Cuphead is a beautiful looking game with tight controls and grueling combat that culminates in game unlike many others. But as a throwback to the animation of the early 20th century, it finds its muse in a troubling past it never gets around to actually confronting.
There’s a famous saying often attributed to Sigmund Freud that goes “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” While he almost certainly didn’t actually say it, the quote lives on because of the appeal of its underlying logic: not everything has another layer, a hidden meaning, or a secret agenda. As persuasive as this logic can sometimes be, however, it’s often born of exhaustion or hopelessness rather than insight, like when when J.J. Gites is told at the end of the movie “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
A lot of people have wanted to do the same with Studio MDHR’s latest game and say something along the lines of “sometimes a cup is just a cup.” But over at Unwinnable, Yussef Cole convincingly shows why that’s not the case. In an essay titled “Cuphead and the Racist Spectre of Fleischer Animation,” he argues that the imagery used in the game borrows from tropes and characters intended as a rebuke against the culture and music associated with black people in the 1930s. By taking the “good” parts of this tradition of animation and leaving the bad, Cuphead ends up whitewashing the past.
“By sidestepping this kind of over the top caricature, Cuphead attempts to represent the best of the jazz era’s relationship with cartoons. And there is a lot of good to be found. Calloway is an electric performer and cartoons like the Fleischer’s 1933 films The Old Man of the Mountain and Betty Boop in Snow White do far better justice to his inimitable style. At the same time, these examples feature his voice in the body of an old white man and a white-faced clown, respectively. When it comes time for cartoons to represent him as a human being, his lips balloon up, his eyes grow, and he is forced into the minstrel mold, the only way that animation studios seemed to be able to envision black characters for decades. That Cuphead follows the path of the Fleischers and hides what could have been his likeness behind an anthropomorphic talking dice is historically in line with black representation in animation. Once it became faux-pas to depict black characters as minstrels and racist caricatures, then the solution appears to be not depicting them at all.”
At two different points, Cole quotes the creators behind the game. First is an interview with artist Maja Moldenhauer who said, “It’s just visuals and that’s about it. Anything else happening in that era we’re not versed in it.” The second time it’s something designer Chad Moldenhauer told Kotaku a couple weeks ago,
“We went into the game knowing that what we wanted from the era was the technical, artistic merit, while leaving all the garbage behind. You can find it in everything from the era: film, advertisement, everything. We wanted to take the style but make it our own. We tried to focus on our likes and dislikes and steer away from any of that.”
“All the garbage” in this case means the deep-seated racism and reactionary politics which surrounded early American animation. Art doesn’t arise out of nothing, from no one and from nowhere. People create it. The dream of being able look to the past and extricate what we find free from baggage is understandable, but as Cole shows, can have the unintended consequence of compounding the sin. Where characters of color were originally depicted with racist imagery, they now risk not getting depicted at all.
You can read the rest of Cole’s essay over at Unwinnable.