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The Chico Marx Effect

During his Presidential campaign, Barack Obama asked for a new, freer, and more open conversation about issues of race, saying, “I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle,” and “that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds.” Unfortunately, the only new element that seems to have been added to the same old conversations about race seems to be, “Racism is over in America. Barack Obama was elected President, wasn’t he?”

I can’t claim to know the man, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what he had in mind.

I think about race in entertainment a lot, and focus on cartoons because I tend to watch a lot of them. I also find cartoons of interest because many of them are aimed at kids, and you’re sending messages with your entertainment whether you intend to or not. I don’t want to be “the Race Guy,” and I don’t want all my blog posts to be about it, but it’s going to come up because I want to have that better conversation President Obama referred to, and because I still have so many unanswered questions that I think need answering (or at least discussing). However, I am also not so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single weblog post that’s supposed to be about cartoons, so expect it to come up again. If this bothers you, we’ll come up with a tag you can safely ignore.

I’ll start with something I’ve been grappling with for some time now. This is Warner Oland as Charlie Chan:

Warner Oland as Charlie Chan

I hate Charlie Chan.

I hate Charlie Chan for a bunch of reasons (and maybe there’ll be another blog post about that), but right at the top of the list is that he’s always been a not-Chinese guy in makeup affecting an accent to depict ethnic people for the entertainment of other white people. And, as an aside, this is enough to condemn minstrel shows, but apparently it’s OK for Charlie Chan because “He’s supposed to be complimentary to Chinese people.” To me, this is like saying, “Martin Scorsese is the greatest wop filmmaker who ever lived” and then getting genuinely confused when Italians get upset at me (and, to be honest, I’d rather use Spike Lee for that example, but I can’t even risk that without knowing some idiot will take the quote out of context).

Anyway…

This is Chico Marx:

I love Chico Marx.

I love Chico Marx, despite the fact that fundamentally, he’s a not-Italian guy affecting an accent to depict ethnic people for the entertainment of other white people.

I call this “The Chico Marx Effect,” and it’s something that drives me nuts: I want to find an intellectually honest explanation that lets me continue to hate Charlie Chan and love Chico Marx, even though they’re both doing the exact same thing. This is one of those things that I think about occasionally, and I still haven’t come up with anything satisfying. The best explanation so far invokes the Rule of Funny, but that only begs the question, “Why is Chico Marx funny, but Rob Schneider faking a thick Asian accent for that Chuck and Larry movie isn’t?”

The second best explanation for the Chico Marx effect is “Chico Marx isn’t supposed to look like me.” In addition to being pretty specific, it’s also thoroughly unsatisfying for a bunch of other reasons (some of which are coming up below). I mean, do Italians get offended by Chico Marx in the same way so many Chinese people get offended by Charlie Chan? Maybe I just suck. I don’t like this explanation, but I can’t honestly rule it out entirely, so it stays out there no matter how ugly it happens to make me look. If you want to have a conversation about race, I think it’s a prerequisite that you should be ready to hear and maybe even accept answers that you don’t really like.

This is relevant to cartoons because I find a lot of animation these days is 1) a bit ahead of the curve from live-action entertainment, and 2) loaded with instances of the Chico Marx effect. The one and only time Charlie Chan was ever played by an ethnically Chinese actor was in the 70′s cartoon The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, where Keye Luke provided his voice (and most of his kids were voiced by white people, including a very young Jodie Foster, in an odd reversal of the norm). Nickelodeon’s Avatar and Disney’s Lilo & Stitch are both products aimed squarely at the mainstream where none of the characters are white (except the dumb tourists in Lilo & Stitch, and no, Aang is not white), but Hollywood is still gunshy about doing the same thing in a live-action movie aimed outside of the specialty “ethnic” audience or arthouses. I’ll lay odds that the biggest Latino star in America right now may not Salma Hayek or Antonio Banderas or J-Lo or America Ferrera, but Dora the Explorer.

Think about that last one for a second. It’s actually kind of freaky.

For the second point, I can’t get past the fact that I laugh long and hard at characters like “Miss Chinglish” in Black Lagoon, Amy Wong’s parents on Futurama (“I know it them, ’cause they not use good grammar!”), and the City Wok owner in South Park (“How come every time us Chinese build a wall, stupid Mongoreeans have to knock it down?! ”), even though they are also all white people affecting Asian accents for comedic purposes. I’m OK with Phil LaMarr voicing Samurai Jack or Greg Baldwin stepping in for the late, great Mako as Uncle Iroh in Avatar. It’s the Chico Marx Effect on steroids.

Enough. One thing about a conversation is that it’s supposed to be two-sided. So, help me out. Explain the Chico Marx Effect to me. Show your work.

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