Growing up, I didn’t see too many television characters that looked like myself or my friends. This was before Mulan, or the Princess and the Frog, or Home. This was when ALL princesses had long flowing blond hair, pale skin, and heroes were chisel-jawed and white. This was when the crows in Dumbo were obviously caricatures of black men, and nefarious characters almost always looked “ethnic.”
As a little girl, I was proud of my natural hair. It was fashioned into cornrows, or formed into dreadlocks, and for years I felt like my hair was beautiful. It all changed when I became a regular viewer of children’s television, watching Walt Disney movies like they were going out of style, and unknowingly damaging my perception of myself as a pre-adolescent. As a child, I immediately noticed that the princesses and heroines didn’t look like me, did not have dreadlocks or brown skin. Heck, they didn’t look like many of the kids I knew (I live in Hawaii). Suddenly, I didn’t feel so pretty and I quickly realized that I could never look like any of the princesses, fairies, mermaids, or nymphs that I had come to love. I suddenly realized that they were considered beautiful and I was not.
My mother was a big advocate when it came to self-love. She not only encouraged me to love myself, but she taught me that there were many different standards of beauty and that I represented one of them. She explained that the Most High made people like he made all the flowers — varied, unique, and beautiful in their own way. Even with my mother telling me how beautiful I was with my brown skin, thick hair, and full mouth, I did not believe her. It didn’t matter that God had made us varied and unique. All the princesses were white.
Looking back at it now as a black woman who rocks dreadlocks and embraces her natural beauty, I understand why my mother failed to reach me with her message. Her message was simply overwhelmed by the density of media that told me she was wrong. That dark was bad and fair was good. That boys like girls with “good” hair and light eyes. That black women were loud, unattractive, and mean with little hope of being desired for their beauty or intelligence.
Nowadays, children’s programming has made some real progress. I watched Home the other day and was thrilled to see a little brown girl navigating a world invaded by aliens. Yet, I still feel the need to screen shows for unsavory stereotypes that could color my children’s view of themselves and others. I don’t want my children to watch television that elevates some standards of beauty, while using characteristics of others to demonize characters. It’s so important to me that they see themselves and others in a light that is realistic and untouched by racism. I don’t want them to hate their hair, or think that a person of color can’t be a hero or heroine. I don’t want them to think that princess can only have long blond hair and crystal blue eyes. I want them to embrace the beauty of themselves and the whole world.
Self-hate, racism, and insecurity are taught to children, and sometimes the culprit is as simple as a sword wielding cartoon cat. The Adventures of Puss in Boots (DreamWorks Animation) is a perfect example of how a children’s show can introduce concepts of anti-blackness and perpetuate racial stereotypes that ultimately create narratives that are harmful to children of color.
I usually enjoy DreamWorks, and as I mentioned earlier, I’m absolutely gaga over their film, Home. That’s why I’m so disturbed that The Adventures of Puss in Boots is so horribly wrong. The show, in case you haven’t seen or heard of it, follows the adventures of Puss, a sword wielding tabby cat with Antonio Banderas’ accent, and an insatiable thirst for milk. He reinforces the Latin lover/machismo stereotype and is the hero of the small town of San Lorenzo. The show’s infractions are numerous, but for the purposes of this article, I’m focusing on a particularly terrible episode that utilizes negative and racist stereotypes that are typically associated with black women.
Season 2, Episode 3 of The Adventures of Puss in Boots focuses on the unwanted attention Puss receives from a Fiji mermaid. For those of you unfamiliar with Fiji mermaids, they were a popular hoax of the freak show era, and were created by sewing the torsos of monkeys to fishes’ tails. Once mummified, these monkey-fish were put on display and were said to originate from the islands of Fiji. Hence the name Fiji mermaids.
Anyway, the episode starts out in a tavern with Puss attempting to use his charm to score free drinks (he likes shots of milk). He boasts that his lady killing skills are world renowned, only to be told by the barkeep that his sassy charm no longer works on her or any of the women of San Lorenzo. After being teased by the barkeep and a few of the townsfolk, he wanders to a lake where he is drawn to the beautiful song of a mermaid. Her back is turned to Puss as she sings, and before he can make his presence known, she is attacked by two villains. Puss makes quick work of the villains, and goes off to find the frightened mermaid who has flopped/crawled into a nearby forest. When he finally finds her, her back is once again turned towards him. Having never seen her face, he expects her to beautiful, only to become physically sick when she reveals herself as a dark-skinned, bug-eyed, large lipped, muscular, cornrow wearing mermaid named Feejee.
That’s right folks, a combination of cornrows and dreadlocks are put on a monkey-fish as a means of adding to her grotesque nature. The implications are so mind boggling, that as I write this, I’m pausing to crack my knuckles, say a few choice words, and take a few deep breaths before I continue…
Putting cornrows/dreadlocks on Feejee, in my mind, immediately identifies her as being black, and mixed with her exaggerated features, I can’t help but think back to the racist cartoon caricatures that date back to the “good ole days.” The fact that DreamWorks would have the audacity to put this hair style on a monkey-fish reinforces just how inherently racist Hollywood can be. This is why, at least according to ATTN:, “Only 41% of black women see themselves depicted as beautiful in the media” and the other 59% think otherwise—there’s too many incidents like Feejee.
When characters like Feejee are shown with this hairstyle, they’re telling little black girls that their hair is disgusting. That they are other, less than, unwanted, and unattractive. That what makes a girl ugly is large lips, dark skin and black hair. That the only time a mermaid is considered beautiful is if she has pale skin and flaming red hair. That beautiful black mermaids do not exist, but monkey-fish with cornrows do.
The Adventures of Puss in Boots doesn’t just stop there. The show ups its ante just in case its message isn’t loud and clear. I know it doesn’t seem possible, but it gets worse.
Feejee the mermaid not only makes Puss ill with her physical appearance, she’s also replete with every black woman stereotype that’s ever been blasted across the media. Feejee is loud, insecure, bossy, manipulative, hungry for a man, ignorant, jealous, physically strong, crazy, angry, and dangerous. The crazy, jealous, and angry stereotypes are especially strong with the character. Take the following screen shots for example, which show her interactions with a white child she mistakes as competition for Puss’ affections:
Feejee is completely unaware that Puss finds her repulsive, and doesn’t take hints that she needs to return to her lake (the aggressive black woman stereotype). This leaves Puss in an uncomfortable predicament: how does he rid himself of her? He eventually garners the sympathy of the townsfolk, who are thoroughly turned off by Feejee’s abrasiveness. His predicament becomes so dire that his potential love interest, Dulcinea (a white cat with blue eyes and tons of kindness, hmm), feels so sorry for Puss that she and the rest of the townsfolk agree to help him fake his death. When that fails, Puss finds himself being forced to marry Feejee in an attempt to stop her from hurting the townsfolk with her Banshee like scream (loud black woman trope?).
It’s at this point in the story that show writers blatantly reference slavery. No, you did not read that wrong. There is actually a scene where the wizard of the village (he’s officiating Puss and Feejee’s wedding) attempts to auction her off. Just check out the screen shots for yourself:
That implied slavery bit—I just can’t. Moving on.
To the relief of Puss and the townsfolk, the wedding is halted with the arrival of Brad; Feejee’s true love. Brad is a Fiji merman who realizes that he loves Feejee. It turns out that it was Feejee’s plan all along to manipulate Brad into marrying her. The episode ends with Brad and Feejee sharing a kiss, much to the disgusts (there’s a shot of slurping large lips paired with a collective ew) and delight (Feejee returns to the lake with Brad) of the townsfolk. It is at this point in the episode when the shock wears off, and the realization hits you; The Adventures of Puss in Boots is racist as hell!
This has to stop. This sneaking of racism into television and film that is supposed to be safe for ALL children. Feejee is completely unacceptable. I’m sure some folks might say I’m being too sensitive, that DreamWorks does outstanding work, and this show is an anomaly. Perhaps it is, maybe they inadvertently hired a prejudiced bastard who hates black women and wanted to underhandedly call us cornrow wearing monkeys. I don’t know. What I do know is this: I am absolutely horrified by this supposedly innocuous children’s show. I feel betrayed by it, and disappointed that all the magic that I had previously associated with DreamWorks productions is forever tainted by Feejee the mermaid. But most of all, I feel sad. Sad that little children, maybe even my nieces, have seen this episode, and felt like I did as a child—ashamed and less than. Because, you know, all the pretty mermaids are white.
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Jahkotta Lewis is a nerdy archaeologist that likes to watch Star Trek, hike, and explore the Pacific. She has a special love for caves, mango sherbet, and the Halo universe.