Disney's movie "Dick Tracy" is big at the box office, but some local Asian and Latino groups are unhappy with Disney-owned KCAL Channel 9 for reviving a 29-year-old "Dick Tracy" cartoon series that they say contains ethnic and racial stereotypes.
"When you exaggerate racial and ethnic mannerisms and characteristics, that is racism, no matter how you slice it," said Raul Ruiz, Chicano studies professor at Cal State Northridge.
The series, which premiered in 1961 in New York and ran on CBS in the early '70s, was released in syndication last month to coincide with the release of the "Dick Tracy" movie. KCAL bought it in the Los Angeles market and has been airing it weekdays at 8 a.m.
The animated character of detective Tracy serves primarily as a host, offering "crime-stopper" tips and introducing stories in which the crime-fighting is done by one of several of assistants created for the series: Heap O' Calorie, Hemlock Holmes, Jo Jitsu and Go Go Gomez. The latter two have disturbed members of minority advocacy groups.
Jo Jitsu has buck teeth and eyes that squint shut through round glasses. He says such things as "So solly" (for "so sorry") and "I are ristening" (instead of "I am listening").
The mustachioed Go Go Gomez is often found under his sombrero taking a siesta. His nasal dialogue is peppered with "Ay, caramba" and "Ay, chihuahua."
Both characters are child-sized compared to Tracy and an array of crooks.
Esther Renteria of the National Hispanic Media Coalition is disheartened that the show is being aired.
"I really hoped we were past the 'Si, senor' and 'Ay, mamacita' portrayal of our culture," she said. "It's only back on because of the movie. There's no other reason to run that kind of cartoon that's so obviously out of date and full of stereotypes.
"It gives a negative impression to youngsters who don't have daily contact with Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans," she said.
Ron Wakabayashi, executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission and a member of the Japanese American Citizens League, is concerned about his 7-year-old seeing the show. "You don't see caricatures today in that overt form," he said. "I would hope Disney would view it as surprising and appalling."
Ruiz said, "Because you're focusing primarily on a young audience, there's the likelihood that kids may transfer these names and impressions toward minority kids they know.
"I thought this was no longer acceptable in the public media," he said. "This city is composed of human beings and all of us have differences; what this does is point out that differences are not necessarily positive. Would the L.A. Times run a comic strip featuring Jo Jitsu and Go Go Gomez? I don't think so."
Richard Katsuda belongs to the Los Angeles-based National Coalition for Redress and Reparations and to the Asian Pacific American Coalition headquartered in San Francisco. He is also a teacher for the L.A. Unified School District who works with Chicano and Asian kids. He remembered seeing the cartoons when he was growing up.
"Cartoons like this can be destructive at an early age," he said. "They're laughing at cultural differences, accents, looks. It's part of the distortions that create a certain perception of Asians, Pacific Islanders and Chicanos."
When asked about the stereotyping during the first week the show aired, Matt Cooperstein, head of programming for KCAL Channel 9, said that within the first three days, the station had received only one negative call. KCAL was "monitoring" the cartoons, he said, "to see how severe the stereotypes are. If we find anything glaringly stereotypical or offensive, we will look at it on a case-by-case basis."
KCAL officials did not respond to further Times inquiries.
Shelly Hirsh, president of programming at Sachs Finley Programming, distributor of the "Dick Tracy" series, had expressed similar caution a few days after the series was revived: "We're monitoring it in other stations around the country," one reason being "Jo Jitsu's portrayal of a Chinese guy."
Reached for comment at the end of June, Hirsh reported that he was aware of only three negative calls nationwide and "a slew of positive calls. The ratings have been wonderful everywhere," he said. "There's no national number yet, but in individual markets, in the overnights in its time period, it's No. 1 in all but two markets. It's even No. 1 in L.A."
Kathy Masaoka of the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations feels that the reason so few complaints have been made is "parents aren't aware of it."
A teacher and mother of two, Masaoka said she hadn't paid attention when her children watched the "Dick Tracy" cartoons until they began imitating the heavy accents of Go Go Gomez and Jo Jitsu.
"They think it's kind of funny, but they wouldn't feel good if someone did that to them," she said.
The cartoons are also available at video stores: Paramount Home Video last week released six volumes, at $12.95 each, of the same series under the title "The Animated Adventures of Dick Tracy."
A Paramount spokeswoman said that the cartoons had been screened prior to purchase and that so far there have been no consumer complaints. "Paramount feels them to be very entertaining," she said, "and that's why they chose to distribute them."
Wakabayashi doesn't think that the cartoons will "devastate" children, "but in a cumulative way," he said, "a child gets a little piece of self-esteem taken away by the cartoon, and then another by a kid who develops a perception of him because of the cartoon.
"That makes a lot more work for you to do as a parent to keep your child whole."