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Monday, November 18, 2019

Shriners, Fezzes, Symbolism and the Blunt Object of Corporate Censorship

You can't keep up with with the pop culture these days without a scorecard app. In truth, you probably need five or six apps on two different smartphones plus a desktop version just to keep up to date.

The Disney Corporation launched its new highly-touted video streaming service this past week, and in their infinite wisdom to appear suitably angelic to the world, they've been hard at work apologizing for or plastering over past perceived wrongthinking and insensitivity. Disney's old movies, TV shows and cartoons are now accompanied by disclaimer notices like "This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”

But the Disney programs aren't being kept "as created," and many have just plain been edited with potentially 'offensive' sequences and images altered or removed entirely. The result has been an international anvil chorus of hoots of derision against Disney, with an almost equal and opposite clamor that they edit even more out. But editing and censoring the past is a fool's errand that ultimately makes no one happy, and arguably, increasingly ignorant of even the recent past. Sorry, but I'm a big believer that understanding the whys and wherefores and the history of the past is a whole lot more successful and influential than attempting to eliminate every possible trace of it. Call me crazy. 

These just aren't old Mickey Mouse cartoons, Peter Pan's depictions of Indians, Dumbo's black crows, or the forever embargoed Song of the South. Now fans of the very recent Disney cartoon series Gravity Falls are calling foul. It seems that the show's character Grunkle Stan's distinctive Shriner-like fez symbol has just been given over to Disney's internal Winston Smiths for erasure in their Soviet-style Great Purge treatment. 

They did it for a bizarre reason that has nothing to do with sensitivity to Shriners. Funny thing about symbols. Interpreting them gets tricky depending on who packed the baggage you're carrying around. It seems that the offending symbol, which looks vaguely like a cartoon fish, is considered by Disney to be religiously 'offensive' or 'insensitive.' Yet not to practitioners of the religious faith that has used the fish as a symbol for 2,000 years. 

Digitally censored fez from the opening credits of Gravity Falls

Outrage. Outrage, you're supposed to be howling.

I'm sure most Shriners neither know about any of this, nor care one bit (besides perhaps my friend Seth Andrews who eats, sleeps and breathes all things in Fezdom - visit his online Museum of Fezology). It's a fair bet that no more than 100 Shriners have even heard of Gravity Falls at all. 

On the surface, this isn't new. Warner Brothers has put up a 'warning label' like this for years with their old classic Looney Toons and Merrie Melodies cartoons, but at least they've been left intact. It's like a 'Don't drink and drive' notice that means 'Don't watch and get pissed off over something made 75 years ago because life's too short not to laugh at funny cartoons.'


MGM walked the tightrope by mostly leaving their old cartoons visually intact, but dubbing out 'offensive' voices and dialects and replacing them with more generic ones, as in old Tom & Jerry cartoons with their 'Mammy Two Shoes' character. She was originally voiced by African-American actress Lillian Randolph back in the 1930s and usually only seen from the ankles down - often swatting at the cat with a broom and threatening to lock him out of the house. She was implied to be Tom's owner and the head of the household, and so her feet and voice popped up in a lot of the shorts over the years. In the 1960s, the black legs and ankles were re-colored white and a female Irish-accented voice was recorded for some of the episodes. By the 1990s, the original images were brought back, and the voice was re-dubbed again, this time by African-American comedian Thea Vidale, minus the over the top dialect.

But Disney seems to want to try a little of both methods - reediting and outright removal - and they're doing an inept dance step version of it by catching some, missing others, or concentrating on odd choices like the Gravity Falls fez symbol. Like I said, this has nothing to do with perceived hurt feelings among Shriners.

Freemasons rarely show up in these types of animated or artistic depictions, but Shriners or their visual stand-ins sometimes do. And nobody has ever really found a reason to get worked up over it.
Grant Wood's Shrine Quartet (1939)
The Shrine's reputation as a wacky group of booze-guzzling, girl-ogling, stripper-tipping, middle-class party boys engaging in hooliganism with a generous heart o' gold was cemented in the 1950s and 60s, and were a shorthand for American fraternalism for more than half a century.  

"Oh my dear Lord! They blackballed Howard Sprague!"
Fez wearing WASPS show up in everything from Bye-Bye Birdie and the Andy Griffith Show, to the penultimate Top 40 Shriner anthem, Ray Stevens' 'Shriner's Convention.'

Fraternal groups and goofy headgear were commonplace objects of comedy over the years, from the 'Mystic Knights of the Sea' in the wildly popular Amos and Andy radio show in the late 20s and 30s (created by real-life Masons Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll) and depicted in the early 1950s TV version; the Raccoon Lodge of The Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason; and the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo Lodge No. 26 on the Flintstones in the 1960s. 

Mystic Knights of the Sea lodge on the Amos and Andy TV series in 1952

Raccoon Lodge in The Honeymooners

Loyal Order of Water Buffalos in The Flintstones
As was acknowledged in the 1986 comedy Peggy Sue Got Married, "Wouldn't be a lodge without hats."

It wasn't really until the 1990s that the Shriners started to get grouped in with the kind of spooky connections to "ancient mystic rites" like the Masons - even if only as parody. Ironically, that was just about the same time that the Shrine changed its name from the suitably bilious 'Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine' to just plain Shriners International. 

Todd Schorr's painting, Secret Mystic Rites in the Temple of Fraternity (1993)
By the 1990s, the 50's and 60's "cocktail culture" nostalgia made a resurgence, and Shriners' fezzes started getting snapped up on Ebay by modern cigar lounge lizards. Artist Todd Schorr populated his artwork with fez-wearers, and the swing band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy adopted his imagery on their albums to cement the connection between nightclub swing music, cocktail culture, and Shriner stand-ins with 'All Seeing Eye" symbolism. 

Todd Schorr's Temple of Delirium (1991)
Between 2010-2013, even the Eleventh Dr. Who (played by Matt Smith) began wearing a fez as he traveled through time. "Because," as he said, "fezzes are cool."

Images like this suddenly morphed the Shriners into an odd combination of middle-aged goofiness with "secret wisdom of the ages," because as we all know, there's always supposed to be some special wisdom about Life, the Universe and Everything at the bottom of an empty glass - if only we drink enough. 

Still looking.

Of course, there have long been criticisms from various corners about the Shrine's 19th century take on tarted-up Orientalism with its images, costumes, rituals, and even local Shrine names. Practicioners of the Muslim faith and those living in Muslim countries don't think it's a bit funny that Shrines have names that are parodies or lifts of Arabic words or place names like Scimitar, Mecca, Bagdad, Wahabi, phony pseudo Arabic names like 'Moolah,' 'Lu Lu,' 'Zem Zem,' and even holy objects like Al Koran or Kaaba

It all came from  a much earlier age, and modern sensibilities have gotten extraordinarily humorless and hyper-sensitive when they are on the receiving end of even a mild a jibe today. With a group like the Shrine, it was never about insulting anyone and always about sounding more exotic and more over the top than any other run of the mill fraternal group did in the late 1800s.

Anyway, back to Disney and that fez. 

From the end credits of Gravity Falls

Gravity Falls was a cartoon that ran on Disney XD between 2012 and 2016. It told the mis-adventures of Dipper and Mabel Pines, a pair of twins who spent their summer vacation with their uncle, Grunkle Stan, in the odd Oregon town of Gravity Falls. There they all encountered all manner of the weird and the unexplained like ghosts, shape-shifters, and frozen dead presidents. Episodes contained clues and visual tidbits to solve an ongoing series of puzzles, not entirely un-derivative of National Treasure by way of Twin Peaks, Eerie, Indiana and Winky-Dink and You - all laid over a theme very much like Pokemon.

As we used to say in advertising, "Where do good ideas come from? SOMEBODY ELSE!"

The show's creator Alex Hirsch actively stoked puzzle hunts on Twitter among the show's fans, and pseudo-Masonic and Shriner imagery began to proliferate.

Alex Hirsch's Twitter clue that set the hunt in motion

Fan art from Japan by @nyankun1
The character of Grunkle Stan prominently wore a fez, and for the longest time it sported a nonsensical image that looked vaguely like a Pepperidge farm goldfish cracker (or a Pac-Man swallowing a power dot). Indeed, it was revealed that Grunkle Stan was, in fact, a fez-wearing member of the 'Royal Order of the Holy Mackerel.' But according to fans and the Gizmodo website, the censors at Disney have been at hard at work in their Yezhovshchina censorship office and tediously removed the fish symbol by digital trickery from the show's first thirteen episodes and opening credits for broadcast on the new streaming service.

You'd think that if anyone was in danger of having their religious sensitivities brushed in the wrong direction by a cartoon use of fish symbolism it would be Christianity, which used the fish as visual shorthand and an identifier as far back as Rome. But no.

The symbol looks vaguely like a rotated parody of the actual emblem of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, sort of, minus the scimitar. And then you begin to see the root of the problem. Because the crescent and star on the Shriner's symbol is an echo of the famous 'star and crescent' found across the Middle East, turned sideways. That was because that region of the world was the fictional source of the Shrine's mythology in the first place.

If you poke around enough, you'll find that the source of the desperate need to scrape this obscure cartoon image from an obscure corner of the obscure culture is that somebody, somewhere did indeed make the executive decision that the imaginary symbol of the 'Royal Order of the Holy Mackerel' was just a little too close in their hunt for hyperactive offensiveness to the star and crescent symbol found in many flags of Islamic nations, like that of Turkey. It was originally the symbol of the Ottoman Empire, and other Arabic nations have incorporated it. Yet, it's NOT a symbol denoting Islam itself, as the religion forbids symbols and iconography of any kind as being blasphemous.

The national flag of Turkey
But the American-based Nation of Islam does feature it prominently on their flag and website almost as a logo. Theirs is turned the opposite direction from Turkey's and that convinced the Disney censors to deem it the cartoon mackerel religiously offensive to the NOI. Even though you'd have to squint and peer through two sets of solar eclipse sunglasses from 1000 yards to make that connection. Along with thinking that it was making fun of the religious symbol in the first place, which it never did.
Some have said that the censorship first appeared when the show was being syndicated in foreign countries, but The Mighty Mouse has refused to comment about it at all. 

Oh the outrage. It wears a fella out.

Meanwhile, now that a little clot of fans have roared their online displeasure (there have to be at least a few dozen fans of anything this obscure), citing Disney's imperfect censorship has spread throughout all of Internet nerdom. They have been pointing out all week long that the Holy Mackerel on Grunkle Stan's fez still appears on numerous thumbnail images on Disney's service, so it's descended into the usual obsessive game of a-HA-ism and noisy declarations of HY-pocracy that so characterizes the current era we have the misfortune of experiencing right now.

I will take this odd opportunity to call to attention one last bit of past pop culture in case there are any advertising geniuses at the Shriners International headquarters in Tampa. They'd be silly not to take advantage of my dazzling ad man expertice, but what else is new.

Back in the 1960s when the pseudo-adult cartoon The Flintstones was airing in prime-time and parents watched it along with their kids, Shriners Hospitals did a series of advertising tie-in commercials that featured Fred Flintstone.

The MeTV network today airs on local over-the-air broadcast TV stations these days (usually as a side-band digital channel for one of the four major networks), and they just started airing the Flintstones cartoons as part of their evening schedule. The network is essentially a nostalgic station that is laser-focussed on Baby Boomer-aged viewers, and requires no cable hookup in most markets. They don't even offer a live streaming app, in part to protect local stations and their shrinking advertising streams from dilution. 

The Flintstones Shriners commercials were designed to include contemporary footage from the hospitals back in the 1960s, and that could very easily be reedited today with new footage and contact graphics. 

Hey Tampa - how about modifying these old ads just for targeted airing on MeTV to its perfect audience of retirees who are potential new members and donors?

Just sayin.'

H/T to Jon Ruark. Blame him.


  1. The fez was identified with the Ottomans and when the old regime was overthrown and Turkey (with Masons involved) modernized after World War I, wearing fezes became unpopular in the Middle East. Just very very occasionally one sees some elderly savant wearing one, more as an affectation than political statement. Ecologists lament the use of a tiger's tooth in the jewelry. And there is the difficulty of calling a Shrine building a mosque. Perhaps more significant is tryjng to tie Shine membership to declining Masonic membership. And the closing of hospitals is a new challenge as the Shrine seeks a .more modern way to provide services, which in some cases will lack the opportunities for the interaction of Shriners with children.

  2. Could the issue be, deep down, the orientalist (and with it, colonialist) renderings of the symbol, no matter how ancient, religious, or banal it might be on flags and elsewhere? This would be consistent with many of the other shifts Disney is doing to their own intellectual property -- which, clearly, they have a right to do.

    As I've been watching Disney films with my own children I have been a little surprised (though not entirely) by the outright racism that is embedded in many of the films. After hearing one of them singing "Who Made the Red Man Red?" in the bathtub one evening, I decided to pull some of the films form their access--Peter Pan, Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp in particular. As much as I like the latter film, the cat scene is entirely inappropriate, especially for children that don't understand the cultural complexities and racial scaffolding invoked in these scenes.

    Even DuckTales, which I adored as a kid, with adult eyes is purely orientalist and is sort of predicated on the audience's desire to go along on "Purple Rose of Cairo" type excursions which swing between American extremes of wealth and the primitive, gullible, and easily-scammed oriental world.

    The Shrine, and other fezzed and fezzy themed groups are products of orientalism. And while my sense is that at some point many of these groups realized this themselves, long before Edward Said's famous treatise on the subject, and toned it down a bit. It's reasonable, then, to see why an editorial decision would be made in these directions. A shrine fez is probably the best known example of such cultural phenomena.

    Then there's the symbol itself on this fez, that looks like the love child of a cheddar goldfish cracker and Pac-Man.

    1. If Disney's concern had been about 'orientalism,' they would have erased Grunkle Stan's fez completely. No, this was the symbol itself.

      I guess I would counter that very young children take their entertainment as it comes and only adults get triggered by finding offense where none was intended. Preventing contact with such images altogether is a perilous enterprise destined to backfire in later years. Parents over-reacting to cultural stereotypes in cartoons that were clearly never meant to be insulting only winds up baffling to children (and I'm obviously not talking about the deliberately insulting and over-the-top kind that really do need explaining). Once children are able to reason and actually comprehend higher concepts like satire and parody vs. deliberate insults to differing cultures, actual discussions can be had with them so they CAN understand. But you're fighting a losing battle to shield them altogether.

      From a philosophical point of view, I wonder if modern parents also shield their children from insulting portrayals of, say, 'hillbillies' or Southerners who have been a standing trope for ignoramuses for two centuries; or from enthusiastic evangelical Christian ministers who began being universally stereotyped and derided as nothing but ignorant hypocrites since the early 1950s? Or don't those types of "scaffolding" count?

    2. They do count. In fact, the interface of poverty and race as it relates to whiteness is an essential element of the way racism operates in the United States. But that isn't specifically what we're talking about here.

      What we are talking about is a company choosing to edit intellectual property that has been created over a fairly long period of time which has seen significant social change.

      You might not like it, but it's theirs to do.

      You might not agree with it, but there is a legitimate argument to be made here.

      What I find entirely disagreeable is the idea that parents choosing to withhold cultural artifacts that are attempting to make satire over exaggerated racial stereotypes by one culture over another is "shielding" the reality of the world from them.

      It is shielding this reality, if we're choosing to allow the racist realities to remain the status quo.

      As a parent, I have made that choice to work against it as a matter of principle and a matter of faith.

      This choice is not meant to deny the reality of the world in which we live, but to openly expose it, and change it for the better.

      My children attend protests with me. We regularly talk about these issues in our church. It is exactly the opposite of what you are saying.

      Not everyone does this or desires to do this. As a clergyperson, I try to model it as best as I can. Across my desk in my church work just this week is a local high school leaving white boys off the hook for taking girls' Islamic head-coverings in school, a high school football team beating up an immigrant student, and a local elected official using homophobic language and insulting a handicapped person in two separate incidents. And that is just in very recent memory.

      Clearly, there is a problem. Clearly, we're teaching people from a young age to not pay attention directly to these issues.

      So, yes, this scaffolding is real.

      I refuse to ever believe that it's "fighting a losing battle to shield them altogether." Because it's not shielding anything. It's critically engaging the bare and raw reality of this world deeply and intentionally.

      My religious faith is that this can, must, and will be overcome. But leaving things as they are, more or less, hasn't really brought us as far as we need to go as a society.

      And to the point of all of this in the first place, symbols are powerful, potent, bottomless in meaning. Just as in the lodge, small details matter. Cultural context matters. But they work together for something forward-moving and life affirming.

    3. I saw all those cartoons when I was a kid, and it didn't make me racist.

      I just re-watched the 'What makes the red man red' and 'We are Siamese' scenes, and I think they're harmless. I'll even dare to say I enjoyed watching them. I'm actually outraged (not really, but I'll pretend to be just for this post) that someone would take such extreme offense to them!

      Come on, give the kids (and adults) who watch it some credit. These things don't lead people, or a society, to racism. But 'making a big deal about it' might.

      Kids will just admire the uniqueness and fun of the characters, and any adult with reasonable common sense will not have their world view perverted by exposure to these scenes. And for those without that 'reasonable common sense'... the issues run much deeper than exposure to cartoon scenes.

      It's Disney's right to censor whatever they want out of their own movies.

      But in the grand scheme of things, this is not the true battlefield. Making a fuss over these scenes, or covering up their history and existence, is like putting a band aid over an infected bullet wound. Honestly, don't even bother. Rip the band aid off, and take an honest look at the mess underneath.

      All that said, I'm sure your voluntary censorship of these cartoons won't harm anything either. :-)


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