The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

No pleasing Barnes, or stopping Curious George

A note from a student:

“Dear Mr. Barnes,

Words cannot describe the sense of completion I have now that I've finished (her new story). I feel like I've gone through the Hero's Journey. I have become a teacher.

Your homework prompt, DVDs, and emails forced me to write from my life. It was frightening at first. I do say, PTSD is not a pretty face to wake up to.

When it hit me that I could write it under a pseudonym, my fear left. Ten years this story has festered in my head until finally, it's got a voice.

Lifewriting works. Thank you.

Thanks, E.C. nice to know I’ve been able to pass on the wealth of knowledge I was entrusted with…
Having a three year old, I end up watching a lot of kiddy-vision. Luckily, I’ve been able to avoid a certain purple dinosaur, who gets on my nerves, for some reason. Maybe it’s a lurking suspicion that Barney is playing with his food. Not sure.

At any rate, Jason loves Curious George, and I have to admit for sharing a certain affection myself. George has all of the qualities I love in a 3 to 5 year old. And of course, people give him the kind of responsibilities one would ordinarily only give a teenager. And most interestingly, George is the freaking Aristotle of monkeys. I mean, his learning curve is simply beyond belief. George can learn to manage a trainyard in minutes, fly a rocket in hours, has the emotional intelligence to manage a dozen dogs in an afternoon.

The Man With The Yellow Hat, on the other hand, has one critical personality characteristic: he has infinite patience. Except for the Will Ferrell-voiced theatrical version (where, scandalously, The Man With The Yellow Hat was actually given a name: Ted. What were they thinking?) where TMWTYH displayed a bit of snittishness a time or two, he’s a perfect parent. Which makes me wonder why he isn’t married, but that’s another subject.

George’s world is interesting as well. The ethnic diversity is simply astounding, actually more genetic variance than I’ve seen in any city I’ve ever visited. I don’t know who does the character designs, but they definitely have an agenda: the screen explodes with brown people, composed in almost every shot. (Compare this with the theatrical version, which has fewer minorities than one finds in the real New York—this is the typical animation routine, which makes PBS’s program all the more startling.)

Compare this with, say “The Flintstones” or “The Jetsons”, both of whom lived in completely segregated worlds. In fact, the “Jetsons” movie was so typical of classic science fiction in this regard that I almost (ALMOST) wondered if it was deliberate. There were many hundreds, if not thousands, of human character designs. All were either white, or imaginary creatures.

Now, one of the things about “George’s” diversity that amuses me is the fact that the voice actors all seem to be white. This is so different from much of what I’ve seen over the years that it stands out. Black voice actors seem to be more present in voice-over work in CGI and animation than in actual feature films. James Earl Jones in “Star Wars” and Roscoe Lee Browne as the voice of “Box” in Logan’s Run were two early examples of this tendency.

The popularity of black music with white faces on the album (in the 50’s and 60’s) and the number of black-starring movie posters where they bleached out the faces of the actors led me to my first theoretical model of race relations and media: that there was a “flinch” response to the actual skin color.

Back to George. Worst case scenario: negative portrayals of black people. Medium bad: No black people at all. Medium good: black people portrayed, with white voice actors. Best: black people portrayed, with black voice actors.

In the last and best scenario, not only are blacks being represented as part of the human family, but black voice actors are given work, allowing them to support their families and send their children to college. Unless they got equal work portraying WHITE people in cartoons, of course. In which case we’ve entered a different, and possibly better world. In that case, I guess anyone can portray anyone, right?

If Vin Diesel can play an Italian mobster in “Find Me Guilty,” then I suppose it’s o.k. for Angelina Jolie to play Mariane Pearl in “A Mighty Heart.” Maybe. I’d feel more comfortable if there were more good roles for black actresses.

But then, if they HAD cast a black woman in that role, as the widow of Daniel Pearl, I’d probably complain about black women boffing white guys. See there? Just no pleasing Barnes…

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