Introduction to “Representations of Genocide in Cartoons”

When you think of genocide and how it’s represented in popular media you might think of the movie Schindler’s List.  You might think of Hotel Rwanda.  You might think of The Book Thief or Sarah’s Key.  It’s is entirely doubtful that what will spring to mind is cartoons.  Still, genocide is a theme or trope that is used in cartoons often enough to be noticed.  Before we get onto the topic of how genocide is represented in cartoons, and why that’s important, we first have to define what genocide is.  The first mention of the term genocide comes from a Polish man named Raphael Lemkin in 1933.  Lemkin was the father of the term genocide, and the term was codified into international law in 1948 when the UN created the Convention for the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG).  The legal definition of genocide contains multitudes of nuance and is still being debated to this day.  

For our purposes we will simplify the definition to the following: The following acts done with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group.  Killing members of the group (in part or in whole), inflicting on the group conditions of life designed to destroy them, transferring children from one group to another, preventing births within the group, and destroying the culture of the group.  When dealing with cartoons it is far more common to see genocide portrayed simply as an attempt to exterminate a group, and while this is genocide, the definition is broader than simply killing.  

Despite the fact that many cartoons are designed for an adult audience, the word genocide is rarely, if ever, uttered by animated characters.  Yet its existence is without question, both in adult, and children’s cartoons.  This heavy and important topic should be a part of all types media.  It is important that genocide be represented, both in non-fiction, but also in fictional media.  Genocide in cartoons is usually being committed by some evil overlord.  The easily recognizable villain who seeks to dominate the world, or too remove from existence some group or another who might stand in his way.  We’ll return to motivations for genocide later in this paper.  First we have to point out that it is not just villains who have committed genocide in cartoons.  On more than one occasion we are shown a hero, or even the hero of the show, committing genocide against a race of “pure evil”.  When this happens we usually applaud, because the “evil” has finally been defeated.  That is, frankly, a terrifying narrative that mirrors potential narratives of successful genocidal regimes.  Imagine the Nazis having succeeded in killing off every single Jew on the planet.  They would have applauded in the same way that you applaud when the Hero destroys the “Evil Race of Villainous Creatures”.  

Every genocidal regime paints their victims as being villains.  Dehumanization is a necessary step in convincing a populace to commit genocide.  You can’t convince your citizenry to kill off an entire group of people who they still consider people.  In every case of genocide that has ever existed in the Real World the genocidal regime begins their genocide with a campaign of hate speech and discriminatory legislation.  The most commonly used technique is to connect the victim group with something considered loathsome or dangerous.  The Nazis regularly described the Jews as vermin or as a disease.  Both things that we don’t want to have in our society.  The Hutus of Rwanda described the Tutsi as cockroaches (inyenzi), the average person will step on a cockroach if they see one.  In the case of an infestation the only thing to do is to call an exterminator and kill them all.  The Ottoman Turks regularly described the Armenians “as gâvur (infidel) and rajah (cattle).”*  Most humans, especially those of us who are not of a vegetarian bend, do not flinch at the idea of slaughtering cattle.  Hitler had many things to say about the Jews in his infamous book Mein Kampf, but one of the simplest and most telling ideas is this “If the Jews were alone in this world they would stifle in filth and offal…”*.  For Hitler and the Nazis the Jews were a useless band of criminals and vermin.  This theme can be found in every genocide of the 20th and 21st century.  

Television is made up of themes.  When dealing with a audio-visual medium such as television it is important to be able to portray themes and concepts without having to spell it out in detail each time it appears on screen.  In popular media, the concept of portraying important ideas without spelling them out is usually referred to as a trope.* is a good resource to use when seeking to understand what tropes are and how they are used in television and other media.  Readers should be warned though, it is easy to be sucked into the never ending black hole of this website.  Genocide is such a commonly used trope in television and other media that there is an entire subsection of the site devoted to it.  While there are a large number of cartoons devoted exclusively to an adult audience, cartoons are still largely seen as being for children’s entertainment.  This paper deals with both kinds of cartoons, and pulls from Western Animation as well as Japanese Anime.

*Elisabeth Hope Murray, Disrupting Pathways to Genocide: The Process of Ideological Radicalisation (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). 88
*Adolf Hitler. “Nation and Race” in Mein Kampf. (Germany: Eher Valeg. 1925), 302
TV Tropes: Genocide Tropes.


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