Tag Archives: Blackface

Seeing is Believing

Throughout the course, we have learned that visual rhetoric is a form of communicating through visual images to create cultural meaning. In the short adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin below, we can see how black men and women were interpellated at the time the cartoon was featured. The six minute, 1944 cartoon, “Eliza on Ice,” portrays a very dark Eliza crossing on ice that pours out of a slot machine when she puts a nickel in and wins the jackpot.

Eliza's Leap

There are a number of things that come to mind after watching this clip. Even though I am aware that racial stereotypes were extremely common during the Golden Age of cinema, when I first watched this video, it shocked me that this cartoon manages to make a huge joke out of the entire institution of slavery. The scene shown is a vital scene in the novel that symbolizes a leap from slavery to freedom. Eliza’s leap literally represents her jump from the slave-holding states to the non-slave holding states. In the same manner, the cabin is a symbol of freedom as well, which is illustrated in the cartoon as a safe place where Eliza runs in order to escape Simon Legree. However, what caught me off-guard was the fact that the African-American characters in the cartoon, like Uncle Tom, Eliza, and her baby, are presented in blackface, which is exaggerated make-up worn by a white actor is playing a black person (Humphreys, 2011).

Blackface

In a previous post, I mentioned how blackface was a common method used in acting during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. As Humphrey’s pointed out in lecture, “African-American identity was dislodged from its powerful position, and through blackface, interpellated back into the era of slavery” (Humphrey, 2011). Eric Lott’s, “Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Working Class” argues that blackface defines slavery as ‘amusing,’ which is exactly what this cartoon seems to be doing, especially with the comical music. The song “Dixie” was utilized in the cartoon, which is one of the best known songs of black minstrelsy (Wikipedia). Furthermore, there is an associate meaning that African-American’s use ‘proper’ English poorly. For example, Uncle Tom and Eliza do not speak proper English, whereas Simon Legree and even his dogs do. Therefore, ‘proper’ English remains a naturalized set of signs that stratifies classes, races, and citizens. The idea of an educated form of English encodes a certain framework of knowledge that excludes and dominates a number of cultural and social groups (Humphreys, 2011).

Little Eva

Additionally, the portrayal of Little Eva in the cartoon caught my attention. First off, I am sure you immediately noticed that she is illustrated much differently than depicted in the novel. For instance, her figure resembles a matured woman rather than a young girl, and she is wearing a lot of make-up. As a result, she is extremely sexualized in the cartoon. Nonetheless, she is still represented as a Christ-like figure, just as she is in the novel. For instance, she lives in a cloud, looking down on the community below, with angel wings, and a desire to help those in need. Stuart Hall’s, “Encoding/Decoding” in Media and Cultural Studies, mentions that superheroes stand outside of society and must do something to protect the society they are not a part of.  In the case of the cartoon, Little Eva resides above the society in heaven and literally looks down on the community below her, which may be interpreted in a number of ways. Therefore, even though Mr. Mighty Mouse saves the day, Little Eva is the one who called him in the first place. Thus, she can be seen as a heroic character in the video as well, just as she is in the novel.

Seeing is Believing

Our class syllabus states that “literature and its material culture mediates the ways in which we measure the value of each other, ourselves, and our contexts” (Humphreys, 2011). Thus, the portrayal of Little Eva is given value, whereas Uncle Tom and Eliza appear more animalistic and clownish. The ways in which African-American identity is depicted in the cartoon directly effects how these individuals are treated in the real world. After all, seeing is believing. Mieke Bal’s, “Double Exposure: The Subject of Cultural Analysis” emphasizes that common notion that “what you see must be real, true, present, or otherwise reliable,” which implies that when material is presented to us, we assume that it is displaying the truth (5). Similarly, Mark Poster’s, “Digital Networks and Citizenship” asserts that no one “can doubt the role of print and television…profoundly [altering] the way people think, fantasize and behave” (103). Therefore, the medium that carries the message is extremely powerful. As a result, the cartoon reproduces stereotypes and ideologies that create a reality for people to believe. Viewers of the cartoon, most likely children, are basically encouraged to see African-American identity in this manner. In the end, this short adaptation enforces that mediums “transmit cultural lessons and knowledge” (Humphreys, 2011).

I cannot help but think of popular cartoons today and the stereotypes they produce. Take “The Simpsons” for example. Cops loving donuts, senior citizens constantly complaining, and a convenience store owned by an Indian man are simply some of the common stereotypes used by the writers to make people laugh. Similarly, “Family Guy” works in much the same way. Both extremely successful animated cartoons overly exaggerate stereotypical characteristics for a satirical and comical effect, which seems to be working for the audience. Does it make it right? Has society really changed or are we just more accepting of stereotypes?

Here are some clips to show my point:

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Multimodality and Advertising

Visual statements narrate identity in order for the viewers to understand multimodality, grasp the connections between language and image, and in turn, comprehend the connections between language, image, and identity (Humphreys, 2011). What is multimodality? Well, multimodality points to the truth value of credibility that we supply to the narratives and images that comprise our world, or particular contexts (Humphreys, 2011). In the introduction of Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen’s, Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design, the theorists explain that “like linguistic structures, visual structures point to particular interpretations of experience and forms of social interaction” (2). Humans form conceptual frameworks and make meaning, which become internalized and acted out overtime. Like Kress and van Leeuwen, I am interested in how social actors are represented in a specific context. We can see this idea of multimodality in the Duncan Sisters advertisement below, featuring Topsy and Little Eva, two extremely popular, mass-marketed characters that came out of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is clear that images of Topsy and Little Eva used in the early 20th century advertising draw from specific character traits that define each character.

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The Duncan Sisters were an acting duo who became popular in the 1920s with their act as Topsy and Eva, which is illustrated in the advertisement to the left. Interestingly, there is both racial and sexual grammar depicted in the advertisement. Firstly, we can see that the Duncan sisters used blackface in their performances; “a technique that bypasses the need to find an actual African American to behave in the buffoonish manner by white folks” (Humphreys, 2011). Secondly, it is clear that Topsy represents a certain form of African-American female sexual identity, just as Little Eva represents a certain form of white female sexual identity. Hence, both female actors in the Duncan sister advertisement are positioned as representation of race in relation to sexuality.

A Closer Look

Historically, black bodies have been labelled as sexual bodies. White women were socially constructed as civilized, modest, and sexually pure, while black women were considered to be uncivilized, immodest, and sexually promiscuous (Musial, 2010). These racist and sexist ideologies are present in the illustrations of Topsy and Little Eva in the Duncan sister’s advertisement examined. In one of her demonstrations, Professor Humphrey’s argued that Little Eva demands attention with her direct gaze at the reader, while Topsy demands nothing as she stands and makes herself available to be possessed by the viewer’s gaze was intriguing (Humphrey). Not only does the language that Humphrey’s used provide a sexual connotation, but when analyzing Topsy’s impersonator, one can definitely notice the strong presence of sexual imagery. The main difference between the Duncan sister’s representation of Topsy and Little Eva is in their poses. On the left side of the image stands Topsy, with her legs spread apart and chest pushed out, which seems to have caused her dress to rise in the front. Thus, she has provided the viewer to see what appears to be dirt on her legs or torn stockings. However, her stance is not the only element that calls for attention and creates awareness of her sexual identity. For instance, her blurred face causes Topsy to be washed out of the picture, allowing Little Eva to remain the dominant focus of the piece. Therefore, Little Eva is the centre of attention in order for the product to sell. Furthermore, the colour saturation is very bright and draws the reader’s attention to Topsy’s dishevelled clothing and overall unkempt appearance. Therefore, the Topsy impersonator in the advertisement depicts a stereotypical representation of a black female, who is identified as uncivilized, inhibited, and sexually promiscuous. On the right side of the image stands Little Eva in a plain, yellow sundress, with her legs together, blush on her face, and poised stance. Positioned in opposition to Topsy, the white sister portrayed as Little Eva exemplifies modesty, cleanliness, and purity. All of these examples enforce that Topsy represents female African-American identity, which was deemed as sexualized and dirty, whereas Little Eva is a representation of her white identity, which was considered pure and modest.

Check out this video clip I found of the Duncan Sisters performance (start at the 4:25 mark):

The Duncan Sisters

The examination of the Duncan sister’s advertisement is simply one example of an image that enforces the contrasting differences between the two characters of Topsy and Little Eva. Furthermore, even though images do not have the same grammar as language, it is evident that they can tell stories.

American Apparel is a fashion company that claims to represent the everyday woman. To the left, we have an American Apparel blackface image that appeared in a magazine. Just like the Duncan sister’s advertisement, this image draws on specific character traits that define that woman. Similar to Topsy’s appearance, the colour saturation is very bright in this ad. We can also see that there is both racial and sexual grammar depicted in the advertisement. Clearly, racist imagery continues to be incorporated in advertisements today.

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