Of Sambots and Haltertops

Posted on September 26, 2009

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cleve-600The NYT today carries a little blurb about Family Guy cartoon spin-off Cleveland, today. Several things in this photo jumped out at me. The first is the overt sexualization of the Cleveland daughter, in a mid-drift and cleavage bearing haltertop . The second was that she is lighter skinned than the rest of the family. Not to mention, her long-flowing straight hair, quite unlike every other member of the family.

Sex sells, goes the Hollywood logic, so it makes perfect sense when portraying a family to cast an attractive young woman who can easily slip into male fantasies as the “daughter”, doing double duty as both a symbol of home and available sexuality. This maxim becomes even more disturbing when the time comes to cast black daughters, becoming a rather open admission that in Hollywood, only African Americans with light skin can be the product in the “sex sells” formulation.

Indeed, you need only look at casting throughout the eighties and nineties, as African Americans began breaking the color barrier and appearing regularly on television and in movies as serious subjects of narratives:

Here’s the Cosby Show’s Lisa Bonet, a mixed race young adult with African American parents:

Another rather blatant case in Lethal Weapon:

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air:

And, of course, the entire light-skinned cast of A Different World:

The dynamic has become a shamefully accepted trope  for the business, as this casting call for Puff Daddy’s Ciroc vodka specified Race: White, hispanic or light skinned african american “.


But what’s really of interest in this dynamic is how closely Hollywood mirrors this real life preference even when it is completely freed of the burdens of flesh-and-blood casting. Someone sat down and made the decision to sexualize the “Cleveland” character and to give her straight hair and light skin. Someone made the decision to extend the trope  that attractive and sexually available African American women are “whiter”. And, there’s a more disturbing idea that undergirds this Hollywood convention: the daughters of black men can be co-opted into “whiteness” as the object of safe trans-racial fantasies, while the males remain dark-skinned and un-absorbable.

Such absurd conventions have been notable in animation for some time, especially Disney’s odd fixation of imbuing animal-forms with stereotypical “Black”, “Latino” and “Asian” mannerisms. Most recently, the  “Twins” from Transformer’s 2: Revenge of the Fallen

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took such racial designs to new and more enduring extremes. As one reviewer from a generally industry-friendly website put it:

The Twins have a simian appearance, with wide faces and huge ears. One of them… has a gold bucktooth. They have a ‘playful’ back and forth relationship, which includes them talking in some sort of modern day rap-age jive, calling each other ‘bitch-ass’ or ‘punk,’ talking with an exaggerated, crunked-up ‘street’ accent. They appear to be stoned all the time. And they can’t read; when asked to translate some ancient Cybertronian language they sheepishly admit they ‘don’t do much readin’.’ …The Twins are completely illiterate, it seems. I was actually surprised that the film didn’t find a way to make them wear a Transformers version of baggy pants.

Here’s the most tragic part of this story–creator Michael Bay purposefully created these characters for younger audiences:

…”I purely did it for kids. … Young kids love these robots, because it makes it more accessible to them.”

Once, casting agents and directors were able to plead ignorance as they claimed that the lightest skinned African American also happened to be the best actress for the part. Or they could plead that their black actors were bringing something of their own culture to the roles in their larger than life stereotype-to-life interpretations, as many have claimed. But as animation becomes a more influential genre on television and CGI characters soak up larger chunks of celluloid in mainstream films, directors and producers will be given even more freedom to project their stereotypes on the minds of moviegoers. They may have to start defending their decisions about the bodies, minds and voices they imbue their non-white characters with.