Popular Genres Week 7: Tintin

How decisively did Hergé address this issue (race representation and stereotyping) from The Blue Lotus on, and in what ways did it remain problematic? Why should we care today?

It is well known that Hergés works often portrayed a stereotypical view of non western cultures. Indeed, over the course of his famous Tintin comics, published between 1929 and 1976, race has been a touchy subjects for many readers because of the depictions, whether in art or speech. The most famous, or infamous, of these early Tintin stories was Tintin in the Congo. This is a controversial story for the depiction of the Congolese people as having exaggerated features such as fat lips and looking like monkeys while having poor speech skills. While this is the most obvious example of the overt racism present in the early Tintin stories, it can also be seen to varying levels in pretty much every other non-european character. The Chinese characters seen in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets are pig tailed, with their only desire being for torture. To sum up, early Tintin, in it’s depictions of other races, was largely ‘ethno-centric.’ Ethnocentrism is essentially the idea that your culture is the correct culture, while viewing every other culture through the lens of your own in a biased way. A writer for Lumen (n.d) writes that ethnocentrism is “the opinion that one’s own way of life is natural or correct. Some would simply call it cultural ignorance. Ethnocentrism means that one may see his/her own culture as the correct way of living.” We can see this process played out in Tintin in the Congo where Tintin teaches some of the Congolese people about “our country Belgium.” Belgium is the lens that Hergé wrote from and is the lens that Tintin sees the world from. Although the point that is made about some calling it cultural ignorance is a worthy one, and one that will be addressed shortly regarding Hergés effort to change the Tintin comics.

After receiving criticism for his portrayal of various characters, Hergé discovered he had to adapt his storytelling. Hergé had said after receiving such criticism that his stereotypical characters were the result of the society that he lived in. According to Wikipedia (n.d), “Hergé himself felt that his background made it impossible to avoid prejudice, stating, “I was fed the prejudices of the bourgeois society that surrounded me.” It can be surmised that he was merely ignorant and, while still being uninformed of other cultures, wrote his stories through an early twentieth century Belgian lens. While racial stereotyping can still be seen in The Blue Lotus in the Japanese character of Mitsuhirato, for the most part it had been radically changed to feature more well rounded characters who are more accurate in terms of representation. While the argument can be made that every character has exaggerated features (as do most cartoons/comics i.e, Tintins head is a circle, two dots for eyes and a button nose with a quiff for hair), the characters are far less ridiculous looking, with the exception of Mitsuhirato. No pig tails are to be seen. A prime example of the series improvements in regards to racial depiction can be seen in the character of Chang, a friend of Tintin. In fact, Chang is based on the real life Chang Chong-Jen, who was introduced to Hergé in 1934 while he was still an art student in Brussels and helped Hergé learn about Chinese culture in order to better portray the country and it’s people. The Tintin Wiki (n.d) states “The two men, both 27 years old, soon became fast friends, and both learned much from each other. The character Chang from The Blue Lotus and Tintin in Tibet, was based on Chang Chong-Jen, as it was he who taught Hergé about China and inspired him to adopt a more realistic style of writing and drawing. Chang also helped Hergé with the Chinese text used for The Blue Lotus.” Indeed, it wasn’t just the characterisation that was improved, but other points of accuracy in order to aid in reader immersion such as including Chinese text.

Of course because this change in style came after criticism, we can guess it came about by a combination of one or two things. These things being that Hergé was genuinely ignorant of other cultures and was sorry or that he was backtracking…cleaning up his act in order to avoid more controversy. This second point can be seen within The Blue Lotus itself, where Tintin talks to Chang about various misconceptions the west have regarding the Chinese, ironically talking about a few (such as pig tails) that were previously used in earlier Tintin comics. While this is an interesting read, it is clear that Hergé is trying to make amends for previous works.

However, despite Hergés genuine efforts to improve depictions of culture and race in Tintin, we should still care about the earlier works of Hergé in 2019. Yes, they were from an earlier time and yes, you can say that they are ‘just fun adventure stories’ (which is also true), but we should show concern because of the place Tintin holds in popular culture and the demographic that usually consumes these comics. Sure, (most) adults in the 21st can take Tintin with a grain of salt as a publication from nearly one hundred years ago and not be swayed by the racism within it’s pages, but children are more impressionable. When the protagonist, or ‘good guy’ is a globetrotting man who goes on adventures and saves the day, but also displays an ethnocentric attitude, children might want to imitate this. Indeed, it is written in page 35 in the Australasian Journal of Popular Culture that “The issue should be one of critical concern given the formative place Tintin occupies in popular culture, particularly in the non-United States anglophone and francophone worlds. As a cultural product, the franchise enjoys
enviable market penetration: it remains a fixture of many children’s reading
development as well as viewing pleasure,” (Mountfort, 2012). Because the Tintin books have a high status in our popular culture, we have to see how some attitudes within the books are irrelevant or dated now, and so we should still care nowadays in order to avoid this behaviour that is seen in an otherwise fun adventure story.

References: 

Lumen. (n.d). Ethnocentrism. Retrieved September 5, 2019, from

Ethnocentrism

Wikipedia. (n.d). The Adventures of Tintin. Retrieved September 5, 2019, from
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Adventures_of_Tintin#Controversy

Tintin Wiki. (n.d). Chang Chong-Jen. Retrieved September 5, 2019, from
https://tintin.fandom.com/wiki/Chang_Chong-Jen

Mountfort, P. (2012), ‘‘Yellow skin, black hair … Careful, Tintin’: Hergé and
Orientalism’, Australasian Journal of Popular Culture 1: 1, pp. 33–49, doi:
10.1386/ajpc.1.1.33_1

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