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.

 

Mermaids

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.

Mermaids2
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:

 

Mermaids3

 

Mermaids4

 

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:

Mermaids5

 

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.

 

Mermaids6

 

Stats obtained from: https://www.facebook.com/attn/videos/1009421309093328/

 

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.

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  • Shazza

    Wow, this is disgusting!

  • Asia Riley

    Wow! I just can’t with that.

  • DTHalliday

    You are not being overly sensitive; this is God awful on the level of banned Looney Tunes. I cannot believe it exists in this day an age.

  • Darkrose

    This is awful. I don’t expect Dream Works to be great, but this is beyond horrible,

  • CoolChic

    Holy cow!

  • tishushu

    This is revolting!

  • Mauve_Avenger

    So everyone is mass posting this to @DWAnimation, right? We’re all agreed?

    • Alex Alex

      Yep!

  • wendell ottley

    Wow. I had forgotten this show existed. And now, I think it shouldn’t.

  • T.j. Michaels

    Wow. I’m just…damn, I’ve got nothing. Posting to @DWAnimation right now.

  • kitchen bish

    This made me physically sick. How the hell can this still be acceptable today? Who are the writers of this episode and are they the same as throughout the series? I don’t watch the show but at least in this episode the inherent racism is ridiculously obvious. You can’t tell me they didn’t know what they were doing. Shame on Dreamworks Animation and shame on Netflix This is disgusting >:(

  • Adam Banks

    I’ve never seen this film and this is completely mind-boggling. Wtaf were they thinking?

  • CharenCharenCharentais

    Well well well… this is disturbing.

  • Steven Burgas

    WTF

    I’m appalled.

  • Scott550

    I think it would have been best had it looked more like the ORIGINAL. The character design is based on something from the 1840s. There are FAR bigger things in the world to get your panties in a bunch over.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiji_mermaid

    • Ivanka Von Dahlink

      To make the claim that people can’t have more than one concern is juvenile and overly simplistic. This is a concern. Our children are watching this and absorbing racist garbage. That’s pretty important.

      • Scott550

        except while it IS garbage—and therefore you shouldn’t be letting your children watch it in the first place–it is NOT racist. That’s most important. It is, however, bad design.

        • LuckyPenny

          It is bad design AND can be perceived as racist. You’re not the decider of what is racist or not. The character had cornrows (common black hairstyle), darkened skin (I guess scales in this case), and fuller lips. Why choose these characteristics, commonly associated with black women, to depict a hideous and revolting creature. As a black woman, I view that as racist and you can’t tell me otherwise.

  • Ocelotl Chimalpahin

    Well *** you Puss in Boots. You racist Spaniard cat.

  • Nina

    Wow, this is beyond unacceptable. Disgusting. you’re not overeating at all. I nearly got an anxiety attack reading this and I am hardly triggered by reading things.

  • Crystal

    As a white person I am ashamed to admit that we’ve pulled this nonsense for way too long. People of all different colours are beautiful! I aim to draw and describe all humans, regardless of colour, in an honourable fashion in my artwork and literature! Someday I hope to put up at least some of my work on the worldwide web, and if anyone finds anything dishonouring to nonwhites in my artwork or writing they can feel free to call me out and I will happily change it, because I care about presenting an honouring image of nonwhite people. I am disgusted by the way Feejee the mermaid was drawn and I think Dreamworks should have done better; shame on you Dreamworks!

  • bongwvlf

    I just googled ‘racist mermaid puss in boots’ after seeing this episode, certain that I can’t have been the only one to pick up on this….I couldn’t believe what I was watching!! So blatant.

  • Anna Shvilko

    Seriously? I mean, I do feel bad for that woman who posted this. She should never feel ashamed because of Disney films, but people have to realize that it’s just a movie! Nothing else. Not all of the blond-hair-blue-eyes stereotype is nice. Take Prince Charming from Shrek. He was evil. Take Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter. He was evil. And the list goes on and on…By the way, Tiana is portrayed in Disney film as a beautiful BLACK girl. It’s just what you choose to focus on. For some reason, I don’t get ticked off when I see a movie or a cartoon with ugly or evil white person. The point I’m trying to make is this: too much drama is inloved. Period.

    • Substantia Nigra

      The problem that I have with your review is that you lack the perspective to understand why this is problematic. Of course every white person is not portrayed positively. White people are portrayed as people, with varied personalities. There are TONS of examples of beautiful, innocent, sweet white characters, evil ones, and EVERY tone in between. That is not the case for black women. Aside from Teyana, name another black Disney princess. I’ll save you the time, you can’t. You believe it’s “too much drama”, because you’re not a black woman. You don’t have to continually see black women portrayed negatively or have people constantly project those stereotypes onto you. It would be helpful for you to have empathy and attempt to see the world through a lens other than your own before choosing to comment on someone else’s feelings about something you cannot experience.

  • Elizabeth Cadregari Milhaupt

    I was horrified after watching this episode and I googled puss and boots mermaid to see if anyone else felt the same way and wrote about it. It’s no wonder why these awful stereotypes and racism perpetuate. Shameful!

  • Christina Spain Temple

    This came up after looking for Feejee Mermaid puss in boots. But if you look at just Feejee mermaid, you’ll find the attached images. The mermaid appears based on a circus hoax. That said, i wont lie. When i first saw the episode all i could think of was “how didthey come up with THAT caricature!?” I haven’t lived the life of the author, but I hope my awareness helped me paint a better picture for my daughter after we watched the show. In just surprised (but maybe shouldn’t be) that no one thought “hmmm, this may not be the best way to approach this episode!”(http://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/2e2fc18d39750b9f2a716c0dee9cf5c62145e717557a104e088a3fa779a84e99.png

  • Aaron Parr

    Completely agree. The episode was revolting. don’t generally have a problem with my kids watching this show… but man that episode was horrible.

    Time to look up the creators of that episode. Find out who the person was that put this out there.

  • Amy

    That episode was shockingly racist. You were on point.