Hilda, Bob’s Burgers, and White Childhood Innocence

hilda’s white innocence.

What would it be like for others to ascribe goodness to your childhood? What is the experience of being a child who is constructed as/through/within innocence?

When watching white protagonists in cartoons, I glimpse this reality. I peer into worlds I have only known from the outside. Worlds in which to be a child is to live freely and individually. Worlds in which your kid-ness opens instead of forecloses possibilities.

Hilda (2018—present) illustrates the concept of white childhood innocence well in an enchanting show about empathy, exploration, and growing up. Blue-haired risk-taker Hilda moves with her mother to a city after spending her early childhood running around a forest with magical and dangerous creatures. In Trolberg, Hilda begins attending school, meeting friends, and interfering in human and nonhuman business, alike. While adults are oblivious to or antagonistic toward the supernatural world around them, Hilda is a mediator and friend to all.

To embark on her many quests, Hilda lies to her mother about her adventures. In several episodes, Hilda’s mother is seen searching for her in worry, catching Hilda in lies, and attempting to protect her. Despite deceiving adults and putting herself, her friends, and others in harm’s way, Hilda is constructed as a well-meaning, independent, and caring child whose biggest mistakes are always made up for by positive results.

Although Hilda is not U.S. American, her whiteness still affords her the attribute of childhood innocence, a construct that benefits white children to the exclusion of children of color.[1] Though Hilda lies and meddles, she is always constructed as good.

Goodness and innocence are expressions of power. They are forces that allow one to always be excusable.

Children of color, and Black children, specifically, do not have this power. Black children are not viewed as children—or human—in the same way. For example, the adultification of Black children leads people to perceive that they need less support, comfort, and nurturing than white children. It also leads people to perceive Black children as more aggressive and more deserving of punishment. In short, Black children are marked as guilty and stripped of their kid-ness, while white children are viewed as young and innocent.[2]

Hilda’s inherent goodness is interesting to me, because it is an attribute never ascribed to my own youth.

controlling images as pedagogy.

In her autoethnography about Black women’s stereotypes, Robin Boylorn writes, “As a child, I was warned before going in public that my behavior was a direct reflection of my mother, my family, and anonymous black folk I had never met.”[3] Boylorn describes this as a “conditioning to resist characterizations,” a directive to strategically perform the self to evade assumptions about a black woman’s speech, body, actions, and emotions.

What is interesting about the stereotypes of Black womanhood is that they easily map onto Black girlhood, which is perceived as always already grown. Black women’s stereotypes include the Mammy, the Sapphire, and the Jezebel. In each construction the Black woman is too much or too little: Too sexual as a Jezebel and not sexual as the Mammy. Too angry as Sapphire and yet always demure as Mammy. Too self-sacrificial as a Mammy and a selfish monstrosity as a Sapphire.

The stereotypes contradict one another, working simultaneously to produce a minefield in which virtually any performance of the self may be viewed through the prism of a pre-prescribed caricature. Patricia Hill Collins calls these stereotypes “controlling images” because they limit the agency of Black women, dictating what is and is not appropriate and foreclosing modes of expression and ways of being.[4]

Boylorn’s narrative reveals how these stereotypes are used to teach Black girls about acceptable and unacceptable ways of being. Well-meaning people often teach Black children to live in opposition to these stereotypes. But by constructing oneself against stereotypes, one remains under their control.

I grew up under similar conditioning as Boylorn. Not only were my actions, behaviors, and speech a reflection of myself and my family, they were also a reflection of Black people, as a whole. I was not an individual representing myself. I was an individual representing a collective.

Nearly every time I left the house, I was left with my dad’s two-word directive: “Act right.”

Act right meant don’t act Black, which meant don’t act like the Black people white people have already drawn conclusions about. Act right meant act white, which meant act like everyone else—but better.

It meant “anything bad you do will be bad for us, the family, and us, Black people, so you better be good.” It meant don’t be a stereotype.

But, of course, goodness is an impossibility for those already read as guilty. And of course, it is not possible to outmaneuver every stereotype for a Black girl. I was still called “sassy” when I was quiet and shy. And when I was loud it was easily called anger. I wasn’t good enough at sports to really get into them, but I knew it was something Black girls might be expected to do. And when I switched over to the arts—acting, band, choir—I knew there were expectations of my styles and skills. I was a good Christian girl, so I wore modest clothes, lest I be labelled “fast.” I took showers daily and was still called dirty because of my dark skin. And I was constantly aware that any performance—academic or otherwise—that was not up to standard would reflect poorly on Black people.

In essence, I was not seen as inherently good. I had to work for it. And it was clear that goodness could be stripped away with any misdeed. Far from the eternal patience for characters like Hilda, I knew, that any slip up on my part was an admission to an ever-present guilt.

bob’s burgers and the freedom of white childhood.

Bob’s Burgers (2011—present) is another show marked by representations of white childhood innocence. Bob’s Burgers depicts the antics of the Belchers, a restaurant-owning, working-class family with three children.

Tina, the oldest, is an awkward and nerdy boy and butt-obsessed preteen. Gene is the middle child whose quirky mediocrity and wit are balanced with earnestness and ease. And Louise is the higher-strung youngest sibling who embraces conflict and excels as scheming. Together, these siblings navigate their school and neighborhood, often causing mischief in the process.

On one occasion, they end up selling weed to their neighbors after getting summer jobs on a farm. They create an underground casino in their family’s restaurant. They skip school-mandated events, steal and damage property, sabotage events, run away, rob a train, and the list goes on and on.

Like Hilda, Gene, Tina, and Louise cause a considerable amount of mayhem for the people and environments around them. Yet, their actions are almost never serious enough to be deserving of consequences. They are always excusable.

The Belcher siblings are wild and reckless and funny and loyal, but most of all they are inherently good children. And because they are good, they are free. They are uninhibited by others’ ideas of them. They are free to explore, talk back, meddle, roam, seek, argue, question, and express themselves. Their freedom leads to adventures and their adventures lead to growth. And this is what their whiteness affords.

The Belchers can be less than desirable children in school and never be delinquents. They can be dangerous to themselves and others and never be criminal. They can be bad and always be good.

on being and not being bad.

Above all, whiteness affords children the precondition of goodness, which necessitates that children of color are dichotomously constructed as bad. For many reasons, it is difficult to imagine a cartoon like Bob’s Burgers with Black children or to imagine an all-Black cast of Hilda.

How, for instance, could Black children represent themselves, as individuals, and not also their families and communities? How could Black children—even in cartoons—cause property damage and be in open conflict with adults—and still be seen as likeable? How could Black children routinely cause trouble, unintentionally sell drugs, be in the middle of wars between species and still be considered innocent?

It is difficult to conceive because the stereotypes of Black children have already foreclosed possibilities of our imagination of who Black children can be.

The badness of Black children arrives before Black children do, so that when Black children arrive, they are not actually children—not in the same way as their white counterparts. The badness of Black children is a violent construct that threatens Black youth and Black joy.

I know this intimately. The stereotype of being a Bad Black Kid took hold of my life early on and contoured my development. I knew well the stereotypes of Black women and girls. I knew well the stereotype of Bébé’s kids—the Black hooligans who don’t obey and get in trouble. The ones who are wild and uncouth.

I constructed my life in opposition to these stereotypes. A form of control. A form of being controlled. A way of escaping badness. A process of realizing badness was already there.

As a preschooler, I am told that the first week of school I was playing with a friend who I had just met. We were running around together after class had ended. When her mother asked the teacher if her daughter had made any friends, the teacher said, “She did, but you’re not gonna like it.”

I imagine the camera panning over to us, laughing or hugging or building or imagining.

There I am.

4 years old.

“You’re not gonna like it.”

Already bad.

[1] Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights, 2011.
[2] Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia Blake, Thalia González. “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood.” Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2017.; Phillip Atiba Goff et al. “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014.
[3] Robin Boylorn, “A Story and a Stereotype: An Angry and Strong Autoethnography” in Critical Autoethnographies: Intersecting Identities in Everyday Life, edited by Robin Boylorn and Marke Orbe.
[4] Patricia Hill Collins, “Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images” in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, edited by Patricia Hill Collins.