most glaring example of "questionable" behavior among the assembled writers? Not only did it ignore that obvious trait, it instead made Hemingway a strapping hero like something out of his own big-game-hunting fantasies. How do you explain the lionizing of Hemingway's machismo when it was the perfect target for satire?

If the so-called brush painted everyone equally in this episode, I must have missed it. Are we supposed to weigh Histeria's efforts as a whole series? What if impressionable children watch only this episode or occasional episodes, as they're almost certain to do?

Besides, even if Histeria, Animaniacs, and other cartoons treat every race equally—which I don't believe for a second—I've explained the problem with that before. In brief, minorities such as lesbians or the mentally ill don't cause an equal share of society's problems, so parodying them "equally" exaggerates their role.

The vast majority of America's problems are caused by major institutions—the government, business, the media, schools, HMOs—not by mad German scientists or deranged samurai writers. These institutions are generally controlled by conservative WASP males. Since they're the source of most problems, they should take most of the hits, not an "equal" amount.

To alternate parodies of white males with the mentally ill, lesbians, and the Japanese—or any other set of minorities—grossly distorts the prominence of these minorities in society. To cite just one example, what kind of problem are "man-hating" lesbians causing? How does lesbianism even make even the top-thousand list of subjects deserving parody?

As I've said before, there's no way a show like Histeria can parody everything equally. Unless the show broadcasts forever, it's logistically and conceptually impossible. Has Histeria parodied the space shuttle, Australian aborigines, plastics, the Donny and Marie Show, the Punisher, abortion, Web surfers, popsicles, or any of a million other things I could name? No. Then Histeria's writers must think lesbians and the others are more worth parodying than the people and subjects they haven't parodied.

That's evidence of Histeria's value system, and that's what I'm criticizing. Judging from this episode, major institutions are getting a free pass compared to certain minorities. If I have to watch an entire seasons' worth of Histeria to see if it's balanced, I'd say the series has failed. Each episode should, must, and does stand or fall on its own merits.

>> And while I think that of the jokes on Histeria were way over the heads of most kids watching. <<

I didn't complain about the jokes, I complained about the stereotyping. You don't have to understand the jokes to see the stereotypes in action. You can recognize them even with the volume turned off.

>> I think you went kind of overboard when you suggest that this kind of show is manipulating the young viewers into thinking that if it ain't WASP something must be odd about it. <<

Do you? I don't think so. I think you're going overboard in defending it. I've found many people can't stand the idea that their favorite institutions are rife with subtle stereotyping. You may be one of them. <g>

>> I would use Histeria in a history class if I taught one. <<

I might use it too, along with Huck Finn. In both cases I'd point out the problems with the material and build a lesson around them. That would develop my students' critical abilities, a useful skill for anyone to have.

I've always spoken of the need to make work accessible—whether the subject is inner-city life, Native culture, or ancient history. That's a primary focus with PEACE PARTY. Make it like The Simpsons, I've said countless times—entertaining for kids and thought-provoking for adults.

But what would you expect children to learn from this tricked-up battle of the super-writers? That Hemingway, Dickens, Shakespeare, Poe, Sappho, and Basho were equivalent even though the first three were dashing heroes and last three were raving lunatics? What exactly were the historical and literary lessons of this episode, if any?

>> I just don't see the conspiracy. Elucidate so I can be sure that I'm not missing anything. <<

Most likely it's cultural myopia, not conspiracy. I've pointed out that people follow their cultural assumptions and biases without thinking about them. I've also suggested a multicultural perspective is an antidote for this kind of mindset. From what I can see, it's still the answer.


Related links
More on Histeria's conservative bent
Ethnic humor and the "Joke of the Day"
Unfunny Sunday funnies
Native comic strips vs. comic books

Readers respond
"We do not, Not, NOT, have the right to not be offended."
"Here's an even better tackle -- GET A LIFE!"
"You are mistaking stereotypes with slurs."

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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