The Superfriends and multiculturalism


Those of you who grew up, as I did, watching "The Superfriends" will get a real kick out of this Flash animation of this brilliantly creative (not to mention downright intertextual) skit by Filipino comedian Rex Navarrete.  It’s called "MARITESS vs the SUPERFRIENDS"
and it casts some light on American race relations through the Superfriends’ relationship with Maritess, their Filipino maid. [HT: Jeff Yang at]

Even if you’re not familiar with this beloved classic cartoon, if you’re an immigrant or of immigrant stock I suspect you’ll be able to relate to Maritess’ plight as a multicultural fish out of water.

Here’s the intro from the website:

Did you ever wonder why whenever you’d watch "The Superfriends" on a Saturday morning way back in the day, that the Hall of Justice was kept so nice and clean?

Well, it was because of their Filipina maid who you never saw.  We’ve all heard about the plight of Overseas Foreign Workers leaving the Philippines in the thousands just to find jobs good enough to send money back to their families in the islands.  May of them still suffer disgraceful working and living conditions beyond our comprehension, oftentimes silently.

Even our own Superfriends can treat these domestic laborers very much in the same manner and this is one of their stories…

Speaking of Navarette, Jeff Yang writes the following in his article "Laughing Matters":

There’s one Asian comic who bluntly rejects the notion that culture is a handicap: veteran stand-up Rex Navarrete, who’ll be headlining at Cobb’s Comedy Club in North Beach, May 11-16. "I just came to a point where I had to make a choice, and I decided that I was going to go ahead and say the F-word — by which I mean Filipino. My stuff is blatantly Filipino. I’m not a stand-up comic who happens to be Filipino, I’m a Filipino who happens to be a stand-up comic. It’s right up front. That’s where it all comes from."

That fearlessness about wearing his identity on his sleeve is part of what makes Navarrete’s comedy so brilliantly unique. "I may not get as much work as my counterparts, but it’s my voice. I’ve stuck with it and I like where it’s taken me," says Navarrete, whose sets focus on such distinctively Fil-Am subjects as food, Catholicism and, yes, immigrant accents (his most recent DVD is titled "Badass Madapaka").

His overt Pinoy pride has made him the object of cult devotion among audiences in the United States and, increasingly, in the Philippines. At the same time, his call-’em-as-he-sees-’em attitude has raised some hackles.

These are sentiments that I can relate to as an American Muslim. 

I admire Navarette’s refusal to apologize for his pride in and consciousness of his ethnicity.  He’s "ethnic" and proud, and he realizes the importance of his community developing its own sense of identity and brand of American-ness free of interference by the majority culture.

I think the way his self-consciously Filipino shtick resonates with fellow Filipinos is a testament to, contrary to all this nativist alarmism we hear from the Right, the often constructive influence of an increasingly prevalent social phenomenon which many–generally white–American intellectuals deride as "communalism"  or "ethnic separatism".   What some decry as the "balkanization" of America is in actuality, I would argue, simply America’s long-overdue embrace of multi-culturalism.  It is America’s increasing responsiveness to the needs of all Americans rather than those who happen to belong to the majority culture, and I think it’s a good thing all around.

To effectively discuss their community’s concerns and challenges, members of minority groups must speak amongst themselves freely without fretting about whether mainstream observers will understand or approve of their discourse.  You build your community’s infrastructure and internal debate first and then dialogue with others.   Things like this are part of that process.

Anyway, speaking of the Superfriends, my first exposure to the side-splittingly funny and now world-famous comic Dave Chappelle, was an absolutely hysterical skit he did years ago on MTV’s "The Half-Hour Comedy Hour" show.  Within seconds, I knew this was a riotously funny and creative comic who was going places. 

The skit’s high point was Chappelle’s arguments for why Aquaman was really a downtrodden black superhero.  How else, he asks, do you explain Aquaman getting such lame superpowers and getting the worst, most undignified job (e.g., while Superman saves the world by punching asteroids out of the sky, Aquaman’s stuck herding fish)?  The Man’s keeping Aquaman down…

As usual, the best comedy seems to mine race relations.

And we won’t even get into the few cheesy, stereotypical non-white superheros who were allowed to make a brief appearance once every 10 episodes or so.  The only black character, Black Vulcan, "grew up with his parents in the rough Metropolis neighborhood called Suicide Slum."  Enough said.  And then there was Apache Chief–the guy with the pony tail who got really
tall and who you half expected to sell you a cigar?  As one website puts it, "Apache Chief was one of many embarrassing efforts to give the Superfriends a multi-cultural flavor."

Things are better now in some ways, but now you have the curse of Benneton-style tokenism in pop culture, whose sickly sweet prejudice far more insidious and ultimately harmful.

I think the only solution is for minorities to make (and support) their own cultural programming.  That’s why it’s important for comics like Navarro, Azhar Usman,  etc., to stick to their roots rather than keep it "accessible".

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