Hi there…. so collage is over for 3 weeks and I thought I would update my blog. So I am posting Assessment 2 and 3 in a single post as they are pretty much the same thing. Basically Assessment 2 was just a verbal presentation of what we intended to write about in Assessment 3.
Anyway here it is!! I was a little nervous about this topic as I am a middle class white male.. but I think I came of fair and not sounding like someone that should be stoned. I would just like to ad I do not consider myself racist in anyway. So here it is!
How individual reaction to bigoted cartoon imagery may change over time:
An explanation through semiotics
The history of cartoons dates back as far as the early days of 1910. The social and political difference between then and modern times leads to a division in sensibilities in what is not and what is acceptable behaviour. This means that a great bulk of work has been lost to the general public, mainly due to its depiction of racial and sexual stereotypes now deemed offensive and unacceptable. While the content of these older cartoons is still reprehensible to many they are slowly getting excised from the ban lists and finding their way into mass distributed mediums like dvd. Through the use of semiotics and in particular the tools of diachronic analysis we can explain why these previously unacceptable cartoons are now able to be sold and even shown publicly, and yet still be considered as unacceptable. To focus this essay we will discuss the Warner Brothers (1918) cartoon Southern Fried Rabbit (Freleng, 1953)and use the methods of diachronic analysis to explain how the social impact of this cartoon has changed over time, leading to its censorship being lifted and becoming freely available with its original unedited content.
Cultural models form a framework in which individual lives are defined and enclosed by generally accepted ideologies. Ideology itself, as Marx postulated, is a nearly obtuse by-product of the separation of power, an “upside-down” (Gee, 2007, p. 28) representation of reality where things are not how they are but instead are an unreal prototype of how society will be. While this is unrelated to the current state of society, the future society is in fact a by-product extrapolated out of the constraints formed from these dominant social framings (Gee, 2007). Ideology has an immediate impact on how individuals conduct their lives. There is a constant negotiation and arguably a moral obligation for the individual to challenge how their perceptions are being filtered through the ideological framework that forms the society around them. This means that any given ideology is in itself an evolving process, a system of creation contemplation and modification (Gee, 2007). This evolution creates a separation in time, a separation where we as a society have moved past the predictions from the prototype that the ideology of the past implied. This forms an ideological fossil. A fixed set of values and beliefs that remains unchanged, static and immutable, unlike the constantly evolving ideologies that are framing the society of the present (Marcuse, 1964). So while ideology itself is a representation of a given cultural group’s aspiration of the future, whether that is change or stability through reinforcement, ideology from the past is a signpost signifying where society has come from, and what it has rejected or replaced.
Southern Fried Rabbit depicts Bugs Bunny as a Yankee and Yosemite Sam as a Confederate. The controversy surrounding this particular cartoon comes from a scene depicting Bugs Bunny, drawn as a coloured man grovelling on his knees begging Sam, who is in full Confederate uniform and holding a whip, to not beat him while using language like “massa”. This particular cartoon was one of the first to be removed from the ban list due to it being relatively mild in comparison to other cartoons from much early days (Smoodin, 1993). This is partly due to it being produced in the 1950s where it was free from what is now considered horrific depictions of race used to deliberately demonize the enemy during World War II. It also means that the social reforms sweeping American society during that period while still fledgling, where much closer to the way we perceive such things today. This gives this American cartoon a smaller gap to bridge between the then thinking and the now thinking, meaning that while still offensive, it is not as offensive as other cartoons made before the US civil rights movement had any traction at all and racial awareness was largely missing from the American social conscience. (Smoodin, 1993)
Diachronic analysis was popularised by Brugmann and Delbruck during its use in their masterwork the Outline of Comparative Grammar of the Indo European Languages (Hodge & Gunther, 1998). Diachronic by itself means something changing over time (Dictionary, 2010) and one of the fundamental precepts of diachronic analysis is that the signs are always in a state of flux and are dynamic in relation to the decoder’s position in history. This means that a sign can have the same meaning, unchanged though history, yet our personalised reactions to it can differ. The symbol’s meaning itself becomes a warped version of how someone in a different time would have seen it (Hodge & Gunther, 1998). A common everyday example of this is how a comedian may not make a joke about a given tragedy but after a respectful period of time the comedian is freed to make light of said event.
What is happening in the case of Southern Fried Rabbit is simular, as the distance in time from the when the original encoding occurred to now is creating a detached personalisation for the modern decoder (Hodge & Gunther, 1998). While we as modern decoders recognise the imagery and content as racist and most likely unacceptable, we feel less of a connection to the society that originally spawned the symbols. This detachment to the society that spawned the symbol at the time of the encoding means that the modern viewer is somewhat free from making a social comparison to their own society. The moral values of the past are perceived as separate and archaic and in no way a representation of the decoder’s society’s current conventions (Henry & Sears, 2002). When reading about the Romans feeding Christians to the lions at the colosseum few people find offence due to the passage of time detaching this act form the decoder. This, of course is an extreme example.
While most viewers still recognise the racism in Southern Fried Rabbit, many now find their personal reaction to it to be more focused on the history of racism in comparison to focusing on the current state of racism that they live with. This is in sync with how the movement to save the lost cartoons is structured. Many of the arguments to unban and restore these older cartoons are made from a preservation standpoint, much like the arguments that eventually led to the restoration, preservation, and publication of the Nazi anti-Jewish films form World War II. The detachment doesn’t mean condoning, nor does it mean a lack of realisation about the symbol’s meanings but instead the detachment blunts how the icons affect people on a personal level. (Thompson, 1985)
Southern Fried Rabbit was one of the first cartoons to be removed from the ban list as it has an extra method of blunting the signals of racial abuse, that is to say, a postmodern reflection of racism. Umberto Ecco spoke of a function called aberrant decoding. (Hodge & Gunther, 1998). This means that the decoder uses a different code to extract meaning from a sign than the code used to encode it in the first place. This is a facet of postmodernism, the rejection of objective truth to form a negotiated meaning (Eco, 1965, pp. 131-150). One of the most blatant forms of aberrant decoding is to encode a deliberately overt signal thus shifting the focus of meaning form the sign itself to what is associated with that sign. Southern Fried Rabbit is not trying to debase blacks; instead it is making fun of the Confederate values. The encoding is using racist signals; the decoder is using aberrant decoding to shift the meaning from the racism to a critical representation of racists. Sam is shocked and uncomfortable at Bugs’s behaviour. He looks at the whip in astonishment and then is embarrassed and tries to hide it when Bugs appears dressed as Lincoln. There is no approval, unconscious or otherwise. That is not to say that signals cannot be offensive despite their objective meaning. To a culture that only a few years later had to use the army upon its own populace to enforce the safety of children at mixed race schools, such loaded imagery regardless of the meaning is still contentious. It is only just recently through the depersonalisation of time that society can start to view this cartoon and others without the iconography overwhelming the encoded meaning. This is why Southern Fried Rabbit is among the first off the ban list for in addition to the blunting of the imagery by time, it also has the saving grace to be in line with much of the current thinking; as it is consciously disapproving.
Few would see Southern Fried Rabbit and not recognise the racist imagery and some, of course, will still be offended. For many though, the cartoon is disconnected to how they see themselves and their place in society. The aberrant decoding of the racist iconography creates a cushion of disapproval. This coupled with the depersonalisation of the ideology though time leaves the decoder with an understanding of content without the social commentary being a reflection of self. The discussion of whether this in itself is acceptable or not is out of the scope of this essay. Still, the diachronic and postmodernist processes show us how icons can still be recognised and understood to have the same meaning through time yet our reactions to them change over time, transforming a widely unacceptable cartoon to be accepted by many, while the signs inside it remain unchanged and are still perceived as unacceptable.
Dictionary, Oxford. (2010, April). diachronic. Retrieved April 27, 2012, from Oxford Univercity Press: http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/diachronic
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Henry, P. J., & Sears, D. O. (2002). The Symbolic Racism 2000 Scale. Political Psychology, 253-283.
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Marcuse, H. (1964). One-dimentional Man: Studies of the ideology of Advanced Industrial Sociaty. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Smoodin, E. (1993). Animated Culture: Hollywood cartoons from the sound era. New Jersey: Rutgers Univercity Press.
Thompson, J. B. (1985). Studies in the Theory of Ideology. Univercity of California Pr.
Warner, J., Warner, H., Warner, A., & Warner, S. (1918). Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. Warner Bros. Pictures / Warner Bros. America.
Original Presentation Slides