"'Just when you thought racism couldn’t get any more racismer': The Treatment of Stereotypes in Drawn Together" by Éva Misits
Éva Misits is undergraduate student at the University of Szeged, Hungary. Email: email@example.com.
A few months ago, in order to enlighten my otherwise media-deprived existence, a good friend of mine treated me to a dazzling cornucopia of animated television shows in the form of blank DVDs, upon which he lovingly scribbled the titles of the shows – Duckman and Tripping the Rift, shows that could also be ideal sources for future articles. The third disk was slightly different from its comrades; he wrote down the title and added an intriguing note underneath, “Warning: abrasive!” Not being able to fathom his motive for such cautionary action, I turned my attention to this disk, and watched the first episode of Drawn Together. My friend was right. This show is not for the faint of heart.
The concept is simple enough: Drawn Together is the first animated reality television show produced in the United States, tailored after reality television show Big Brother and featuring eight randomly chosen cartoon characters who compete in challenges and live their lives under constant surveillance in the Drawn Together House. However, when we consider the possibilities of animation combined with the reality show format, what we receive is a fascinating nexus of layers of subtexts that Big Brother alone simply could not provide. Similarly to how television show South Park is a blunt (and often extremely truthful) parody of society, Drawn Together is an intellectual travesty that is constantly juggling a multitude of issues and taboos within a single episode, producing harsh criticism of stereotypes and the patriarchal, paternalist logic of society in such a way that the perpetuators of stereotypes – and subsequent hate crimes – become grotesque and abject. These ideal figures, deemed as such by society, repeatedly lose face, and those bearing the brunt of their discursive blows are somewhat redeemed for a change. I admit to finding this uncannily satisfying and intriguing – this sort of modus operandi is what compelled me to write the article itself.
In this paper, then, I analyze Drawn Together and its inner mechanism: how the show merges animation with the reality television format, and the merits that emerge from such a conflation; how the characters are formulated, structured and related to one another; and the way these characters are capable of delivering criticism about society and the underlying logic operating behind it. To illustrate my arguments, I will feature each character separately and relate to episodes within the first two seasons of Drawn Together (the third season, recently launched, is currently unavailable for analysis).
Big Brother’s Twisted Sister
We all remember the glorious moment when Big Brother first debuted in Hungary – and by glorious, I mean disastrous. Copycat television had reached a new low with reality shows (which is about to be challenged for the worse when the Hungarian equivalent of Married with Children hits the screen to commit mental rape on unsuspecting viewers everywhere), and yet we must admit that the concept of the reality show is actually an investigation-worthy subject matter in terms of surveillance, voyeurism and simulacra, to mention but a few issues. Accordingly, Big Brother has inspired a multitude of articles that subject its various facets to theoretic and scientific scrutiny (Adrejevic 2002; Hill 2002; Scannell 2002; Couldry 2002). However, if a reality show has so much to offer to theoreticians and intellectual writers, imagine the implications if said reality show is animated. The concept ‘animated reality show’ is itself an oxymoron; the concept is, to say the least, quite complex. But first, an introduction of the show itself is in order.
Drawn Together was created by David Jeser and Matt Silverstein as the world’s first animated reality show, and its first episode, Hot Tub, aired on Comedy Central on 27th October, 2004. It features eight cartoon characters as its participants, all of whom – with perhaps the exception of Spanky Ham – are satirical remakes of animated archetypes. The episodes locate there characters within a single common space – spatial changes do occur during episodes, but the Drawn Together House remains the alpha and omega of cultural and ideological exchange – that is under constant surveillance; here, they share their lives and secrets through interaction with each other and (in the form of confessions) with the audience.
We may raise certain questions at this point. Why is an animated film a worthy subject of critical analysis? What are the merits of animation merged with reality programming? Just how did this show earn the title “Big Brother’s Twisted Sister”? I shall discuss each of these issues in turn below.
Just as films have become subjected to critical analysis and even used as teaching resources (Gallos 1993; Harrington and Griffin 1990), animated film is also rapidly gaining ground in critical analysis. Champoux (2001) proposes the study of animated films in relation to organizational behavior and management concepts. South Park – which can be considered an animated film – has also been analyzed in terms of anality, masculinity and aesthetics (Kegan Gardiner 2000; Larsen 2001). Any animated film, regardless of content, may be used to investigate issues such as underlying logic, representations of interpersonal relationships, power and gender relations, realism and fantasy. It is a sight where the logic and system of rules we must live by – whether we are talking about the law of gravity or common sense – may be suspended and even discarded; where any form of exaggeration is possible, and most of all, revealing of certain conditions that cannot be as “loudly” expressed by agents that mainly operate within a rigid system of conditions. Animation is fantasy; if film is fictional and thus distances itself from reality, animation does so even more forcefully than film: it deliberately detaches itself from the system, thus imbuing itself with the power to criticize it. The possibilities are endless; and so is the material that such a medium can provide for critical analysis.
If such are the advantages of animation, what merits does it gain from merging with the reality show format? I propose that there are several.
Firstly, audience anxiety is greatly mitigated considering that whatever may happen during an animated reality show does not happen to actual human beings who are capable of experiencing both emotional distress and physical discomfort. Just as Tom may crash into the asphalt from five stories and get back on his feet when Jerry races by, animated characters can suffer, even die – without risk. This, in turn, makes them particularly obvious targets for verbal and physical abuse, and while voyeurism does not necessarily entail pleasure that is derived from witnessing acts of excessive violence and wanton cruelty, this does create a sense of sadistic satisfaction in viewers who agree to these acts when they find the victim in question deserving of such pain. Drawn Together, in this aspect, caters to viewer satisfaction: wanton sadistic action, even murder or accidental death is not uncommon in the show. In episode 213: Alzheimer’s That Ends Well, Princess Clara explicitly experiences blunt force trauma to the head no less than 5 times (and implicitly at least a dozen times) – and what is more, she does not complain at all: she is literally “asking for it”.
Secondly, an animated film requires scripting and revision. What appears to be sheer spontaneity in Big Brother is a carefully and skillfully devised script acted out as spontaneous action in Drawn Together. This way, the cartoon characters are not just mere participants who occasionally (actually, quite frequently) experience conflicts in discourse and interaction: they are veritable vehicles of expression that are capable of revealing the often sexist and racist logic that operates within the discourse. What human beings cannot safely express or address in films, fictional characters may safely say and are even invited to question their own logic and exaggerate certain ‘truths’ until they become not so much the truth as the disseminated knowledge of a hegemonic ideology at work. Drawn Together is thus able to tackle issues such as racism, sexism, ableism, obesity, abortion, hate crimes, homosexuality, homophobia, rape, abuse of power, religious bigotry, self-loathing and misogyny – often within a few minutes, and delivers criticism that is relentlessly harsh.
Thirdly, what you cannot expect people to do and experience – even those with incredibly low standards – in front of live cameras, cartoon characters can do, and will experience. Hungarian Big Brother could not entice its participants to go beyond a few sexual escapades; however, who succumbed to the logic of “scandal good” was greatly rewarded for their toils: the most sexually promiscuous participant – a woman of questionable intelligence – won the competition by a landslide. Even South Park, while it does address certain issues and produces criticism, often leaves the identities of its agents intact, positioning them as passive (Kegan Gardiner 2000). Even if Eric Cartman is criticized for his morbid obesity, it does not seem to affect him. However, since South Park is a television series that concentrates on a given story line, it is action, rather than characterization, that is most conspicuously accentuated. In Drawn Together, everything is mediated through the eight characters: their identities, their emotions are on constant display, subject to criticism, ridicule, scorn and change, and all action derives mainly from their ability or inability to cope with a certain situation. Every participant is challenged to an extensive length, often through several episodes – none of them remains exactly the same. Captain Hero is first portrayed as a sexist white heterosexual male, but through the course of later episodes, begins to question is own sexual tendencies. In fact, he is the character most commonly subjected to identity crises.
Finally, when we take into account the popularity of television shows that utilize senseless violence, sexuality and obscenity to achieve their goals, Drawn Together is also a massive extravaganza operating on these aesthetics. The fascination of the characters with violence (Captain Hero often resorts to violence, especially against women), sexual acts (Foxxy Love’s hyper-sexuality), bodily fluids and excrement (Spanky Ham’s fascination with scat) cannot be considered, however, as merely following a trend. Reality television partly entails that viewers derive voyeuristic pleasure from witnessing even the most intimate moments from bathroom breaks to bedroom activities; what Drawn Together does is exaggerate the importance and relative marketability of such visceral acts. The phrase “when people stop being polite and start getting real” actually means that the real is not pleasant, that the truth is, in a way, always something grotesque or abject. It is this fascination with the naked, abject truth that draws countless millions to reality shows and tabloids – and Drawn Together carefully conceives its characters to meet the demand.
Meet the Cast
After such lengthy introductions, let us meet the characters of the Drawn Together House. While all of them are stereotypes in one way or another, there are two kinds of character to be found among their ranks: those who perpetuate stereotypes, and those who embody and / or resist them. I will discuss each of them in these terms, relating to those episodes where they are more conspicuous and under greater scrutiny.
“I will put an end to this blasphemy before it saves the lives of countless millions!”
Princess Clara, the first female character to appear on the show, is a fairy tale princess who follows the Walt Disney tradition of feisty fairy tale heroines, resembling Ariel from The Little Mermaid, but more obviously relating to Belle from Beauty and the Beast. In fact, Clara is the Beauty and the Beast, while the story of her mentally challenged cousin “Bleh” is reminiscent of the story of Ariel when she reaches the shore in human form. I shall elaborate on these propositions below.
Princess Clara is, in her physical appearance, Beauty. She is a representative of typical Disney femininity: a petite, curved figure with gorgeous long hair who wears her purple dress (or on occasion, erotic lingerie) like a uniform (Craven 2002). By patriarchal standards, she resembles the ideal woman: beautiful and white, a fair object to behold, desirable and indeed desired by men – such as the array of handsome suitors who compete for her true love in Episode 102: Clara’s Dirty Little Secret, and Spanky Ham in 105: Dirty Pranking No. 2. However, this is all there is to Clara’s beauty and admirable aspects. Aside from her pleasant looks and mildly charming singing voice, she is Beast incarnate.
Clara’s slow transformation from tender beauty to ugly beast occurs both on a mental and physical level. As a person, she is the voice of conservatism, representing conservative values and defending morals; a role which she fulfills via excessive religious bigotry, anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and overall intolerance for everything that seems to defy the word of the Good Book. Like a “good” Christian, Clara prosecutes everyone with uncanny fervor and extreme mental density, regardless of the consequences. In episode 103: Gay Bash, she repeatedly advises homosexual housemate Xandir to either kill himself or “stop being gay”; in episode 202: Foxxy vs. the Board of Education, she seizes every opportunity to deter the fake gay marriage between Xandir and Spanky Ham, even as she is fully aware that the latter is dying and needs the marriage to obtain health insurance; and in episode 205: Clum Babies, she manages to shame Wooldoor Sockbat into abstinence from masturbation, even though Wooldoor’s semen (his “clum babies”) is capable of curing any kind of disease and was produced by the miraculous housemate to save “the lives of countless millions” (Drawn Together 205). Clara only succumbs to this logic and asks for a clum baby when she realizes that she has the consumption; in fact, most her charitable behavior is only due to an overwhelming selfishness. In episode 206: Ghostesses in the Slot Machine, for instance, Clara willingly colludes with the idea of prostitution to impress her father with an erotic dance (an expression of her oedipal desires). These and many instances dehumanize the otherwise tender-looking, lovely figure – the viewer is alienated from Clara’s selfish, ignorant person. If her immense bigotry wasn’t frightening enough, her implicitly incestuous relationship with her father, and disregard for the well-being of others makes it nearly impossible to identify with her character, thereby destabilizing it. The ideal white conservative heterosexual woman is dismantled within a few episodes; Clara leaves nothing to be desired about her person, except perhaps her body – but, unfortunately, she is also lacking in that department. Episode 102: Clara’s Dirty Little Secret reveals a hideous truth about Clara’s last bastion of beauty (her body): when she was but a child, her evil stepmother placed a curse upon her genitals, transforming her vagina into a vicious tentacle monster called the Octopussoir. This extreme case of the vagina dentata horrifies the housemates, who associate its presence with death and attempt to destroy it; however, that is not the only twist this episode has in store. When Clara learns that true love’s first kiss can break the curse, she holds a contest for handsome suitors from across the globe to try their hand (and their lips) at the Octopussoir in attempt to find the One – because heterosexual norms for relationships are like Highlander: “there can be only one”. Finally, Prince Charming arrives, and the magical moment when the transformation would occur draws ever closer – however, true love’s first kiss reveals that love’s true form is actually the vagina dentata: the prince’s penis becomes another tentacle monster, stripping the phallus of its normativity and rendering it inferior to the abject other. Clara is thrilled at this development, but the chauvinistic, hegemonic male isn’t: he eventually commits suicide once he is denied his male power. As an episode, it is quite remarkable, exactly for this displacement of power relations. The abject becomes normal; the woman becomes the exemplary figure. This triumph is, of course, momentary – Princess Clara succumbs to a vaginal makeover in episode 214: Alzheimer’s That Ends Well –, and so is Clara’s appeal. In her character, an ideal is thoroughly and brutally shattered; especially when we consider that the people she opposes are more worthy of our admiration and affection than she is, as we will see later on.
However, before we move on, I must spare a word for Clara’s “special cousin” Bleh in relation to Disney’s heterosexist, patriarchal logic. Bleh appears in episode 105: The Other Cousin as Clara’s mentally challenged cousin: a grotesque parody of the beautiful, tender Disney heroine, Bleh is constantly demonized by resentful Clara (an act which further distances her from the audience), and any chances she has for a meaningful relationship with Captain Hero are doomed to failure, even when the two collide in the classic Hollywood cliché of a cheesy romance formulating from a money bet. Bleh, however, is not distressed: it turns out she had also made a money bet. In society’s eyes, she is grotesque; but her treatment by others renders them even less desirable than she is. Every moment of Bleh’s screen time shames the audience into rethinking its position – and, I suggest, it severely criticizes Disney’s beautified and exclusivist discourse of heterosexual relationships.
“Just when you thought racism couldn’t get any more racismer.”
The second female character – and third character to be introduced – is Foxxy Love, a Black crime-solving musician tailored after Josie and the Pussycats’ very own Valerie Smith. She is a hyper-sexualized, highly eroticized female figure (which is itself a Black stereotype). Her clothing is red – a color often associated with passion –, and very revealing; her nipples show through her skimpy top throughout the series, and several episodes feature her naked (albeit censored). She is the Nola Darling to Clara’s Princess Diana: a liberal, sexually promiscuous woman, a sensual and racial other – she is the token Black character of the show, and thus an obvious target for racist commentary (hand in hand with Ling Ling).
However, even though the other housemates shower her with racist slurs, such as “…it’s not like I’m the one who made her Black” (Drawn Together 101), Foxxy Love is hardly ever shown engaging in any of the stereotypical activities associated with her Blackness. Except for her hyper-sexuality, most of her stereotypical behavior is mediated through her discourse in private confessions and in front of the housemates in the form of wicked punch lines, but never performed: we never actually see her get an abortion – perhaps the most often exercised joke about her person – or gamble (but I suggest you take a look at CSI’s Warrick Brown: if the surname “Brown” was not marked enough, he was also addicted to gambling). Her commentary is also excessive and ridiculous; it is obviously comedy fodder, such as the line “This funeral was the first I’ve been to in a long time that did not take place in my womb” (Drawn Together 201), which in turn mitigates the racist impact the joke has on Foxxy Love’s character. While two episodes, 202: Foxxy vs. the Board of Education and 208: Terms of Endearment, are specifically aimed at exploiting her Blackness, she in turn exposes the racist logic that is operating against her: Foxxy assists to the arrest of the notoriously racist Board of Education in episode 202, and, through becoming an old Negro cartoon in episode 208, she shows just how grotesque these hatefully conceived caricatures were – and still are.
Foxxy is also compensated for her constant hyper-sexualization and racist stereotyping in a way that actually earns her great admiration and respect from her housemates, and possibly the audience as well: she is the housemate that is endowed with the most common sense and practical wisdom – or the way Wooldoor Sockbat puts it, she is “the only one in the house who is not completely retarded” (Drawn Together 201). Foxxy Love acts as the head of the house: a strong, capable matriarch who constantly enlightens, motivates and mobilizes the other characters in times of need. In episode 107: Big Twist and episode 201: The One Wherein There is a Big Twist, she rallies her housemates to fight against their exploitation by the producers; in episode 102: Clara’s Dirty Little Secret, she offers them sexual education when she learns that Princess Clara does not know anything about sex and sexuality. Foxxy is the first to act and to give advice; a very practical and caring housemate who never fails to solve problems (she is a crime solving musician after all). In spite of the idealized white world and the white hegemonic figures that constantly demonize of her character, Foxxy Love is the true hero of Drawn Together.
As another complementary racist stereotype, we also have Ling Ling, an Asian trading card battle monster engineered after Pokémon’s leading character Pikachu: a tiny, adorable pet-like creature on the outside and a ferocious killing machine on the inside. However, he is not Japanese, but Chinese, and to the racially insensitive housemates (especially Spanky Ham), he represents Asians and Asian culture in general.
As far as his stereotypical attributes are concerned, the most conspicuous subject to ridicule is Ling Ling’s language use: a hodge-podge of oriental sounding gibberish translated into a broken “Engrish” in subtitles, which the housemates do not always understand, and often misinterpret. This grotesque massacre of the Chinese language and resulting rape of the English language is also coupled with another stereotypical linguistic discrepancy: Ling Ling as a Chinese person is also unable to distinguish the “l” and “r” sounds, which he repeatedly mismatches. His physical abilities show greater potential, as he is a powerful fighting machine that is more than capable of mass destruction; however, his potential strength is left untapped. In fact, while some of the housemates occasionally uttered racist remarks of Blacks being servants and slaves, it is Ling Ling, not Foxxy Love, who becomes a slave and servant to the housemates. In episode 103: Gay Bash, he becomes Spanky Ham’s forced labor in shoe production, and in other episodes he is seen completing tasks for others, such as taking tests and cleaning dishes. However, compared to the kind of racist treatment bestowed upon his person, these examples are fairly tame. Asian culture is mercilessly slaughtered by America’s melting-pot logic as Ling Ling becomes the “star” of episode 207: Super Nanny.
In a tale of intolerance towards the racial other that is viciously obscene, Ling Ling receives surgery from Wooldoor Sockbat (obviously role-playing a doctor) after he is found unable to drive a car because, as the good doctor puts it, he is biologically incapable of such a feat. The situation becomes grotesque when Wooldoor accepts the housemates’ challenge to correct Ling Ling’s biological faults by giving him round eyes through corrective surgery (which is performed with household tape no less). Ling Ling is shocked by this turn of events; however, his new condition enables him to complete the driver’s test. Upon witnessing his driving prowess and his de-racialization, white Western society immediately applauds reincorporates Ling Ling as a reformed person who was saved from his otherness through such corrective surgery. The result of this successful reincorporation is disastrous: Asians across the country, in what can only be described as a massive ethnocide, all submit themselves to corrective surgery to share Ling Ling’s success, who is effectively oblivious to the defamation of his culture until he realizes that every Asian at the Prestigious Asian Award Ceremony has had the corrective surgery, but still applaud him as a representative of Asian culture. Upon facing the consequences of his own betrayal of identity, Ling Ling removes the tape, and apologizes to his people, who then willingly bear their stigmas, and drive their cars into the theater as Ling Ling regains his cultural consciousness. Is it disturbing? Yes. Is it telltale of the intolerance of white Western culture, and of the ethnic anxiety to be accepted in a society that is unforgiving? And how. Nevertheless, Ling Ling does his best and fights for his right; and through him, the audience can take a long, hard gander at the racist disposition of Western culture towards Eastern culture. He, like Foxxy Love, is there to open our eyes.
“…if you put ‘le’ in front of a word, it does make it classy, like ‘lesbian’ – the classiest woman of them all.”
Last among the introduced characters, Captain Hero is a comic book superhero with a strong resemblance to Superman – a powerful Übermensch from planet Zebulon, whose appearance is overtly masculine, even phallic. He is the tallest housemate, with a finely toned, muscular body structure; his Captain Hero symbol is an ‘H’ in a circle with an arrow pointing slightly to the right, reminiscent of the male symbol (♂), and his genitals are highly accentuated through his clothes in every instance of his appearance (they show even when they start shrinking from steroid abuse in episode 212: The Lemon Aids Walk). At first glance, he appears to be the typical white Western heterosexual male, the defending patriarch of humanity, protector of the weak and innocent, and distributor of a (hetero)sexist logic. However, I would argue that while he does attempt to incarnate this ideal, the real embodiment of the white Western heterosexual chauvinistic male is located elsewhere. Captain Hero is incapable of fulfilling his role as the dominant male archetype for several reasons.
While his appearance and actions appear to be exaggeratedly masculine, Captain Hero actually represents hegemonic masculinity in crisis, hiding behind a fragile facade of chauvinistic self-assurance. He is the only character on the show to whom several episodes have been dedicated to explore, shatter and reconstruct his identity; he is also the character having experienced the greatest amount of emotional trauma in terms of sexuality, lack and consequent failure to appeal to the ideal image of a “manly man”, and a tragic private life. While his misogynist and homophobic remarks oppose him to women and homosexuals, he is constantly caught in hysterical attempts to gain any sense of self, even at the expense of assimilating to the “enemy”: he dresses up as a lacey bride’s maid for the fake gay marriage in episode 202: Foxxy vs. the Board of Education; he relives part of his lost time with his parents as a teenage girl in episode 203: Little Orphan Hero; he engages in sexual intercourse with Xandir in an attempt to explore his feminine side in episode 211: Xandir and Tim Sitting in a Tree; and in what I deem the most spectacular episode of Drawn Together, episode 213: A Very Special Drawn Together After School Special, he role-plays Xandir’s mother in an apron and, in an intimate scene, voluptuous lingerie.
Even though every housemate is challenged in terms of identity, Captain Hero is the one most prone to hysterics and consequent violent and/or self-destructive behavior whenever his supposed perfection is threatened or shattered. In episode 203, he learns that his parents aborted him because the doctor predicted that he would become “the lamest superhero ever” (Drawn Together 203), a knowledge which later drives him to crash his home planet into the sun, killing millions of innocent civilians. In episode 212, the housemates learn of his inability to perform well at sports, which causes him to ultimately turn to steroids. In the first two seasons, there are a total of six episodes revolving mainly around Captain Hero’s constant struggle with society’s ideological standards, and his repetitive failure and resulting frustration caused by his inability to redeem his masculinity. Interestingly, his backlash is almost always against the female housemates: his favorite subject of battering is Princess Clara, whom he punches several times out of hysterics or sheer gratification. His character grows more volatile, confused and ridiculous by the minute; he not only verifies the doctor’s prediction, but lives up to that standard in every given episode.
As we can see, while in most films and animations (even in South Park) the white Western heterosexual protagonist is usually left unchallenged and intact, safely blurting remarks and hiding behind his ideology-given naturalness, Captain Hero’s identity is repeatedly shattered. In him, we can see hegemonic masculinity weakening and lashing back at the external forces that question its power – and, as if Drawn Together wanted to send us a message of hope, the external force withstands the attack.
“Nothing reminds me of my first time like a chick crying.”
Another “illustrious” housemate is Spanky Ham, a “crass internet download” who provides scatological fascination and the crude party-animal spirit to the group. I have argued before that the prototype of the white Western heterosexual male is ascribed not to Captain Hero, but someone else; the time has come for that argument to unfold here. Spanky Ham is the white Western heterosexual chauvinistic male at his worst: an admittedly racist, sexist, ableist and self-centered individual. Nevertheless, I find it quite refreshing that such an ideal is conceived as a disgusting pig that cannot be taken seriously by his housemates for his lack of sophisticated behavior and his overindulgence in bowel movements, pornography and racism mainly targeted at Ling Ling and Asians in general.
Spanky Ham is, then, the ultimate source of self-obsessed white supremacy, acting as an oppressor, a nuisance and a delinquent to everyone in interaction. In episode 103: Gay Bash, he exploits Ling Ling as forced labor and whips him into submission when he falls out of line due to extreme fatigue; in episode 104: Requiem for a Reality Show, he bullies Wooldoor Sockbat mercilessly; and in episode 212, he entices Wooldoor to steal from a department store, which ruins the wacky critter’s life as he faces “prison” (ten minutes at the Security / Lost and Found Lounge) and after that, rejection and resentment from the outside world. However, as much as Spanky tries, his environment and those he attempts to oppress are usually able to foil his plans: in episode 103, he is beaten into a steaming pulp by the angry Asian sweatshop children, and in episode 213: A Very Special Drawn Together Afterschool Special, he role-plays a violent pimp who is gunned down mercilessly by the police.
This antagonism is occasionally countered by scenes where Spanky Ham actually offers thoughtful insights, such as his warning against the amnesia concerning racist cartoons in episode 208: Terms of Endearment, or his persuasion of the housemates to embrace themselves as worthy of their audience in episode 211. In these moments, he seems caring, almost ideal. However, while he speaks from an ideal, hegemonic position, he is not presentable enough to speak to it; the majority of his discourse and actions (especially concerning his own bodily fluids and functions) undermine any seriousness he might have as an ideal for the white Western male audience to identify with during the show. He is as deconstructed as Princess Clara and Captain Hero: incapable of evolving or maturing. Spanky Ham is doomed to always stay the same: a foe who exploits on any given occasion. That is the way of the dominant world; indeed, the way of the selfish pig.
“Can I be your side… show?”
Wooldoor Sockbat – a character most likely inspired by Spongebob Squarepants – is an interesting addition to the Drawn Together crew: a “wacky whatchamacallit” whose very existence utterly annoys everyone around him. He is basically the comic relief to a show that is itself a comedy; sharing the abilities of cartoons like Looney Toons, Wooldoor can exploit his body to amazing extents: he can split himself in two, defy the laws of gravity, keep an impressive array of objects in his derriere, and is only able to masturbate through a series of gestures including a flick of the nose, twisting the knob on his back and breaking his finger, with the result – his “clum babies” as he refers to them – crawling out of his mouth (episode 205: Clum Babies). And not only is he able to do these things; he also does them excessively and as frequently as possibly, driving his housemates insane, who, in comparison, seem almost normal. Emphasis on ‘almost’.
His weird looks, as well as his strange and spontaneous behavior position Wooldoor as a freak in the Drawn Together House. However, this assets are actually exploitable in ways that enable Wooldoor to perform a variety of compelling and contrasting roles. As he is not an obvious stereotype, his fluid identity can shift from minute to minute, take up any form, and later abandon it for another. He does have certain recurring roles though: he is often portrayed and called upon as a doctor (episode 202: Foxxy vs. The Board of Education; episode 208: Terms of Endearment; episode 214: Alzheimer’s That Ends Well), a scientist (episode 105: The Other Cousin; episode 208) and even as a priest (episode 102: Clara’s Dirty Little Secret; episode 213: A Very Special Drawn Together After School Special). Wooldoor’s enactment of these roles is based on well-known stereotypes: the omnipotence and the dependency of patients on the doctor (see Princess Clara’s excessive pursuit to be operated on again and again and again in episode 214), the God-complex associated with scientists (“You ask me if I have a God-complex? I am God.” [Drawn Together 208]), and the pedophilic tendencies of priests (at the end of episode 213, Wooldoor appears cuddling a traumatized young boy as he casually smokes a cigarette, a suspiciously post-sexual sight). In these roles, Wooldoor can be looked at as creator and creation, a conflation of genius and madman, which is itself a stereotype of scientist in Western literature, for instance (Haynes 2003). However, as interesting as his adopted positions are, the housemates generally cast him back to his role as the abject being, a monstrosity that they can berate and exploit.
This, in turn, results in constant frustration and confusion on Wooldoor’s behalf. He is a lonely, desperate individual, who attempts repeatedly to incorporate himself into the group, but failing no matter whom he tries to trust and befriend. From Princess Clara through Captain Hero to Spanky Ham, Wooldoor is easily exploited for the housemates’ own ends, as he is willing to commit the vilest acts for a sense of belonging, which he is rarely granted. In episode 104, his team injects him with Polio so they can work out an antidote for it; in episode 201: The One Wherein There Is a Big Twist, we learn that his people were wiped out in a hideous genocide reminiscent of the Holocaust, and he almost becomes such a victim himself; and in episode 209: Captain Girl, he is abused several times until (and even after) he becomes Captain Hero’s sidekick. He can never become more than a freak to the others; however, his cheerful disposition, and fight against all odds, makes this stereotype-cornucopia a character worth paying attention to.
“You guys are such assholes… and not the good kind!”
In the list of stereotypes, the token homosexual housemate is Xandir P. Wifflebottom, an elf-like fantasy video game character in revealing armor that hints at the impossible and often impractical armor video game characters are presented in to enhance their attractiveness and marketability. Xandir is a finely toned bishonen (a Japanese term for men who have a feminine complexion and appearance), always in a state of to-be-look-at-ness (Mulvey, 833-844).
Xandir’s character is a remarkable housemate in many aspects. He is a stereotype alright: effeminate gestures, skimpy outfits, matching mascara, and “feminized” activities such as knitting, nursing and reading romance novels leave no doubt about it, as well as the jokes and remarks he receives from the housemates (mostly from Spanky Ham and Captain Hero, who simply refers to Xandir as “gay friend”). He would seem almost ordinary as a stereotype; however, he is perhaps one of the most stable and articulate personalities within the Drawn Together House. Firstly, in comparison with Captain Hero, Xandir’s occasional hysterics is tame, even mundane, especially from the beginning of Season 2. Secondly, once he manages to come to terms with his sexual orientation and needs, Xandir stands as a fulfilled young adult who is self-confident and happy about himself – a state of mind which the rest of the housemates rarely experience. Thirdly, he is the most caring and loving housemate. Whether he acts on his own volition (for instance, when he marries Spanky Ham so the dying pig can obtain health insurance) or is exploited for his kind and charitable ways (such as the time Captain Hero coerces him into having sexual intercourse with his alter ego “Tim”), Xandir is always there to console, strengthen and aid his housemates. If Foxxy Love is the brain of the Drawn Together House, then Xandir is its heart, deserving of the audience’s affection for the way he relates to the other housemates.
However, the most remarkable aspect of the character is that he is the only housemate who actually evolves through his screen time. In two episodes dedicated especially to Xandir and issues of his homosexuality, Drawn Together actually guides us through his process of coming out, presenting us with comical, yet authentic stories of a young man facing possible resentment and loss of purpose upon admitting a truth that ultimately positions him as an undesirable other. These episodes are quite sensitive of the strife that many homosexuals face, and their portrayal of such strife, while overly dramatized and excessive, shows how intolerance damages and ruins lives. In episode 103: Gay Bash, upon his girlfriend’s cruel and cold rejection, Xandir attempts to commit suicide multiple times (thankfully though, he simply could not exhaust all his acquired videogame lives), and in the fantastic episode 213: A Very Special Drawn Together Afterschool Special, he is rejected by his parents as well (as portrayed by Captain Hero and Toot as Xandir’s mother and father – in that order), and driven away from home, right into the arms of a violence-prone pimp who prostitutes him and ultimately kills his father in a gun fight. This scenario, in all its disturbing glory, is very powerful: as it slowly ends, we are invited to witness the destruction that intolerance breeds, and it is a terrible sight to behold. In light of it, Xandir’s biggest merit is, perhaps, that he dares to accept himself nevertheless, thus becoming as exemplary and admirable as none of his housemates ever could be.
“Fat Camp was the saddest, darkest chapter of the tragic cook book that is my life…”
Last but not least, Toot Braunstein, a 1920s overweight sex symbol ends the line of Drawn Together characters. Derived from the character of Betty Boop, Toot is the only black-and-white cartoon among the colorful cast, wearing an outdated outfit and huge britches. Her character is a curious amalgam of several stereotypes: she is a parody of fat people and their marginalization in interpersonal relationships; of unattractive women who are deemed grotesque by today’s standards when their attempt to pursue happiness, and also of “emo” adolescents who resort to self-destructive behavior from fits of depression – a trait that is arguable attributed to Toot because of her black-and-white appearance. If we deem Wooldoor Sockbat a freak, Toot Braunstein is a real monster: a “disgusting black-and-white whale” (Drawn Together: 201) who deliberately takes the role of the resident bitch starting from the very first episode. The way she puts it: “…if I can’t be the sex symbol, I can definitely be the bitch” (Drawn Together: 101).
This act in itself would practically doom Toot as far as our sympathetic disposition is concerned. However, we shall be repeatedly reminded, from episode to episode, that she actually had no choice. Wooldoor’s observation, that “nobody likes fat chicks” (again, from the first episode) becomes the logic that prevails for the remainder of the show. As Toot is repeatedly faced with repulsion and rejection of not just her body, but also of her person, her frustration and self-loathing grows, and ultimately produces self-destructive behavior: she resorts to self-mutilation by cutting herself (an “emo” tendency) and eats compulsively. This is her visceral response to society’s rejection of a woman unable to fulfill social and ideological fantasies of the slender, gorgeous female body – in this aspect, she is probably as hysterical as Captain Hero. She frequently lapses into fits of depression, rage and alcoholism; she turns bulimic in episode 104: Requiem for a Reality Show, when she is faced with her ugliness compared to Foxxy Love’s sexy looks.
Throughout the show, Toot is constantly searching for self-esteem, but cannot seem to find a plausible ground for acquiring and maintaining a positive self-image that would enable her to function as a fulfilled person. She is constantly demonized and rejected for her morbidly obese body, which in turn makes her believe that the source that could “fill the loveless void inside of [her]” (Drawn Together: 104) is located elsewhere. However, this “elsewhere” always seems to escape her. When she tries to derive pleasure from gorging on an immense amount of food, her ultimately turns bulimic from self-repulsion; in episode 209: Captain Girl, she adopts a baby from Nicaragua hoping that becoming a mother would deliver a sense of self-worth and orientation to her life, but the results are disastrous (along the lines of Child Services coming along to save the child). She is met in every episode with failure, which is immediately attributed to her obesity – when, interestingly, animation has to adopt special measures, such as hideously drawn close-ups, extra body hair, and terrible nude scenes, to actually render Toot’s fatness grotesque. If we look at her at any instance where she is not a primary subject, she appears quite normal as far as body structure is concerned – which in turn raises questions of representation, marketability and the demonization of the undesirable other: just how abject does something have to become to make something else seem ideal? Toot’s constant victimization as an overweight and ugly female can be so unjust, and so powerfully displayed, that it is not even funny anymore. As far as stereotypes are concerned, she is probably the most tragic of them all.
Of course, I have barely scratched the surface of the intellectually stimulating bonanza that is Drawn Together. The show features so many issues and sheds different light on each of these issues so many times I simply could not be able to present them all here. However, I am not here to subject the show to total scrutiny; I am here to invite others to analysis and contemplation, to give a taste of the rich travesty that is Drawn Together, of which I have explored but a single facet, and even that facet could be subjected to further investigation. Each of its characters is a worthy subject for analysis, and its framing of important issues, of stereotypes and interaction between them, is unique even within animated film and reality show tradition. Drawn Together is unique in its approaches and its handling of stereotypes; and with its third season starting, is becoming richer in future subject matter by the hour. I dare you to consider that. I dare you to watch a house, to watch its dysfunctional, stereotypical, but refreshingly different characters, drawn together.
I wish to thank Jan Ahuis for introducing me to animated films and shows such as Drawn Together and thus making this article – and perhaps future articles – possible.
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