In the Woodpile

4 July 2011

Some weeks ago, the Woman of Interest spotted an interesting deck of cards on eBay. The deck was miniature, Disney-themed (Mickey Mouse on the backs and on the box), and dated from the late '30s or perhaps 1940. I later found a similar or identical sort of deck listed.

These decks are very appealing, but there's something disturbing about them as well. Here are the joker cards shown in the listings: [image of two cards, each showing Goofy with his head and neck sticking up from within or behind a woodpile] The two designs, of course, are basically identical except for coloration and for the presence of a background cloud in one and not in the other. I don't yet know whether these cards represent two designs found in each deck, or distinguish one sort of deck from another, but I believe that the latter is the case.

In any event, each pictures Goofy's head and neck sticking-up from within or from behind a woodpile.

There's an expression

a n_gg_r in the woodpile

It refers to a condition where something significant, typically undesirable, is believed to be concealed. This unpleasant metaphor is no longer current in America;[1] in fact, I had to relate and to explain it to the Woman of Interest, who had never encountered it, and I had to double-check on its exact meaning. But it used to be quite current here, and certainly would have been when those cards were designed and when they were released. I cannot help but think that in the mind of the designer, these graphics are meant to be an allusion to that expression, with the underlying notion being that Goofy is an analogue, within the Disney universe, of the stereotypical black character from that era.

I draw attention to the point that one cannot infer that this is how Disney or the rest of the firm conceptualized Goofy; an alien analogy would not be recognized as such, and the image could have been seen as simply silly.

[1] It evidently retains some currency in Britain, where state and corporate officials continue to let it slip in public!

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2 Responses to In the Woodpile

  • J_D_La_Rue_67 says:

    @Daniel: On Goofy's ethnicity: I've checked the phrase "N****r in the Woodpile", and it's very interesting indeed, so thanks for letting me know.
    it's like saying "hiding a skeleton in the closet", but with a racist touch.

    I don't think we have or had (even in the 30's) a similar way of saying, though our comics, for instance, were loaded with jokes on Ethiopians and (since 1938) Jews.

    Anyway, I just can't think of Goofy as a black man (dog?). My guess is that the phrase was so deeply rooted in the cultural background of that age, that somehow the "ethnic" part was not so relevant and one could use it WITHOUT the intention to make an explicit racist remark.
    The interesting thing is that the card is a Joker, so maybe Goofy is seen as the "oddball", lunatic and somehow potentially embarassing individual who doesn't fit in the conventions of Mickey's / Disney's society.

    This concept was used by Andrea Pazienza (an underground comic artis) in the story "Perchè Pippo sembra uno sballato?" = "Why Goofy looks like a stoned screwball?", where Goofy quits working for WDP and flees on an island but is confronted by a self-contained, business-minded and relentless Mickey/Disney.

    A Disney character with an undeniably strong (and unpleasant) ethnic identity is Eli Squinch.

    • Daniel says:

      Well, although the circumstances under which the two expressions would be used overlap, there us some difference (beyond invocation of racist sentiment) between skeleton in the closet and n_gger in the woodpile. Skeletons are historical, and might in some cases stay forever in the closet; whereäs what's in the woodpile is going to come out, at cost to someone.

      I don't think that most people ever thought of Goofy as a black man; but I think that it's clear that some people did.

      However, in keeping with some of what you are saying, I think that many people perfectly dissociated the black caricatures in the comics and animation and minstrel shows from the black people whom they saw in everyday life. Up to about 1990, many old animated cartoons with jokes entailing black caricatures were being broadcast uncensored, for the simple reason that few in the viewing audience recognized the caricatures as of any real-life ethnic group.

      I'm quite unfamiliar with the character of Eli Squinch, beyond reading your remark and then making a cursory Google search. But I have been told that Disney characters are often give a very different spin in Europe from that in America. Squinch's ethnicity might be stronger in stories presented some places than in those presented in others.

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