4. What issues do his albums raise in terms of representation of ‘race’, and particularly ethnic and cultural stereotyping?
Herge’s Tintin albums raise controversial and uncomfortable representations of different cultures and races – in particular, Asian and African characters in Tintin are subjected to this dehumanising characterisation. The controversial representation of those POC (people of colour) groups are illustrated through the heavy ethnic and cultural stereotyping which are evident in Herge’s early comics.
Looking at how Herge portrayed Africans in Tintin in the Congo first, there are clear colonialist and racist themes throughout the album. Historically, due to the Belgian occupation of the Congo, the population of the African nation decreased from twenty million to just ten million as a result of executions, routine torture and mutilation by the Belgians (Mountfort, 2012, pg 37). Keeping in mind that historical situation, Herge had essentially documented and reproduced the dehumanisation and paternalistic relationship between the two races in real life and into his comics. In Tintin in the Congo, Herge relied on the paternalistic imagery between Tintin and the Congolese, making the people in the Congo look like illiterates and child-like characters in need of guidance. Additionally, the African characters are drawn with exaggerated facial features such as extremely large lips. Viewing it from a modern 21st-century lens, it can be collectively agreed that Herge’s stereotypical characteristics of those African characters is racist and is a product of the time. However, it is particularly interesting that, though his depiction of POC characters is uncomfortable and racially ignorant, the Belgian Courts did not ban it. A Congolese student in Brussels filed a case claiming that Tintin in the Congo is racist, however, the Court believed that while it may be racist, Herge did not intend to incite racial hatred – which is an important criterion when deciding if something breaks Belgian’s racism laws (Reuters, 2012). While the Courts stand by their decision, the public has a different point of view entirely. In an opinion piece by The Guardian, Enright (2011) believed that Tintin in Congo shouldn’t necessarily be banned, but it should not be available for children to read. Since Tintin is a comic targeting children, Enright (2011) was concerned that children would learn incorrect opinions relating to racism, and that topics relating to historical cultural relationships should be a topic taught carefully in schools rather than by comics. So, with awful POC representations in Tintin in the Congo, The Blue Lotus could possibly signal a change in Herge’s attitudes towards other cultures and ethnicities.
In The Blue Lotus, Tintin visits China and also befriends a Chinese character named Chang. Before this was published, Herge befriended a Chinese artist in real life, allowing him to learn more about China as well as Chinese art and the Chinese socio-political situation of the time. That real-life influence was evident and also illustrated in The Blue Lotus. For example, the friendship Herge had with the Chinese artist Chang Chong-Chen, was depicted in the comic with Herge introducing a new character, Chang, to the audience. Chang had also saved Tintin near the end in this album, illustrating Chang as a hero figure rather than Tintin. So, on the surface, it does seem that there is a change in how Herge represents POC characters, but there are still some panels in the comics which suggest otherwise. For example, the Chinese characters are drawn with European-like features and the Asian features were more emphasised for the Japanese characters to make those characters seem more antagonistic. So, in order to “… make the Other palatable to a European audience by stripping it of elements that are too powerfully Other…” (Mountfort, 2012, pg 41). In other words, to humanise the Chinese characters, Herge dehumanised the Japanese characters, so in the end, one race is still viewed negatively by the audience. Therefore, while Herge was introduced to a new perspective on POC characters through his real-life friendship with Chang, it is evident that he is still in the sphere of influence concerning the paternalistic views favoured by the rest of his immediate society. So, while his friendship would temporarily take him out of that sphere of influence, Herge is still exposed to the idea that non-European societies are inferior. Thus, the result is that ambiguity of where Herge stands with POC character. Perhaps, in this case, he wasn’t sure himself of how he viewed POC due to those two conflicting ideals.
Enright, D. (2011, November 4). Tintin in the Congo should not be sold to children. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/nov/04/tintin-in-the-congo
Mountfort, P. (2012). Herge and Orientalism. Australasian Journal of Popular Culture, 1, 33-49.
Reuters. (2012, February 14). Tintin does not break racism law. Retrieved from http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/6414293/Tintin-does-not-break-racism-law