Yesterday morning my four year old daughter begged me to watch a tv program she had seen advertised earlier this week on Nickelodeon, entitled, Tak and the Power of Juju. For better or for worse, I was popular culture savvy enough to know that the characters and setting of this cartoon are based on a popular set of video games.
Here is my understanding of the show, cobbled together from my one episode and a little reading on their website: Tak (voiced by Hal Sparks of Talk Soup fame) is a teenager of indeterminate age who lives as part of the Pupununu tribe in a jungle setting including at least one volcano (“lava rock” was referred to multiple times in the episode I saw). He is a junior shaman with a cool magic staff with a jewel on top and has a best friend named Jeera who is the sassy, independent, and totally rockin’ chief’s daughter. Jeera is contrasted with the other prominent girl in the tribe (whose name I did not catch), who is depicted as obese, unnaturally strong, poorly dressed, and demonstrates her stupidity by speaking slowly and in partial sentences. Tak is contrasted with the other prominent young man of the tribe, Lok (voiced by Patrick Warburton – Puddy on Seinfeld), who thinks Tak’s magic is unmanly, and prefers to solve problems with a dash of bravado, a pinch of brutishness, and a gallon of misplaced egotism. Tak was given his magical powers earlier than traditional in the tribe, so he has trouble controlling them, and generally getting the “juju” to cooperate. He and Lok compete for the attentions of the both the chief and his daughter, while the very large girl pines for Lok and his chiseled chin.
In the short time I watched (one 15 minute episode entitled “Loser”), reciprocity, oral tradition, and public shaming as a form of social control in a small-scale society were demonstrated. There was a very interesting scene where the tribe sat in a circle around the fire listening to Lok tell the tale of one of his exploits. The details of the story shifted as he took requests from the group and adjusted his tale to keep the pleasure and attention of the chief and his daughter. It was actually a fairly interesting depiction of the flexible nature of certain types of oral traditions and folkstories, as the essential message of the tale (heroic Lok saved weak creatures from destruction by a giant lava rock with his brute strength) stayed the same, yet the speed of the rock, the creatures being rescued, and the method of the rock’s destruction were actively negotiated with the audience.
Perhaps it was the presence of Warburton’s voice (he voices Kronk in the spinoff television series The Emperor’s New School), but I was reminded of the movie The Emperor’s New Groove – a cartoon movie that took place in the Inca Empire. In this movie, the emperor, Kuzco, also a teenager, gets turned into a llama by the evil sorceress Yzma (voiced by Earth Kitt) and has to learn to be a better guy with the help of a commoner named Pacha (voiced by John Goodman). The movie was filled with deliberate historical anachronisms, as is the television show – where Kuzco attends a high school with cheerleaders and a track team – as well as a bunch of smooshing together of attributes of Mayan, Aztec, and Andean cultures that was likely done unintentionally.
So, is any publicity really better than none at all? There’s something kind of appealing about a children’s program set in an indigenous hunting and gathering society, and yet… does it actually increase awareness of the reality of such peoples in the real world? Do kids who love Kuzco end up reading about the real land of Tawantinsuyu, learning for example that “Inca” actually referred to the royal status, not the empire? Or how about Lilo and Stich? No doubt it sold a lot of aloha-wear, but was anyone drawn to a greater understanding of Native Hawaiians and the particular social and political challenges they face as a minority in their own lands?
I’m sure that everyone could add to this list with numerous examples of both animated and live action fictional depictions of historical and anthropological peoples. (I’ll admit to having been a huge fan of the show Xena, which kept its anachronistic tongue wedged firmly in its cheek, for example.) Pocahontas famously got the Disney treatment, and history buffs and Native Americans alike cringed. Interestingly enough, however, I was in Hawai’i the summer after the movie was released and found that the Native Hawaiian children in the activist group I was living with had adopted the song “Colors of the Wind” as an indigenous worldview anthem. They loved Pocahontas and they identified with her desire to share her love of the natural world with crazy capitalist caucasians. It was hard to find anything negative in their enthusiasm, except maybe the naivete.
The fear of scholars, of course, is that children and many of the adults who watch with them, will in fact take these mass-produced, heavily Americanized depictions of other people, places, and times at face value and let it go at that, never seeking out a deeper understanding. OR worse yet, can anyone tell the difference between the non-reality of the characters and situations in Monsters Inc. and the reality of for example, Amazonian tribes with shamans (which is what the Pupununu remind me of most despite their Polynesian sounding name)?
It was hard not to grimace when a comment from a student in my upper division prehistory class revealed that her first instinct was to trust the depiction of ancient Chinese culture in the movie Mulan over the data presented in our textbook. N.B. for you non-professors out there – in the business, when something like that happens and you manage not to have a psychotic break and beat the student over the head in fury it is called a “teaching moment.”
Speaking of “teaching moments,” I want to give a shout-out to my friends at Go Diego Go! on Nick Jr. for apparently creating one of their own. I had already written an ending to this blog when I went online to search for the presale code for tickets to Diego’s new live show… in the course of my search I stumbled across the parent message board and discovered this gem regarding a recent episode where Diego and his cousin go back in time to save a dinosaur: “You almost just lost a fan of Diego last Friday night with the promotion of a dinosaur rescue. No one knows how old the earth is and to state the fact that it could be over 100 million years old is just wrong…Also how do you know when dinosaurs roomed [sic] the earth it could have been with humans no one really knows when dinosaurs roomed [sic] the earth because no one has lived that long…” The individual continues, suggesting that the 9 foot tall beasts that Job fights in the Bible might have been dinosaurs. You can probably predict the rest of the content, or visit www.nickjr.com to cruise the message boards if you want to read more.
So there it is. I was already leaning to the “ (almost) any publicity of non-Western, non-modern cultures is better than none” side of the fence and this post pushed me over the edge. Maybe that Diego episode gave the child of the creationist-poster something to think about. Maybe his or her curiosity was piqued and books about geology will be snuck home form the library. Similarly, at least Mulan gave me a starting point to talk about family organization and kin groups. Lilo and Stich gave my Polynesian Cultures class an opportunity to not only discuss the controversies surrounding the modern use of the word ‘ohana but also why it might actually be realistic that one of the major figures in the characters’ lives was an agent from Child Protective Services…
So do others agree? Are you delighted when you when you see a fictional television show for children or adults set in another culture? Even if it’s filled with anachronisms, do you celebrate that at least we live in a world where such a show could even make it into the fall lineup? Or do you lament the fact that yet another time period or foreign culture has been subjected to Americanization? Is it worse for laypeople to think that the Ancient Inca were “just like us” only in different clothes and with an unnatural love for the sweet potato? Or would you prefer “they” just didn’t really think about the Inca at all if that’s how it’s going to be? And has any of this prepared us for the upcoming sitcom based on the cavemen characters from the Geico Car Insurance commercials? I guess I will just keep showing up to class and providing an alternative.