What Racism In Cuphead? It’s Actually Progressive.

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  • 09/21/2022

Cuphead, the video game inspired by Fleischer Studios animation of the 1920s, is being adapted by Netflix into an animated series.

News of the development was accompanied by accusations of racism, which have cast a shadow over the platformer’s popularity even prior to its release in 2017.

“We went into the game knowing that what we wanted from the era was the technical, artistic merit, while leaving all the garbage behind."

Popular video games are often the subject of purity policing by the woke media. Much like Cyberpunk 2077, Studio MDHR’s Cuphead is no exception.

In a now-deleted 2017 interview, Rolling Stone magazine questioned the game’s lead artist and producer Maja Moldenhauer about the racist history of its old-timey aesthetic.

“It’s just visuals and that’s about it,” said Moldenhauer. “Anything else happening in that era we’re not versed in it.”

Lead designer Chad Moldenhauer made similar remarks to Kotaku. “We went into the game knowing that what we wanted from the era was the technical, artistic merit, while leaving all the garbage behind,” he said. “You can find it in everything from the era: film, advertisement, everything. We wanted to take the style but make it our own. We tried to focus on our likes and dislikes and steer away from any of that.”

The explanation was simple enough for gamers. And anyone who can appreciate Fleischer Studios’ rotoscoped animation, which has long since been cast aside for cheaper animation, was excited to see what the hand-drawn game had to offer. Cuphead remains one of the highest user-rated games on both the PC and console.

[caption id="attachment_179435" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Cuphead Cuphead Screenshot[/caption]


Condemnation of Cuphead isn’t limited to the seemingly racist associations of early 20th century animation, but of Studio MDHR’s refusal to properly address the criticism levied against their use of the style. The game and its creators are expected to bear the burden of history on their backs.

In a write-up of the Netflix series, The Cuphead Show, VICE’s Nicole Carpenter cites essayist Yussef Cole and accuses Studio MDHR of “whitewashing the racist history of Fleischer-style art.”

Many of the complaints against the game came to the fore following the publication of Cole's now widely-publicized (at least in the gaming press) essay, in which he argues that Cuphead’s jazz-infused imagery borrows from characters that were originally designed by racist animators to poke fun at African-American culture.

Cole explains that one of the first artists to imprint himself on history with the animation style was James Stuart Blackton, who made live animations during vaudeville shows. The animator often transformed words like “Coon” and “Cohen,” both racialist slurs, into caricatures of African American and Jewish stereotypes. The animation of the early 20th century was undeniably fraught with racist connotations.

But do the creators of Cuphead have any reason to apologize for using the art style?

[caption id="attachment_179432" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Cuphead Screenshot, racism and bigotry Cuphead Screenshot[/caption]


Art and animation by the New York-based Fleischer brothers, whose work Cuphead draws direct inspiration from, veered away from its racist predecessors and contemporaries – at least in terms of content.

Their cartoons flew in the face of Jim Crow segregation laws and were banned in the South.

Born in Poland, Max and Dave Fleischer emigrated to the United States before the turn of the 20th century with the rest of their family. They grew up in a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, attended school, and did their time as cartoonists. Having been exposed to vaudeville, the experience provided the brothers with comedic timing and a sense of humor that may seem alien to the humorless scolds who staff publications like Kotaku and Vice.

They experimented with rotoscope animation. Before long, the duo became pioneers in the field, defining animation for the rest of the century with hits like Popeye the Sailor, Superman, and Betty Boop. They lived the American dream, and their work impacted American culture in ways that continues to reverberate– and Cuphead’s just one example of the Fleischers’ timeless impact.

Drawing from their backgrounds, much of Fleischer Studios’ feature films helped to popularize Jewish culture (and sense of humor) in America. The studio introduced American (and international) audiences to African American art through Betty Boop, who served as a promotional vehicle for black jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Don Redman, and Cab Calloway, with whom the Fleischers actively collaborated.

Their cartoons flew in the face of Jim Crow segregation laws and were banned in the South.

The implementation of the Hays Code in 1934 would eventually impact the production of such collaborations due to its prohibition on miscegenation and risqué (for the era) content, but the Fleischers’ legacy remained.

It’s infuriating that their work is now being recast as racist by terminally woke writers and publications. As evinced by the deluge of complaints on social media and op-eds about Cuphead, the perpetually offended know nothing of the Fleischers’ brave – and dare I say it progressive – endeavors to make accessible both Jewish and African American art and culture to the majority white audience in the early 20th century.

Racists may have looked upon the animations with disdain, but cartoons’ use of jazz – an otherwise unpalatable cacophony of noise to the untrained Anglo American ear – brought the genre mass acceptance. America had come to collectively, and unironically decide that “jazz is good, actually.”

[caption id="attachment_179433" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Cuphead Screenshot video game Cuphead Screenshot[/caption]


It’s true that some cartoons like Friz Freleng’s 1934 short, Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule, depict black characters in minstrel fashion. Such creations are problematic when viewed through a contemporary lens, but the widely adopted animation style is no reason to condemn all content created with the technique.

Members of entertainment journalism’s woke mafia make a conscious effort to offended by an otherwise innocuous piece of entertainment

To condemn the art form for some of its offspring is to condemn everything that came thereafter, which would include every rotoscoped Disney and Warner Bros. cartoon all the way up to the present.

"By sanitizing its source material and presenting only the ostensibly inoffensive bits, Studio MDHR ignores the context and history of the aesthetic it so faithfully replicates,” concluded Cole in his rebuke of Cuphead. “Playing as a black person, ever aware of the way we have historically been, and continue to be, depicted in all kinds of media, I don’t quite have that luxury. Instead, I see a game that’s haunted by ghosts; not those confined to its macabre boss fights, but the specter of black culture, appropriated first by the minstrel set then by the Fleischers, Disney and others – twisted into the caricatures that have helped define American cartoons for the better part of a century."

Offense is taken, not given – and Cole, along with the vocal minority of those who cite his work as the gospel truth – speak only for themselves. It is an effort to virtue signal. Members of entertainment journalism’s woke mafia make a conscious effort to offended by an otherwise innocuous piece of entertainment beloved by millions of people from a multitude of backgrounds to whom thoughts of “is this racist?” do not even cross their minds.

Cuphead, which notably isn’t racist, was not created in the 1930s, nor do its creators share the regressive views of some of their 20th century predecessors. Contrary to VICE’s statement that “it’s unclear how or if Netflix will contend with or address any implications from art of the era,” the creators at Studio MDHR owe no one an explanation for their work.

A picture may be worth a thousand words – Fleischer Studios' effort to destigmatize, normalize, and popularize Jewish and black culture speaks volumes.

Ian Miles Cheong is the managing editor of Human Events



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