Is Tintin Racist?

December 24th, 2011 at 9:02 am | 34 Comments |

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From the tender age of illiteracy, to the present, I have always had a deep adoration for French comic books (and no, not “graphic novels”). The top of my list has, and always will be, The Adventures of Tintin. One could imagine my sadness when I found out my childhood hero and his white dog would be placed in front of Mr. Spielberg’s lens to be bastardized by the Hollywood machine.

Well, maybe it’s not so bad after all: There’s been controversy over the fact that two book chains in England, Borders and Waterstone’s, have removed Tintin in the Congo from the children section of their stores; instead they have filed it in the “graphic novel” section, otherwise known as the, “I’m thirty and still like comic books, how do I explain that at dinner parties?” shelf. Now, malapropisms aside, “graphic novels” tend to be awash with violence, gore, sex, drugs, murder, etc. There is nothing wrong with this whatsoever. However, there is something wrong with placing The Adventures of Tintin alongside such subject matter. Why this decision? Why put the young Belgian reporter and his faithful, articulate dog Snowy amidst the maniacal, depraved characters of The Watchmen? Well because, apparently, Tintin in the Congo‘s content is “racist.”

Of course it’s racist! What could one expect from a story written about the Congo by a man whose country had colonized the so-called “Heart of Darkness” (oops) in 1931? But the racism lies in caricature, not overt discrimination. Is this really justification for exiling this colourful, humorous, downright fascinating adventure to the secluded shelves of blood-filled sensationalism and sexual content?

The fear here seems to be that young readers will form their opinions on certain ethnicities based on this comic. Comic. If a child is to become racist based on a series of drawings and speech bubbles, then there is something to be said about his education, but also about parental involvement in said education.

I grew up reading The Adventures in Tintin in their original French. Aside from helping me to learn the language, they also acted as an escape, a sort of vacation when the duties of grade school wouldn’t allow my parents to take me somewhere. The stories, in short, are entrancing. Their plots are fascinating, the illustrations are beautiful, and the dialogue is funny; a sure-fire way to get a child (especially a boy) engaged in reading, and an argument that not all children literature must feature either Harry Potter or Superman. To this day, they still prove to be riveting, which would explain the wooden bust of the titular character staring at me on my desk as I write this.

Yet, hypersensitivity has deemed Tintin in the Congo as the kind of material that should be out of a child’s immediate grasp. But if we apply this standard to Tintin at large, shouldn’t so many more of the Belgian’s adventures be treated similarly?

Tintin in America is a compendium of caricatures of Native Americans. Snowy refers to his native kin as: “Redskin dogs! OK, so I’m a paleface…have you redskins ever seen one before?” The “First Nations” are portrayed as fools who fight with each other, and have names the stuff stereotypes are wrought of such as Chief Keen-Eyed Mole and Brother Browsing Bison. By the midpoint of the story, author Hergé makes a joke out of the exodus of the Indians once oil has accidentally been struck by Tintin. I should also note that the cowboys of the Wild West are portrayed as a group of savages hell-bent and more than eager to participate in lynchings. I’m assuming such stereotypes of white people are not considered racist, but payback.

Tintin and the Picaros portrays a group of South American natives as drunks who have been duped by the “white man.” The Prisoners of the Sun plays on the ignorance of the Incas: When Tintin is about to be sacrificed at the stake, a solar eclipse occurs and the Indians beg Tintin, the white man, to make the sun appear again.

If we apply this level of pitiable sensitivity to Tintin in general, nearly every issue is derogatory in some way. Does this mean the comics should be out of children’s grasp? Absolutely not. The adventures of Professor Calculus and the incompetent twin detectives Thompson and Thompson are the stuff every child’s mind should be privy to.

But returning to the main issue at hand: that Hergé’s portrayal of the Congo is one of caricature verging on the point of discrimination at times is undeniable. Still: Sorry. If a child’s parents cannot explain to the reader the comic’s context, then they have no business being parents. The wrapping of the comic in plastic, plastered with a warning sticker is egregious, and a perfect example of the wrongheaded belief that parental guidance must be influenced by authorities outside the home. Furthermore, it is absolutely shameless that in today’s society, a childhood hero of my parents’ generation is ranked alongside the blood-soaked, barbaric Leonidas of Frank Miller’s 300, which was turned into a movie in 2006 with an R-rating for “graphic battle sequences throughout, some sexuality and nudity.” There is none of that in Tintin.

If we are to fight ignorance, it must be through education, not censorship. But of course, the former requires just so much effort, so why not forgo it at the expense of a beautifully-crafted and charming story that stands on the mountain-top of genius?

Originally Posted at Huffington Post Canada

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Recent Posts by Daniel Alexandre Portoraro



34 Comments so far ↓

  • marcusgarvey

    Negro please, we black people can be so annoying.

    Sure, blacks were known to be members of the human race as far back as
    the American Civil War, but who could expect literature to actually
    reflect that in the dark musty times of 1930.

    Did a white man actually have to afford the wogs the dignity of being
    equals in any manner, I mean all that Christian crap of all men being
    equal before God wasn’t meant to apply to darkies did it?

    Okay, Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little N*ggers” might be a bit difficult
    to sell as a Hollywood movie, Captain America and his spook sidekick
    are kinda cute, N*gger Jim is a sympathetic character, and why not
    name a ranch N*ggerhead?

    What’s the f*cking big deal???

    We Negroes should stop being so damn sensitive about sh*t the author
    liked as a kid.

    Speaking of nostalgia, I found a great deal on N*gger Head Tar Soap at
    “de bestest old time store der iss”:
    http://oldtimecollectibles.com/soapCakes.htm

    • MurrayAbraham

      Hergé never uses the word “nègre” when talking about Africans. There never was segregation in Congo and even less slavery.

      What you fail to see is that Tintin in Congo is condescending towards African culture, a common frame of mind in colonial Europe, not black people.

      This doesn’t mean such condescending views are acceptable, but your reaction shows how much explaining the context is important. You cannot look at race relations in general through the sole prism of the African American experience.

  • Ray_Harwick

    You really over-burden American parenting by expecting them to discuss literature in context with its time. We still have parents who want to ban Huckelberry Finn for the *wrong* reason: because it uses the n-word with alarming regularity, noble, in it own way, but hardly thoughtful given the originality of the story that changed American literature for all time. Then others who want to ban it because they forbid their children from seeing how the hero looks inside himself and discovers that slaves were actually human beings with dark skin rather than creatures of contempt.

    I haven’t read Tintin but it sounds like it would serve as an excellent teaching opportunity for children; the kind of thing children of minorities have to face down every day of their lives that majority children are insulated from. So, do we see “Little Black Sambo” anymore? It was favorite in public school libraries in the 1960s and it remains a favorite of America’s racists who regularly bestow the title hero’s name on our president.

    Finally, I’m wishy-washy about Tintin’s usefulness to children because, in my experience as a public school teacher, I’d say the masses of parents who complain about what alleged “evil” literature their children might be exposed are the ones to express that concern because they don’t want to be the ones sitting and explaining things to children. They’d rather place that burden on the teacher so they can later complain about it if Johnny brings home “Oliver Button Is A Sissy” or “Heather Has Two Mommies”. So better to just keep it out of reach to little eyes. My own great, enduring lesson concerning race came from my mother one day in front of a small town Oklahoma cafe owned my a much older cousin. It had a sign in the window: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” It said one thing but it meant, “We don’t serve blacks.” My mother told her three children, “I don’t care who owns this cafe. I will beat the white off of your behinds if you ever set foot inside this door.” It was because of this lesson we could read Huckelberry Finn and not misunderstand the force of Huck’s revelation when he said, “All right then, I’ll go to hell.”

    [Really, Frum Editors!: Is the objectionable word filter set to exclude "n-e-g-r-o-s"?]

  • Houndentenor

    It’s difficult to read books and watch films, plays, operas, etc. from before the post-modern era without cringing at overtly racist and sexist attitudes and themes. Does that mean some of them are doomed to the scrap-heap of history? Yes, unless there is some very seriously artistic merit that allows us to rationalize the rest. We have long ago excised portions of the dialog from Mozart’s the Magic Flute that make racist comments about the character Monastatos and references to Sarastro being involved in the slave trade. There are also problems with the musical Showboat and plenty of other works (Huckleberry Finn, for example).

    There’s no easy answer. Sometimes it’s easy enough to change a word, edit a passage and move on. When it’s part of the plot, I think the work is doomed. I never read TinTin so I had no idea what this was like, but I do remember seeing cartoons as a child that were about this bad. I haven’t seen them in ages and certainly wouldn’t show them to children. There’s enough material of significant value that doesn’t present these stereotypes.

  • dugfromthearth

    So this article consists of the author insulting and degrading graphic novels and those who like them and then having created that strawman complaining that Tintin is included among them? At long last sir have you no decency?

  • llbroo49

    Tintin may or may not be racist , but like graphic novels, can be considered offensive.

  • marcusgarvey

    This is the author who complained about one of his demeaning jobs because the people there spoke funny. Yes, he’s mister sensitive when it comes to race.

  • Gus

    “What could one expect from a story written about the Congo by a man whose country had colonized the so-called “Heart of Darkness” (oops) in 1931?”
    Belgium colonized the Congo in 1931?

  • jakester

    As long as you are even handed in your mockery of all cultures, it’s okay with me. For instance, it is not like the Congo has set any great example for Post Colonial Africa since the French decamped.

  • Graychin

    I am not familiar with TinTin, so I can’t speak to whether its treatment of Africans is racist or not. But in general, I think that depictions of minority races in films, cartoons and literature are racist only when they confirm racist stereotypes. A black criminal in a story is not necessarily a racist statement. This is why Huckleberry Finn is NOT racist – it depicts Ni***r Jim as an admirable human being, in spite of the use of the ugly word common in that era.

    It’s doubtful that Disney’s “Song of the South” will ever again see the light of day. It’s likely to remain in the vault for at least the next 100 years.

    I don’t take seriously anyone who alleges racism against whites in our culture. Whites aren’t a minority, and we aren’t stereotyped in the media – with the possible exception of Southerners. Someone with a southern accent in a film is usually playing the part of a corrupt politician in a seersucker suit, or an uneducated semi-criminal hillbilly. (Think “Deliverance”). I don’t have a southern accent, but most of my neighbors do.

    • jakester

      That one stupid film Deliverance put into so many people’s minds, even to this day, that country people are some mutant clan heinous, male raping sodomizers. Pretty amazing for such a grade b film

      • WaStateUrbanGOPer

        Keep in mind, Jakester, that that film is adapted from a novel written by a southerner, James Dickey– a city man, granted, but a southerner at any rate.

        • jakester

          I understand that. I read the book too. It was supposed to have a subtext of modern Southerners meet their ancestors. It just amazed me, like the movie Jaws of the same period, that so many people after those two movies created a folk association that country people tend to be sodomizing brutes and any body of water, even freshwater lakes, harbor huge intelligent killer sharks.

        • Primrose

          But I think the speed in which Deliverance was transformed from literature into stereotype, makes it very clear that images do matter.

    • WaStateUrbanGOPer

      I agree with your prediction re: “Song of the South,” although I think this cultural quarantine is somewhat regrettable. The film’s naivete on the racial issue aside, only a person completely devoid of aesthetic sense could watch it and then deny its stunning visual beauty, or its charming soundtrack.

      “Song of the South” made its last major theater run when I was six years old, and I remember my dad– who is (1) not a racist, and (2) loathes the South and needs only the slightest pretext to denounce it– excitedly taking me out to see it. Five minutes into the film and I was spellbound.

  • MurrayAbraham

    Not to excuse Tintin in the Congo’s description of Africans, but I found this on Wikipedia that sheds an interesting light on this:

    “Both Farr and literary critic Tom McCarthy noted that Tintin in the Congo was the most popular Tintin adventure among readers on the African continent, particularly in the French-speaking countries.[22][23"

    IMHO, it illustrates how different the histories of race relations are in Europe and the US. For example, although there was a widespread very paternalistic view of Africans in colonial Europe, French officers were shocked in WWI when they saw how African American soldiers were treated despite their unquestionable bravery. (The French decorated members of the 365th Infantry and 350th Machine Gun Battalion for their aggressiveness and bravery .)

    I am also of the opinion that far from being censured these stories should be used to explain the context to children. Same can be said of our old Westerns' depiction of Native Americans.

    • rbottoms

      “Explain the context” really means excusing why your fathers and grandfathers were racists. Sure, not hang them from a tree after castrating them on fire but condoning n****r jokes and excusing discrimination in their all white workplace racist.

      That’s really the past these people will like to make disappear because how shameful it is.

      Screw context. Screw Tintin. My life is not one ounce less fulfilled by not giving his fascist author the benefit of understanding the times he lived in.

  • Sean Linnane

    The question isn’t “Is Tin Tin racist?” The question is; “Is Tin Tin STRAIGHT?”

    Consider: He’s never seen with a woman. He has that little tuft of hair ‘do held up there with metrosexual gel. He wears his trousers tucked into his socks like he’s some kind of slave to fashion. He’s the youthful punk to a merchant seaman, and he shacks up with same sailorman in that huge mansion without a woman in sight. In fact, the only time a woman ever showed up at Marlinspike (that Eye-talian opera singer Bianca Catastrophe; she-of-the-HUGE-knockers) she practically threw herself at Captain Haddock and pages and pages of comics were dedicated to a pissed off Haddock keeping her at an arms length – I’d have been motorboating those puppies and having the time of my life with that bird – opera singer, eh? I bet she’s a SCREAMER ! ! !

    “STORMBRINGER SENDS”

    • Graychin

      This guy is a psycho even when commenting on someone else’s column.

    • _will_

      you’ve never had sex with an actual breathing woman, have you?

    • Primrose

      Mr. Linnae, this is not a Marine core locker room. You are, of course, free to have as many sexual fantasies over fictional characters as you wish, but please, keep that between yourself those immediately concerned.

      We are not.

  • Freia

    If all cultural expressions should be PC for all times, what would survive?
    We may not like a word like n—er, but do we like the word bi–h better? You may say that one is derogatory against a race, the other is only against a woman. But is it really better? Or what about calling a person insane? Schizophrenic? Stupid (low IQ)? Ugly? Fat? Gay? Just to mention a few?

    Until some very few years ago, the term “n-gro” was acceptable term for people of African descent in my country. Suddenly, it changed. Is it really better to be called “black”, even if the word in our language sounds worse? Or to refer to another examples: The term for insanity changes regularly; it does not help! These people remain insane.
    A second example: Even being of age is such a sensitive issue so that UK has recommended that “elderly” should no longer be used for describing older people. But will older people become younger by changing the term? Or will younger people start to respect older people by avoiding the term “elderly”?

    In my country, “b–ch” is usually used by young, non-integrated teen-agers against white girls and womens. Would it be better if we changed the name for these girls/women for “reekah”, “dolee”, anax.. ( or something else)?

    Or perhaps it would better to start with those boys that lack respect for girls and women?
    Likewise, with elderly: Should we not try to change people’s attitude towards elderly? And the same with insanity and gay people?

    Regarding Tintin: They were lovely stories. A short introduction about time and place will solve everything, even for children.

    • rbottoms

      Regarding Tintin: They were lovely stories. A short introduction about time and place will solve everything, even for children.

      At least the white ones.

      The blacks ones will need an addendum, yes Virginia they called you n****r.

      • Primrose

        And this is the idea that writers like Mr. Portoraro don’t understand. White kids are not the only ones reading. The harm some of these images do to children is immense. They are terrible images and plenty of African-American children get the idea that having dark skin and African features is worthy of ridicule. And these images are the reason why.

        To the author Mr. Portoraro himself, if you don’t see the racism of minstrel show Africans, I doubt your quite free of these images yourself. I think putting them in the sections where only older children and adults will see them, children who will be able to understand context is a reasonable compromise.

        Young children will not be able to understand context. They don’t really understand the difference between fiction and real life. They also pick up odd cultural ideas as if from the ether. I well remember in that when my son was in first grade, he started telling me (one of my MA’s is in African studies) that Africans don’t have any laws, or metal, and eat only meat and something else I don’t remember. Obviously, I corrected him and scheduled a time to give a little mini-history lesson on Africa to the class (we were encouraged to bring our outside interests in). But how many parents can do that? How many parents even know this history? I can assure you people’s conceptions of Africa are quaint, and misguided (taking a charitable interpretation) damn racist if not.

        Back in grad school, I would go a brightly lit Johny Rocket’s to study. I liked the noise and it kept me focused. Since I was alone I was put at the counter section and people would try to talk to me. When I was studying my Zulu vocab or grammer rules, inevitably people would refuse to believe it was a real language.

        This was in the 90’s so theoretically we were all “enlightened” by then. And the odd thing is most people had heard of the Zulus. South Africa being in the news meant the Zulus were as well. It was not if I was referencingjj some group not so well known, like the Venda or Samburu. Nor are the sounds of Zulu so extravagant or complex. It was not as if I was speaking Khoisan with their plethora of clicks or the endlessly complicated Sanskrit or Navaho.

        Every single one of my classmates had a similar experience of people simply refusing to believe it was a real language. Africa is a mythical place to most people and they don’t want to change that idea—and comics like TinTin are a large reason we think that way.

        They perpetuate the idea, of low tech “tribes” as if in Africa most people are nomads. Actually most people are either farmers or cattle and goat herders, and lived in settled villages with complex social structures. How many people know for instance that the fabled city of Timbuktu, that ancient seat of learning, is in Africa? How many people think of Egypt as an African civilization? Or Carthage, Rome’s great rival, as an African civilization? When we think of Ethiopia do we think of starving children or castles and empire and the oldest Christian civilization?

        So don’t tell me these images are OK and “harmless”.

  • trouserarousal

    Yeah, I hate when I go to my local bookstore to find something to teach my kids about colonialism and racist stereotypes and it’s not in the children’s section. What gives?

  • tpubbie

    >instead they have filed it in the “graphic novel” section, otherwise known as the, “I’m thirty and still like comic books, how do I explain that at dinner parties?” shelf.

    This from a guy who appears to have glued a cigarette to the corner of his mouth, and has the expression of a man who is trying to look cool while taking a crap.

    People in glass houses, Mr. Portoraro.

    • Graychin

      It makes me sad when I see very young people smoking, thinking that it makes them look cool and sophisticated.

      Maybe smoking is still cool in French/Canadian culture, but in civilized parts of the USA it makes you look like a moron. And it makes you smell bad.

      I can’t even imagine someone having a portrait taken with a cigarette any more. Twice!

  • MSheridan

    On the one hand, the author’s premise is one of the plainest examples of white privilege I have seen recently. The title of the piece asks if Tintin is racist and he starts out by acknowledging that it is, but that it shouldn’t matter. The fact that he, a young white man, grew up reading Tintin and thinks therefore he is qualified to say that only the “hypersensitive” could find its racism unsuitable for children (at least so long as parents briefly explain the context), would be hilarious if he were not serious. Parents do have a responsibility to instruct, but using materials like this at the age most children would be interested in reading them would not be likely to work well. Analytical thinking is not something that comes easily to most pre-teens and explaining racism isn’t a subject I’d want to tackle using a Tintin comic as a primary illustration. Unlike the author (I would guess), I have explained some of the history of American racism to children. It isn’t a comic book sort of conversation.

    On the other hand, the fact that a work contains internalized prejudice (of whatever sort, racial, sexual, class) doesn’t necessarily negate the possibility that it may have some redeeming artistic value. Jane Austen’s works are classics, regardless and partly because of the fact that they sharply delineate a deeply sexist society that also took for granted the idea that some people were born to serve and others to have servants. Huckleberry Finn is the classic it is, at least in part, because it actually portrayed racist attitudes as they existed, rather than romanticizing or ignoring them. Twain very obviously did intend his book to provoke and offend, but he was aiming his guns in the opposite direction (at white racism). I have not read the Tintin comic books. However, if they are not classics illuminating the human condition, but instead are merely light entertainment, I see no reason they should be marketed to children or any reason they should be barred from an older audience that presumably has gained the capability to set them in their proper historical context.