Wednesday, October 01, 2008

A Shameful Ignorant Stereotype

ARE ALL NORDIC PEOPLES THE SAME?When I created Sven Hoek, I didn't go and study all Nordic cultures. I had a conglomerate stereotype in my head of what I thought was funny about nordic white folks. I combined the funniest stereotypical attributes from different branches of Germanic peoples.

Sven talks with a Swedish accent. An extreme caricature of the accent. Billy West had Sven use the Y phoneme for completely random consonants that Swedes in reality pronounce perfectly, just because it sounded even more ignorant than the real accent.

Sven wears Swiss lederhosen, which I don't think Swedes ever wore.

Part of what makes an extreme generality of a race or culture funny is just how ignorant it is. It's that we know nothing of any detail or specificity of the culture. When I made fun of northern European people, I was also making fun of my own ignorance. I actually lived in Germany when I was a kid and remember vaguely - and with much love and admiration the way everything and everyone looked. But it is also extremely funny. Anything that has a clear visual statement is funny.

What makes a different culture funny? Is it merely that it is just different? Is it that anything are not used to seeing every day we think of as ignorant? That's part of it. The farther removed something is to us, then the stranger it seems to us, and therefore funnier - but that's only part of it. Even more key to me is how extreme and confident the superficial look of the traditional costume and general expressions of the people are.

Is this worth making fun of?The whole point of this ad campaign is to show the contrast between 2 different kinds of white nerds. But I don't see much contrast. Both of these looks are so bland, nondescript and unfunny that they aren't even worth making fun of. There is nothing to caricature. Modern Americans have to be the blandest unfunniest peoples in history. We go out of our way to have no cultural statements and nothing concrete to believe in. We live in the era of mush and fear.

This wasn't always the case.
Only a few decades ago, we had plenty of great concrete stereotypical statements that could be made fun of by American cartoonists - and anyone else.
Is it evil to generalize some cultures and not others?

It must be OK to stereotype Nordics, because no one complained when I did it.

If you really look closely at different times and people and costumes of various Nordic countries, you can see differences between each look.

How many people here or even in modern Europe can tell just by looking at these photographs exactly which culture is which? To most people who are not intimately familiar with these tradional costumes and facial features, they all share something similar that groups this whole branch of humanity into a common recognizable segment. They are all funny, but funny in a similar way.
Do all traditional Germanic people wear lederhosen?

I'm sure the differences between the people in each of these pictures would be much stronger to each other than to us. They'd probably each think the other was hilarious, while they were normal. General and specific is all relative to how familiar you are to something.

General traits are funny and specific variations are also funny. It's all fair game and worthy of study and exploration - and humor.
Cartoonists and comedians love the obvious differences between all groups of people. They love to make fun of costumes, accents, dialects, physical features. This is all part of the historical tradition of comedy.

No Swedes, Swiss, Germans or Bavarians ever got mad at me for making Sven Hoek a totally ignorant caricature of a huge territory on earth that encompasses at least hundreds of diverse cultures and physical types. In fact I got quite a few letters from various Nordics who loved the cartoon.

Sven was so popular that we planned to do more cartoons with more characters from his mythical alpine country of Ungerland. We made up all kinds of ignorant folk tales, had them worshipping sausages, yodeling and playing accordians. Everything about the humor in the cartoons was completely based on our ignorance of the actual details of any specific real traditions of any particular culture in any particular era. That was the joke. It was a joke on us as much as it was making fun of pale people who live in cold climates. Ignorance is funny from both sides. It doesn't mean we hate anybody, or think they are inferior to us. Extreme looks are even funnier when the people themselves don't think there is anything extreme about them. When cartoonists want to draw certain looks, it means we like them. We don't find them boring, as we do modern blandness.

The more outlandish the look (and I admit it's relative outlandishness) of any group of people, the more fun it is to caricature. Who wants everything and everyone to look the same? Besides modern Americans. Not anyone who takes a true interest in the world.

Are we allowed to make fun of these cultures and traditional costumes?

Is there a list somewhere of which people are ok to have fun with?

Borat outraged a whole country by making up traditions and attitudes they don't even have! No one complained here, because Americans think all other cultures are ignorant and backwards- which is funny in itself. Like Sven Hoek, Borat makes fun of both sides - the viewer and the object of his ridicule.
Oh, and thanks to Ryan G. for the Sven drawings