Source: AP Photo/Paramount Pictures Film publicity image taken from (here) The twin robots from “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” (see also here)
I thought I had seen and heard it all after seeing The Hangover film this past week. Effeminate Asian man (check). Big, scary Black men (check). Dangerous, cunning Asian men (check). Grossly portrayed and sexualized Black women’s bodies (check). Not to mention the litany of sexist and homophobic stereotypes, labels, and images littered throughout the film. Interestingly, it is not this film that has garnered criticism for its racist caricatures, but Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen that was released this week.
At issue are two “jive-talking robots”that play good guys and are meant to provide “comic relief” (sound familiar?):
Skids and Mudflap, twin robots disguised as compact hatchbacks, constantly brawl and bicker in rap-inspired street slang. They’re forced to acknowledge that they can’t read. One has a gold tooth.
Illiterate buffoons, not necessarily imaginative characters given the long history of such portrayals of so-called “Blackness.” We’re not the only ones who have picked up on these historical links (even recent history) as one Transformers fan renamed the twins “Jar Jar Bots”in reference to the Star Wars (1999) contentious minstrel character Jar Jar Binks.
Of course, director Michael Bay defends the characters first by reminding us that they’re robots played by “voice actors”:
“It’s done in fun,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s stereotypes… they are robots, by the way. These are the voice actors. This is kind of the direction they were taking the characters and we went with it.”
In effect, Bay is saying it is the actors—Reno Wilson, who is Black and Tom Kenny, who is White—who decided to racialize these characters, not him. This perhaps would not be so suspect had I not run across a GQ feature of comedian Aziz Ansari who shared:
“I turned down an audition for Transformers because the producers wanted a Kwik-E-Mart accent… That’s not my thing. I don’t do jokes about my uncle’s thick Indian accent and how funny it is when he orders at McDonald’s.”
Clearly, these actors are chosen for their ability (and willingness) to play such characters. We are also reminded that these characters are just robots, as if that somehow places them out of the realm of racial criticism. As Allyson Nadia Field, assistant professor at UCLA points out:
“There’s a persistent dehumanization of African-Americans throughout Hollywood that displaces issues of race onto non-human entities. It’s not about skin color or robot color. It’s about how their actions and language are coded racially.”
Tasha Robinson, associate entertainment editor at The Onion, adds
“If these characters weren’t animated and instead played by real black actors, “then you might have to admit that it’s racist. . . . But stick it into a robot’s mouth, and it’s just a robot, it’s OK.”
Popular culture is constantly reinventing itself under the guise of creativity and innovation. There is very little creative about even non-human characters whose only purpose serves to maintain the racial hierarchy. These images have a long past and dehumanize Black Americans in merely updated forms. Jennifer Mueller and I have written a bit about this in saying that their continued existence today are simply reformations of “such deeply rooted ideologies, rather than truly novel inventions.”
While all of this is equally disturbing, I feel it is Director Bay’s statement about the purpose and inclusion of these racist caricatures that makes my stomach turn:
“I purely did it for kids,” the director said. “Young kids love these robots, because it makes it more accessible to them.”
Get them started young, right?
as this post nicely reminds us, watching directors, celebrities, and politicians try to wiggle off the hook has become an almost cliched performance, both predictable and painful. intention, amusement, and, in this case, robots all emerge as something more than a mere defense, but also reiterates what is taken for granted as normal in a world mapped by the white racial frame. it makes perfect sense, then, that, according to boxofficeguru.com, transformers: revenge of the fallen is projected to set a record for the largest grossing opening weekend. this reminder of the material rewards of projecting racial difference may also point to an alternative pathway: change who produces what stories under what conditions for whom. one way or another these changes will happen, the question is, will shifting demographics, increasingly global cinema, and changing the means of production shatter the white racial frame and its replication through pop culture?
My problem is not so much of having robots with street cred, but having 70’s/80’s jive turkey robots be-bopping their way into unfunniness. Paying Dave Chappelle or Chris Rock to demonstrate actual comedy would have been much more satisfying. The illiteracy reference should be stripped from the movie.
Thank you Rich and Eskimohorn for your comments. What is so interesting is that making a film requires thousands and thousands of decisions to get things perfect–nothing is left to chance, very rarely do things happen on accident.
This is not some FunnyorDie.com clip wherein actors ad lib, etc. This is a $200 million dollar enterprise–were the actors just left to run this show, inventing these characters on their own? Doubtful.
I will be surprised if the film doesn’t pass the $200 million mark by the end of the weekend. Wow.
too true, danielle. an interesting parallel discussion over at racialicious: http://www.racialicious.com/2009/06/26/open-thread-transformers-and-race/
I waited to comment on this article until I saw the movie, just as a slight chance you were right. You were wrong. While watching it I tryed to think about your post Danielle, but I just couldn’t get what the big deal was. A classic case of, if-you-look-hard-enough-you-will-find. And while Im really not a transformers fan, my partner was, I enjoyed it.
Once again, white elites fail to see how their “innocuous” actions reify racial stereotypes and the dominant white racial frame.
siss, the reason these two robots are worth our notice and our critique is because they support racial stereotypes and ultimately racist practices.
Kristen – yes, I got that from the OP. However, had I not read this article before I saw the movie, I would have never given it second thought. If we want to discuss “stereotypes” someone should have addressed the over-sexualization of Megan Fox, as other sites have mentioned. While I can definately see the logic in that argument, I’m not offended by it. It was the part she was cast to play and fit in with Bay’s vision. If I dont like it, I cant let him know by keeping my $9.50.
And since no one answered my question reguarding the “UP” post, I’ll ask it here… What is the model movie??? Racial composition of actors and their roles, themes, storyline, ect.
siss, I’m sure sexism in Megan Fox’s characterization is noteworthy, and all the -isms are linked of course, but I wouldn’t expect Racism Review to tackle all forms of oppression equally.
And, these film critiques are not expressions of offense! I believe Danielle and C. Richard King operate under the understanding that mainstream films are not just entertainment for individual interpretation – they are cultural products that teach us about our society, its people, and what values are important. When we deem them just harmless films, we give them more power over our subconscious. And, as a potential future parent, I feel an obligation to hone my critical eye towards cultural products so I can teach children to be more responsible consumers of the inevitable onslaught of pop culture they will experience.
Also, I think your last question is one worth brainstorming. But it’s not about one movie – it’s about the American movie industry, which is dominated by white males at every level. I have a book on female filmmakers (titled Film Fatale) that said women make up about half of students in film school, but they are a tiny proportion (I don’t remember the number, but under 10%) of directors in Hollywood. A review of all major U.S. films from something like the 1980s-1990s found that white men were 95% of all leading characters. (This is cited in Vera & Gordon’s Screen Saviors – I don’t have the book in front of me to give the exact years.) When white men are about 1/3 of the population but get almost all the leading roles, we have an overwhelming trend that no one movie can counteract.
So, I’m of the mind to agree with the OP. I’m also of a mind to note that Bay is not only not an anti-racist ally, but he’s no feminist either.
But for a minute, I’m going to take him at his word, and consider, “what if these characters really are for kids, and what if they really are just robots who are wannabe gangstas who learned it all from the internet?” Certainly, there are plenty of wannabe gangstas in the world who learned it from media. Sometimes their wish comes true, and they can conduct themselves as the gangstas of media are portrayed. In fact, the media representation of gangsta — indeed the worst parts of that archetype — has been fed to us steadily for over 15 years, and it has become a part of American cultural fabric. Sure. I buy that.
But I’m not sure that this divorces the characters from race. And furthermore, there is little to no context to suggest that they are WANNABE gangstas, posers, fakers. We learn in the first film that they learned Earth culture from the internet. That’s the only excuse we have here. The film offers us no REAL gangstas to contrast with the wannabes. No black human characters check the robots on their behavior that it might be considered offensive. There is no attempt made to contextualize that they’re WANNABEs and not just poorly thought out stereotypes.
Let’s take a moment to recall another film where wannabes are portrayed. 1998’s “Can’t Hardly Wait” featured Seth Green and a posse of equally white, suburban kids aping hip hop culture. These are clearly wannabes. At one point in the film, Green’s character Kenny AKA Special K utters the word “n*gga.” Several black students are within earshot, and Special K and his crew are instantly made painfully aware of their wannabe status.
In Bay’s “Transformers 2:ROTF” these two wannabe robots even refer to each other as “n*ggas” which seems grossly inappropriate. If the black community cannot come to an agreement on how we use that word, what place do Bay’s robot wannabes have using it? If these — self-admitted illiterate — robots absorbed information from the internet, then shouldn’t they have discovered that they were transforming into minstrels and coons?
When taken in context of Bay’s other films and long history of racial stereotyping (he will of course cite Bad Boys as proof of his non-racism), we see that he clearly has no grasp of race relations or the role that film plays in shaping, reflecting, and reinforcing cultural norms.
Che–thanks so much for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully. You’re absolutely right in saying that racism and sexism are rarely–if ever–untied from one another and that is certainly no different here. Bay’s long record is just one addition to Hollywood’s long legacy of racist iconography…