Another Stereotype of the Month entry:
For starters, this cartoon uses the standard stereotypes—igloos, fur-lined parkas—to indicate the people are Eskimos (Inuit). Actually, these accouterments went out around the time of Nanook of the North (the early 20th century). It was then that modern life (world wars, oil drilling, the cash economy) intruded on indigenous people throughout North America and impelled them to join "civilization."
Nowadays the Inuit may wear fur-lined parkas and build igloos, but only when they're going on traditional hunting trips. The rest of the time, they probably live in heated homes, drive trucks and snowmobiles, and wear the latest synthetic fabrics. Few of them still live completely traditional lifestyles.
Are white people portrayed as they were in the Roaring '20s—tuxedos, flapper skirts, whatever? No, not usually. But the Inuit almost always are. So these century-old stereotypes result in the Inuit being portrayed as people of the past.
Just how primitive are Eskimos?
But far worse than these standard stereotypes is the "humor's" implication. Eskimos use ice cubes to keep warm? So they haven't learned to build fires yet? Which the rest of humanity managed some 50,000 or 100,000 years ago? How much more ignorant and primitive can you get? According to this cartoon, the Inuit must be the stupidest people in the world—perhaps the stupidest people ever.
Why stop with building a fire with ice cubes? Why not show them wearing ice cubes instead of parkas to keep warm? Or breathing ice cubes rather than air to live? This cartoon implies indigenous people are that stupid. They're too stupid to figure out the basics of survival...too stupid to live.
What if we set a cartoon about white people in that era? Suppose it showed a couple of the social elite aboard the Titanic before it sank. The man would say to the woman, "Don't worry, dear, the technology is foolproof." The caption would say, "A big part of the reason white people die in shipwrecks."
Would people consider that a big laff riot? Probably not. It would make fun of the foibles of Western civilization, which is largely ruled by whites. We supposedly know better now about the fallibility of technology—although with events like the space shuttle explosions, you have to wonder. But today we usually mandate multiple safety features in our transportation so Titanic-style disasters won't happen again.
We could even devise a cartoon to compare and contrast the white folks and Eskimos of that era. Suppose a cartoon two people aboard the Titanic: an Eskimo in his parka and a wealthy white elitist in his top hat and tails. The Eskimo would point to an iceberg and say, "Danger...ice!" Presumably he'd be aware of the threat because of his "primitive" lifestyle—his close connection with nature.
The white elitist would respond, "Relax, old boy. It's only frozen water. It's no more dangerous than the ice in my vermouth." The caption could read, "A big part of the reason rich people shouldn't leave their mansions."
Ha ha ha! Are you laughing yet?
These examples point out the meta-messages of cartoons such as Bizarro and Mr. Boffo. White people are smarter than indigenous people. Upper-class people are smarter than lower-class people. We've built the world's greatest civilization, become rich and powerful, because we're better than everyone else. Artist Joe Martin is congratulating himself and his fellow white people for their historical success.
Too dumb to warm up?
Even the cartoon's caption reinforces this meta-message. Saying Eskimos are "always cold" implies they're stupid for living where they do. Actually, the temperatures in northern Canada and Alaska are relatively mild in summer. More important, the igloos and parkas kept the Inuit reasonably warm. I believe their diets and body types helped also.
In short, they weren't suffering a perennial chill because they were too dumb to get out of the cold. And white folks aren't suffering a perennial fever because they live in places like Texas, too dumb to get out of the heat.
Again, you could do a cartoon to drive home the cultural attitudes implied here. How about one showing a couple of Texans drenched in sweat while sitting in front of a fireplace? The man would tell the woman, "Throw another log on. The air conditioner ain't working yet." The caption would say, "A big part of the reason Texans are always hot."
Those dumb Texans! They're so ignorant they think a fireplace is an air conditioner. Get it? It's a wonder they ever survived the Alamo. Ha ha ha ha ha!
Eskimos: the ultimate aborigines
The myth of Western superiority
Native comic strips vs. comic books
. . .
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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.
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