Shiny Shelf


By Eddie Robson on 18 February 2011

Cbeebies’ new show has caused an inevitable stir. Celebrated by many, Rastamouse has also been decried as offensive – partly for stereotyping Rastafarians, but mostly because the characters are mice. Isn’t it racist to portray an ethnic group as vermin?

Well, no. I don’t think the creators of Rastamouse (who are not the makers of the show, but the authors of the original children’s books – one of whom is himself Rastafarian) are in any way trying to identify Rastafarians with mice, or say that the two share any characteristics. Anthropomorphised animals in children’s fiction rarely share any characteristics with the real-life animal beyond their appearance – Driver Dan from Driver Dan’s Story Train is a lion, for example, but might as well just be a bloke who drives a train and tells stories. Even the animals on Big Barn Farm, who are ‘played’ by actual animals, bear almost no relation to how their real-life counterparts behave. Rastamouse and his friends like cheese, but so what? So do I. That’s about their only connection with actual mice: they live in houses, wear clothes and play dub reggae. In their world they’re not vermin, they’re people. Making a character into an animal is usually a purely aesthetic decision.

Rastafarian critics of Rastamouse say they’d have preferred him to be a lion. I actually think this could have had even more potential for offence as the creators would be playing with one of that culture’s significant symbols, but I’d point out that him being a mouse has substantial benefits for the TV show. Rastamouse has been made using stop-motion animation. This is a very, very smart move. The concept is new ground for British kids’ TV, so they’ve deliberately made it old-fashioned in style. It looks more like a 1970s show than anything else on CBeebies, making it less threatening for conservative parents – which I think is crucial to the show’s ability to break down barriers.

This has all been facilitated by Rastamouse being a mouse. Mice work very well in stop-motion animation (and lions don’t). You can easily get away with not showing a mouse’s mouth, which makes the whole thing less labour-intensive and brings the budget down. Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin were able to turn shows around faster than anyone else because they didn’t bother animating mouths. (Note the mouse-like appearance of the Clangers, who were aliens and could have looked like anything.)

It’s true that when a social, ethnic or religious group is represented in a kids’ TV show, producers can’t afford to make decisions too lightly. Offhand I can’t think of a similar programme to draw comparisons with (which surely illustrates the problem – nobody has even tried this before). Beyond the mouse issue, I can’t comment on it as a portrayal of rastafarians because I don’t know any, but anyone complaining that the show is a caricature should consider that pretty much all children’s TV is a caricature. We shouldn’t condone stereotyping but a degree of simplification is inevitable. I think kids can tell the difference between a cartoon representation and real life, and if not then they’ll learn, because the programme will hopefully get them interested enough to find out. If they like Rastamouse, surely that’s a good start.

Rastamouse is a great show – gentle, charming and very nicely done, in the best traditions of BBC children’s television. Its look is well-considered and the stories are both fun and proactive, in contrast to numerous modern children’s shows where the stories are driven by the characters making mistakes which they then learn from (as if this is the only dramatic situation children can relate to). The producers should be sensitive to the opinions of the community, but complaints about misrepresentation don’t mean they’ve failed. Someone will always complain about misrepresentation, and look at how EDL propaganda rag the Daily Star reported the furore – complaints that ‘Oh it’s racist’ from that sector feel a lot like a cover for not wanting it on our screens in the first place. If we’re too afraid of misrepresentation, the risk is we don’t bother to represent at all.

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By Eddie Robson

4 Responses

  1. Mags says:

    I like Rastamouse. We watched its first episode and a couple of others, but it’s not on during our daughter’s tv hour. It’s VERY like Paddington Bear in style and I think in some ways that’s why some people are getting bothered by the patois-lite language. in contrast I’ve not noticed any complaints about Waybaloo’s baby hippy talk or how self-centered all the characters in In The Night Garden are. But those shows don’t look like shows of our own childhood.

    I do think Rastamouse’s habit of throwing a party in order to lure out the criminal is a bit limited as a crime-fighting method though. Surely crims will just start avoiding Rastamouse’s parties?

  2. Mark Clapham says:

    I’m sure a lot of us would rather be seen as a lion than a mouse, but that doesn’t make the mouse a negative representation – it just means it isn’t flattering in exactly the way you’d like.

    While TV should avoid negative stereotypes, it isn’t required to flatter the ego of every group represented by portraying them exactly how they’d like, and Rastamouse *is* a positive character – helpful, likable, peaceable. He just isn’t a roaring alpha male lion, he’s a cute mouse.

    And frankly anyone who thinks TV for pre-schoolers should be pedaling alpha male role models can fuck right off.

  3. Ned says:

    Nice article, although I would dispute that the music played is dub reggae, sounds like straightforward reggae to me.

    For all the media articles, I don’t personally know anybody who has anything negative to say about Rastamouse. I think the “controversy” is just more media fabrication

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Laurie Pink, Gary Bainbridge, Jonn Elledge, Eddie Robson, Mags L Halliday and others. Mags L Halliday said: RT @shinyshelf: Rastamouse: He's cute! He's controversial! We look at the furore surrounding the lovable reggae rodent. [...]