On Pirates of Dark Water and race

For the ~15 people who still read this site ;), this may or may not stir up a hornet’s nest of trouble, as it has done in other places. But it’s a fairly active topic of discussion in other circles, and thanks to the Racebending movement and fascinating and apt blogs like Racialicious and Sociological Images, I’ve become more aware of these issues, and really feel the need to say something.

On several recent occasions, I’ve noticed PoDW fanart (illustrated or created with doll-making software or through other means) where the characters were depicted with light, or lighter, skin.

This is problematic.

The show’s protagonists, as well as many of the antagonists and supporting characters, are dark-skinned. This is one of the many things that has made the show so unique: a serious animated show aimed at teenagers and adults, with real plot and character development, not to mention a cast of characters that is not white or a stereotypical image of a minority.

Pretty much every single character has a subtly different skin tone, and (with the exception of Jenna and an occasional background character) all those skin tones are unmistakably brown! How cool is that? As a result, PoDW brilliantly avoids the horrid “light=good, dark=bad” stereotypes that have pervaded popular media. (If you haven’t noticed it, just look at your average action-adventure/fantasy flick, and pay attention to what roles the dark-skinned characters play. Really egregious examples: the live-action “The Last Airbender,” “Prince of Persia,” even “Back to the Future” (the Libyans, who are Hispanic and spouting gibberish instead of Arabic), and the “Indiana Jones” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies and others that feature random shots of dark-skinned “untamed savages” randomly attacking the good (and typically white) heroes. Once you start seeing it, you can’t unsee it…and that’s a good thing, because awareness is the first step in making lasting change happen.)

The biggest counterargument, especially in these “racebending/whitewashing” arguments around fantasy series, is that you can’t claim that the characters actually are Asian or Middle-Eastern, because the races and ethnicities in our world don’t exist in theirs.

Yes, races as they exist in our world do not exist in the PoDW universe. However, you can’t deny the ethnic influences throughout the PoDW universe, put there by the people who created this world. Fans I’ve talked to over the years, and fans attempting to match up actors with the characters, have referred to them as Latin, Jamaican, East Asian, Indian/South Asian, Turkish/Middle Eastern, and more. And there’s a reason for that–they have recognizable features and character/clothing designs that derive directly from those cultures. Even the conceptual artist behind the show, Floro Dery, attested that Tula’s clothing design was derived from Turkish influences.

In our society, whiteness has come to be the “default” skin tone. While whites are the majority population in the west, that’s an unfortunate mentality. I mean, I’m American, and I’m brown: a 100% Indian-American female, but I’ll often see “nude” and “natural” as labels for a default skin tone that’s markedly lighter than what is physically the “nude” and “natural” skin tone that describes my coffee-colored skin.

Also, how cool is it to have strong, relatable characters in a world where skin tone not only does not matter, but is unmistakably diverse? I really related to Tula growing up, because she bore a pretty strong resemblance to me and was a fantastic role model for me (well, minus the whole “double-crossing you guys for my own cause” thing, but it all worked out in the end!). And while I also related to light-skinned characters, I definitely noticed when there were characters that Looked Like Me.

It’s so easy for people to play this all off as just being fantasy, as just being random crap on TV and magazines…but when it’s everywhere, when it’s all you see, a part of you can’t help but grasp onto it and start believing and internalizing it. And it is everywhere–again, check out the above blogs for example after damning example. The subtle racism that plays into people subconsciously favoring light skin is really dangerous, in part because it’s just not questioned and it’s accepted blindly, and it leads to a lot of subconscious perceptions and actions that people don’t even realize are fueled by societally-induced racist tendencies.

Anyway, long story short: detail is important. And it’s not cool to default “ambiguous” (or even unambiguous) characters to white, or even to assume that light-skinned characters look “better” than dark-skinned ones. It doesn’t matter if they’re real or fictitious, live-action or animated: that still perpetuates a “light skin is better than dark skin” mentality that is not acceptable.

So, yeah. The characters have dark skin. Please respect that trait as being part of who they are, and please depict them appropriately.

Thanks for reading. 🙂

– Smitha, your cheerful female brown crusader for equality and goodwill for all

13 Responses to “On Pirates of Dark Water and race

  • Hello, Andorus I think you are awesome for making this website on such a wonderful show from many a childhood! I commend you for stepping out on something not many people think about, and should. Alas, I’m sorry if I have been guilty of misrepresenting characters at times, I think many people don’t mean to send a hurtful message, they just love the characters for their role in the story and we all make mistakes, especially if you’re an artist or a writer…it’s really not easy to get all the details right. I love PoDW because it was one of the now very few shows which still has appeal today. Ren, Tula, Ioz, and Niddler-these heroes you can love because they are not defined by stereotypes, and even challenge them. I’ve noticed how some think Niddler is all about food but I think he was especially unique in that his people were once enslaved.

    Racism exists in media and the media is pressured by it’s audience, so thus you get the copycatted shows with little or no positive message-value because there’s money in selling to a certain fanbase…yes. The best thing you can do to stop hate is to teach someone with a new way of thinking. If the attitudes of people in general showed a more friendly and united perspective on other countries and cultures instead of saying things like…”oh that tragedy is going on in THAT part of the world, it doesn’t effect us at ALL…” we’d have a more diverse and supportive culture. Encouraging someone to think, to learn, to grow in what little ways we can helps and what a better way to stand up for what we believe in-inspiration is a big part of that.

    Thank you and keep spirit. =)

  • After exploring some of this stuff more and in regards to my previous comment with respect to Smitha and the original creators: Pirates of Dark Water is a show anyone should be able to participate and take part in, whether it’s fandom is Asian/African/Spanish/Caucasian/Indian, and so forth. From a realist perspective, Segregation tears us apart no matter where or what background you come from and I would hate to see that happen to something special like Pirates of Dark Water.

    I want to clarify – if you are trying to spread the word about the show (like I do at times) I feel it’s a little different than trying to bend the characters of the show into something they are not. The thing that upsets me personally about fandoms today is you can take a good series like Avatar:The Last Airbender and you will get tons of fans who disregard the meaning behind the show and are more concerned with the powers of the characters, or the weaponry. This is true in every fandom from Harry Potter to Zelda and it has not so much to do with to do with any one fanbase that wants more challenging entertainment but the attitudes we’re being taught in any forms of media. It’s this love of flashiness and shallowness in the plot that doesn’t allow people to take a thinking mind to the things they see and it’s something we’re all to blame for in some way. The problem is some people simply don’t care at all anymore, about anything-including the events that effect us overseas, (I got that “doesn’t effect us at ALL” quote from some unnamed people in my life!) and it’s a bigger generational problem than any one fandom. It would be really nice if someone could have a representative who would talk these things over with the major networks and help them to see some of these problems, until then this has my full support. Also, Mrs. Smitha, I am so sorry for calling you Andorus-I got so used to seeing the name on your website that I called you otherwise. ^^;

  • The last thing to be said is, even if we’re not directly responsible for discrimination or bias, our hearts and prayers should go to having a more open world. Smitha, I also have to thank for inspiring to me to be less selfish and to think about the things I say and do. There are many negative acts in the world that cause much grief but there are just as many positive actions we can do to change it, it’s not something that should be forgotten.

  • Long time lurker, great website! Absolutely spot on with your viewpoint too! As I kid, I was always MORE intrigued that the main characters had a different style to them. I also considered Ren to be (Mandarin?) or possibly some king of South Eastern Asian in origin. I agree with pretty much your entire assessment, great website and keep up the good work!

  • Smitha, I apologize for leaving so many comments. I just want to let you know one of your links is broken. Should racebending.org, be racebending.com?

    Also, is there a better way to go about fighting this, besides reposting on Facebook? Group or something that will let the major networks know the nitty-gritty on why this is bad? (The ones that do care, considering what was done with the Avatar movie despite protest) I really love what you’re doing here but with the interest in Pirates of Dark Water waning I imagine a lot of people won’t see this or even know why it’s being done. (It took me a bit to truly understand what you were getting at in the beginning. Sorry about that.) Thank you again for opening my eyes on this.

  • First of all, great site. I’ve checked it on and off through the years and am very excited to see you’re still updating. And this update in particular is very important and poignant.

    Second- I can’t agree more with your post. In animation, you’re creating a setting and cast of characters- everything from scratch. The medium allows you take control over details that a live action production couldn’t dream of toying with. If you read up on the productions of Pixar movies, for example, you’ll see that there is artistic intention behind a lot of seemingly invisible decisions. And while many TV cartoons are not afforded the time, nor the money, to ponder tiny details, (I’m sure that shows like Street Sharks were not as concerned with mise-en-scène as with the sale of action figures) the character designs are a giant detail. For these reasons, I’m sure that creating a diverse cast of characters for PoDW was a deliberate decision. One with the intention of creating a more inclusive show that bucked traditional hero/villain roles. The whitewashing of these decisions is a disservice to the show, and is giving in to the subtle racism that pervades society.

    Keep up the good work. It was great to read how the show affected you on a personal level as an Indian American. And also, no offense to any Street Sharks fans. I never really watched the show. I was more of a TMNT fan.

  • Sarah: thank you for your heartfelt and enthusiastic comments. 🙂 And please, feel free to keep commenting to your heart’s content! My hope with posting this was that at least one person would have an “oh…wait…wow” moment, as you did. It was a long time coming for me, too, and it’s one of those realizations that continues to unfold and evolve as you look at pretty much everything around you with this new lens now. But please don’t feel plagued with guilt–again, awareness is the first step to positive and lasting change. 🙂

    Thanks for the heads-up about the broken link–I’ll fix it soon!

    To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to reach a massive audience with this. My aim with this post was to propagate the same message that far better established groups, like Racialicious and Racebending, have already been putting out there. But are you asking about spreading this message of racial awareness, or spreading awareness of whitewashing in PoDW specifically? There isn’t a centralized fandom by any means, as we all know, and I’d wager that most fans of the show haven’t visited this site. I mean, I’m very appreciative of anybody wanting to repost anything I’ve written on Facebook or elsewhere (I’m no longer on Facebook myself; I deactivated my profile 2 months ago). But I don’t know the best way to spread this message, besides calling out these issues repeatedly until others take notice. Pushing them on others and taking a strongly activist stance would most likely backfire–presenting them in a neutral, public way so people can take what they will is probably the most innocuous way to do it.

    Alex and Ben: thanks so much for your comments. 🙂 (I do have to wonder how race pervades shows that don’t have human characters…TMNT did have strong Japanese themes, at least. But I wonder if color somehow plays a role in other series, like in favoring light-colored characters over dark-colored ones, whether or not they have human flesh tones. And there I go, taking a totally tongue-in-cheek comment and making it all serious…)

    Cheers, everyone! I really appreciate that you understood what I was trying to say with this.

  • PS: Ben, I love the Digital Pirates of Dark Water series. 🙂 I thought I recognized your style straightaway from your index page illustration. It’s cool to finally “meet” you!

  • Smitha, your message did have impact. I’m sorry if my words were confusing. I originally thought you were talking about racism in Pirates of Dark Water, which really threw me for a loop. I always thought Tula had more Asian and Middle-Eastern influences and I always drew her appropriately. The fact that anyone would intentionally turn something so great into something it was definitely not…just never occurred to me before you brought it up. So thank you for sharing it with me so I can think about it in the future. I love Pirates of Dark Water, and I have such great respect for you for loving the show enough to provide resources on it. I too am a long time lurker, sorry for any discomfort I may have caused.

    I am honored to finally “meet” you too. I think it’s really lovely Tula inspired you as a proud Indian-American. I’ve always been interested in exploring cultures and customs around the world, one of the reasons I love PoDW is because it is such a diverse story with believable characters. I admire you for your dedication, and I wish more creators would care about the fans of the imaginative worlds they have put into works. I’ve found writing helps me find a better focus on my own life and aspire for something new, so I enjoy honest input on all of my work. I love how strong you are on the issue of race, but not pushy. I’ve always had a dream all the people in the world could join in one big huggy-reunion! Maybe someday…

  • I always thought this was one of the many little things that made the show extraordinary. Both that so much of the cast (including, I think, the main character) were nonwhite and that it was so casual about it, to the point of literally never coming up.

    With every inexplicably revived franchise that hits the theaters, I’ve wondered “why can’t they revive PoDW instead!?” But if that would cause it to get the racebending treatment, that might be worse than leaving it as it is.

  • Gotta say, I think this is reading way too far into it. I mean, the fact that Back To The Future didn’t hire LIbyan actors and had them speak Libyan doesn’t make it a racist movie. I mean…Biff is white as wonderbread and probably the biggest asshole in movies. He’s racist, he rapes women, he runs over people. The black guys at the end, I mean. WHo gives a damn? Not to mention the toys were made overseas. I just invested way too much thought into this. Much respect.

  • Thanks for the comment, Jesse. 🙂

    So to clarify, I’m not saying that BTTF is inherently a racist movie. (Of course Biff is the asshole antagonist of the film–no question there!) But I’m calling out subtle usage of things like that scene with the Libyans and saying that’s what’s not cool. My issue isn’t that they’re using non-Libyan actors and not actually speaking Arabic; it’s the fact that those characters are nothing but a stereotype and caricature, and that whole plot point of two wannabe bombers killing Doc could have existed without bringing race into it, and without caricaturizing said race.

    It seems like I’m reading a lot into it, but really, I’m not. It’s these subtle images that are the most insidious–the obvious egregious ones are easy to decry, but little things like this sneak under people’s radars and can sometimes subtly influence their perceptions. And the fact that people even thought to make and use images like this is very problematic in and of itself.

  • I am hoping that they will finish the story one day. But I only beg that they keep same animation style and not resort to anime. Not that i dont like it, I just feel that some cartoons should stay in their true form

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