DENIGRATING IMAGERY: Film and media scholar Ylva Habel, on Stina Wirsén and the debate on racism

Whenever ethnic stereotypes are debated in Sweden, they invariably center on the contentment of white, self-proclaimed antiracists. If brown or yellow people should ever feel aggrieved in this regard, it is laughed aside. This, asserts Ylva Habel, on the matter of the criticisms against Stina Wirsén for her children’s-book character, Sweetheart (Lilla Hjärtat).

A critical discussion about the movie’s interpretation of skin colors and stereotypes was gaining momentum at the Folkets Bio’s Facebook page in anticipation of the première of the children’s movie, Little Pink and the Motley Crew (Liten Skär och Alla Små Brokiga), which is to be released in theaters on September 21, 2011. Many of us were questioning the concept of the black character, Sweetheart – who is a variant of a Pickaninny from American blackface and minstrel traditions of days past.

Folkets Bio (the theater company) and author Stina Wirsén defended themselves with the argument that all the characters of the movie are stereotypes used to indicate diversity. She added that their antiracist intentions were to avoid the exclusion of any particular demographic. They stated this in a press release last Friday – after which they withdrew from all further discussions.

The movie posters have now been recalled, but the problem remains.

On Monday’s edition of the Swedish Broadcasting Company’s radio program, P1, Nordegren and Epstein featured the expert on children’s movies, Linus Torell, who stepped in to defend Little Pink and the Motley Crew. He spoke warmly about how the people who collaborated on the movie loved each of the five characters equally. They are “strong personalities,” particularly Sweetheart, who certainly can be “a handful.”

However, this is the message we’ll probably get: Sweetheart – with a demonic expression – is shown pulling Little Pink by the seat of his pants. Barely any awareness of historical context is required for one to perceive an image of black evil assaulting white innocence. Could the movie’s creators really be ignorant of how this particular cultural portrayal of the relationship between white and black has been circulated in the Western world?

What I hear from Folkets Bio, Stina Wirsén and Linus Torell points to an astounding indifference on their part towards the crux of the issue – the disparaging stereotypes of blacks. They have more or less willfully misunderstood the criticisms directed at them. What is worse, as mentioned, is that the moviemakers are refusing to discuss their own movie. And they don’t care how this may be perceived. In fact, Torell has now sworn that the movie is free from any connections to historical stereotypes. He emphasizes that the characters were developed with care and that their representation is “clean.”

Clean from what? History? Racism? It is simply an untenable defense, for the issue is precisely that racist stereotypes are objects of tremendous adoration in the context of a white worldview – and a serious ruckus is invariably raised whenever this becomes the subject of criticism. A few examples on our home turf are: Chokladbollar (chocolate balls, still widely referred to as “negro balls”), Kinapuffar (“China pops” – a brand of chocolate-coated rice pops with packaging depicting cone-hatted squint-eyed yellowface caricatures) and Fazerlakrits (a brand of licorice candy with packaging depicting a golliwog).

Time and again, it has been established that the degrading experiences of brown and yellow people do not hold any weight, and that it is the white majority population’s feeling of contentment, recognition and tradition that must be prioritized.

There are more examples, if we look beyond our horizon. For a number of years now, there has been a raging battle in the Netherlands over Zwarte Piet, a blackface character and sidekick of Sinterklaas (St. Nikolas). The black minority considers the character to be disagreeable and racist, and has begun to keep their children home during celebrations, which are held on December 5 every year. Ignoring these sensitivities, the white majority largely continues on with the tradition. It is, after all, such a sweet little tradition!

If Wirsén and company had conducted a little research in cooperation with representatives of the “diversity” they claim to be advocating for, Little Pink and the Motley Crew would probably have been a different movie – with a different title. The moviemakers would have been spared from needing to guess, all by themselves, what constitutes an acceptable representation of a black child.

Naturally, although I have so far exclusively addressed the issue of the black stereotype, it is hardly the only problematic stereotype around. Little Pink himself, is emblematic of a range of examples of white, self-proclaimed antiracists, who instead of committing to the task of doing something about the marginalized, place themselves at the center of focus.