Hollywood’s idea of what women and minorities should be and act like has traditionally been… well, the politest word we can think of is “questionable.” Things have improved in recent years, to the point where female — and minority — propelled films like Wonder Woman, Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time are big business. But for all the progress Hollywood has been made, we still have decades of facepalm-worthy media left behind from less enlightened days. On top of that, problems remain. Insensitive and even outright racist characters continue to pop up with alarming frequency in modern entertainment.
Even our favorite TV shows and movies are not immune from introducing offensive characters. No, not even that super extra special show that we have held dear since childhood. It’s all fair game today as we call out some of the most distasteful attempts at diversity we’ve ever seen. Some of the items here are well-meaning, others are just plain ugly, both physically and in what they represent. But not a single one should have made it past the brainstorming phase, never mind into the final product. And so, without further ado, here are 15 characters that made us reach for the brain bleach.
The year 1994 brought us Iron Man, a cartoon about the titular hero and his alter ego’s terrible ’90s mullet. But even worse than Tony Stark’s hair is the show’s portrayal of the Mandarin. For the uninitiated, Mandy is a Fu-Manchu knockoff bent on world domination. As that description suggests, he is not the most sensitively rendered villain in Marvel’s rogues gallery.
How do you adapt such a blatantly xenophobic character for TV? If you’re the ’90s Iron Man cartoon, you make everything worse by drawing the Mandarin as a green-skinned goblin. Given Western media’s long history of portraying Asian characters as subhuman monsters, the animators definitely should have rethought this one. Say what you will about Iron Man 3, but at least the live-action Mandy is a human being.
14. HULA HULA
Plastic Man is one of DC’s goofiest heroes. It is therefore somewhat baffling that, when Hanna-Barbera gave him his own cartoon in 1979, they felt the need to add a comedy relief sidekick. Even more baffling is the character they created to fill that role: Hula Hula, a Hawaiian man voiced by English comedian Joe Baker. You can tell he’s Hawaiian because his name is Hula Hula and he always wears a Hawaiian shirt. What else do you need?
The opening narration describes him as “Bad Luck Hula.” This may be rude, but it’s also accurate, since Hula’s only role here is mucking things up for Plastic Man. Oh, and spouting catchphrases like “mother of Maui,” just in case you forgot he was Hawaiian. Hula Hula is so profoundly incompetent that, in one short, Plastic Man’s infant son has to save him from himself three separate times.
13. THE ORCS
One of the many dangers Frodo Baggins and the Fellowship of the Ring face on their way to Mordor is the Orcs. The Orcs are a race of corrupted elves. They used to have pale skin and light-colored hair, like all the elves do. Now that they’re evil, they have noticeably darker skin and dreadlocks. Well, that’s not loaded with unfortunate implications or anything.
In the spirit of fairness, director Peter Jackson ordered an Orcish makeover for The Hobbit trilogy, giving them paler skin and more varied hairstyles. But that doesn’t change the fact that the original Lord of the Rings Orcs somehow got all the way to the final film without a single person wondering if maybe they should rethink some things re: character design.
12. NORA CLAVICLE
Batman is famous for his wide array of interesting villains. Nora Clavicle, who appeared only once in the ’60s TV show’s lackluster third season, is not one of them. Clavicle plots to take over Gotham by replacing everyone in local government with women. Because evidently women will happily betray spouse and country for a shot at power.
To illustrate how awful Nora Clavicle is, think of every horrible stereotype you’ve ever heard about women and feminists — that’s this episode in a nutshell. None of the women are any good at traditionally male jobs. They prefer to gab on the phone than to stop crime, and they faint at the sight of mechanical mice — just as Clavicle planned. Despite claiming that women are superior, deep down she knows they’re really all simpering idiots. Even for the ’60s, Nora Clavicle and her Ladies’ Crime Club stand out as hideously sexist.
11. GHETTO MAN
A lot of you have probably never heard of 1979’s Legends of the Superheroes specials. On the rare occasion someone talks about them, it’s for two reasons: the fact that it reunited Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin, and Ghetto Man. Ghetto Man, as we’re sure you couldn’t possibly guess, is the special’s token black hero. Could they just not get the rights to Black Lightning?
Ghetto Man doesn’t seem to have a costume beyond a vest with the letters “GM” written among the bling. He doesn’t even get to do any crime-fighting. He spends all of his screen time — a very long three minutes — roasting the other heroes and doing “hip” handshakes with Batman of all people. Clearly, the creators were less concerned about diversity than they were about cranking out cheap jokes.
10. SKIDS AND MUDFLAP
You’d think turning an alien robot into a racist caricature would be impossible, but Michael Bay found a way in 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen by introducing an unwitting and unwilling audience to his version of Skids and Mudflap, voiced by Tom Kenny and Reno Wilson respectively.
These two iron irritants spend virtually every second of their screen time spouting cringeworthy slang and generally acting like they got lost on the way to a hi-tech minstrel show. The fact that Skids has a gold tooth does not help, nor does their apparent illiteracy. Honestly, the most satisfying part of the movie is when Mudflap is almost killed by Devastator. You know you’ve screwed up when you disappoint an audience by not killing a good guy.
9. JAR JAR BINKS
Ah, Jar Jar. No list of terrible screen characters would be complete without you. The infamous Mr. Binks debuted in 1999’s The Phantom Menace, the first movie in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. He quickly became not just the most hated character in the Star Wars universe, but one of the most hated characters in anything, ever. Credit where credit’s due: if there’s one thing Jar Jar is good at, it’s at being bad.
Part of the backlash stems from the character’s perceived racial overtones. Multiple viewers have criticized Jar Jar for embodying negative black stereotypes, including but not limited to laziness, cowardice and imperfect, heavily accented English. All of these traits are played for laughs — laughs they most emphatically did not receive from anyone over the age of seven.
8. HALF THE CAST OF SUPER FRIENDS
Super Friends had a long run, from 1973 to 1986. Aside from the regulars you’d expect in a superhero cartoon — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the rest of the Justice League — the show featured a rotating cast of supporting characters. Hanna-Barbera, concerned about the show’s blindingly monochromatic stars, created some racially diverse heroes to try and round things out. It was a nice thought, but they probably should have just left it alone.
Super Friends‘ idea of positive representation is a Hispanic hero named El Dorado, a Native American hero named Apache Chief, a black hero named Black Vulcan, and a Japanese hero named Samurai. That’s, uh, real original of you there, Hanna-Barbera. While this may have been the best anyone could hope for back in the ’70s, today’s audiences expect better.
7. FATMAN AND BOY BLUBBER
Freakazoid! has a small but devoted fanbase who fondly recall the show for its wild, absurd sense of humor. But not every episode is a winner, as exemplified by the “Fatman and Boy Blubber” segment from the tenth episode. It features the title characters stopping two schoolyard bullies from stealing an overweight boy’s lunch, only to try to steal the boy’s lunch for themselves. Because they’re fat, and fat people like food. Yup, that’s the whole joke.
The animation style, which emphasizes every roll and jiggle of our so-called heroes’ bodies, preemptively sabotages the short’s hastily spouted moral about not mocking others for their weight. Fortunately, this short aired during Freakazoid!‘s early, experimental phase. Most of the characters introduced here did not catch on, including Fatman and Boy Blubber.
6. THE GRINGOTTS GOBLINS
If we tried to list every anti-Semitic trope ever used in fiction, we’d be here all day. But one of the best-known examples is the image of Jewish people as hook-nosed money-grubbers. Accordingly, they tend to find employment as bankers or moneylenders. All of this also works well as a description of the Gringotts employees in Harry Potter.
Early in The Sorcerer’s Stone — known outside the U.S. as The Philosopher’s Stone — Hagrid takes Harry to Gringotts, the magical world’s only banking establishment. Here, we learn that the place is run by literal goblins who love nothing more than money, and hate nothing more than people stealing their money. Given how much work went into building the world of Harry Potter, one would think the character designer could have invested a little more effort here.
One of the more obscure entries on this list, Breeze is one of five teenage dance students granted superpowers in the short-lived ’90s cartoon Sky Dancers. Breeze is Native American, but if you want any more specific information than that, good luck. “Native American” was as deep as the creators were willing to think about this character, and they were apparently quite proud of themselves for it, as they make sure to constantly remind you of Breeze’s heritage.
The most blatant reminder is his powers, which are of course nature-based. His name is Breeze, for crying out loud. But it’s not all bad news with Breeze. At least he’s a hero. And he isn’t portrayed as any wiser or more mystical than the other Sky Dancers. Still, just because a character doesn’t fit into every single trope doesn’t mean he’s any good.
4. CYNTHIA REYNOLDS
The Flash‘s third season introduced us to a new character: Cynthia Reynolds, a dimension-hopping bounty hunter. What could possible ruin such a cool idea? Well, her code name is Gypsy, a pejorative term used to describe Romani people. Cynthia, like many others, seems to think this word is a cutesy synonym for free-spirited, bohemian, traveler or any number of other words it absolutely does not mean.
Maybe this could have been excused if Cynthia was herself Romani. She could have decided to reclaim the slur. Unfortunately, as far as we know, this is not the case. If anything, she appears to be Latina, a theory supported by Danny Trejo’s guest appearance as her father. And so we are left with a sour taste in our mouths when we should just be enjoying the action. Thanks, Cindy.
3. THE J’NAII
Star Trek, in most of its incarnations, shows the future as an idyllic, diverse place. Until relatively recently, however, LGBT characters have been strangely absent. Star Trek: The Next Generation halfheartedly attempts to rectify this in its fifth season. “The Outcast” introduces us to an alien race called the J’naii. The J’naii are an agender, aromantic species. This would be a really interesting concept if they weren’t also amoral.
One of the J’naii, Soren, declares that she is a woman. But the J’naii regard any expression of gender as a mental illness and “cure” Soren via alien conversion therapy, despite Commander Riker’s attempt to save her. To sum up, the non-binary folks are backwards villains, while the cisgender people are the open-minded heroes. We’re pretty sure the moral got lost in translation somewhere…
2. THE JAPANESE SABOTEURS
Famous Studios, successor to Fleischer Studios, produced several Superman short films during World War II. Most of them were war propaganda, complete with all the racism and xenophobia that implies. The fact that they named the first of these shorts “Japoteurs” should tip you off that you’re in for a bad time.
Every single Japanese character is short, round-faced, buck-toothed and bespectacled. While the voice actors stop short of replacing all of their Ls with Rs, all of the Japanese characters speak in the same broken, choppy English. And, of course, a Japanese person can never be nice or even neutral; they’re all villains of the worst kind. Look, we get that there was a war on. But that’s not an excuse to indulge in ugly stereotypes, especially not in something aimed at impressionable kids.
1. EVERY WHITEWASHED CHARACTER EVER
Hollywood is a strange, dichotomous beast. On the one hand, they’re willing to throw all the time, money and effort necessary into perfecting every tiny computer-generated detail. On the other, they somehow can’t cast actors of color in major roles expressly designed for actors of color. We could devote several of these lists to documenting victims of whitewashing: Doctor Strange‘s Ancient One, the MCU’s Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, the X-Men movies’ Quicksilver, Pan‘s Tiger Lily…
Star Trek’s Khan Noonien Singh probably has it the worst. Not once has an Indian actor ever played him. A Mexican originated the role, and in the recent reboot, the extremely white Benedict Cumberbatch took over the role. You’d think that, if they can find Indian actors to play comedy relief, they could find one to play one of sci-fi’s most celebrated villains. And yet here we are.
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