Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Short Circuit and Ben: Childhood Brownface

As a child, I absolutely loved the Short Circuit movies, to the extent I still get goosebumps whenever I hear the song 'I Need a Hero' by Bonnie Tyler. The mix of humour, action and soft sci-fi is unmistakably 80's, slotting in nicely with other childhood favourites like Flight of the Navigator and Back to the Future.


As a Pakistani, growing up in the UK, the Indian character, Ben Jabituya, heavily featured in Short Circuit 2 but also playing an important role in the original, was a major cultural milestone. Sure, he had a heavy stereotypical accent and was the designated comic relief, but he was also hyper-competent, brave, loyal and unmistakably a positive role-model.


As a child of two cultures, and familiar with the strange existence of not truly feeling at home in either, I genuinely loved the scene where Ben is repeatedly asked where he's from... originally. He, despite the strong accent, acts puzzled that his answers are not accepted.

 Newton Crosby: Where are you from, anyway?

Ben Jabituya: Bakersfield, originally.

Newton Crosby: No, I mean your ancestors.

Ben Jabituya: Oh, them. Pittsburgh.

This was a scene that my child self found hilarious but also comforting, that you could be perceivably foreign yet comfortably native appealed to me strongly.

So I thought.

You see, as an adult I recently stumbled across a disconcerting fact. The actor who played Ben is called... Fisher Stevens. And he's unambiguously, unalterably and unarguably white. As in Caucasian. Anglo-Saxon. Gora. Viliati. Without a perceivable trace of Indian, South Asian or Hindustani blood. White. As seen below.


This bothered me a lot. Suddenly that funny scene seemed less a stinging rebuke to those who believed that immigrant could not possibly belong to their host nation and more a sly wink to the fact that the actor was in act white through-and-through and wasn't this whole black-face act so funny?

This really threw the whole movie for me when rewatching it. A lot of jokes seemed less benign and I realised that a great deal of humour did rely on some pretty blunt stereotypes, a lot of things that I simply didn't pick up on as a child.

 Of course soft-racism has been a pretty consistent staple of Hollywood, the form changing over the years but the undercurrent appears to be pretty resistant to elimination. But this hurt simply because I felt tricked and taken in.

A question is raised, if I found the jokes funny the first time round, why was it suddenly unfunny when I knew the actor was white instead of Indian?

Firstly, blackface has a pretty ignoble history, Mickey Rooney's Breakfast at Tiffany's impressions are a good Hollywood example but from minstrel shows and 'gollywogs' it raises some pretty uncomfortable cultural memories.

Secondly, there has to be sharp distinction between jokes where the context is 'look at me! I'm pretending to be Indian and look at all the wacky, borderline creepy sex-pest things these people get up to!' and the kind of affectionate humour peddled by the likes of Russell Peters.

The joke is far different when your mother says, 'I'm a bit of an idiot aren't I?' than someone dressing up as your mother and proclaiming 'I'm an idiot!' .

In a movie about a robot who comes to life and fights for his right to be treated as a self-aware being of equal worth, why the hell is a major charecter played by a white man whose humour relies on stereotypes and pretty implicitly denies that race/nation a voice? Was it that inconceivable that an actor of Indian ethnicity, or at least South Asian ethnicity, play the role considering almost all of his humour derives from his race?

Many non-Jewish actors have played Jewish roles. Very few, if any, non-Jewish actors have played Jewish roles that relying on the kind of self-parodying humour that Woody Allen and co are famous for.

So thank you, Short Circuit, for screwing with my childhood memories. Also, Short Circuit 2 was rubbish anyway. I'm off to rewatch Flight of the Navigator instead.

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