Casual Racism in Children's Programming
What ties together 'Womble Free' on the Criterion Channel and 'Bibi & Tina' on Amazon Prime?
Now Streaming: As a single adult without children, I am very much aware that I am not the target audience for movies and television shows marketed as 'children's programming.'
Yet I often weary from all the needless blood, gore, profanity, and unclad body parts that are featured in movies and television shows that are ostensibly intended for viewing by 'adults.' It's a matter of personal taste on my part, I know. It also depends greatly upon how the blood, gore, profanity, and unclad body parts are presented and integrated into the material, which speaks more to the personal taste of the creative talents who are involved.
'Children's programming' may not have needless blood, gore, profanity, and unclad body parts, but that doesn't mean it's entirely free of elements that I have chosen to avoid in the time I've set aside for personal viewing. That includes casual racism.
Disney has come under fire to an increased degree after launching their Disney Plus streaming service, for reasons that have been documented elsewhere. As it stands to reason, Disney is not the only streaming service that includes casual racism in their titles.
Directed by Lionel Jeffires, Wombling Free (1977) caught my eye on The Criterion Channel as one of their recent 'Saturday Matinee' selections. I'd never even heard of the film before, but according to their enchanting description:
"Based on the enormously popular children’s television series “The Wombles,” which took England by storm in the seventies, this slightly psychedelic cinematic spin-off brought the furry, potbellied, mole-like creatures—who live in London’s Wimbledon Common and pick up the litter left by humans—to the big screen."
Intrigued, I watched the story as it developed gently. The lackadaisical pace was putting me to sleep until the arrival of Japanese neighbors Arnold Takahasi (portrayed by British actor Bernard Spear) and his wife Doris (played by Japanese actress Yasuko Nagazumi).
Born in London, Bernard Spear was not Japanese, as far as I can tell from his IMDb entry. He plays Arnold Takahasi without irony in the most stereotypical and offensive manner possible, speaking English -- or, 'eng-rish' -- with a thick fake accent, while his wife Doris speaks Japanese, which her husband translates for her, as needed.
And, yes, this film was made for children.
It's possible to chalk the film up as a relic from the bad old days of the late 70s, but then how to explain away Bibi & Tina, now streaming on Amazon Prime?
Looking for new or recent titles on Amazon Prime Video, where I searched in the Kids section, specifically in the section for "big kids", I found 14 titles, a mixture of animation and live-action shows, none more recent than 2017. A wider variety of titles can be found in the Amazon Original Kids section, which is where I found Bibi & Tina, which is the latest iteration of a popular German-language children's book series that has been adapted previously for big and small screens.
I was curious to see how German television handles young-adult programming, which evidently aims to appeal to young people who dream of having witchy powers and living on a farm. It's all very idyllic and enjoyable to watch, pace deliberately so it's easy to follow the carefree yet caring relationship between the two young female friends and the loving embrace of one's family.
All seemed well through the first episode, and then in the second a new wrinkle popped up in the arrival of Kim Win Win, an evil and scheming Asian person whose character development is limited to the point that she's Asian and so therefore inherently evil, in the limited worldview of Bibi & Tina.
It may be that I have misread the character and her treatment by the other characters entirely, but it seems old-school in its one-dimensional portrayal of an Asian person, especially when compared with the kindly community that surrounds the farm. Julia Strowski appears to be a person of mixed heritage, describing herself as a Japanese/German actress, so at least that is not an issue here.
Perhaps she displays traits beyond the 'evil Asian' trope in future episodes but, combined with the witchy/supernatural elements, I've not watched any more since that initial viewing. The racism is subtle and slight, which may be why it's unsettling to me. And perhaps it's a clash of humor that I'm not getting from the English-language subtitles.
In any event, why introduce a character from a specific background without giving thought to why and how they function in the world and in the universe that you're creating, especially in a series based on a familiar property? Sometimes, 'children's programming' really baffles me.