On the Origin of Species: Jynx

Investigating the inspirations behind Pokémon
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  • Monday, August 2, 2010

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This column has been written by Xan Hutcheon. It expresses the views of the columnist, not necessarily those of Bulbagarden networks.

When I sat down to write today's column, I resolved to focus on one of the greatest controversies within the Pokémon fan community. This is a matter that has ignited countless flame wars and furious exchanges. Any mention of the subject is liable to trigger argument and strife.

Jynx in her current design

In the end, though, I decided to leave the matter of whether Psyduck is actually a platypus for another day, and talk about Jynx instead.

Pokémon, like any large franchise, has attracted its share of controversies. Some have been based largely in fact, like the seizures triggered by rapid flashes in an early episode of the anime. Some are based on opinion, like the argument that the games promote animal cruelty. And then there are the more... fringe objections to the series, consisting mostly of claims that Pokémon promotes Satanism, or Zionism, or Communism (I made that last one up, but I'm quite sure that there's a website somewhere putting forward that case). One of the biggest scandals of the series' history involves the design of Jynx, the Humanshape Pokémon.

The original Jynx

In 2000, the US cultural critic Carole Boston Weatherford published an article entitled Politically Incorrect Pokémon, in which she argued that: "The character Jynx, Pokémon #124, has decidedly human features: jet-black skin, huge pink lips, gaping eyes, a straight blonde mane and a full figure, complete with cleavage and wiggly hips. Put another way, Jynx resembles an overweight drag queen incarnation of Little Black Sambo, a racist stereotype from a children's book long ago purged from libraries." This wouldn't have been the first time that a blackface-style character had shown up in a Japanese series: Dragon Ball's Mr. Popo was another example cited by Weatherford. This article had significant repercussions within the Pokémon franchise, not least of which was the alteration of Jynx's skin to purple instead of black.

So, is Jynx based on a racist stereotype? If not, what else has contributed to her design? There's no short answer to either of those questions, because Jynx most likely has no single specific origin. There are many things that may have contributed to her design to various degrees, and I'll be taking a look at each of them in turn.

Let's start with blackface, then, since it's already been mentioned. 'Blacking up' for theatrical purposes goes back hundreds of years, and was an established practice in Shakespeare's day. Blackface, however, is arguably more than a white person simply putting on make-up to adopt the role of a black person. It carries with it a whole slew of vaudevillian traditions that date back to the 1830s, and were popularised by a white actor named Thomas D. Rice.

An early depiction of Thomas D. Rice as Jim Crow

Rice picked up a popular African-American dance routine about a wily escaped slave called Jim Crow. Blacking up his face with burnt cork, Rice adopted exaggerated 'black' mannerisms, perfected the routine and quickly became a star. Within a few years, he was known internationally, and his performance became the template for the blackface minstrel act.

Although Rice was performing to mostly-white audiences, there's some evidence that the character of Jim Crow was initially a sympathetic one, who used his wit and cleverness to outfox his rich oppressors – something that working class white audiences could easily identify with. But as time went on, and others developed acts along the same lines, any positive traits the character may have once had were erased. Jim Crow, and other blackface characters like him, became lazy, superstitious and buffoonish caricatures: essentially, the version of the act that persisted for over a century. After the Civil War, Jim Crow would also give his name to a series of laws that greatly disenfranchised the black population.

The success of the act also led to a very particular visual shorthand for representing black people. Often referred to as the "darky" icon, featuring black skin, pop-eyes and prominent white, pink or red lips, this seems to have been directly inspired by blackface make-up. Many early cartoons from the likes of Disney and Warner Brothers readily incorporated this imagery into their output, which has since resulted in rather conspicuous gaps in their modern-day re-releases.

It wasn't until the Civil Rights era that blackface minstrel shows began to fall from favor in the US. In the UK, which didn't have a sizable black population until the post-war era, blackface minstrel shows clung on even longer. It wasn't uncommon for comedians to black up as late as the seventies, and the BBC broadcast The Black and White Minstrel Show for twenty years, finally ending it in 1978 (astonishingly, it continued as a touring stage show for nearly ten years after that).

Mr. Popo of Dragon Ball

And what of Japan? Well, post-war Japan took many cues from American media, and blackface was among them. And it's still there to this day. You can still sometimes see blackface on Japanese television, for example, to the astonishment of Western observers. As often happens when cultural concepts cross oceans, the original context has been lost. In most cases, it seems to be a way of portraying black people (albeit for comedic purposes) rather than invoking the mannerisms of Jim Crow. There is even a Japanese pop group, the Gosperats, who perform their whole act while blacked up. The band seemed perplexed that anybody would find their act offensive. Japanese blackface, one could argue, doesn't carry the connotations that made the Western version so vile. And yet, at the same time, it does, at least to us. It's likely to make the average Western onlooker rather uncomfortable because of the genre's history... a history that would be largely unknown to a Japanese onlooker.

Dragon Ball's Mr. Popo is undoubtedly a product of this: even though he isn't a human in the context of the series, his origins seem quite obvious. The original Jynx shared many of his features: the black skin and prominent lips bearing a startling resemblance to the "darky" iconography now largely abandoned in the US. Mr. Popo has since been edited in Western versions of the series to tone these elements down. With Jynx, Game Freak went a step further and revised her design permanently, and in all regions. Whether or not the claims were accurate, they were enough to provoke the creators into taking action. So... was Jynx a blackface caricature?

These days, the majority of the fandom will be quick to dismiss the notion that Jynx is based on a racist caricature. Instead, the theory most often put forward is that she was inspired by a nineties Japanese fashion trend called ganguro (顔黒or ガングロ, literally "black-face").

Ganguro's origins are hard to verify for certain, and said origins may be important for determining what influence, if any, the style had on Jynx. It grew out of the kogal (コギャル) culture that developed in the late eighties and early nineties. Despite, or perhaps because of its fairly rigid social structure, Japan has seen a great many 'delinquent' fads over the years, and this particular trend involved miniskirts, platform boots, fake tans and blonde dye jobs. The earliest kogals, it seems, were wealthy students of private schools, but the fashion soon spread.

Ganguro gals

The ganguro phenomenon took things a stage further, both physically and figuratively. The fake tans of the kogals were seized upon and exaggerated, creating what can only be described as a rather startling look. It's been suggested by some that this excessive make-up represented an attempt by the ganguro girls to emulate American hip hop subculture: essentially, an effort to appear more 'black'. In reality, this argument mostly seems to stem from confusion with another tanned subculture, the B-gals (though even in the B-gals' case, this is still highly arguable). The object of ganguro culture was likely something simpler than that. While kogals flaunted their delinquency, ganguro gals went a step further and tried to shock. Much like the punk aesthetic of the late seventies, ganguro was an attempt to stand out, and defy rigid societal expectations.

But whereas punk became somewhat absorbed into the mainstream as its initial popularity waned (Johnny Rotten can now be seen on British television advertising butter), ganguro never found such acceptance in Japanese culture. There are still ganguro gals around, their numbers reduced to a dedicated, hardy few, but they're viewed as even more of an oddity now than they were in their heyday. Perhaps the ganguro gals were just a little too different, a little too confrontational for Japanese society to ever embrace them.

The anime series Super GALS provides much insight into the kogal and ganguro phenomena, and is notable for its comparatively frank handling of issues such as enjo kōsai (compensated dating), an element of kogal culture that many would sooner pretend did not exist. In the show, a trio of ganguro gals appear as antagonists (though not particularly serious ones) to the main character, whose main criticism of the look is that it's slightly ridiculous and outdated. The anime was produced between 2001 and 2002, when ganguro was very much on the wane, so it's no surprise to hear this view echoed.

The main argument that goes against ganguro as an inspiration for Jynx is one of timing. It's very hard to establish precisely when a fad began, since it's not the kind of thing that gets exhaustively documented. What we do know, however, is that ganguro reached its height a year or so after the release of Red and Green. The original games began development in 1990 and were released in 1996, while the earliest estimates place ganguro's origins in the mid-nineties. This implies quite a brief overlap – if any – between the games' development phase and the rise of ganguro. If Jynx was inspired by a ganguro gal, her design must have been finalized very close to the end of development... and her inspiration would have been something which, at that time, was not a widely-spread cultural phenomenon.

Though the above deals quite a blow to the ganguro argument, there are a few mitigating circumstances that might make it more likely. Firstly, we know that in the development of Gold and Silver, Pokémon designs were being refined constantly up until release: images exist of Pokémon that were either dropped or drastically changed into the ones we know today, and some of these even appeared in a beta version of the games. Secondly, the birthplace of ganguro was Shibuya, practically on Game Freak's doorstep, so it might make sense that the developers were inspired by the burgeoning trend. There's also an argument that says Jynx's inspiration needn't have been specifically ganguro: copious amounts of fake tan were a hallmark of the kogal even before ganguro became a subculture in its own right.

While the ganguro argument is not without merit, Western fandom has embraced it very passionately, perhaps because it's a lot more comforting than the alternative: that their favorite series produced something that could be considered racist. In Japan, there appears to be no such consensus that Jynx's appearance comes from ganguro. It's discussed as a possible origin, but it's Western fans that have really seized upon it. Personally, I consider it to be a theory with some validity, but we should be wary of subscribing to it solely because it's the more comforting option.

Might Jynx's appearance offer clues as to which of these two arguments have more merit? Well, her mode of dress isn't especially ganguro, and nor does she give off the style-conscious image associated with kogals and their offshoots. Then again, ganguro wasn't considered particularly stylish by onlookers. Jynx's lips were originally pink: something not seen in ganguro, which favors white lipstick, but seen in some racist caricatures. Conversely, Jynx's blonde hair would be highly atypical of racist stereotypes, but is one of the most defining features of ganguro.

Minigal Tan, one of the two mascots of Super GALS

Perhaps there's even a way for both arguments to be correct at the same time. I already discussed the notion that ganguro might have been a sort of blackface, which I don't personally consider all that likely. But we've also seen that blackface itself isn't a taboo in Japan. So... what if a ganguro gal was caricatured to look like somebody in blackface? Super GALS arguably has an example of this: one of the Minigals (mascots that occasionally appear in the middle of scenes to tutor the audience on gal-speak) looks surprisingly like she's in blackface, to the extent that, devoid of context, somebody might reasonably assume it to be just that. Though this particular caricature is more recent, might Game Freak's design team have made the same mental connection when creating Jynx?

While these two origins get the most attention, we'd be wrong to assume that they're the only origins. Jynx's design might also have been inspired by a plethora of folkloric influences, the most prominent of which I'll discuss now.

Frequently associated with Jynx is the yama-uba (山姥), or 'mountain crone'. The yama-uba's traits included white-blonde hair, a tattered red kimono, a large, prominent mouth and a penchant for entrancing and seducing unwary travelers. In some versions of the legend, she was also a futakuchi onna. Given the similarities in appearance, I'd rank the yama-uba very highly on the list of Jynx's likely influences. In another twist to the tale, there is actually an extreme variety of ganguro known as yamamba (ヤマンバ), a corruption of yama-uba... but this trend's origins are quite recent, thus relegating this particular connection to the realm of coincidence.

And what of Jynx's Ice-type? Might she also be somehow related to the yuki-onna (雪女), a legend often conflated with the yama-uba? I'll discuss the yuki-onna in more detail on another occasion, as there is another Pokémon directly inspired by the legend. But might it have informed Jynx's concept as well? Certainly, the yuki-onna's ability to incapacitate people with a kiss suggests that it may have.

Zwarte Piet

There's another icy legend that bears certain similarities to the original Jynx. Meet Zwarte Piet, the companion of Santa Claus in Dutch folklore. In essence, Zwarte Piet fulfils the same role as Santa's elves in other versions of the Christmas mythos, and the character seems to have been based at least partly on a Moor (Santa himself originating from Spain in Dutch traditions). Whether or not this figure had an influence on Jynx's original design, it was almost certainly a major factor in the anime special Holiday Hi-Jynx, which depicted Jynx as Santa's assistants at the North Pole.

Or perhaps you'd argue that Jynx brings to mind an opera singer? Her armor-like clothing seems to suggest this, as do many of her poses. That was certainly my initial impression of Jynx, and I assumed her face was simply cast into shadow by her enormous hairstyle. Picturing her as a Nordic princess in a Wagnerian epic fits with her Ice typing as well.

I usually avoid discussing Pokémon whose origins are as fractured and speculative as Jynx's, but in this case, the argument over those origins has become the real story. Is she a racial caricature, a parody of a fad, or a being of legend? In my own opinion, all of these things are likely to have influenced her design to some degree.

Does that make Jynx racist? Well, it really depends on how you look at it. I don't believe that Jynx was intended to be harmful or malicious. As I touched on above, Japanese culture doesn't share all of our taboos. Blackface and other, similar racial caricatures aren't controversial in Japan because said minorities don't exist in Japan in any great numbers. That means that there's nobody to object, but also that Japan doesn't have the painful history that other nations associate with these things. In the US, Jim Crow will be forever associated with the laws that took his name, and a slide into injustice that took a century to fix. In the UK, the Black and White Minstrel Show brings to mind an era when racism was part of regular political discourse; a time when major political parties were able to use outrageously racist language in their campaigns because it was the sort of thing that would win more votes than it lost. In Japan, a country whose view of the strange lands beyond its shores tends to be rather fuzzy, blackface carries none of these connotations.

There's no denying that racism is just as prevalent in Japan as it is in the West (some would claim more so, due in part to a long history of isolationism and some very particular ideas about national identity) but what we're dealing with here is something more nuanced. The reaction to the Jynx controversy when it broke seemed to be one of genuine surprise. The creators simply hadn't imagined that anybody could find Jynx offensive. They had, however, recently written Brock out of the anime due to fears that Westerners might perceive him as a racial stereotype (I don't think anybody ever did, and the decision was reversed a while later). This suggests a genuine gulf of understanding between the series' originators and their new-found foreign audience, with the creators continually struggling to predict what we in the West would be offended by.

I do wonder how on earth Jynx escaped the attention of Nintendo of America, though. During the entire localization process, did nobody bat an eyelid at her design and think there might be unfortunate implications? It's all the stranger since Nintendo have a history of – if anything – over-cautiousness in this area. It's one thing for Nintendo of Japan not to realize that Jynx could be perceived as racist, but for Nintendo of America to miss it... I consider that to be quite a failure.

This very week, a trailer has revealed that the Generation V games will, at long last, introduce a black character to the franchise (Brock, Phoebe and Dahlia would be best described by what TV Tropes would call "Ambiguously Brown"). I'm sure many will have the Jynx debacle in the back of their heads as more information on this character surfaces, something that Game Freak are undoubtedly aware of too. The Jynx controversy is one that still haunts the fandom to this day. As we've seen, there are no easy answers: no watertight argument we can invoke in order to shield the series from claims of using racist imagery (however innocently). But there is a lesson in all of this; a lesson that what's harmless fun to one culture can be deeply offensive to another... and that both cultures can be equally baffled by this gulf of understanding.

On the Origin of Species
By Xan Hutcheon
WooperCastformMawileManaphy and PhioneSandshrew and Sandslash
Turtwig, Grotle and TorterraRelicanthFarfetch'dPoochyena and Mightyena
Bronzor and BronzongNincada, Ninjask and ShedinjaParas and Parasect
JirachiChinchou and LanturnMeowthTrapinch, Vibrava and FlygonJynx
Lileep and CradilyCharmanderTreecko, Grovyle and SceptileOddish
Gloom and VileplumeMewNosepass and ProbopassShuppet and Banette
WoobatVenipede, Whirlipede and ScolipedeMagikarpVictreebel
Slowpoke, Slowbro and SlowkingDunsparceCorsolaStantlerAbsolLuvdisc