Pickaninnies and Pixels: On Race, Racism, and Cuphead at E3
We joked several times on the last episode of the podcast that this was going to be the year of the 4 at E3. We were all anticipating 2nds, 3rds, or 4ths of some series or another and that held up for the most part. One of the things that did get a lot of positive attention was the indie game Cuphead from Studio MDHR. MDHR describes Cuphead as a run and gun game in the style of 1930s cartoons, with handpainted backgrounds and original jazz scores. That all sounds awesome until you consider the nature of many of the (highly politicized) cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s.
The 1930s and 40s saw us at the height of World War II in Europe and the Great Depression in the United States. Adolf Hitler was storming through Europe and persecuting those that he saw as inferior to the master race and trying to acquire as much land and power as he could. On U.S. soil the economic scene was horribly bleak. People were laid off in droves and forced onto the public dole. African Americans were often the first to be laid off and least likely to receive public assistance and if they did it was generally at a rate lower than their Caucasian counterparts. As in most times of economic hardship and un(der)employment, minorities and immigrants are often personally scapegoated. And this was something that became obvious not only in general society, but in popular media as well. Animated shorts were ridiculously guilty of this behavior and most notable in these cases were Walt Disney Studios. The 30s saw the production of a lot of Disney animated shorts that covered political and biological/hygiene issues that have since been buried or burned by the Disney corporation.
I say all of this to say that while I recognize that the cel shaded beauty and style of Cuphead is new to games and something to be appreciated, seeing the trailer for the game this week elicited a visceral reaction in me. It made me feel physically ill. I got queasy and my head swam a bit. It was one of those moments when you are sure that your blood pressure has shot up 20 or 30 points, a true WTF moment. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I kept waiting for the next boss to be a thick-lipped, black-faced, spittle-dripping caricature of an African American man (probably holding aloft a terrified, screaming, blonde, Caucasian woman just to show what a threat he actually was). And looking back at the trailer for the game that was shown at last year’s E3 we see that the devil who is after the souls of our heroes (Cuphead and Mugman) is strangely reminiscent of caricature (NB that this year’s trailer devil was grayscale, so the color is unclear, with less pronounced lips).
The jazzy score with the almost tribal undertones calls to mind not only the savage portrayal of men of the African diaspora, but also the savage sexualization of its women. We see this in the animated short Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs from Merrie Melodies of Bugs Bunny fame (which has its own issues with racism) This seems to line up well with all of the temptations that Cuphead and Mugman find themselves faced with gambling, speakeasies, liquor, and sirens, all things reminiscent of African American culture and the Harlem Renaissance. And while the siren that we see at the end of the trailer is not African American, she is there to serve as a obstruction to reaching their goal.
While Studio MDHR was founded by two brothers from Canada, the development team of the game itself seems to be fairly diverse, hailing from both Canada and the U.S. With this kind of diversity one can really ask why no one questioned the original choice to go with an animation style that is so racially loaded (or how it made it past review at Microsoft). While you could question whether or not the team was aware of the history of the animation style that they use in Cuphead (not really because watching any of the films in question makes it apparent) it is also very telling that the devil character in the game was changed from one showing at E3 to the next. That signals that this depiction might have just been brought to their attention sometime during last year’s E3. And honestly, it’s hard to tell tell from a series of trailers, but what I am speaking from is my own reaction to the piece.
My life, my experiences, and the body that I live in makes Cuphead and its artistic style problematic to me because of all that it has come to mean in the last 85 years or so and that’s something that I just can’t let go of. Does this mean that anything that is problematic should never be used in games or other entertainment media? We’ve heard that question in other contexts before. Should rape ever be used as a plot device? Abuse of any kind? And the answer remains the same. If it is done well and with proper attention being paid to the narrative. And Cuphead just isn’t the place for it in my mind. The game threatens to draw upon racist caricatures to inform the narrative and give players a series of racism infused bosses and obstructions to justice to properly hate. Perpetuating the stereotype and, in some cases, feeding the racism that is foundational to the art style itself. As for me, I’m going to skip Cuphead (as innovative as everyone claims) because it just hits too damned close to home.