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Ethnicity in [Relationships Shown in Children's Television and] Cartoons

Kym Vycital

When I was little, the television was a way of life. It was my entertainment and my babysitter when company was over, or when my mom just didn't want me involved in her "alone time". My mother and I moved around quite a bit after my father died at age 40 (I was three), therefore, I cannot really place the times or ages that I was when a lot of the following happened. I feel that children's television and cartoons have (in me) created more tolerance, acceptance, and general enthusiasm, for the relationships between people that are of different ethnicities from my own. Being of a Caucasian, Middleclass background, I was taught, at an early age, that anyone that was of a different race than me was someone that I shouldn't want to be around. My mother did not teach this to me. She has always been a very open minded person, who encouraged me to be happy with whomever. It was other relations in my family that tried to teach me intolerance. I will try to recall the impressions and find some examples of this phenomenon in shows that I grew up on.

When I was around three or so, Sesame Street was a big show for me. I remember seeing a people of different ethnicities for the first time on TV, in this show. I was so captivated by the different types of people and especially the Muppets in the show. All of the Muppets were different from one another, but they were cute and furry or feathered, and got along as best as they could with one another. All of the Muppets took on the role of Children in the show, with the Humans being the Adults in the show. The humans were not all white, as in most other shows of that era. If I recall correctly, a Hispanic woman was married to a Black man. That was not accepted in my extended family. But it has left me more open-minded toward interracial relationships than most other people in my family. I feel that was the point of this show. It not only taught me general moral values, and had educational value, but also tolerance and acceptance to other races. Especially since this was the first show that I can remember that taught Spanish to the audience.

Around the same time, Mr. Roger's Neighborhood was equally as big of an influence in my life. Not only did I learn things, but also that same level of acceptance was threaded throughout the show, especially in "Make-Believe" land. There, everyone was different. Yeah, they were puppets, but so what. Not only did each puppet have their own individual personalities, but they also had their own insecurities. No one was excluded. If they were, there was a moral lesson to teach the excluder. The people and places that Mr. Roger's had visited was so wholesome that it almost makes me sick to think of it now. The whole show had the premise of being good to and accepting of others, as well as learning something new about people and things in every single episode. Of course, as I got older, I learned that this is not always the case. Racial Tolerance is still not the "way of life". This saddens me beyond belief. Especially since I live in Chicago and am surrounded by such diverse people.

I remember watching "The Muppet Show" when I was about five or so. I always thought that it was an enthralling show. The colors, creatures, and concept were very engaging to my young mind. I always thought it was funny to see Miss Piggy chasing Kermit. I remember thinking how weird it was that a "Pig" was after a "Frog". Now that I look back, I can see the ramifications of that concept in my own life. I have a more accepting and encouraging nature towards other races in sexual circumstances. I have dated outside my race. I enjoyed it. I "chased" them in almost the same fashion as Miss Piggy chased Kermit. And now, some of my closest friends are so diverse in their backgrounds, that I can't help to wonder if this show is yet another reason for it. I also get very upset when people give me crap about interracial relationships. Especially when it comes to my family dishing out said crap. I have gotten into some major fights with my family about me dating outside of my race. And I cannot and will not tolerate that.

When I reached school age, the Saturday morning lineup was a huge deal to me. I can remember getting up at some ungodly hour to watch The Smurfs, The Snorkels, The Bugs Bunny show, Muppet Babies, etc. I think that most of these shows were to teach children that people that are different from me are out there. They live and breathe just like I do. They allow for things that are different than me to exist. There was always that moral dilemma that the characters would get into. Whether it be doing homework or excluding someone because they were different, there was always that level of difference between the characters that would keep the characters together. The Smurfs are a wonderful example. When the writers introduced Smurfette, she was an evil character. But Papa Smurf worked some magic that changed her into a wholesome goody-goody. Now this is not what happens in the real world. It would be considered bad for someone to try to change another in order for the individual to be accepted by society. But it happens every day. This is something that starts so many wars. But yet, it happens. Now there are other things within that same show, that are not as "anti-racial". The Smurfs always made friends with others like the fairies in the woods, animals, etc. They tried to be forgiving to Gargamel when he tried to eat them. They were still afraid of him, but yet, they would try to live in peace with him. In my mind, this is a reflection on how society is today. We, as a people, will live in tolerance and faux peace with others, but there is always that underlying fear and hatred of something that is different from us as individuals.

As I got older, the after school cartoon line up was another thing that helped me to be exposed to other races in my life. I can remember coming home from school and plopping down in front of the TV to watch the Tundercats, He-Man and later She-Ra. These were more male-slated cartoons. But I watched them, just the same. In each one, there were characters that were different from the main characters. For example, in the Tundercats, Snarf was a cat that was more like earth's domestic variety. He was different from the other characters, which were more human like in their genetic makeup. But he was an accepted part of the team. In some of the other cartoons and shows, the same type of thread was throughout the entire series. I find it a shame that most of the shows didn't use this more to the advantage of other races.

Now that I'm and adult, I still watch cartoons on a regular basis. At age 25, I still get immense amusement in cartoons and children's shows. Even if they are as sexually explicit as any rated R movie, or as silly as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck fighting over the spotlight, I still enjoy most of today's cartoons. The racial acceptance isn't as prominent in today's cartoons as I can remember from the shows of old. Now the big thing is sex. For example, Duckman. This is one of the most screwed up works of animation that I have seen on any cable network. It is riddled with sexual innuendo, but not much focus on interracial mixing that shows of my childhood were. In another show, that I enjoy, the Powder Puff Girls, most of the "different" characters are the evil ones. They are portrayed as being bad and needing to be put back in their respective places. This is something that I believe that society is trying to do to all races nowadays.
All in all, I believe that the focus of the programs, that are out there for youngsters, change with the focus on what society believes. If Society believes in racial tolerance and acceptance, it will be threaded thru the programs for our youngsters. If society believes that different is bad, violence is good, homosexuality is unacceptable, it will be shown in the programs. If society believes that sex is what the focus should be, then that's what will be available. As I remember it now, I realize just how the underlying racial tolerance was not as apparent to the minds of the young audience the shows were intended for. Now that I'm an adult, it is easier for me to see it. I do remember having specific thoughts on the racial intermixing within the shows that I used to watch, but I also remember that it was "no big deal". Now that I'm grown and revisit these shows, I realize that was what was intended. It is not meant to be a blatant form of exposure. Maybe society and the writers of such shows will be more open about the content of such shows in the future. Who knows? Not I. I don't write these shows. I just consume them. :-)

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