Critical analysis of racist post-9/11 web animations.

Author:van Buren, Cassandra

Within a day of the September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda attacks in the United States, amateur animations, depicting the humiliation, torture, and death of Osama bin Laden, Taliban, and other Arab and Muslim characters began appearing on U.S.-based Web animation portals such as's Political Humor site and Narratives centered on shooting, bombing, torturing, and humiliating the Arab characters. Hastily created and aesthetically crude in execution, the pieces had thin plots and relied heavily on anti-Arab representations to depict meaning and sentiment. One such animation, The Fingers of NYC (Stitch, 2001), was posted on September 12, using a still photo of the Statue of Liberty and a crudely drawn animation of Uncle Sam shooting an Arab man in the head after the Arab whimpers in a faked accent, "Oh, please, but I like America!" This and other like animations appeared to be not much more than the scribblings, almost akin to graffiti, of a few emotionally raw individuals with Web access, expressing the immediate confusion and rage many U.S. citizens felt in response to the 9/11 attacks.

During the days, months, and years that followed 9/11, dozens more anti-Muslim and anti-Arab (1) cartoons were posted to Web animation portals by amateur and freelance animators, indicating a trend rather than mere oddity. As of June 2005, the author's effort to comprehensively count publicly accessible, free-of-charge, English-language anti-Arab animations on the Web yielded 106 cartoons. Viewings of the animations climbed into the multimillions at one portal alone by June 2005 (Newgrounds, 2005d). As the U.S. invasion of Iraq was threatened and finally commenced on March 20, 2003, additional anti-Arab plot possibilities became a part of the animators' grab bag, including the anti-Hussein narrative. Several pieces emerged as Web "classics," enduring in their Web-based exhibition spaces for 4 years or longer as the U.S. War on Terror and the U.S.-Iraq war continued. What is striking about post-9/11 anti-Arab animations is the similarity of their imagery and narrative themes to those used in prior animations, despite markedly different production, distribution, and exhibition methods. In particular, they appear to remediate theatrically released World War II racist animated propaganda films developed and distributed by particular U.S. animation houses in collaboration with the U.S. government. The rapid generation and exhibition of the post-9/11 animations, seen in parallel with the gradual removal of like animations in the traditional U.S. mass media channels of commercial film and television since the end of World War II, indicates vacillating attitudes about the social acceptability of governmental and corporate use of the animated form in the service of racially charged wartime propaganda.

This study explores the ways in which post-9/11 anti-Arab Web animations situate the Web, and the new media technologies that support it, as a cultural space that can be used by animators to recirculate and commercialize images involving race and racism during wartime. The theory of remediation, as developed by Bolter and Grusin (2000), is employed to frame the discussion of the cultural logic of the Web as a remediated and remediating space in which the new medium gains currency through homage to older forms, and simultaneously older media forms maintain currency by incorporating elements of the new. These Web animations are considered as a group in a comparison of production, distribution, and exhibition circumstances during World War II and today. In addition, a catalog of narrative themes is provided, along with critical analysis of the animations' metanarrative. That post-9/11 anti-Arab Web animations were created by amateurs and freelance animators speaks to a shift in how animated wartime propaganda has been deployed over the years since the advent of the animated film form. In the absence of corporate-produced and government-influenced wartime animations, such as were produced and exhibited in the United States for the World War II propaganda campaign, these violent, vengeful, and racist Web animations are notable. The production, portal-based exhibition, and online longevity of the pieces indicate that the affordances of the Web and new media technologies constitute a new production, distribution, and exhibition site for animators to create and exhibit animated narratives. By engaging the myth of the Web as an amateur, folkloric, and grassroots cultural space, the animations, their creators, and the host sites and animators have eluded organized public criticism for their role in these negative constructions of "Arabness." Although the ideological power of these texts may be disavowed, due to their apparent status as citizen-generated populist speech, in aggregate the metatext shows the Web can serve as a critical cultural location at which the animators employ the Web to stabilize their identity and power as they consider and confront an enemy-other: the Arab Muslim world.

Historical Animated Racial Stereotyping

Animation has been dependent on simplistic iconic representation, including stereotypes, for narrative shorthand and comedic potential due in part to animation's inheritance from the tradition of cartooning and its satirical mechanisms, and use of caricature as a specific design strategy in which particular bodily or environmental elements are foregrounded or exaggerated (Wells, 1998). Although the use of stereotypes is commonplace across all narrative forms, and is not inherently ideologically problematic, stereotypes of particular groups in certain historical moments are damaging. However, they are not damaging because they misrepresent a reality; they are damaging because they fixate on a moment in one singular representation, denying the possibility of change, play, and difference (Gilman, 1985). In the case of racial or ethnic stereotyped representations in U.S. mass media, the dearth of a diverse range of representations of characters from minority groups means that the stereotyped negative representations can constitute the only mass media representations such groups have. Advocates for racial and social justice believe the prevalence of negative racial stereotypes has deleterious effects on the progress of their causes.

The animated form, with its dependence on the narrative legacies of print caricature, has long resided in the cultural realm of folk and popular culture. In the United States during the early period of animation and through the development around 1913 of a more organized system of small animation studios, the form was the experimental province of tinkerers and amateurs, as well as lightning sketch artists, cartoonists, and performers (Crofton, 1993). The early stages of the projected animated film form were the result of multiple and diverse efforts by cinematic inventor-tinkerers and their devices, including Plateau's Phenakistoscope (1831), Homer's Zoetrope (1834), Sellers's Kinetoscope (1861), and the Praxinoscope, patented in 1877 by Reynaud (Wells, 1998). In 1888, Reynaud first used his device (which had been used as a children's toy) to exhibit the first projected animated film, Un bon bock, or A Good Beer (Bendazzi, 2001). Early animation was in part characterized by its crude, amateur aesthetic, absent or undeveloped plots, use of negative racial stereotypes, and resistance to the trappings of high art and high culture through its reliance on narrative elements such as pornography, the barnyard milieu, simplistic justice, sadism, and slapstick humor. As such, this type of early animation has been understood as rooted in populist folk art traditions (Panofsky, 1974; Waller, 1980). Thus, the impact of animation has historically been read within the context of popular culture as comic, escapist, frivolous, and devoid of political or sociological significance. This reading of the animated form conflates "seriousness with solemnity, and comedy with 'escapism'" (Wells, 2002, p. 5).

To the contrary: Both animated and comic discourses are intrinsically alternative to dominant texts (e.g., live action, serious dramatic narratives), and as such animation can provide an ideal format for the subversive smuggling of representations of certain ideas into mass media that might otherwise be taboo or unrepresentable (Wells, 2002). Therefore, animated narratives can provide important insights in investigations of cultural phenomena. Above all, the animated form enunciates its inherent otherness in the media landscape and ability to represent difference, while traversing the tensions of difference and otherness in the narratives it conveys (Wells, 2002). In the case of early animation, attendant stereotyping may be understood as related to animators' ambivalence and ignorance about race relations as well as lack of control over the emerging animation technologies and the nascent animated form.

The animation industry has historically been most heavily populated by creative workers who were White male Protestants, largely uncritical in their use of racial stereotypes (Cohen, 1997). According to Cohen (1997), animators in studios in the early years were "more or less unsophisticated in their humor and social behavior" (p. 50) and were unaware that the racial and ethnic stereotypes they engaged in their daily lives, and repurposed in their animations, were offensive or harmful to others. For example, Fleischer studio animator Myron Waldman reported that in the 1930s, Jewish caricatures were objected to by Jewish animators, but because no African American animators worked at Fleischer, nobody was around to object to negative portrayals of African Americans. By the time cinema sound technology was in use, negative stereotypes of virtually every racial and ethnic group had been used as narrative devices in animation.

Sampson (1998) collected and catalogued a comprehensive filmography...

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