NOTE: As of late December 2018, Amanita Design have elected to re-color Chuchel in order to avoid any blackface associations. I’m all for the change, though the question does remain of whether his entire characterization emerged from the stereotype, and whether changing it does what Cole argues Cuphead does: remove the overtly offensive imagery but fail to reckon with the traces it leaves behind. I’ve left this essay up not only because I believe that’s still worth considering, but because my own mistake remains, regardless of whether the work you can go out and buy is different now.
The character Chuchel is named after a Czech word for a ball of hair and dust, and he is described as an amalgamation of the game’s lead designer and his dog. Chuchel is also a minstrel. In tandem with his bulging white eyes and his crooked teeth set in prominent red-orange lips, his soot-black dustball body suggests a familiar racial caricature. His design stands in uncomfortable proximity to the blackface designs of such objects of controversy as the Pokémon Jinx, Dragon Ball’s Mr. Popo, that laser meme, and most significantly a wide array of American cartoons that took direct inspiration from the minstrel shows of our all-too-recent past, using familiar racism to generate laughs.
Yussef Cole has written about this racist history in relation to Cuphead for Unwinnable, arguing that although the game attempted to scrub blackface imagery from the Fleischer cartoons that inspired it, it still retained a number of racist tropes related to things like gambling and jazz. Citing Nicholas Sammond’s study Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation, Cole traces the lineage of Cuphead’s protagonists to “early cartoon characters [who] were tricksters, layabouts, and thieves, archetypes born from the depiction of the lazy slaves minstrel shows specialized in.”
Chuchel clearly does not make as much of an effort to “clean up” as Cuphead does, and its inspirations are a little more ambiguous than that game. But even so, developers Amanita Design note classic comedy archetypes and short animated films as their inspiration, and it’s easy to picture the through-line—Chuchel is introduced to us as a lazy character, shutting off an increasingly elaborate series of loud alarms to avoid waking up in the morning. From there, he behaves as a chaotic nuisance, disrupting the world around him while in single-minded, mischievous pursuit of fruit (although the cherry in question seems to belong to him, the continuous process of trying to take it back from other creatures stands quite close to the thief archetype Cole describes). The unintelligible shrieks with which he communicates fit within Amanita’s dialogue-free work, but in this context his speech pattern seems to feed the characterization of the dull-witted, comical fool they have designed to be the butt of various slapstick jokes that would feel at home in a Looney Tune.
There will undoubtedly be some question of intent when it comes to Chuchel and the Czech developers who created him. You can, for example, imagine that Chuchel, who shares the same lips and eyes with many other creatures in the game, is colored as he is for contrast. If he was instead colored gray, he would not be so distinct from the sparse background and the colorful critters around him. But while this may be a worthwhile distinction for how we look at Amanita, the creation is the creation; what coloring Chuchel this way does most of all is put blackface on an outlier, an outsider, an other.
The game’s comedy has racist overtones regardless of intent because racism has never needed to be intentional; for Vulture, Lauren Michele Jackson (also referencing Sammond) notes that the familiar gloves on characters like Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse have minstrel roots as “Jump Jim Crow attire,” but “as time went on, audiences read them as cartoons above minstrels.” We may no longer perceive details like these in relation to their original context, but that history does not go away; Amanita draws from classic comedy for Chuchel’s behavior and particularly his character design, and in doing so they replicate racist tropes, unintentionally or perhaps even intentionally. Within the text of the game, these tropes go unrecognized and as such they are not built into anything positive, as Jackson argues the grotesquerie of modern cartoons does and as Cole argues that Cuphead failed to do.
In my review for Slant Magazine, I commented on the similarities between Chuchel’s setup and the Chuck Jones cartoon “Duck Amuck”, comparing the character to Daffy Duck. I made this comparison as a positive, and I went on to award the game four stars, which translates to a big 80 on various review aggregators that’s going to be up there pretty much forever. I wish I could say that I only recognized the problems with Chuchel after the fact, after the piece was on the site and the scores were posted to review aggregators and it was too late for me to do anything about it, but that isn’t the truth. Though some reflection after seeing concerns voiced on Twitter spurred me to write this thing you’re reading now, the truth is that they were not new to me. They lingered in the back of my mind as I played through the game for review, but I failed to voice them with the platform I was given. I’m going to talk about why, not as an excuse for my failure but because I think it’s useful to understand what can lead to silence so that, hopefully, similar mistakes won’t be made.
It was my idea to review Chuchel. I requested that we cover it, because I failed to notice anything wrong with the trailer, and I continued not noticing until about halfway through the game proper. As you might see from the articles above, there’s a solid basis for these concerns, but even then I wasn’t entirely sure. The general silence about the game gave me pause, and so did Chuchel’s nonhuman appearance (an entirely meaningless distinction that in no way precludes racism, as all those old cartoons starring animals will attest; it was bad reasoning, and I should’ve known better). I’ve written about mental health and Asian representation before, but on those, I felt 100%. On this, I didn’t. Some segments of the Internet, particularly in the games community, are actively hostile toward the discussion of social issues, which provides even further incentive for arguments like these to be airtight. There can be no reason to discount the argument from within the text, because calling something out in error can harm the discussion around these issues. In short, I was afraid.
In an attempt to alleviate those fears, I asked more than ten people to watch trailers and look at screenshots, and none of them shared my concerns. Some acknowledged that they could see where I was coming from to a point, though they expressed some skepticism since they noted it wasn’t a conclusion they’d have come to on their own. Others didn’t see it at all. I could have probed further, asking my editor or others on Twitter. I did not.
I don’t mention that I consulted people to dump my responsibility at their feet, but to show another of the excuses I used. There was Chuchel’s nonhuman appearance, there was my own nagging uncertainty plus knowledge of the stakes, and there was this, the fact that no one else saw it, which might be the worst excuse of the three. The job of a critic is not to feed a consensus. If everyone can already see everything that’s of valid concern, that defeats the critic’s entire purpose of suggesting new perspectives. As a Vietnamese-American, as a second-gen immigrant, as someone dealing with mental illness, I write because I think these perspectives have value against the consensus; if I don’t stick to these perspectives and those convictions, what am I doing here?
I chose to set my concerns aside, and I believe that was the more enticing choice because it’s easier. It is easier to say nothing, to let things continue as usual, when it is your privilege to do so because you are not the one specifically at risk. It is easier to decide that I’m overreacting to a game I otherwise enjoyed up to that point and decide it’s nothing; if I do that, I can continue enjoying it and not have to reckon with my failure to see what was right in front of me, not have to decide how many stars should be taken off for racism, not have to worry whether the review will become ammunition lobbed at others discussing these issues with more nuance than me. The fact that I chose what saved me the headache is not a coincidence; silence comes not only from the failure to recognize such issues, but the eagerness to accept that there’s nothing that needs to be said so that we may remain complacent.
I’m continuing to link to the review because I don’t want to erase that perspective. I do, however, want to give it some badly-needed context. The praise I gave Chuchel was something I believed, but I believed those things because I allowed myself to ignore the history and see only a cartoon instead of the reprehensible tradition it emerges from. I wish I had acknowledged those concerns with the platform I was given, and I can’t apologize enough for my failure to do so; I want to learn from my mistake here, and I hope others can, too.