What issues do his albums raise in terms of representation of ‘race’, and particularly ethnic and cultural stereotyping?
The Tintin comics crafted by Herge are a lens through which we can observe the racial stereotypes and discrimination that was prevalent at the time of their writing, particularly in the comics Tintin in the Congo and The Blue Lotus. The way in which Herge shows images of non-westerners is very colonial and often racist. However there is clear development over time in his views on other cultures when the comics are looked at as a whole.
The earliest comic of Tintin was Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, which included the first portrayal of a non-European character in the form of the Chinese torturers. These pony tailed, robe wearing monsters intend nothing but harm for Tintin, and played on fears that westerners had about the far east. However, these overtly racist themes that we can find in Tintin were not to be shed as Herge continued, and are most obviously portrayed in Tintin in the Congo. At the time, the Congo was a Belgian colony and so there is a lot of colonial propaganda speaking to how right the Belgians were to take over that land. “Hergé unthinkingly reproduces the dehumanizing racist stereotypes used to
justify Belgian colonialism” (Mountfort, 2012) by showing Tintin in a position of power in his interactions with the heavily caricatured natives, often showing his “superiority” through both his ability to problem solve, and by the way in which the local speak in a broken version of the language. The text shows an open disregard for the natives having any ability to govern themselves, requiring a white man to solve the most simple of disputes, and lecturing them on how they are all Belgians now. While this was the accepted norm for the society of the time, in the eyes of modern society it is overtly racist in phrasing and intent. Later, there was a remodeling of his portrayal of the Africans, though Herge’s “well intentioned portrayal of trapped African pilgrims liberated by Tintin and Haddock was to backfire” (Farr, 2011) as they still required a white savior to free them from the slave ship, and they act subservient to them as well.
The Blue Lotus shows, in some respects, a significant development from the earlier portrayals of other cultures, especially the use of accurate Chinese culture, art and language within it, primarily driven by Herge’s friendship with a young Chinese artist, on whom the character Chang was based. The attention to detail, the respect that is shown to cultural traditions and beliefs is far removed from the previously crude and offensive examples in Herge’s work. There are still some negative stereotypes shown, particularly in the offensive portrayal of the Japanese characters during the story. However, much of what we see as racist was the views of the time in which Herge lived, and so it can be easy for us to read to much into his work. While some of his work can be said to show personal beliefs as well as societal ones, to Herge “the hidden meaning and allegories that others found in Tintin’s activities” (Thompson, 2011) were of no importance; he was an artist who held his work as a story that he wished to tell, not the societal propaganda many believe it to be.
Farr, M. (2011). Tintin: the complete companion. San Francisco, CA: Last Gasp.
Mountfort, P. (2012). Herge and Orientalism. Australasian Journal of Popular Culture, 1, 33-49.
Thompson, H. (2011). Tintin: Hergé and his creation. London: John Murray