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HACKER ALERT. HACKER ALERT. What would you do if faced with this warning? Call random American pre-teens to save the day?
In every episode of “Cyberchase” on PBS Kids, The Hacker will attempt to gain power in some way, accompanied by his cyborg henchmen Buzz and Delete. It will be up to Digit, a cyberbird, and Matt, Jackie, and Inez, three nine to 11-year-old “Earthlings” from “the real world” to save the day. They adventure in Cyberspace, the universe of the show that seems to be an amusing representation of the burgeoning internet when the show premiered in 2002. Woven throughout the show are clever references and wordplay, such as The Hacker’s ship the Grim Wreaker. They jump instantly from site to site using portals, with each site having a different culture, population, and even fundamental rules of physics. The different rules that govern each site imbue the show with an opportunity to teach children concepts such as fractions and Venn diagrams through the Earthlings’ adventures; and also captivate them through the fantastic world-building.
Why, then, do the show’s creators include sites that are more human-centric than the rest, using entire cultures as themes?
Some details are small, such as a woman on The Hacker’s side working for “Henchmen-R-Us” having a broadly Eastern European accent compared to the main characters’ American accents, and a mischievous genie coming out of an unassuming bottle in a closet sporting a turban and pointed shoes. These details stick out compared to the heavy New York accents shown off by Digit, Buzz, and Delete, and the Southern accents found in minor characters on the Earthlings’ side. They suggest a stereotype of the evil foreigner compared to the American main characters.
Most of all, the episodes centered on culturally-themed islands demonstrate an idea of the “other” with absolutely no nuance. When the Earthlings journey to Shangri-La to outwit The Hacker, our first glimpse of the setting is a group of warriors in uniforms clearly coded as Chinese stereotypes. They move silently, bearing flags, and to make their identity absolutely clear, a stereotypically Chinese theme plays upon their appearance, with what sounds like a dizi, or Chinese flute. The warriors’ faces are also reduced only to eyes and Fu Manchu mustaches, which is a departure from the level of detail that goes into the other characters. The warriors then bow to their leader, Master Pi, which the Earthlings imitate, but crudely. Master Pi himself speaks with an accent and in maxims, sports a robe, and seems to know all, in an example of the “Magical Asian trope” found in works that stereotype East Asia. The usual playful details of other cybersites like geometrically-shaped characters are absent, with attention instead diverted to capturing a Chinese setting through overused stereotypes. The Western media conception of China as a mystical and warrior-filled place is only reinforced through this children’s cartoon.
What brings our protagonists to this land, anyway? The locals are portrayed as helpless and unable to stand up to The Hacker’s plots in almost every episode, sometimes even calling on the American Earthlings for help directly. The Earthlings swoop in via their portals and save the day without fail, and the locals shower them with praise.
A colonialist theme congratulating America runs through these episodes. The cultures local to each cybersite are not simply stereotyped in exposition; they also fail to save themselves from The Hacker and require the help of American children.
On Pyramida, the Earthlings encounter an evil mummy in a pyramid, and Digit rides in on a camel wearing a Fez. The Hacker appears in Indiana Jones garb, complete with the musical theme from the movies, making the colonial, white savior connection all too real. In Tikiville, the episode opens with the blowing of a conch shell, and the locals sport Hawaiian print and speak with accents. Their leader proclaims that he will pass his crown to the winner of the “Kahuna Huna Race-A-Runa,” with the name of the race riffing on the Hawaiian word kahuna, meaning expert. The misappropriation of this term in popular culture is considered offensive.
Each of these worlds being framed as a website creates the interesting world-hopping nature of the show, as if the characters can instantly load any site and experience the rules that apply there. The invented worlds of Radopolis, featuring skateboarders, Poddleville, featuring anthropomorphic shapes, and more are proof that the show’s creators can craft fascinating worlds for the Earthlings to explore. The Americans come and go from cultural island to cultural island, sometimes leaving a mess in their wake as they thwart The Hacker once more, and purportedly save the day for the locals. Although the Earthlings themselves are diverse, they are undoubtedly American and impose this upon other cultures.
Colonialism extends to multiple cultures that the creators have chosen to profile as “others” for our entertainment. The show is so clever in the way it plays with words and fantastical settings, but real-life cultures are not settings that can be played with to further a narrative. The end of each episode features a non-animated segment called “Cyberchase For Real.” Perhaps the show’s creators should stick to depictions of cultures “for real,” and not promote cultural stereotypes in children’s media.
Nour L. Khachemoune ’22-’23 is a joint concentrator in Chemistry and Anthropology in Dunster House. Her column “Nostalgia: What’s it Hiding?” appears on alternate Thursdays.
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