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.
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).
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).
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.
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: