Bingeing Netflix’s Aggretsuko both made and ruined my weekend. On one hand, I was introduced to a character who mirrored myself a few years ago: a twenty-something
red panda woman so painfully Type A and wired to please that she will passively, almost plaintively, take less than she deserves in a workplace to make a (less than lush) living and sate the maniacal whims of upper management. You know, “shitty bosses” (also one of my favorite karaoke renditions from Retsuko, who expels steam from her infuriating corporate work life by scream-growling rage-filled death metal originals at a nondescript karaoke bar in Tokyo).
On the other hand, Episode 1 introduced me to Gori, a black-and-gray gorilla character with a fierce walk, pink midi, and glinting gold earrings. I had worried about this character when I saw press materials in my office after life-sized Retsuko visited the week of the show’s Netflix premiere. I want to say I don’t know why, as a black biracial woman, I worried when I saw this chic humanoid gorilla, but let’s be fucking honest: I do know why. Black women and men have long been subject to a crass gorilla stereotype, one that has centuries-old roots in the transatlantic slave trade, and one that continues to leer at us, all pointy teeth and supine white privilege, from sidewalks to the white house, in 2018.
Gori’s first line in the episode? “Our baddest bitch in the room walk is murder on my back”—said to her coworker Washimi with such obvious black affectation that I wondered, perhaps hopefully, perhaps not, if I had misheard her. Was this an ol’ Mammy caricature, or one of the most powerful senior women in Retsuko’s office?
Gori, by the way, is voiced by a woman of color, G.K. Bowes, in the show’s English narration. Whether this makes her subtle racist characterization better or worse, I’m not sure. Okay, it’s undeniably worse, because that suggests intention in voicing a gorilla to “sound black” and sassy. This is where the issue, for me, becomes even more complex—considering I would love Aggretsuko to include characters that represent black female power and blackness in general (there are black people in Japan, after all). But a gorilla who goes from strong, independent woman one moment to weepy, wobbling caricature in the next is not what we want in representation. Whether the intention is as I see it or just a misguided quirk, there’s an obvious problem with Gori in the English interpretation, and one that has been gratingly overlooked by white media.
The problem isn’t that Gori could, ostensibly, be black (although one might assume that all humanoid animals in this show are Japanese). The problem is conflating a gorilla with a black affectation. The ape/gorilla/monkey stereotype may not be familiar to the largely homogenous population in Japan, but it should be to Netflix’s development team in the U.S.—meaning a level of willful oversight is at play.
Some personal context: I wasn’t familiar with Aggretsuko, part of Sanrio’s powerful anime collective, before Netflix’s inclusion of the show in its originals lineup (the show, helmed by Rarecho and produced by Fanworks, apparently aired shorts on TBS networks from 2016 to early 2018). The series is Japanese-produced, sharply written, and hypnotically drawn. Its main character, Retsuko, is a much-needed portrait of feminist rage, although feminist rage that is suppressed until it allows itself to blossom in the red light of a karaoke room.
Other supporting characters have animal forms that seem to suggest personality rather than race and its phenotypic presentation. Director Ton, Retsuko’s misogynistic boss, is fittingly a fat pig, his jowls bouncing angrily as he demands a clean desk, vacations he doesn’t deserve, and tea. He is the source of much of the show’s toxic male vitriol and sexist microaggressions, although one of Retsuko’s less direct superiors, Tsubone, is a tongue-flicking lizard character who drops her unfinished work on Retsuko’s desk with dark satisfaction fit for a Betsy Devos. Fenneko, Retsuko’s closest work friend and the unofficial Daria of the series, is a pale fennec fox; Haida, who crushes on and giggles nervously around an oblivious Retsuko, is a hyena.
Gori’s “strong woman in the office” counterpart is Washimi, a (white) humanoid secretary bird who has just as fierce a walk, a smooth, controlled drawl, and the ability to massage the mind of the company’s president (an easily flustered elephant). I grew to love all of these characters as I watched the 10-episode first season, but I couldn’t get over Gori, whose racist characterization via the English dub was both baffling and kind of sad.
Twitter noticed the problem of Gori, even when published reviews and reactions that cropped up online seemed to ignore the winking race-play in Aggretsuko’s Netflix debut.
To be fair, though, some users are more than okay with the suggested representation:
I’ve never connected with a Sanrio character the way I have with Retsuko (sorry, Hello Kitty). Sure, I stan Gudetama, the sad-faced egg yolk who seems to harbor a Humpty Dumpty-sized misery in life (my boyfriend and I have a Gudetama case for wet wipes above our toilet at home, but I digress). Badtz-Maru, with his heavy-lidded stare, looks the way I feel on any given Monday morning and is adorable all the same. But Retsuko touched something within me. I could see myself and parts of my past in her placidity and in her fire.
But I wish I could see myself in Gori, too. Instead I see the pain of black people who still have to step gingerly around stereotypes that are positioned in mainstream media like mines for them to trip on. I see a joke, intentional or not, that isn’t funny. I see potential for a character that is more than the unruly body she was given. I see all that and I want more. Gori should be better, and Netflix should know better.