Sense of Wonder: “Resident Evil” Racist?

In a post titled “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” slasher movie fan Final Girl objects to this Bonnie Ruberg column in the Village Voice, which floats the idea that, judging by the trailer for RESIDENT EVIL 5, which features a white hero mowing down hordes of black zombies, the latest incarnation of the famous videogame may have racist undertones.

Says Final Girl:

If you’re anything like Village Voice writer Bonnie Ruberg, you’re thinking “That game is racist!” Is she right? Is a game that features a white protagonist gunning down hordes of cranky black zombies inherently racist? I tend to think not, myself. [...]

But I could be wrong. It could all very well be as Ruberg points out, that Resident Evil 5 is actually symbolic of the Caucasian fear of a black planet, much in the way that Resident Evil 4 is symbolic of whites’ fear of a Spanish planet, or Super Mario Brothers is indicative of whites’ fear of an Italian planet.

See the Resident Evil 5 trailer below the fold. 

In truth, Ruberg’ argument is more subtle than Final Girl gives credit for. Ruberg does not accuse the game’s creators of outright racism; rather she admits that the trailer is “strangely disturbing” because it “stirs up anxieties about real life problems.” To wit:

First, there are the obvious cultural connections: otherness and race, blackness and monstrosity [...]

Plenty of Resident Evil fanboys are standing up for the game by claiming that Africa is just a setting like any other. After all, why shouldn’t zombies be black? On one level, that’s true.

But looking again at the trailer, I see a different message: it’s not just that these zombies are black, but that the uninfected black villagers are zombie-like too. See all those spooky shots of the villagers before they get infected? It’s as if race itself were a disease. The white protagonist has to fight back or be infected.

When people object to branding some work of art as “racist,” I suspect they are defining the term very narrowly, to include only the most vile of prejudicial hatred. Racism, however, can exist in far less virulent forms, such as the (relatively) harmless stereotyping seen in popular art. To label such work “racist” is not to imply that the creators are clandestine members of the Nazi Part and/or the Klu Klux Klan; it is simply to point out that they are trafficking in stereotypes.

The other important thing to remember is that cultural artifacts do not exist in a vacuum; they exist within a culture with a certain set of beliefs, attitudes, background assumptions, and prejudices. Whatever the original intent of the creators, their work is going to be seen by people who will interpret it according to their cultural background. Thus, George Romero can insist that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) is not making a conscious statement about racism, but the sight of the lone black protagonist – gunned down by white policeman who mistake him for a zombie – cannot help inspiring interpretations along those lines.

I think this is what Ruberg is trying to get at in her piece, and she does a pretty good job of it: analyzing the possible interpretations without jumping on a soap box and self-righteously denouncing the game as “racist.” This is a good dialogue to have, and the game’s defenders should nto succumb to the knee-jerk impulse to dismiss Ruberg’s point out of hand.

Frankly, the game does look like fun, and I’d probably enjoy playing it. I just wish the human race could reach a point where our heads don’t explode from cognitive dissonance just because we acknowledge that somethng enjoyable might also have a pernicious aspect to it.

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

One Response to “ Sense of Wonder: “Resident Evil” Racist? ”

  1. [...] negative comment from Newsweek’s game critic. I already dealt with this topic months ago here, but I did want to deal with a couple [...]

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