The Racism We Never Noticed in Gremlins.

maxresdefault-2     In “Humans Unite, “Adilifu Nama discusses several examples of how race is portrayed in science fiction film. In many SF films of the 70s and 80s, may other minorities other than African Americans were seen as the “other.” In Rollerball, viewers see blacks and whites both working cohesively together while the “other” in this sense was their Asian coach, whom Nama describes as teaching the team how to give a “death blow,” analogous to the Japanese economy becoming a threatening competitor to the United States in terms of innovation and technology.

In Aliens, the black man, who was in a subordinate position in the previous film, is now the dominant leader, while the film codes the Latina character as being the “other,” not coincidentally in a film with its title, to address the growing fear of illegal immigrants crossing the border. Gremlins (1984) alludes to the growing fear of the urban underclass with programs like Affirmative Action and welfare, with its creatures growing dependent and wreaking havoc on the community. More, the mogwai embody numerous pejorative African American stereotypes.

In “Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies”, Patricia Turner writes that the gremlins “reflect negative African-American stereotypes” in their dress and behavior. They are shown “devouring fried chicken with their hands”, listening to black music, breakdancing, and wearing sunglasses after dark and newsboy caps, a style common among African American males in the 1980s.” Gremlins features many African American motifs which would require too lengthy of an exposition to explore them all.

Gremlins features numerous examples from Nama illustrates. The film opens when Randall, the father of Billy Peltzer, the human protagonist of the film, inadvertently discovers a mogwai named Gizmo in a local Chinese shop while trying to find the perfect gift for his son. Of course, he has his eyes set on Gizmo, but Gizmo’s owner, i.e., “master,” Mr. Wing, informs Randall that Gizmo is not ready to live on his own. Of course, as the name may suggest, the actor whom portrays Mr. Wing is Chinese, in a role stereotypical of Asian characters. As a side note, Asian characters, particularly Chinese, were grossly stereotyped in the 80s films as wise, omnipotent sorcerer types who often wore conical hats, ranging from Gremlins, Karate Kid, and Kung Fu. More, Asians also owned slaves and, while minorities, tended to side with white supremacy.  In “The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Originals of the Model Minority,” Ellen D. Wu explains “Chinese immigrants and their children needed to be integrated fully into American society” and did so by sacrificing unique cultural customs and engaging in American “assimilation at the level of full equality of social, economic, and political participation.”

When viewers are introduced to Gizmo and his Chinese owner, loose ties can be drawn to slavery. When Gizmo is first shown, he is locked in a cage, singing a song, which evokes the image of a happy slave. When asked about him, his Asian “master” says he isn’t ready for the outside world, i.e., freedom, or essentially, hell will break loose. Keeping Gizmo is in his cage represents order; to release Gizmo, i.e., the slave, would be represent chaos.

Secondly, Nama illustrates what he calls figures of distortion. He cites the creature in Predator evoking “tribal Africans” with “white animal bones” piercing his nose and “Rastafarian dreadlocks.” The mogwai in Gremlins are also code as black, even more to a degree when they are transformed from their cute, furry miniature selves into larger, reptilian, demonic looking creatures. There’s Gizmo, of course, who is mostly white, and ironically enough, the only “good” mogwai in the film. When the other mogwai are born, they instantly turn on Gizmo by bullying him and rejecting him. It is never made clear why the new mogwai reject Gizmo immediately after they were born; they had no knowledge of Gizmo yet nor knew that he sided with humans. This rejection process certainly it would have made more sense after they had gotten to know Gizmo and his trust for humans; this indicates that possibly the new mogwai weren’t “born” at all, but perhaps released from a inner prison in which they had a past with Gizmo.

The new furry mogwai, clearly coded as evil, are darker in color and are “less cute” than mogwai and have a less percentage of white fur. This technique is not uncommon; many animations throughout cinema have made a villain of the same species darker in tone than its protagonist counterpart, most notable the villainous Scar from Lion King compared to Simba and Mufasa.

The new mogwai, to some extent, are still supposed to be identified as somewhat physically endearing despite their physical differences to Gizmo; viewers do not, however, see the mogwai become truly demonic looking until their grotesque transformation. Gremlins 2: The New Batch, changes this up a bit and takes pre-transformation mogwai much darker in tone, even a black mulatto mogwai, and exaggerated demonic, distinct faces. When they mogwai makes their transformation, they evoke African American images including large lips, darker skin, and big bug eyes resembling the Ugandan-featured African American comics of the 1930s like Martan Moreland.

In addition to the application of Nama’s “figures of distortion,” the film also clearly codes the mogwai as black when they populate an urban community; they make their way into the suburbs, and while break into a houses, clearly enter a neighborhood not built for them. When Billy goes to the police, the police laugh at him. The gremlins, to which they now will be referred, certainly represent the fear of the growing underclass. First, the gremlins comes with three rules, two of which are extremely important: one, they cannot get wet; two, they cannot eat after midnight; and three, they hate bright light. In a nutshell, if the gremlins get wet, they multiply; if they eat after midnight, they transform into demonic-looking creatures; and if exposed to light, it’ll hurt their eyes considerably, and in extreme light, such as the sun, could result in death. The first two rules are symbolic of welfare and assistance; that is, if we feed the cultural “other” and provide them food, they will only become dependent on the free offerings and thus multiply. The “bright light” rule is symbolic to urban crime usually happening at night; it gives the filmmakers a excuse to show the gremlins waiting until the sun goes down to run rampant around the city, break into homes, and evoke images of the “baad” man by wearing sunglasses at night.

There is one gremlin, Stripe, who undoubtedly evokes images of a “baad” persona. To briefly illustrate, he has a certain “coolness” that the other gremlins lack – while the other gremlins act are unable to compose themselves, similar to the uncivilized rampant in the ghetto, dangling from chandeliers, Stripe remains relatively collected. The other gremlins are intimidated by him when he walks in the room, unofficially labeling him as the leader, and he has sinister, yet muffled, demonic voice. It is up to Stripe to keep those “bitch niggas” in check.

In the bar scene, when all the gremlins are running around frantically, falling over backwards drunk, and dangling from chandeliers, Stripe, with a cigarette retains his composure and tells smacks one of the others for silly drunken behavior. Stripe is also the last remaining gremlin, coding him as the main antagonist. Moreover, in the final showdown, “baad” Stripe uses a gun, the only gremlin to use one throughout the film, and oddly appears to have experience operating one despite not having many years on Earth. Prior to this, the gremlins were just shown to be silly misbehaving caricatures, almost comical, but now, viewers know Stripe’s motives are serious.

An obscure contemporary example I compare is the plight of gremlins to is the growing concept of speciesism. Speciesism is a form of discrimination, not unlike racism or sexism, in which humans have the assumption of human superiority based on their species membership, which, in turn, may lead to the exploitation of nonhuman animals. Speciesism is so commonly accepted among humans that most do not even know its meaning and fail to acknowledge its significance. In recent events, a small movement consisting of humans have been protesting at Chipotle stores across the country called the #DisruptSpeciesm movement ( protesting the equality of all races, genders, and species. While not specifically referred to as speciesism, the same principle is present in virtually all SF films that deal with aliens, monsters, or androids; there is a default assumption of human superiority in which the “other” species are a threat to the human civilization.


4 thoughts on “The Racism We Never Noticed in Gremlins.

  1. After rewatching the movie in light of some criticisms, like the one above, I can’t deny that the mayhem of the bar sequence uses some racial stereotypes. Whether that is enough to call the film racist, I’m not sure. If this movie was made today, that sequence would probably receive harsher criticism—and rightly so. I say this as a fan of the movie. A scene like that would probably not have made it to the screen.

    Is it worth noticing that the only black character in the film is an intelligent and scientifically curious high school biology teacher? I couldn’t detect a hint of racial stereotypes in his character, but I’ve been wrong before.

    As for the broader interpretation that the gremlins are depicted as “other,” I find that less convincing. Surely the gremlins have that in common with all movie monsters, from the shark in Jaws to the birds in The Birds. In movies like this, it seems to me, “otherness” is an generic obligation. Even if you were to take out all the stereotypes, the gremlins remain monsters. This isn’t an excuse or reason to use racial stereotypes in depicting them. But if the gremlins are supposed to be avatars of real stereotypes, the movie is inconsistent when it comes to that depiction.

    Finally, I don’t think the film depicts human beings as a superior species more or less than any other movie about human existence and experience. The gremlins must be destroyed, not because humans are “better” as a species, but because the gremlins’ appetite for violent, technological chaos is hurting and killing people (and other animals, like Billy’s dog).

    Oh, and this line: “Moreover, in the final showdown, ‘baad’ Stripe uses a gun, the only gremlin to use one throughout the film, and oddly appears to have experience operating one despite not having many years on Earth. Prior to this, the gremlins were just shown to be silly misbehaving caricatures, almost comical, but now, viewers know Stripe’s motives are serious.”

    All gremlins have an innate ability to use technology to cause chaos and destruction. That’s the whole point, what makes them gremlins—they bedevil us through our own machines.

    What to make of your last sentence? The gremlins were never “just shown to be silly misbehaving caricatures,” but dangerous, clever creatures with a dark sense of humor. You don’t stab, behead, microwave or blow up “silly misbehaving caricatures.”

    What is the version of “Gremlins” that you would rather have seen?

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