Jar Jar, Goofy and racist stereotypes

Today George Lucas was inducted as a Disney Legend at the D23 expo. Lucas talked about how Disney has always inspired him, and how he was there when Disneyland opened, attending the theme park on its second day.

But here’s the real revelation that came from the event: Jar Jar Binks was inspired by… Goofy. And suddenly the world makes sense.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how much of an influence Disney has had on me,” Lucas said. “I will say one secret that nobody knows; not many people realize that Goofy was the inspiration for Jar Jar Binks.”

After the audience laughed, Lucas added, “I know that you will look at him differently now. It’s pretty obvious, actually, but, um, I love Goofy and I love Jar Jar.”

Setting aside the perhaps questionable wisdom of inserting a character with the broad, cartoonish qualities of Goofy into a film series where the first entry featured torture, dismemberment and cold-blooded murder (albeit offscreen), it’s easy to see what Lucas had in mind. Goofy is good-natured, if naive, and a little bit slow witted. His style of comedy (excepting his “everyman” incarnations) was often more slapstick than anything else. And, more than any other Disney character, he seems to be anachronistic to modern sensibilities.

That’s because Goofy, just like Flash Gordon or any number of inspirations for Star Wars, is rooted in a 1930s sensibility. Like a storytelling Indiana Jones, Lucas raided ancient entertainment tombs looking for cinematic treasure. More often than not, he found what he was looking for. But just like Indy, you have to have your wits about you when raiding tombs: beware the booby-traps.

A panel from a 1950s  "Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge" comic

A panel from a 1950s “Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge” comic

Take Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, ruler of the planet Mongo. The name Ming is of course derived from the Ming dynasty of China that ruled following the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. Ming the Merciless was a classic incarnation of Yellow Peril tropes, his costume and appearance classically Chinese, but he wasn’t alone: the Fu Manchu stereotype flourished in 1930s pulp science fiction. In order to mine the tropes in this case, you have to tease out the underlying primordial archetypes from the conflated broad racial characteristics: the intelligent and intimidating ruler with a propensity for cruelty and mysterious motivation—in short, you get Emperor Palpatine. If you’re not careful, however, you end up with more of the stereotype (the Oriental dress and manner) and less of the archetype (bumbling, cowardly clowns instead of fearsome adversaries)—in short, you end up with the Neimoidians.

Ming the Merciless

Ming the Merciless

If Lucas were Indiana Jones, in this case he chose… poorly. Indeed, he ratcheted up the racial characteristics by giving the Neimoidians vaguely Asian-sounding accents—something that Ming in the Flash Gordon serials never had.

And the same is true for Jar Jar versus his inspiration, Goofy. Goofy was created in the 1930s by Art Babbit, who at the time described the character thusly: “Think of the Goof as a composite of an everlasting optimist, a gullible Good Samaritan, a half-wit, a shiftless, good-natured colored boy and a hick.” What you’re really looking at is the classic archetype of the Fool, who was often projected onto black Americans by whites throughout the history of the U.S. If you’re going to write a Fool, write a Fool—don’t underline the racist baggage of the archetype by giving the character a creole tongue.

Goofy

Goofy

I seriously doubt that any of this was conscious or deliberate. But by naively transposing popular 1930s tropes without an eye to their cultural context, Lucas inadvertently made The Phantom Menace less universal than the original trilogy. It’s a throwback not to a Golden Age of innocent entertainment but to an era of fear and ignorance. If only he’d looked a little deeper before cutting and pasting Goofy into Star Wars.

Still, the film itself is not without its charms. But the alleged racism hijacked both the tropes used and the media narrative surrounding the film, and it never fully recovered.

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