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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Are ethnic stereotypes in pop culture — such as the cartoonish Scots in Brave — ever defensible?

Brave Disney Pixar

Melissa McEwan at Shakesville has a problem with Brave. To wit:

I am genuinely glad Pixar did a film that a lot of people are receiving well because of a female protagonist. I am not glad, however, that they did it while trading on Scottish stereotypes.

Brave is certainly not the first film to do this. The central character of Shrek is a character who encompasses all the negative stereotypes of the Scots—grumpy, penny-pinching, misanthropic, hulking oafs. The dour Scots. (Note the irony of its being a movie about tolerance whose lead reinforces the very narratives that underlie caricatures used to marginalize Scots.) Mike Myers, who voiced Shrek, built a career on playing Scottish stereotypes: From the grumpy shopkeep in SNL‘s recurring “If It’s Not Scottish, It’s Crap!” sketch, to the Scottish dad in So I Married an Axe Murderer, to the loathsome kilt-clad Fat Bastard of the Austin Powers franchise….

Scottish stereotypes have shown up as sidekicks, comic relief characters, Magical Celts, and noble domestics at least as far back as Scotty on Star Trek (who wasn’t even played by a Scot). One of Disney’s most famous secondary characters is Scrooge McDuck, an embodiment of the stingy Scot stereotype. The Simpsons have Groundskeeper Willie. The Smurfs were updated with Scottish stereotype “Gutsy Smurf.” Robin Williams cross-dressed his way into his children’s hearts as Mrs. Doubtfire. Ewen Bremmer, best known as Spud from Trainspotting, often pops up as a token Scottish caricature, often with a “hilariously” impenetrable Teuchter accent, like kooky pilot Declan in The Rundown.

Please understand: I’m not telling you not to like Brave. I’m asking you to understand it in a larger cultural context, which is more complicated than the good news about Pixar finally realizing girls exist.

Like its cohorts, Brave is doing something very cynical in its appropriation of Scottish culture for the backdrop of this film: It’s using the most identifiably tribal white culture to side-step charges of racism while playing the same goddamn exploitative game of hilarious caricatures and noble savages.

Scottish people, with their clans and tartans and ubiquitous red hair, have become the go-to group for makers of pop culture who want all the fun of racial stereotyping without the charges of racism.

There’s much more — please go read it. Then come back here and discuss:

Are ethnic stereotypes in pop culture — such as the cartoonish Scots in Brave — ever defensible? Is there a way to utilize such stereotypes in storytelling without being offensive?

I haven’t seen Brave yet, so I can’t comment on how the Scottish characters are deployed in the film. But as with so many other similar matters — such as the treatment of women by Hollywood — the problem isn’t so much with any individual film but with the pile-on that is the aggregate. So this isn’t really about picking on Brave — or Fat Bastard or Shrek or The Simpsons or Star Trek — but about looking at the larger context in which this stories and others are created.


(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • Corsetmaker

    Ok, I know this is a very old thread. But actual Scot here. Yes they are stereotypes, and yes they are offensive. Several of those non-stereotypical films you mentioned are Scottish films. Bill Forsythe for instance. The problems come from external stereotypes.
    And Mrs Doubtfire is a confusing one. Described as English but Robin Williams used a Scottish accent. That was just plain old mistaken.

  • Corsetmaker

    So does the baggage only count when it’s within the country of the person doing the mocking? Because act of proscription, transportation, indentured servitude, clearances, and so on.

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