When I was growing up, a great deal of my free time was spent watching cartoons on Cartoon Network. Of all the shows I was exposed to and a regular viewer of, my favorite show was Xiaolin Showdown. For those who don’t know, Xiaolin Showdown was an animated action/adventure/comedy series created by Christy Hui in which four children from different corners of the globe band together in order to collect mystical and magical objects called the Shen gong wu -which grant the users of the objects various powers and abilities- from various villains: predominantly wannabe world conqueror Jack Spicer and the Heylin witch Wuya. In addition, these four young warriors also train themselves in order to become Xiaolin dragons: masters of their respective elements. I was fascinated by the show as a young child and how they managed to work in aspects of East Asian culture and beliefs, and I still enjoy watching it from time to time today. However, as I re-watched some of these episodes I started to notice a few things that bothered me.
The main cast is actually quite diverse, and their personalities generally match the element they’ve been assigned. Omi, a young Chinese boy and the first character the audience is introduced to, is an incredibly powerful warrior that is able to manipulate water: but he is incredibly vain and egoistic. Raimundo, a young boy from Brazil, tends to change much like the wind. Kimiko, a young electronics heiress from Japan, is intelligent and outspoken, but can be very hotheaded. And finally Clay, a young cowboy from Texas, has a very down to earth personality. These characters are actually well fleshed out and realistic preteens, however some of the problem lies within the stereotypes that may have been unintentionally used when creating them.
For example, though the entire cast speaks English, only Omi and Clay have pronounced accents: with Omi usually drawing out the sentences by saying things along the lines of, “This is most excellent”. Omi is drawn as small in stature with yellow skin -a trait that only one other character in the entire series possesses, and in the recent reboot he is not yellow- and is generally bad at English (usually American) idioms and slang which is used as a running gag for the show’s comedy as his comrades usually have to explain to other characters what Omi is actually trying to say. Clay, as a counterpoint, uses “down home” country sayings which the other characters usually have to explain to Omi, a stereotype often used when it comes to characters from “down South”.
This isn’t just a problem with some of the main characters. Recurring side characters are also subjected to this sort of treatment. In the ninth episode of the first season titled “My Homey Omi” we are introduced to Jermaine. Jermaine is a street-wise African American boy from New York, depicted with a small afro and wearing a sports jersey over a short-sleeved t-shirt and track pants. During the course of the episode he teaches Omi how to fit in in the streets of New York by donning “hip” clothing. The episode comes to a climax in which Omi and Jermaine battle Jack Spicer over the Shen gong wu by playing a game of basketball, which Omi does not initially know how to play.
Again: Jermaine is depicted using stereotypes that do not seem all that harmful, but in fact shape our perception of how we view African Americans in general. They are often wearing sports attire, usually sporting an Afro, are street-wise, and are good at playing basketball. This becomes problematic because stereotypes like these sets our standards for other members of this and other groups of people and when our expectations aren’t met we are very rarely pleasantly surprised by it. Television needs to find a way to diversify without falling into stereotype territory.