This paper is a post-modern critique of the cartoon television series, The Boondocks, focusing especially on the ninth episode, “Return of The King.” The Boondocks is a cartoon on the cartoon networks “Adult Swim.” It is appropriately put into the adult programming because of gratuitous use of foul language, especially the highly derogatory term nigger,’ which is mostly used in order to critique the twenty first century popularized black culture that Huey, the narrator of the show, sees as self-destructive and ignorant. This analysis will assess the multiple meanings that may possibly be seen through a semiotic analysis of the text.
The show The Boondocks is about three characters, Robert “Granddad” Freeman, Huey Freeman and his little brother Riley Freeman. When Granddad becomes the legal guardian of his grandkids Huey and Riley, he moves to the suburbs or the boondocks. Here they inevitably find a way to ruffle some feathers through the mischievous pranks of eight-year-old Riley, or the revolutionary like speeches of the very intelligent and very leftist ten-year-old Huey. The cartoon is full of satire, which helps raise questions about the status of racism and racial inequality that African Americans still experience in the United States of America.
There are so many powerful symbols within the general text of The Boondocks that it is really impossible to write about them all. So, I am focusing on a single episode that I felt was especially powerful.
Some critics dismiss the show for being overtly racist because of the gratuitous use of the N-word, which is an incredibly strong symbol that evokes a lot of different and powerful emotions in people. Although the N-word is in itself an extremely racist term, in this context, it seems to be more of a way to help facilitate discussion and debate about the race relations and social issues that we have in our country. Aaron McGruder, the writer of the show has told the New York Times that using the word doesn’t make the show itself racist and the fact that everyone is focusing on that single issue of a single word, instead of focusing on some of the fantastic and shameful social issues that he has brought into question, “speaks to how juvenile racial discourse is in this country.” (Goodman, 2005)
How much offense you take to this single word really depends your bricolage of personal experiences. If you grew up during the time of the civil rights movement, then this word would more than likely be much more of an offensive term to you because of your personal experiences. Whether you are white or black may also have a strong effect on how offensive you think this word is. In fact there are infinite numbers of personal experiences that someone can have to shape their perceptions of that word. You probably also have different feelings about the word depending on the context it is used in. In the show however, it is mostly used not to be offensive, but more as if in the term dude. Some even see an incredibly large difference in how the word is spelled. For instance, if the word is ended with an “er,” then it is very derogatory, but if the word is ended with an “a,” then it is not a derogatory term, but only if it is said in the right context and by the right person. However, this in no way determines that you will not take offense to the term anyway. For some, the term may be offensive no matter what context you use it in and for others it may depend on its context as well as who says it and to whom.
Some other symbols that I am going to talk about in my analysis is the character Huey, who is a leftist revolutionary, and some of the things he strongly believes and routinely talks about during the entirety of the series. One of the most iconic symbols that I am going to talk about and is the reason why I chose to analyze this particular episode is the depiction of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King is such an iconic figure that what he says in this episode, if only in cartoon form, still seems to have a lot of power an weight behind his words. He carries such a strong presence that his image evokes a wide range of very powerful feelings.
The paper is striving to do a post-modern critique of the television cartoon The Boondocks. It is doing this by quickly going through a genre analysis, then a brief semiotic analysis and finally evolving into a post-modern analysis of the show, eventually focusing on a single episode. The overall goal of this critique is to help us better understand the possible social implications that some view as overtly racist, while others like the NAACP praise it for engaging debate about the problems with racism in our country.
Data for Analysis
The focus of this paper is on the Television cartoon The Boondocks. It will begin with a brief overview of the entire series, focusing on elements that are seen as common themes or trends in the series. It will then focus its attention to a single episode, in order to further clarify my point. Instead of focusing on the pilot episode, as I had originally intended, I decided to focus on the ninth episode. I made this decision because after further research on the show I discovered that this episode had been given a Peabody award and was recognized by the NAACP for inciting debate about racism in the United States. This episode also brings back a very powerful icon, Dr. Martin Luther King, which I felt would lead to interesting analysis as well as a strengthening of my conclusion.
Analysis and Discussion
In order to better understand my analysis, I am going to begin by telling you a little bit more about the creator of The Boondocks. His name is Aaron McGruder and he has been writing the comic strip version of The Boondocks since the mid-nineties, for his school newspaper at the university of Maryland. He is very critical of the bush administration, including Colon Powel and Condolisa Rice, the Bush administration’s two most prominent African Americans. Most of the time his feelings about the problems with America come through the voice of Huey Freeman, the radical leftist character in The Boondocks.
Huey Freeman is ten years old and is the main character as well as the narrator for The Boondocks. He has a couple of things that he believes very strongly that come up a number of times in the show, “Jesus was black, Ronald Regan was the Devil, and the government is lying about 9-11.” (Huey) He is also greatly disappointed with the way that African Americans represent themselves in the media. He believes that “gangsta rap” and Black Entertainment Television, otherwise known as BET, are the worst things that African Americans have ever done to themselves because they keep portraying themselves as ignorant of violent, which only furthers the problems of racism in this country.
Huey’s little brother is Riley. He is eight years old and he is the little kid who looks up to the “gangsta” rappers that Huey despises. Riley and Huey get along well but Huey is always having to save Riley from the trouble he has gotten into by trying to be a gangster. Most of the episodes follow the traditional sitcom format, as illustrated by Feuer, in which there are two acts. Act one has two scenes; there is the set up, which involves the construction of the problem, in our case this usually involves Riley getting into trouble, and then there’s scene two in which the problem is seemingly resolved but made worse; this too is usually done by Riley. Then there’s act two in which the characters resolve the problems once and for all; this generally involves Huey saving Riley and then both of them get a lecture from their grandpa, Robert “Granddad” Freeman.
One of the most influential episodes is the ninth one of the first season “Return of The King.” In this episode, Martin Luther King Jr. comes out of a 32-year-old coma and is thrust into a post 9-11 world. When he preaches non-violence, Dr. King is outcast as a terrorist sympathizer. When he sees the state of social affairs in our country, he is outraged and disappointed. Eventually Dr. King is pushed over the edge when his political rally turns into a radio station dance party and he openly criticizes everyone there as well as the general state of our whole nation. He delivers a painful speech that shocks and hurts a lot of people, but in the end it causes the black community to finally rise up and demand equality. “The revolution has finally come.” (Huey)
This episode was one of the most effective chapters of the series at engaging discussion about the social issues surrounding racism that still resonate in the United States today. For doing that so effectively, this episode of The Boondocks received a Peabody award in 2006. (Peabody, 2006)
One of the most glaring uses of intertextuality in this episode is when Dr. Martin Luther King awakens into the post nine eleven twenty first century. When Dr. King reiterates his view of nonviolence towards your enemies, a week after the nine eleven attacks, he is seen as someone who hates America and is a sympathizer with terrorist. We see an America that is ready to turn on one of its greatest citizens because they are too war hungry and have forgotten his message, his dream for America. And he finally sees the ugly truth and gives a new “I have a dream speech,” one that really gets to the heart of the problem and then says that he’s moving to Canada. Here we really get to see what it might be like if Dr. King were to come back. Your perception of this will greatly differ on all types of levels. There are so many different views of the state of race relations in our country today but most would agree that it is far from perfect. This call to social change is a much-needed catalyst to spark discussion, debate and change.
Possibly one of the biggest contradictions within The Boondocks is the fact that Huey himself uses the N-word. As the one who is trying to be the revolutionary that strives to get rid of the racial inequalities that are so prevalent in our country, he should banish this word from his vocabulary. If he believes that it is a racist term if a white person uses it, then it should be seen as a racist term if any person uses it. He may, however, be trying to recode the meaning surrounding the term through the use of discovery coding, and taking back something that has been seen as negative, and using as a term of empowerment because it is something that is only appropriately use by his people alone. The problem with this is that when attempting to alter the coding of a symbol, you will undoubtedly be confronted by seepage. Here, the mainstream view or dominant ideology behind the symbol begins to reflect on the symbol that you are trying to recode. So through the eyes of the public, you may not be changing their view of the coding of a symbol, in this context the use of the N-word. They may still see the word as overtly racist and not identify with the fact that you are trying to turn the word into a mode of empowerment, whether explicitly or implicitly.
Riley is another character who seems to have some contradictions. At first, he seems like the typical wannabe thug who looks up to gangsters and rappers. However throughout the text, we see that he really looks up to his older brother even though he makes fun of Huey. And it’s when Riley seems to mess up the worst that Huey really gets a moment of clarity in what he is fighting to change about the world.
The Boondocks is a show that challenges audiences to come up with their own conclusions about race relations within the United States. It depends on an audience with a wide range of views and life experiences to discuss what they feel is so important about the show and what it has to say. In the end we can realize that things are still today nowhere near where they need to be and that there must be something we can do about it.
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