80s Pop Culture Reared Me to See Myself as a Monkey

My husband says that my vast knowledge of obscure cartoons is evidence of my latchkey upbringing.

“I had parents who loved and nurtured me, and made sure they were home with me after school. Whereas as YOU had television.” He was joking, but there was an element of seriousness to his assertion. Marshall (my husband) truly is horrified that I consumed so much TV as a child.

On the other hand, I pity him. My husband has no working knowledge of the Gobots or their mission; has never heard of the Street Frogs OR the Tiger Sharks; and prior to this particular conversation, was oblivious to the existence of the Get Along Gang. That’s a lot of quality 80s animation to have missed out on, so I am compelled to reflect on his childhood with sadness on his behalf. Besides, I wasn’t a latchkey kid all the time. Some days I would be taken to Mrs. Scott’s house after school. She was a septuagenarian widow who would feed me Spaghetti-O’s and instruct me to watch Scooby Doo while she reclined in the sun chewing and spitting tobacco juice in the company of her faithful dog, Queenie. So yeah, I had adult supervision.

Sometimes.

Naturally I was curious if any of my friends remembered the Get Along Gang and as expected, my nerd friends did not disappoint. I’m proud to announce that two other people besides me harbor fond memories of Montgomery Moose and his merry band of do-gooder sidekicks. And naturally, as these conversations tend to do, another query sent us down a separate path on memory lane.

“What about that racist little cartoon called Monchichis?” (This was the Woke Nerd asking. Artist Nerd had bowed out of the conversation at this point.)

“I actually liked the Monchichis,” I replied. “I liked them because they had afros that looked like mine. I connected with them.”

Woke Nerd was aghast. I completely understood why.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Monchichis, they are a race of anthropomorphic monkeys who live in Monchia. They were a completely autonomous race of beings that developed their own technology and functioned under an orderly societal structure based on birth order. In other words, the oldest was in charge – and as the eldest child in my family, that power structure and hierarchy appealed to me. The Monchichis were frequently disturbed by another race of blue/black monkey anthropomorps who were less technologically – and therefore mentally – advanced.

Nowhere else on television was there a community of animated beings that shared traits and features similar to mine that had complete autonomy over their lives. In every other cartoon I watched, there were no brown/Black girls in positions of leadership.

  • Jem
  • Rainbow Bright
  • She-Ra
  • Nobody

Furthermore, all anthropomorphic characters were, by default, patterned after white characteristics, features and behaviors. The only time an anthropomorph exhibited Black characteristics if there was a deliberate attempt to depict that particular character was “Black”.

For example: In Thunder Cats, Cheetara is obviously a blond bombshell, while Panthro is portrayed with what would generally be considered “Black features”, down to his wide nose, reverberating voice and bald head. Furthermore, Panthro – like his human counterpart Roadblock on GI Joe – is a loner…A little unhinged and unpredictable, never completely integrated into the group but dedicated to the cause nevertheless. He has freedom to make decisions, but it only extends so far: Specifically as far as his garage or wherever it is he keeps the Thunder Tank. And as excellent as Panthro, Roadblock and Shana Elmsford (Jem) may be at their individual tasks, they will never be free to lead the multi-ethnic/ majority white group that forms their community/clique.

In response to my question about where else on 80s television one might find examples of totally isolated Black animated characters that had complete sovereignty over the affairs of their lives, Woke Nerd offered Fat Albert and his friends. But even he was quick to admit that they hung around Fred Sanford’s junkyard and wore ski masks in broad daylight, and therefore weren’t really positive or powerful examples.

This only supported the reasons for my unfortunate partiality to the Monchichis. They were the closest things I could associate with a normal, non-dysfunctional society of color. Freaking monkeys.

This is the sort of subtle every day racism that white people of my generation don’t get. There are certain indignities that they will never know, and it would take too much time and too much emotional labor to unpack to paint even a partial picture. They’ve never had to look far for representation that made them feel ‘normal’. The characters that looked like them were conquerors. They were multi-dimensional and had depth. You got a sense that they were in control of their destiny and that you could depend on them (or someone who LOOKED LIKE THEM in real life) if you were ever in a pinch. Beyond the images, the very language surrounding their whiteness spoke to their power.

He-Man was the leader of Masters of the Universe.

She-Ra was the Princess of Power.

Freddy from Scooby Doo could lead you in solving a mystery.

Inspector Gadget’s niece, Penny, was the real brains behind each crime solved.

Rainbow Bright and her noble (white) steed had the power to make any problem go away simply by putting little glittery stars in her belt and pressing a button.

Every powerful/smart/enterprising person in the 80s cartoon world is white and usually blond. Even Dottie Dog from the Get Along Gang was a blond cheerleader. Add to that, every other girl in the Gang had blue eyes, just to reinforce that these may be animals, and we can’t make them ALL blond, but daggonit, these are WHITE animals!

One could argue that Mr. T bucked this trend on the cartoon named for him, but I don’t accept that. If we apply the same character and plot development standards to his show as say, She-Ra, where every member of the Rebellion living in the Whispering Woods is white, 80s television might have imploded. It still might. Can you imagine a team of all Black gymnasts lead by a Black man in a cut off shirt and a Mohawk flying around the world solving crimes and subduing people with their physical prowess? It would result in cartoon TVs first police shooting.

But back to the monkeys, cultural representation and how I saw myself.

When you grow up in Africa or around Africans in the diaspora, there is a 99% chance that you will hear tell of a “monkey” story. My primary school teacher told us about how a young English boy stopped him in London one day and asked if he had a tail…and if he’d allow him to see it. When I was a child, an airport worker in Europe once referred to all the Africans in transit as a “bunch of monkeys”. The Lebanese woman who lived next door to my best friend could be heard screaming, “You f***ing monkey!!!” at her maid as she hurled household items at her.

Nevertheless and no matter what the world said around me, I never saw a monkey’s reflection staring back at me when I looked in a physical mirror. But what was beinf reflected back to me on a subconscious level was something else entirely. When I discovered the subliminal perceptions I held about myself– and my continent – it startled it me. It shook me. It shamed me.

One day, many Monchichi years later, I was at home when someone (I can’t remember who because folks were always dropping by in those days) brought over a printed piece of paper with an AT&T ad on it. They were angry and demanded we look at it. Horror and shock erupted from the adults around the room. I kept staring at it, trying to work out what was so awful about this whimsical telephone advertisement.

“Look at Africa.”

I looked and didn’t see anything wrong. Africa was the right shape, the geography seemed in order…

“Malaka. Look at everyone else on the globe with a phone in their hand!”

I still didn’t get it.

“There’s a monkey sitting in Africa. Every body else on the planet using the phone is human, but they got a MONKEY in Africa!”

An AT&T ad from 1993 depicting the company’s coverage around the globe.
Of course I didn’t see it.

Monchichis ‘look like’ me.

Monchichis have technology.

Monchichis also happen to be monkeys.

Monkeys are live in Africa.

Monkeys look like me.

Oh my God.

*****

Fortunately, my children’s generation and those beyond will (hopefully) be spared this sort of cognitive disjoining when confronted with racist art/advertising. We still have to fight against the effects of colorism, body dysmorphic disorder and hair texturism (a plague in the natural hair community), but I am confident that they will never subliminally associate their physical features or their personhood with a monkey. We have Doc McStuffins and Li’l Bill to thank for that. So when people ask ‘WHY do we need more characters of color on TV’, let my Monchichi story provide further evidence for why more – and better – representation is necessary. Not that that matters so much at our house now. In my absence, Marshall has cut DSTV, so television plays a lesser part in raising his children than it would if I were home. I suppose that’s a good thing.

 

Have you ever had a moment where you discovered that pop culture influenced you on a subliminal level? Was it a positive or negative experience?

  • And THIS is why I work so hard at restricting the TV, Media and Literary consumption of my own children. Thank you!

    • It’s essential to monitor what they consume. I’ve walked in on my oldest watching some questionable stuff that still haunts me.
      I can’t say I’m sad we cut cable or that the Roku is down. Read a book!