Throwing Popcorn: Gravity Falls

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Gravity Falls
Disney
Alex Hirsch, Rob Renzettigravity falls logo, disney, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravity_Falls

The show is kind of a Twin Peaks meets Eerie, Indiana, only animated and with less, y’know, actual murder. The main character of the show is Dipper Pines, a tween-age boy who is sent to Gravity Falls. Oregon with his twin sister Mabel for summer vacation. Their Great Uncle Stan (referred to by the twins as “Grunkle”) lives there, running the Mystery Shack. It’s essentially Stan’s rundown old cabin with the front repurposed as a kitschy gift shop and “Museum of the Bizarre”.

Stan is sort of a con-man type. Dipper is an intrepid investigator type. Mabel is a sugar-powered optimist who gets joy out of picking on her brother. Working for Stan at the shack are Wendy, a teenage slacker, and Soos (real name Jesus), the handyman. His intelligence is on a kind of sliding scale.

The town has a lot of recurring characters: Lazy Susan, the waitress. Old Man McGucket, who has a gift with tinkering but is otherwise wackily senile. Toby Determined is the one-man staff of Gravity Falls’ local paper. The Corduroy family is all manly lumberjack boys except for Wendy, who must work at the Shack instead of chopping down trees. Mr. and Mrs. Gleeful are the parents of Li’l Gideon, the little kid who has his own TV show where he shows off his psychic powers. As for Li’l Gideon himself — he’s the villain of the season. He plays off his charm and cuteness, but is really a sinister little monster.gravity falls, disney, http://www.comicvine.com/forums/off-topic-5/gravity-falls-1480592/

The show is fun at face value, but there are so many hidden fun bits. There are oodles of code in the theme song, the opening and end credits, and in the show itself. Kids who like to read and who like puzzles will have a lot to do between episodes — or they can Google the show if they’re not the brainteaser type. It’ll still give them fun things to do between episodes!

The episodes themselves are arranged in an arc, with continuity (a trend I am happy to see growing in animation). Children can and do keep up with overarching storylines, and in this day of DVRs and marathon show watching, it’s not hard for them to manage even if they do need a little guidance. There are several mini-arcs threaded through: Mabel and Dipper are at odds with each other, Stan torments Dipper, Dipper has a crush on Wendy, Wendy’s teenage antics with her boyfriend, and the major theme: Gideon vs. Stan and the twins.

Parents can enjoy the show as well. There are multiple references throughout the season which are only going to make sense to an adult. Fight Fighters is a send-up of early fighting video games like Street Fighter and Streets of Fire. In “The Land Before Swine,” there’s a shot-for-shot send-up of The Breakfast Club with Mabel and her pet pig Waddles. There’s even a reference to Clerks: The Animated Series.gravity falls, disney, http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/File:Gravity_falls_dipper_and_mabel.jpg

While the show is fun, engaging, and beautifully animated, with a catchy theme tune to boot, it is sadly not perfect. There are a lot of representation problems that parents will need to keep an eye out for.  I make note of them here for informational purposes only.  I am not insinuating that the creators placed these elements in the show with awareness of their problematic nature, or with intent to harm.  However, the only way to ensure such problems are addressed is to point them out.

The only Black person in the show with a name and recurring lines is Sheriff Blubs, who is depicted as an idiot. The only Latino/Latinas on the show are Soos, who is depicted as a moron and the typical fat person = gross person trope, and his grandmother, thus far only referred to as “Abuelita”, who speaks very little English. One of Mabel’s best friends is a fat girl with a deep voice, both of which are played for laughs. There’s some speculation that the Pines family is Jewish. There are certain aspects which support this hypothesis, which make Stan’s greed and obsession with money unpleasantly stereotypical. gravity falls, disney, http://www.watchcartoononline.com/gravity-falls-episode-20-gideon-rises

“Bottomless Pit” has a voice-changing McGuffin. It ends with Stan talking in a stereotypical “sassy Black Woman” voice, and making neck gestures that go along with that trope.

In “Fight Fighters”, Dipper asks Wendy’s boyfriend if he’s wearing mascara.  He defensively calls it “eye paint for men”.  Mabel watches a show called “Why You Ackin So Cray-Cray” … which is an appropriation of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and ableist besides. Dipper’s martial artist video game character insults Dipper by saying “you fight like a girl who is also a baby.” Sexism. Wendy’s boyfriend, when Dipper tells him they need to stop fighting and should simply hate each other in silence asks, “you mean like girls do?”  The intro episode of Pacifica Northwest, “Double Dipper” shows her as so privileged, she doesn’t even bother learning Soos’ name properly. She knows it’s something Spanish, and ends up calling him Jorge instead.

Despite the casual ableism, sexism and racism-related missteps, the show still has a lot of heart. It’s obvious that despite being a pretty reprehensible human being, Grunkle Stan does love both of the twins. Some of his methods of trying to show it are questionable, but it’s obvious to parents… and will make kids think twice about parents being mean to them.  They could have an uncle like Stan!gravity falls, disney, http://gravityfalls.wikia.com/wiki/Gravity_Falls_%28TV_series%29

The show originally aired on the Disney Channel proper with Wander Over Yonder. Both shows went on hiatus, then reappeared in heavy rotation on Disney XD. Season 1 is over, but the Season 2 began August 4, 2014.

UPDATE:

Correction: I missed the fact that Candy Chiu is Korean, and that her voice, by an actual Korean actress, is not an affected accent; the line referencing her above has been removed.

Clarification: As for the Pines family, the problematic element there was mentioned as a response to speculation.

Skull Fracture is also Black, and has had at least one line as of  “Bottomless Pit” – he’s one of the scary guys from the wrong side of town, and is among those willing to chase and beat up Dipper for making a really weak prank call.  So again, not the greatest example.

UPDATE: 

We’re halfway through Season two, and good news.  The show has resolved some of my concerns.   The citizens of Gravity Falls appear often to be clueless, foolish, or painfully ignorant because there was a mind-erasing ray being used by a handful of citizens (including themselves) on them.  Team Dipper found and destroyed it, restoring the memories to the one most affected, who turns out also to have been its inventor.  Also, Abuelita gets more speaking lines.  Tyler the Cute Biker, and the two cops were always hinted at as possibly being gay, but “The Love God” has a few more hints along those lines and it was news for a little while that there was originally a same sex couple of two sweet little old ladies in the episode before the creative team was made to change it.  The link leads to one of the storyboard artists’ Tumblr with an animatic.

Mabel’s characterization has made her a bit less selfish at Dipper’s expense, and called out for it onscreen by Bill Cipher, who appears to be shaping up to this season’s Big Bad.

There are a few new concerns, though.   In “Soos and the Real Girl”, Soos is still depicted as one of the acceptable targets: he’s a basement-dwelling geek who can’t handle social interaction, particularly with girls.   He does end up with a long distance relationship, so the open ended resolution of the episode leaves things moving in the right direction.  In “Blendin’s Game”, Blendin Blandin’s speech impediment is treated as a conscious choice and he uses it as a weapon against his cohorts.  Worse, Mabel’s friend Grenda seems, the more I watch and rewatch, to be a transphobic joke — hopefully unintentional (because it also seems a sincere attempt to deconstruct “traditional female gender expectations”). Examples that set my teeth on edge:  not just her deep voice, but the remark in her first appearance “I used to sing like [Pacifica does] before my voice changed” to her broad-shouldered burly physique, to her played for laughs “attempts” at being graceful and dainty, to her being a rather brutally violent character, even more so than Wendy Corduroy.

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About Author

Jamie Kingston is a Native New Yorker, enduring a transplant to Atlanta. She’s a lifelong comic fan, having started at age 13 and never looked back, developing a decades-spanning collection and the need to call out the creators when she expects better of them. Her devotion extends to television, films, and books as well as the rare cosplay. She sates her need to create in a number of ways including being an active editor on the TV Tropes website, creating art and fan art, and working on her randomly updating autobiographical web comic, Orchid Coloured Glasses. As a woman of color, she considers it important to focus on diversity issues in the media. She received the Harpy Agenda micro-grant in November of 2015 for exceptional comics journalism by a writer of color.

12 Comments

  1. Overall this is a great article, but it may be worth mentioning that Niki Yang, Candy’s voice actress and a storyboard artist on the show, is Korean. Her accent is not stereotypical (or Japanese,) it’s just her accent. Results on Google suggest that the name Chiu is a romanization of some Chinese names, so her name doesn’t imply that she’s Japanese either. I don’t remember Candy’s nationality being confirmed in the show (please correct if I’m wrong) but there’s no reason to assume every Asian character is Japanese.

    • Candy speaks Korean in one of the episodes. I think the author needs to take a good look at how well she understands cultures supposedly being “objectified” before throwing stuff to the wolves.

    • I like how you criticise the show for its supposed insensitivity towards minorities, but can’t tell the difference between Koreans and the Japanese.

  2. Articles like these say more about you than the media itself.

    Especially when you can’t even be bothered to do your research re: Candy being Korean and the creator himself being Jewish, basing Grunkle Stan on his own grandfather. To insinuate that his love of money is related to that is embarrassingly shameful.

  3. Alex Hirsch, the creator of the show, is Jewish, and the Pines family is based on his own family. I think he has a right to put as many Jewish stereotypes as he wants 🙂

  4. Its weird that you mentioned Toby Determined but you didn’t mention the woman he loves and the only other latina character, Shandra Jimenez who is not only beautiful and intelligent but one of the few competent hard working people in the town of Gravity falls. Not only that but she’s a real news reporter while Toby just works for a trashy tabloid.

    There’s also a second black character with a name though his name is Skull Fracture and he’s a muscular perpetually angry tattooed bouncer/biker so make of that what you will….

  5. I didn’t get the ”The only Black person in the show with a name and recurring lines is Sheriff Blubs, who is depicted as an idiot” argument. He felt more defined by his personality than skin color, as evidenced by his Caucasian partner who is just as if not more stupid.

    The best thing I could ask is how would we fix this? I’ve always struggled with this step. Okay, he’s an inapt racial stereotype. That logic holds water. But then where do we go from there?

    Removing him is out of the question because you’d be removing the only black character and one of the only supposed homosexual character based on his relationship with his partner. You can’t have a show without black character, it’s just as worse as a bad depiction of one.

    So then you need two black characters, one being an idiot and the other being very successful to balance it out. But then the second one is badly written because he’s only there to fill a quota of successful black men so you have a poorly written racial characters and that’s not good.

    So then you need to make Sherrif Blubbs into a strong and smart character but then you lose the dumb and dumber cop routine and you go against the intended purpose of the character, which could lead again to a poorly written black character.

    That’s what always confuses me and the problem I have when writing my own character. How would you solve that problem, if you were suddenly the Gravity Falls writer? How do you make the show racially-acceptable?

    • Mate, you’re struggling with the point: he’s the ONLY black guy. If there were more, a variety of personality-types, it’d be no probs. You’re making up imaginary problems about bad writing (why would he have to be badly written?) and quotas to excuse the sticking point that “black people” are repped by this show, in its greater context, as “this one stupid guy”.

  6. I addressed many of these concerns on my blog, and I truly hope you don’t mind. I have yet to site your blog as one of the places I saw these concerns because I wanted your permission first. However, I truly do feel like you are looking for cases of sexism and racism where there is none in the name of political correctness. Of course, this is also your opinion, and I respect it as thus, though I greatly disagree with most of the points you have brought up.
    For one thing, this show takes place in Oregon, and forcing minorities into a region where they are not as prevalent, seems almost more racist than having them non-existent. I am from Maine, and am also a writer. If I am to have characters of minorities in a story that takes place in Maine, I am going to have a good explanation, because there are not that many there. If this show took place in New York, however, and most of the characters were white, then I would understand your concern, especially when this is a cartoon so there are no limitations based on actor variety.
    I also feel like faulting a show for having Soos (a Hispanic) be a geek or idiot is looking a bit too hard. Similar to Stan being stingy and possibly having a Jewish background. If that were the end of his characterization and there was nothing more to it, then yes, I would understand and say that he is basically a walking stereotype, but some people follow the stereotypes of their genders, races, etc but that is not the extent of their personality. For one thing, speculation is not good criticism in my opinion, and also, even if he is Jewish, his stinginess is just one aspect of his personality, as before mentioned. He is also kind hearted, if not a bit gruff, and family-oriented. He is intelligent and awkward and all around a generally good albeit dishonest person despite the mistakes he’s made. Soos is not the most intelligent man, but he is kind and has had a rough past (in fact, he’s one of the few characters we see the majority of the past of) and is also based on a real person to a high extent.
    Pacifica and the marital arts fighter (Rumble McSkirmish) are not intended to be role models. We are not supposed to like them as people. Pacifica is characterized as a bully at first, and if anything, I see that you did not mention that she appears to be the stereotypical blonde, white, rich snob who terrorizes the main character for seemingly no reason when she is first introduced. Of course, later we see the cause of her behavior, but that’s not why I mentioned her. She can’t be bothered to remember Soos’ name, not because she is racist, but because she was taught that people who do not have a lot of money are not important to remember or be kind to. Rumble is hardly a character children should be looking up to, and parents should inform their children of this if they believe their kids may be confused about whose behavior should be mimicked, although I am under the impression that children should not act like any characters they see on TV, and instead should develop their own independent personality, but I know some will disagree.
    And I see no sexism what-so-ever in the show or in your post. And about Grenda saying that she used to sing like Pacifica until her voice changed, that doesn’t mean anything about transgenders, most likely. My voice got lower when I hit puberty and I am a girl (according to physicality and mentality). That’s not something that is exclusive to boys. And her failing at grace and being more violent, well, I’ve definitely met girls like that who are not transgender. If anything, I think this show would promote being who you are despite gender confines, considering one of the episodes follows a distressed Dipper who is upset he is not “manly” and learns that it is alright if he is not what others would consider masculine, even listening to an “Icelandic” pop group that sounds very feminine and is based on the Swedish band ABBA.
    On top of that, the fact that you had to correct yourself (or rather, be corrected) sort of shows that you may not have done too good of research (no offense, just my observation), which sort of under-credits most of what you say from a scholarly point of view. If anything, I would probably do more research about the inspirations for the show and maybe re-watch some of the episodes and think about where it takes place, and re-write the article, just to give it a more scholarly and credited feel, rather than having to take out parts and admit that you were wrong.

    • For one thing, this show takes place in Oregon, and forcing minorities into a region where they are not as prevalent, seems almost more racist than having them non-existent.

      This is bunk. Thank you for the rest of your comment.