By Jonathan Cortez Jr.
As a child I was an avid watcher of cartoons. I would wake up early on Saturdays to catch the newest episodes of some of my favorite shows, especially Pokémon. To this day, I still have a soft spot for Pokémon since some of my most prevalent childhood memories involved Pokémon in some form. Funnily, Pokémon are technically the reason I ever first spoke to my best friends when we were kids. We shared the love of Pokémon with one another. Yet my favorite childhood cartoon also features several racist caricatures.
Growing up there were 151 Pokémon, but today there are 721. And one of the most controversial Pokémon is Pokémon #124, Jynx. Jynx are bipedal humanoid Pokémon. They appear as women (and can only be female) wearing red dresses with long blonde hair. They have human like arms and hands and large pink lips. The current iteration of Jynx possess purple skin, but in the original series they had black skin.
The humanoid appearance with black skin and large lips give the impression that Jynx may actually be a caricature of a black woman. In 2000, following the airing of an episode of Pokémon which debuted Jynx called Holiday Hi-Jynx, Carole Boston Weatherford published an article criticizing Jynx for being a negative stereotype. Weatherford, who is an author and cultural critic, stated “–Jynx resembles an overweight drag queen incarnation of Little Black Sambo (Weatherford).”
As we learned in class, sambo is a caricature of African Americans which depict them as childlike and lazy. This image of African Americans arrived towards the end of slavery, and was used to support the use of Black Codes. This image, along with others, was used to control and oppress the African American people (Pittman). Weatherford argues “—there is no question about this Pokémon character. Jynx clearly denigrates African Americans, particularly black women (Weatherford, Politically Incorrect Pokémon).”
Since the publication of Weatherford’s article Game Freak, the Japanese game development company responsible for Pokémon, has revised Jynx into her modern purple design (Bulbapedia, Pokémon controversy). Additionally another episode which featured Jynx was removed from circulation and Jynx was recolored purple in her debut episode (Bulbapedia, Pokémon controversy). Though Game Freak has taken steps to reduce the similarity between Jynx and African Americans, there are many who continue to make that comparison. An image comparing Nicki Minaj and Jynx (see image to the left) has been shared throughout social media with US Weekly posting the image on their website (Weekly).
Jynx’s use as an African American caricature has since been questioned since many believe her to be a mixture of a Viking woman (to explain her Ice-type) and the Japanese fashion trend of ganguro (Bulbapedia, Jynx). Ganguro began as a way to to go against the traditional concept of Japanese beauty which consisted of pale skin, dark hair, and neutral makeup tones. Japanese women participating in ganguro would tan their skin, bleach their hair, and use colorful makeup (Mowbray). Additionally many believe Jynx’s design to have originated from Yama-uba, a creature from Japanese folklore that wore a red kimono, could control the snow, and had large lips and dark skin (Patrick).
But Pokémon’s racism does not stop at their creatures, but extends into their human characters as well. A prominent example, which I had never noticed as a child, is the character Brock (see image to the right). Brock was a main character of the show. Of the three main characters of the original TV series, Brock was of a dark complexion. His eyes were of an extreme chinky nature, appearing closed and is an obvious stereotype of Asians.
Brock had nine younger siblings and was forced to take care of them at the age of 15 (see image to the left). In the original series, they never mentioned their mother but it is revealed that their father had abandoned Brock and his siblings. We learned in Black Sexual Politics that heterosexual African American men found it difficult to challenge the prevalent ideals of masculinity and femininity which caused them to either run away from their familial responsibilities or attempted to live in ways to prevent disgracing their race (Collins 73).
The stereotype of black men abandoning their families grew out of the female-headed households. We later learned that “the absence of black fathers from families across America isn’t simply a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time watching Sports Center (Alexander).” Instead it is due to the institutional racism implemented which incarcerates a third of African American men in the United States. Yet for whatever reason Pokémon decided that the dark complexioned father should abandon his ten children in the show for his own personal goals, leaving the eldest to take care of the youngest.
More recently, Pokémon’s 5th Generation of video games named Black and White, take place on a region named Unova. Unova is based heavily on the United States and feature more dark skinned characters. It also is home to several black characters. The first dark skinned character we meet, who eventually becomes a main character of the TV show, is Iris (see image to the right). Iris is shown as wild compared to many other characters seen throughout the show. She constantly swings on vines and she keeps her Pokémon in her hair instead of inside a Pokéball like Pokémon trainers do. The “wild” characterization of Iris reminds me of how many white people believed that African Americans would revert back to their savage ways without the guidance of the white people.
And a final example is of the Gym Leader Lenora (see image to the left). Lenora is a black woman from Unova. Lenora’s design is very similar to the mammy caricature. They are both black women wearing a handkerchief on their heads to keep their hair up and wear aprons. The mammy caricature asexualizes black women who worked as domestics. They are docile and loyal to their white bosses but become controlling of their own families. Eventually because of the design similarities to one another, Lenora’s artwork was changed to having her apron being worn like a cape in order to diminish her similarity to mammy. And in the English version of the show, her apron was completely removed (Bulbapedia, Pokémon controversy).
The film Ethnic Notions showed examples of how black caricatures were presented in popular media. One example that stuck out was of Looney Toons doing black face (see image to the right) (Riggs). But for me, it felt like things like that would never happen now since those cartoons were from the 1930’s. Yet Pokémon created a character similar to the mammy caricature and debuted her on television in 2010 (Bulbapedia, BW014).
It is honestly quite shocking to think that racist tones are still being produced in modern media, especially those geared towards children. Pokémon is a show that I grew up with and I’m sure many others have as well. This is a wakeup call to show just how prevalent racism is within our society, even in 2015. The caricatures of African Americans are shown constantly throughout popular media, including programs and video games developed for children. I would hope that as more time passes, hopefully not too much, there will be fewer and fewer Jynxs, and Lenoras created for the world to see.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. The New Press, 2010. PDF.
Bulbapedia. BW014. n.d. Website. 7 December 2015. <http://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/BW014>.
—. Holiday Hi-Jynx. n.d. Website. <http://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/Holiday_Hi-Jynx>.
—. Jynx. n.d. Website. 9 December 2015. <http://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/Jynx_(Pok%C3%A9mon)>.
—. Pokémon controversy. n.d. Website. <http://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/Pok%C3%A9mon_controversy>.
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. Routledge, 2005. PDF.
Ethnic Notions. Dir. Marlon Riggs. 1987. Film.
Game Theory: Pokemon Racism, Jynx Justified. Perf. Matthew Patrick. 2012. YouTube. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8X3l_Tt8VE>.
Mowbray, Nicole. Japanese girls choose whiter shade of pale . 3 Aprol 2004. Website. 6 December 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/apr/04/japan.nicolemowbray>.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. “Ethnic Notions.” African-American Studies 101. Seattle: University of Washington, 3 December 2015. Lecture.
Weatherford, Carole Boston. Japan’s bigoted exports to kids. 4 May 2000. 5 December 2015.
—. “Politically Incorrect Pokémon.” 5 January 2000. Dogasu’s Backpack. 5 December 2015. <http://dogasu.bulbagarden.net/bashing/racist_jynx_01.html>.
Weekly, US. Celebrities Who Look Like Pokemon. 15 November 2013. 6 December 2015. <http://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-news/pictures/celebrities-who-look-like-pokemon-20131211/33872>.