There is a need, we are being told, for pop culture’s animated icons — like Bart Simpson and the Pillsbury Doughboy — to be stripped of their squareness and “urbanized.” That is code for “black-ized,” though sometimes it’s “Latino-ized,” but almost never “Asian-ized” — because baggy pants, gold teeth, and ice around the neck are sanctioned stereotypes, while narrow eyes are not. The phenomenon isn’t new; Bugs Bunny has been thug-inated since at least the 90s and slapped on black market t-shirts and backpacks. But every time we see this yet-to-expire piece of zeitgest brought up, it makes us wonder: How come nobody is marketing bootleg homo-ized Roger Rabbits?
Because those stereotypes would, apparently, be offensive. SpongeBob SquarePants with a color-coded hanky in his pocket? Waving around glow sticks in a shirt two sizes too small? We’d take offense! And also: We probably wouldn’t buy that crap.
And yet there seems to be a consistent market for urban-ized fictional characters among people of color. Yes, white kids buy gangsta Mickey Mouse tees too, but that’s so they can radiate “black cool.” Black kids buy this gear because … it speaks to them?
Fine. We’re not going to negotiate personal style choices. But the real debate should be: If there’s a “need” to make characters more “urban,” does that actually mean there aren’t enough illustrated urban characters out there to fill the obvious pop culture appetite for them?
While SpongeBob may be one (gay stereotype) exception, and Michigan J. Frog another (black stereotype) exception, most of these characters that get urbanized are of the white variety. Bart Simpson. Family Guy‘s Stewie (himself an interesting exception, because he is gay). You don’t see these characters being white-ized, sent through the cultural stereotype machine to wear J. Crew madras shorts and sweater vests, because they’re already supposed to be white. It’s hard to imagine packaging The Jetson family even whiter. (NB: This type of thing is a whole other category.)
And yet, these characters almost never get repackaged as “gay” to make them cooler. (More effeminiate and queen-y, sure.) That’s because thug characters are cool; gay ones are not. Baby Stewie is clever in his original form; repackaged as a thug (see above) makes his wearable.
Arguably the most obviously gay character in the class, aside from the talking Family Guy child, is Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby. He has not been made cool by this phenomenon. (This is not bling.) And SpongeBob, who leans queer according to certain right-wing theologians, is wholly de-gayed in his urban representations. (Though, unintentionally, could still be seen as even gayer.)
So while there’s an absence of original blinged-out black characters (or, for that matter, non-blinged-out), there’s also a serious lacking in animated gay characters. The difference, though, is that kids expect the current roster of Garfields, Bart Simpsons, and Miss Piggys to be made cool via urbanization, but they would never wear a homo-ized Charlie Brown tee. Of this, we’re certain.