The Vexing Life of Grimace
Or Is it Possible to be Black and Purple?
I hope your fall is off to a good start. As the leaves change, and the evenings seem to arrive a little quicker, we brace ourselves for the holiday seasons…and the pumpkin spice lobby’s many attempt to challenge our tastebuds. Do we want to live in world in which such terrible things as a pumpkin spice salmon and pumpkin spice Pringles chips are considered a seasonal treat? Spooky season, indeed! Now that I’m several weeks into a new school term, all the active learning and intellectual engagement has inspired me to tackle one of the most important questions I’ve ever been asked about my research on fast food:
Is McDonaldland character Grimace Black?
What a nuanced and layered idea! Is the iconic, triangular-shaped, purple being in fact Black? And of all the McDonaldland characters, why is Grimace the target of this question in my NUMEROUS conversations about the citizens of the world of McDonald’s Happy Meal toys.
Bear with me as I unpack this question that first appeared in a conversation about my book Franchise sponsored by the good people at Lafayette College and posed by food studies scholar Dr. Shayne Figueroa (who is on Twitter). NPR’s Code Switch host with the most Gene Demby also encouraged this research challenge.
So, in order to tackle this burning question, we need to address three other issues first: Who is Grimace? What exactly is a Grimace? Can a puppet have a race?
Who is Grimace? Grimace’s origins began in 1971, when the McDonaldland universe introduced a new resident named Evil Grimace; so our purple protagonist was introduced as a malevolent force, and he repeatedly stole milkshakes from the good people of McDonaldland. Grimace’s initial criminalization and scary vibes didn’t sit well with his target audience—children—and he was revamped, and Grimace (kind of like Beyonce), became a one-named icon. No longer a thief, he was a connoisseur of legally acquired milkshakes. The Grimace transformation is not that unusual in the history of fast food characters. Sometimes these changes were done so the characters could appear less scary or, more importantly, less legally precarious, in a copyright way. See Sid and Marty Krofft Television Productions Inc vs. McDonald’s Corp (1977) to learn about the successful lawsuit filed against McDonald’s over an aborted deal with the team behind children’s television show H.R. Pufnstuf. The courts had to deal with challenging questions about Mayor McCheese’s phenotype and his relationship to the other City Hall dweller, the Honorable Pufnstuf of Living Island.
Although there was no lawsuit involved, McDonald’s was probably cautious when they gave Captain Crook the hook. Crook began as super scary and was later made a little friendly before he walked the plank. If you squint, you may think you are encountering Disney’s Captain Hook with a penchant for stealing Filet-o-Fish sandwiches.
As an aside, according to one Disney wiki site, Captain Hook has a lot of work to do in therapy.
Jake and the Never Land Pirates reveals that Hook had a rather miserable childhood. As a young buccaneer, he was trained in the ways of piracy by his mother, Mama Hook, though he was pitiful at the craft. It was also revealed that James was heavily ostracized as a child, with his birthdays being particularly lonesome.
What exactly is a Grimace? Strangely, a purple monster devoted to capturing his joy, has been named with the word that means “an ugly, twisted expression on a person’s face, typically expressing disgust, pain, or wry amusement.” So grimace the noun doesn’t quite fit Grimace the proper noun. Grimace is probably best described as some kind of monster, and recently a Canadian McDonald’s manager described Grimace as an enormous taste bud. Grimace has also been suggested to actually be a milkshake, as McDonald’s internal archivist indicated in this tweet; his source was the archive of Grimace lore. So, is Grimace as a sort of self-owning entity that steals the very thing that he is…this theory has existential levels to it.
Can a puppet have a race? Of course, as the excellent scholarship on race, comedy, and minstrelsy indicates, fictional characters—from puppets to cartoon characters to people in novels—can be racialized without any mention of their race. This essay by Amber West spells out the relationship between minstrelsy and puppetry nicely. She writes:
[Famed puppeteer] Paul McPharlin started a trend in early twentieth-century American puppetry in which puppeteers made distinctions between exaggerated blackface minstrel puppet characters, which they used for lowbrow puppetry (i.e., lighter themes, clowning, and farce), and more realistic-looking (albeit exoticized) representations of black people, which were often used for more “highbrow” or “high art” puppet shows (i.e., serious themes and drama). “The less the puppeteers wish their ‘negro puppets’ to play the fool,” Fisler argues, “the more likely they are to try to shape their vestiges within the boundaries of photographic realism.” He also calculates that ten percent of American puppeteers adapted Helen Bannerman’s 1900 children’s book, Little Black Sambo, to the puppet stage during the 1930s , and that twenty-five percent of American puppeteers depended on blackface puppets for their livelihood in 1934. Particularly in puppetry produced in rural frontier communities or for children’s audiences, blackface puppetry “was as widely circulated as puppetry itself.”
The history of puppetry is rife with these practices, and the exaggerated voices and movement of puppets can lead to uncomfortable audience reception, even when the intention is to create positive representation of a character’s race and culture. Take the case of Roosevelt Franklin, formerly of Sesame Street. Roosevelt now visits only on special occasions.
Although the Children’s Television Workshop created Sesame Street and cast its adult actors in the spirit of representing a multiracial and multiethnic community, their choice of an African-American Vernacular English-speaking puppet named Roosevelt Franklin didn’t sit well with audiences. Roosevelt did last five seasons living on Sesame Street until he was sent to live elsewhere.
Roosevelt Franklin appeared on Sesame Street from Season 1 (1970) to Season 7 (1975). It goes without saying that his name is simply a reversal of that of president Franklin D. Roosevelt. The precocious Roosevelt Franklin attended Roosevelt Franklin Elementary School, where he taught the class as often as not. He taught concepts like family, pride, respect, geography and not drinking poison. Roosevelt was a cool kid who loved to scat, rhyme and sing the blues. His mother was proud of him.
In the case of puppets that are not explicitly ‘raced’ as was the case of Roosevelt, sometimes racial stereotypes are heaped upon the character, so that the trained mind an eye can assign a sort of label or frame of difference onto the character without explicit naming. This is the basis of a lot of comedy tropes in film and television.
So, what can we say about Grimace?
Based on the tropes we find in popular culture—the initial criminalization of Grimace, the ways that Grimace is marked as driven by his impulsive need for dairy desserts rather than his intellect, and (in combination with his size) Grimace’s color makes him stick out among his other primary-colored friends. Additionally, Grimace, like a number of African Americans in the U.S., has ancestral ties to Ireland due to slavery (see Uncle O’Grimacey, a spokesperson for the Shamrock Shake) Contributing to the racialization of Grimace are a series of memes, which I won’t link here, suggesting that Grimace’s style is evocative of a 1970s Blaxploitation film character involved in the exploitation of sex workers. You get my drift.
So, is Grimace Black? I don’t know if I can answer the question definitively, but I can say that popular culture gives us a lot of excellent food for thought when it comes to the ways that racial stereotypes are reference, recycled, and represented in the most unlikely of places.
Join me this week for a virtual conversation with Bartow Elmore, hosted by New America, on October 27, 1:00 p.m. EST. Elmore is a historian and author of the new book Seed Money: Monsanto’s Post and Our Food Future, a dazzling history of a chemical company, agribusiness, and excessive corporate power. It’s a fantastic follow-up to his excellent first book, Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism.
Until next time,
Your Favorite Prof