If you can’t see it, you can’t be it

I am reposting with art for those who argue “Tintin in the Congo” is not racist. Also, one more time: the point is that the lack of female roles in the Tintin movie’s cast is consistent with most of the movies made for kids today. Girls have gone missing in kids’ movies and that means that both genders learn that boys are more important than girls. Parents, this is not okay. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

Commenters are defending the Tintin movie, writing that creator Herge’s sexism was simply a product of his times.

Margot, you are aware that Hergé wrote most of his comic books (including the three on which the film is based) before WWII, at a time when women in his home country of Belgium as in many others didn’t even have the right to vote? Of course his work reflects the prejudices of that era, not only towards women but towards just about everyone who wasn’t a white Christian male (the most egregious example being Tintin in the Congo)!

Would Steven Spielberg adapt Herge’s racist views (“of his times”) expressed in Tintin in the Congoto make a movie in 2012 and market that movie to kids?

Of course not. No one would see it. People would be horrified. Herge’s racist views are universally recognized as the aberration that they are. Why is Herge’s “dated” sexism celebrated in a loyal adaptation from one of our most acclaimed directors?

There are two answers, both are true. The first one is that in 2012 sexism is, in many ways, just as accepted and “normal” as it was in 1932. Women are humiliated and degraded all the time, but while racism is seen as a political issue, sexism is still seen as a “cultural” one.

The second, less controversial explanation is that in Herge’s comics, he directly degrades and humiliates Africans whereas his sexism mostly manifests as an omission. His racism is worse. Herge believes women have no place in his imaginary world. Is that offensive? Is it even sexist?

It’s an annihilation.

What is remarkable about this annihilation, and what I was writing about, is that it’s consistent with the casts of most animated movies made today. A story originally created by an artist who spoke openly of how he didn’t think females should be included in his imaginary world is almost indistinguishable from the majority of films made for kids right now. Steven Spielberg probably didn’t even notice.

What does that say about how important we think girls are?

See Reel Girl’s Gallery of Girls Gone Missing from Kids Films in 2011.

See statistics on the lack of females in animated films from the Geena Davis Insititute on Gender and Media.

16 thoughts on “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it

  1. I would like to put in a plug however for an amazing exception to kid movies that ignore positive female role models. In one word: Miyazaki. From Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Whisper of the Heart, Castle in the Sky, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, girls’ roles rule. What is your take on these characters? I love these films.

  2. Hey there –

    Yeah, the early Tintin is amazingly racist. (But at the same time, “The Blue Lotus,” despite its structural racism and the racist/colonial project that drove Hergé to do albums in Africa, in India, in South America, in China, etc., actually allowed Hergé to work through his racist bias and produce what has been describe as a – for its time – very culturally-sensitive and even subversive piece of work.)

    More importantly, the entire Tintin opus is intensely homosocial: all men and boys. Tintin even “graduates” from his female housekeeper to sharing a male butler with Captain Haddock when they move in together. The entire economy of the books is male-centered enough to become a little queer, actually. A more interesting argument than “Tintin is sexist” might be “Tintin is sexist to the point that it subverts itself, and starts to push heteronormativity into different patterns of gender and sexuality.” You don’t have to make that argument, of course, but it would be more surprising.

    One of the key exceptions to the rule of Tintin’s masculine universe is Bianca Castafiore. Catherine Clément gives a wonderful reading of Castafiore in her famous and important feminist text “Opera, or the Undoing of Women.” In the comics, Castafiore is portrayed as an almost entirely negative figure. Her signature aria, which she performs at every opportunity, is presented as shrill and unpleasant; Captain Haddock, in particular, is constantly pained by her singing.

    It’s a shame you were in the bathroom during the Castafiore scene in Spielberg’s movie. That’s where you get to see the adaptation really, well, adapting. The new film actually portrays Castafiore as a magnetic, powerful, and happy woman – not a “beautiful” one, not a “thin” one, not even an accessible one, but as a talented woman whose voice (and the film gives itself fully over to her aria, allowing Renée Fleming to sing without interruption) charms and enchants all who hear it. It’s quite a turn-around from the albums, and portrays her character as something that, according to the sexist logic surrounding the diva, should not exist – an ambitious, successful, and self-defined woman.

    Without any consideration of this scene, your argument about the movie and its relationship to its source-text is undeveloped. You don’t have to agree with me, but it’s worth thinking about a moment like this because it would make your overall argument more complex and powerful. There’s also a worthwhile recent volume on the political/social implications of Tintin published last year (“Tintin aux pays des philosophes”), which includes several surprising essays about race and gender in Tintin. This all by way of suggestion, if you would like to make your arguments about this subject more nuanced or compelling.

    • Aninha,

      Isn’t Friendship is Magic the My Little Pony series? All those “pretty” ponies with rainbow manes, batting their eyelashes, having tea parties, wit the silly names? I’ve blogged about the ponies if you want to read what I wrote. I can’t stand all the plastic toys and houses and hearts etc. I know they have a cult following with older kids.


      • You must have mistaken the old My little pony with Friendship is magic new series.

        I’ve been watching it (first I heard about it and how it was good, then I after I checked started watching myself), and it really isn’t stereotypical. I mean, these ponies have, of course, silly names: Twilight Sparkle (guess what this name is making fun of kkkkk), Rainbow Dash, Apple Jack, Pinkie Pie, Spike, Fluttershy, Rarity.

        And they do have long eyelashes, but apart from that, it’s a very pleasant “slice of life” series. See these in particular:

        Fall Weather Friends
        Stare Master
        Green Isn’t Your Color
        Lesson Zero

        – because they are an example of the varied tone the series can have.

        I’ll look for what you wrote. It should be in the “SSS”, right?

  3. “Friendship is Magic perpetuates extreme female stereotypes (as do the Barbie movies, Strawberry Shortcake etc) that boys, and probably more importantly parents of boys, will not watch or allow their sons to watch.”

    How is the show extremely stereotypical? It probably has the most diverse group of girls in any given show, ranging from a nerdy Twilight Sparkle, athletic/tomboyish Rainbow Dash, farmer Applejack (also a tomboy who hates frilly stuff), silly Pinkie Pie. Heck, even the two of the girliest characters, Fluttershy and Rarity, are actual characters, not caricatures. Rarity in particular runs her own business and is probably the most developed of the group.

    As for boys not watching it, um, the show is extremely popular amongst guys (mostly teenage boys, but I know there are little boys who enjoy it as well). Yesterday, BroNYCon was held. It’s a convention where guys (and gals, but mostly guys) who love the show get together. Amongst the guests were two of the voice actresses and the song composer.

    It has its problems, and it is extremely feminine, but it definitely proves that guys will watch a show centered around girls. And it’s NOTHING like other girl toy-based shows, in that it has character development, fast-paced jokes, and horse-based puns.

    I’m not saying you have to like it, but at least give it some credit.

      • You can’t take something seriously because of its stereotypical feminine name? It seems it wouldn’t get more sexist than that. As someone actually named Rainbow, I’ve dealt with this kind of prejudice all my life, but it’s surprising to see it on a feminist blog.

      • Too bad. FIM is probably the most feminist-friendly cartoon on air right now. (Helps that the creator is one).

        At the very least, can you look at one episode? I recommend “Sisterhooves Social”. Don’t worry, that one doesn’t have any appearance of Pinkie Pie at all.

        All the episodes are on YouTube. Just google it and see.

  4. Margot-
    you raise worthwhile questions. I just finished reading the extensive interview with Herge in the Feb 2003 Comics Journal (#250). He explains in this interview the absence of women as a consequence of women being objects of respect. I didn’t find it convincing but you may find it interesting to read. It also raises the question though of whether this isn’t a larger cultural issue. Praise is heaped on Robert Crumb who consistently portrayed women as objects for violent abuse. Praise is heaped on Daniel Clowes for his alleged sensitive portrayal of women in Ghost World – which from my view was really a male virgin/whore fantasy. So are any of these better? Can women be portrayed fairly in comics? Maybe Herge leaving them out (more of less. see e.g. Bianca Castiafiore’s appearance) was the better choice?

    • You raise an interesting question here. And as Herge said, “Tintin” was about male friendship, so I can see why little to no women appeared in it.

      And Herge did do a series called “Jo, Zette and Jocko”, about a brother and sister and their pet monkey, so it’s not like he avoided girls whatsoever. The series ran 1935 to 1958, although it’s much lesser known than “Tintin”.

      To flip the coin a little bit, “Friendship is Magic” barely has any male characters (of the seven central characters, only one, a kid dragon named Spike, is a boy) and it’s still popular amongst kids and adults. Is that show sexist because there’s so little male characters?

      • JFL,

        Most kids movies are buddy movies about male friendship. We recently saw Puss In Boots, that was about male friendship. Happy Feet 2 is a father/ son story. Toy Story is about male friendship. Creating movies about male friendship excludes girls. A few would be fine, but the predominate of them teaches kids that girls aren’t important.

        Friendship is magic is not a major, motion picture directed by a major director. Also, Tintin is expected to attract female and male audiences. Friendship is Magic perpetuates extreme female stereotypes (as do the Barbie movies, Strawberry Shortcake etc) that boys, and probably more importantly parents of boys, will not watch or allow their sons to watch.

        The solution is movies to create cool, exciting movies with strong female and for parents to take their sons to those movies.


    • Bukowski,

      Of course women can be portrayed fairly in comics. It’s a fantasy world! Anything is possible. That you even ask that question shows how distorted and limited views have become. I am interested in reading the interview. Thanks for letting me know about it.


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