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You Can’t Keep That Simian Stereotype Down

• May 14, 2008 • 11:39 PM

 

A Georgia bar owner is marketing a T-shirt featuring the children’s book character Curious George above the logo ‘Obama ’08,’ and he seems shocked, just shocked, that some see a suspicious undertone (or blatant racism) in his actions.

Mike Norman of Marietta, Ga., said he was struck by the Democratic presidential candidate’s resemblance to the simian, “especially the hairline.” It’s a stretch at best — the ears might have stood a better chance of surviving scrutiny — but take a look at the image and come to your own conclusion.

His explanation hasn’t carried much weight with a handful of Georgians demonstrating outside his tavern, or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the big publishing house that has rights to the character.

The Associated Press quoted the publisher’s spokesman, Richard Blake, thusly: “Houghton Mifflin Harcourt did not nor would we ever authorize or approve this use of the Curious George character, which we find offensive and utterly out of keeping with the values Curious George represents. We are monitoring the situation and weighing all of our options.”

Mr. Norman’s Capt. Renault routine carries even less water since Miller-McCune.com spoke with some researchers recently who determined that the vision of blacks as apelike was pretty firmly lodged — consciously or unconsciously — in the minds of white Americans.

“When I first analyzed the data, I spent two days under the covers,” lead author Phillip Atiba Goff, an assistant professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, told our Tom Jacobs. “I was sick and depressed. When I left my apartment, I felt everyone looking at me would see a monkey.

“But at this point, I’m able to feel some optimism about it. Once I tell my students about this, they are able to see it and put it in perspective. Knowing about it, and being able to talk about it, positions us to better combat it.”

That sense of the simian connection as a subtext that can get by with a nod and wink at Mulligan’s Bar and Grill isn’t winning over Bill Nigut, southeast regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, for one. As he told the AP, “(Norman) can pretend he doesn’t understand what the message of that T-shirt is, but he knows full well that’s an offensive and demeaning stereotype used to insult African Americans.” That sensitivity came to the fore recently when basketball’s LeBron James appeared on the cover of Vogue in a pose some likened to a classic King Kong poster.

And it’s not just African Americans. The still-popular Tintin series of comic books by the Belgian writer and illustrator Herge include a 1931 installment that takes place in the Congo and depicts the natives as monkey-like.

Still, there is another, non-racial side of using simians as political operatives, from Ronald Reagan’s unfortunate association with Bonzo to a spate of shirts and Web sites linking George W. Bush to various non-human primates, including one Curious George. (They do share a name.)

In that sense there sits Bill Feldspar, the guy behind www.bushorchimp.com. On his site, he explains, “This is a little project I decided to start once I realized how much George W. Bush looks like a chimpanzee. I’m not a member of any political party, and I have nothing in particular against the man. I just think he kind of looks like a chimpanzee.”

Guess it’s the hairline.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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