1.04.2012

Hadji Demystified: Magic and ethnicity *or* not every ethnic person has to be magical

This post was cross posted from moniqueblog.net with Monique's permission. You can read another part of the Hadji Demystified series on the Narrative here.

Hadji’s progression from being a mystic to being a “cool kid”. Credit: Google, questfan.com

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, not to mention a “Hadji Demystifed” post. Work and life has cut in on my posting time. But, I’m here now, so let’s get to this.

To quote Jay-Z in the Kanye West song “So Appalled”, “I’m just so offended.” Why am I offended? Well, because after re-reading the wikipedia page on The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, I read that writer Glenn Leopold felt the need to revive Hadji’s “latent psionic powers”, stating that Season One Hadji–who was without powers and whose characterization relied on the realistic Sikh teachings, yoga, and meditation–was too boring due to the fact that he was basically brought down to earth. To quote him, he said Season One Hadji was “not interesting to watch.” For shame, Leopold! FOR SHAME! The main reason some level of shame should be felt is that to bring back the “Sim Sim Salabim”  part originally written in Hadji’s character is a bit of a negative thing to bring back, seeing as how that part was introduced in the ’60s, when the average American’s knowledge about the East was ignorant at best, racist at worst. Also, by negating the idea that Hadji can be interesting and normal flies in the face of the progress Indians, Middle Easterners, and other brown people (and all minorities, for that matter) have made in entertainment. Basically, it’s like saying you have to be an Other in order to be interesting, when that same qualification isn’t something that white characters have to live up to. I’ll explain all this in several parts:


The 1960s–a time of both change and stereotypes

 

credit: Google

While the 1960s is probably one of the most important times in American history, there was still a lot of racism and stereotyping going on amidst the boundary-blurring and Civil Rights fighting. Case in point: Hadji. The fact that he wasn’t even given a last name in the original series is something that could take up an entire essay, but what I’m focusing on in this post is his “magical” abilities.  During this time and in earlier time periods, people generally equated Asians with black magic, mysticism, and any other sort of hocus-pocus. Some of the “hocus pocus” were rituals or professions that weren’t understood by outsiders, one of those professions being snake charming.

You can check out the full wiki page on snake charming, but just as an overview, it’s not a magical ability at all; it’s more like a learned trade. Partly due to the caste system, snake charming is a tradition passed down from father to son in India. Snake charming is also practiced in Pakistan and North Africa. The snakes, many of them venomous, have to be trained before the charmer can perform their profession. Oftentimes, the snakes are de-fanged, but in North Africa, the snake’s mouth is sewn shut, leaving just enough opening for the tongue (according to the page, many people in the area believe that the venom comes from a snake’s tongue).

Hadji more than likely, Pasha, Hadji’s peddler caretaker, taught him how to do this profession in order to make some money, probably not due to any kind of caste rule (if you recall from my post about Sikhism, Sikhs do not believe in the caste system.) Hadji and Pasha were probably also doing a myriad of other things in order to keep some type of steady income, because while snake charmers used to be able to make a living from their profession at one point in time, they have increasingly had to sell jewelry and other items, scavenge, and basically do what they need to do to make ends meet.  Enter the tourists who think a mere boy has the ability to magically charm a large, poisonous cobra, not realizing there’s a bigger story at work here.

However, none of this detail was really put into the show. Granted, the wiki page on Jonny Quest does allude to the possibility that Hadji’s so-called inherent magical ability might just be parlor tricks (which, after my evidence above, must be the case), but the show itself doesn’t really overtly give Hadji’s magical abilities the benefit of the doubt. Instead, the show focuses on the fact that he’s a minority character who is obviously different from his adoptive brother and family. Couple that with the already limited worldview many 1960s Americans had concerning countries in the east, and there you have Hadji’s ability to do magic.

Finally, an Indian character who’s not a mystic!

 

credit: questfan.com

The irony is that about three decades later, Hadji not only keeps his rank as one of the only Asian (specifically, South Asian) cartoon characters on television, but also becomes one of the few characters who’s not mystical in any way, thanks to a genius reboot led by writer Peter Lawrence, who applied his real-world knowledge and broad worldview to the show.

As written about on the front page of this Hadji shrine, I have a quote by Lawrence explaining his reasoning behind rebooting Hadji and erasing his “magical” abilities. Here it is again:

I did have a great Pakistani friend at university, Tahir Attar. Educated in Europe at expensive private schools but retaining deep cultural roots. I believe, for example, that he entered an arranged marriage – quite happily. He was a perfect mix of East and West and I took a lot from him for Hadji. We did, of course, add an additonal dose of mysticism (for want of a better word), for dramatic reasons and in an attempt to keep the stories really open. (Minds, too, perhaps – but God forbid that we were proselytizing.) Yeah. Compare our Hadji with that moron in … oh, god, what was that silly robot movie? it will come to me. Or most of the silly sing-song morons which Hollywood makes of Asian Indians.
Clearly you have some knowledge of my own background – brought up in Zambia. (Tongue in cheek, Buzz, Stephanie and others said that I had a lot in common with Jonny – and, actually, I really did identify with our vision of him.) Not just in Zambia but deep in the bush. I grew up with Africans. I was an African, albeit white. When I went to Europe and, later, the US, I was stunned at the casual racism, the unthinking stereotyping, the sheer ignorance of other cultures. So, when it came to Hadji I was determined to make him real. Or as real as he could be in the context. Michael Benyaer really ‘got’ what we wanted to do with this character and that made it easier to ‘hear’ Hadji’s voice while writing. I wonder where Mike is now?
In fact, however pretentious it makes me seem, I wanted this authenticity in all the characters. That’s why we went for some rather ‘out there’ casting – and that’s why, of course, the succeeding producers undid everything and went safe. It’s pretty sad, and quite indicative of the xenophobia of our culture and the play-safe of the industry.



And, to also quote Michael Benyaer (which is also on the front page):

“[he] is one of the few roles for an ethnic actor that is not a bad guy. I mean, how many East Indian heroes have been on television? Hadji is for the sensitive kids out there. He is the outsider in all of us.”

This reasoning is what makes the first season–and Season One Hadji– great, not boring. This is what makes it miles ahead of the 1960s show; it shows that due to all of the Civil Rights fights, social skirmishes, and better written history books in order to promote a broadened view of the world and life in general, people in America can now see all people for who they are, not for what race they are or what makes them different. In short, making Hadji a regular guy makes him accessible to everyone. For a while, he was demystified, and it was great while it lasted. However, the decision to make Hadji not regular is not only a mistake, but a step backwards in terms of the advancement of all minority people, not just Indians.

To be interesting, you have to be magical, but only if you’re not white

 credit: questfan.com

It’s a blunt subheading, but it’s seemingly true in the world of Hollywood. The fact that Hadji was deemed not interesting simply because he was normal is a bit…odd and misses the entire point of why he was demystified. It’s also a bit offensive. Here’s why:

For eras, all minorities have had to put up with stereotypes in Hollywood–black people were either “happy” servants/slaves, fat Mammy characters, buffoons that were no better than animals that needed training, and “savages”; Asians from areas such as China and Japan have been typecast as knowing martial arts, being demure to the point of offensiveness, evil archenemies like Dr. No, or mystical/all-knowing beings; South Asians have had to deal with a bit of a combination of stereotypes, ranging from being buffoons, mystical/all-knowing beings, or “happy” servants/villagefolk. Like I stated before, Hadji being “magical” in the 1960s cartoon is due to this type of stereotyping.

So for Hadji to be written as a mystic again in Season Two is a letdown because the idea of Hadji having to be magical in order to be interesting is a double-standard. At no time in the history of stereotypes in movies has a Caucasian person had to be magical in order to be interesting. Because of this double-standard, Jonny and Jessie don’t have to be abnormal to be interesting; they can just be normal. So if that’s the case, what sense does it make for this 1990s interpretation of Hadji to have to be interesting in order to be accepted as a character? You get what I’m getting at? I’ll also throw out there that creative “differences” were arising between Seasons One and Two, resulting in a lot of the cast and crew–including Season One Hadji’s voice actor Michael Benyaer and Lawrence– leaving.

Now, I’m not trying to say anything more than that perhaps a bit of historical thoughtfulness could have saved Season Two Hadji from being significantly less meaningful than Season One Hadji. Dare I even get into the fact that India was politically misrepresented as a mystical, otherworldly place much like Thailand was represented in “The King and I” and that maharajahs didn’t exist during the time period Hadji is written to have taken the title of Maharajah?

Man, it sure felt good to rant again!

For more on 1960 Hadji’s mystical powers, click here.

Monique Jones is a freelance entertainment writer. She runs her own entertainment website, Moniqueblog.net, which is dedicated to highlighting how race and culture are viewed in Hollywood. She also is a movies editor and writer for entertainment site, ShockYa.com. 


 
 






8 comments:

  1. The magic POC thing is crystal clear "othering". While I understand that actors need work, it makes me angry when I see an actor repeatedly take these "magical negro/POC roles". Morgan Freeman comes to mind.

    Martial arts movies are rife with this too. The whole "mystic of the Orient" meme just gets plopped onto any martial artist, but of course the Asian men get it worst. That's why Jet Li said he wasn't going to do martial arts films anymore about a decade ago, remember? But then he did another one anyway :( I guess he needed the money.

    I wrote a paper about this phenomenon in undergrad, using the movie Pocahontas as an example. Ye Gods I could have written tomes on the racism in that movie. She dove off a cliff the size of Angel Falls and practically flew. Her grandmother was a talking tree. It just got worse and worse.

    Hollywhite loves to make POC into magical beings so that they don't have to see us as human beings. Which is convenient when white people want to do unsavory and unwholesome things to us. The worst part of this whole thing is that white people get all kinds of warm fuzzies and congratulate themselves for being so "post racial" because they show POC as superior (because they can heal the sick, stop time etc) when it's actually 2nd verse, same as the first- not white = not normal.

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  2. Martial arts movies are rife with this too.

    This would be limited to Western Hollywood productions. At least in Chinese martial arts there is no display of self-hate and internalised racism.

    Hollywhite loves to make POC into magical beings so that they don't have to see us as human beings. Which is convenient when white people want to do unsavory and unwholesome things to us. The worst part of this whole thing is that white people get all kinds of warm fuzzies and congratulate themselves for being so "post racial" because they show POC as superior (because they can heal the sick, stop time etc) when it's actually 2nd verse, same as the first- not white = not normal.

    The disturbing thing is now POC have internalised these messages. POC now get the warm fuzzies and congratulate works from Hollywood that push racist perspectives. I wonder if this is a case of managing with what you have.

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  3. I am really, really getting sick of this crap. We can never just be regular people with regular problems and flaws and happy, contented lives. We're just there to make the white people either look good or feel good about themselves. That's it. We're always incidental and expendable.

    The sad thing is, when I was little, I used to get excited when I saw a POC in a show no matter what their role was because I didn't know better. Now that I'm older and I know what I'm looking at, I despair that my daughter doesn't. I try to hip her to this stuff in an age appropriate way, but it's not easy. Which is probably just what they count on.

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  4. The sad thing is, when I was little, I used to get excited when I saw a POC in a show no matter what their role was because I didn't know better.

    IKR???????

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  5. The sad thing is, when I was little, I used to get excited when I saw a POC in a show no matter what their role was because I didn't know better.

    Same here! These days I just can't with magic POC stereotypes. I just can't.

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  6. Oooh, this reminds of Scott Pilgrim vs The world where Romana Flowers' first evil ex was a POC, he was Indian, and her reason behind dating him was b/c he 'was the only non white jock ' and that he had 'mystical powers.' I actually remembered this post when I re-watched the stupid move, with some friends last week,and cringed at the notion that he was used a an exotic gimmick. I also did not like how Knives, the Asian girl, was passed over for Romana--who, in my opinion, was a total slut.

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  7. I loved first season Hadji. He was the best thing to happen to the reboot.

    Even I as a small child could see the differences between the more grounded first-season Hadji and the second season's kiddy stereotyped version.

    Sigh... why POC can't have anything nice?

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  8. *why can't POC have anything nice? or Normal?

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