I’m going to go out on a limb here and note that rage mongering on the Internet about race, sexuality, and gender has been pretty popular over the last few years. While people have been leaving our friend the Italian plumber out of it for a few months, I remember a time around the release of Mario Kart 8 when raging on Twitter about the number of honkeys in the marioverse was well … all the rage.
It’s basically the same old controversy made from nothing but oft repeated. Westerners with little to no understanding of Japan or its culture defer their own personal experience and bias onto the work of Japanese developers who they understand so little about. Most recently this happened with the character Soleil of Fire Emblem Fates, where her actions were interpreted as homosexual by a Western audience but simply as a little curious here in Japan.
So is Mario supposed to be white? Most likely. We are told he comes from Italy and his pale skin tone denotes that he is Caucasian rather than Black or Hispanic. However, outside of him and his brother, race becomes heavily ambiguous.
For starters, it’s almost impossible to determine the race of many of the fantastical characters in the Mario universe such as Koopas, Toads, Shy Guys and Goombas. They are, by dint of their name, all fantasy. You can argue that anthropomorphized characters can relate to a specific race—for example, Sebastian from The Little Mermaid is interpreted as black due to his accent—but there aren’t many racial signifiers in Mario.
Firstly, almost all characters in Mario are virtually mute leaving accents to be indeterminable. Aesthetically, Bowser and his brood have more in common with dragons or tortoises than people, and you will never see a Shy Guy’s true face. Toads are mushrooms of course, but are arguably the most human-like of these fictional races and their light skin could indicate whiteness, but culturally this seems unlikely.
I’ve lived in Japan for 3 years. That’s not to say I know everything about Japan or it’s incredibly varied culture, but I have noticed some trends that differ from our western views when it comes to illustrating race. It all comes down to what each culture considers to be a racial signifier. For example, the most telling signifier of whiteness in Japan is nose size. White people see white noses as varying sizes, as we focus on the size of the bulb. Conversely, Japanese people focus their assumption of nose size on the bridge. As almost all white people have a deep nose bridge; Japanese people see all white noses as big and this is how they come off in Japanese-made, white characters such as Mario, Luigi, Wario and Waluigi.
While some traits, such as cleft chins and large stature, are attributed to white people by both cultures, there are others which differ. Japanese people tend to draw Asians with big anime eyes and extremely pale skins and “foreigners” with smaller squints and at least a mild tan. Blonde hair color doesn’t necessarily mean white in Japan either. Just look at Final Fantasy to see that.
Relating this to Mario, we see that Toads with their pale skin, big eyes and non-existent noses most likely relate to Japan’s native racial stereotypes, as do Princess Peach, Daisy and Rosalina. The reason why westerners related this to whiteness is in the absence of racial signifiers we see in what is common to us as default, but it should be remembered that the Japanese do the same.
When westerners look at Cloud Strife, Link or Princess Peach, we usually see a white person, leading to the common assumption that most video game characters and protagonists are white. But with Japan’s incredible and expansive history of game development, we should assume that the majority of these Japanese-made characters are in fact Japanese unless exclusively told otherwise. When Japanese developers such as Nintendo create games with a white protagonist like our boy Mario, that is in fact the racial diversity that so many are crying out for.
The only racial diversity we should be berating Nintendo about when it comes to Mario is the fact that they thought it was acceptable to put 4 Rainbow Road tracks into Mario Kart 8. Otherwise they seem to be doing all right.
What do you think about the diversity of Mario?