What issues do his albums raise in terms of representation of ‘race’, and particularly ethnic and cultural stereotyping?
How decisively did Hergé address this issue from The Blue Lotus on, and in what ways did it remain problematic?
Herge’s depiction of various cultures throughout his run of the Tintin comics varied from caricatures rooted in stereotypes of the time, to depictions that showed a more informed and nuanced attempt at the representation of others. Herge’s depiction of African people in particular often comes under scrutiny. With many citing earlier works such as Tintin in the Congo as the worst in this regard. With Mountfort (2012) noting that Herge himself considered it to be one of the biggest regrets of his youth, along with the propagandistic Tintin in the land of the Soviets.
According to Mountfort (2012), part of the criticism stems from portraying the indigenous people of Africa using exaggerated physical features that included the caricature of “juju lips”. Additionally, it is also due to portraying them with characteristics that propagated ideas of racial inferiority such as Africans being inherently bloodthirsty, lazy or childlike. These depictions are also criticised due to the lack of self-awareness it shows in portraying the realities of the Congo under Belgium’s colonial rule. A regime that had reduced the Congolese population from 20 million to 10 million within a 30-year period.
Part of this can be attributed with the fact that unlike the titular protagonist of the series, Herge himself rarely travelled. Basing most of the depictions on research he had conducted at Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa (Mountfort, 2012).
It is with Tintin and the Blue Lotus that we see Herge attempt to make amends for this. The album set in China prior to Japan’s involvement in WWII, avoids depicting the Chinese in the manner Herge had done with the Congolese. Instead of using exaggerated caricatures, the Chinese are depicted with neutral physical features. Supposedly in an attempt at making them appear less alien and confronting to readers (Mountfort, 2012).
However, Herge doesn’t apply the same philosophy to the Japanese. Instead choosing to do the opposite and draw them using extremely exaggerated facial features. Not too far off from the anti-Japanese propaganda used by America during WWII. Resulting in what Lasar-Robinson referred to as the deasianisation of the Chinese, and the hyperasianisation of the Japanese. It should be noted that Herge’s attempts here came from a place of heart, with his friendship with a Chinese arts student influencing the basis of albums including the aforementioned Tintin and the Blue Lotus, as well as the recurring character of Chang (Mountfort, 2012).
There have been times when the representation of race has been outside of the control of Herge’s hands though. With later printings of Tintin in America effectively white washing certain Black characters. Due to publisher concerns that felt the original iterations would promote the idea of race mixing in a what was considered a children’s book (Mountfort, 2012).
We can assume that Herge’s earlier attempts at portraying other cultures were in large part due to not only his own ignorance, but also Belgium’s as a whole. With later albums such as Tintin in Tibet and The Blue Lotus showing that he is capable of more nuanced approaches in portraying other cultures. At the same time though, these heartfelt and informed attempts were sometimes criticised too. Showing there was always room for improvement in this area.
Mountfort, P. (2012). ‘Yellow skin, black hair … careful, Tintin’: Hergé and orientalism. Australasian Journal of Popular Culture, 1(1), 33-49. doi:10.1386/ajpc.1.1.33_1