For those unaware, VeggieTales is an American media series - with content on television, film, and music - featuring anthropomorphic fruits and vegetables in stories conveying moral themes based on Christian culture.
They are arguable best known for musical numbers in the non-religious secular cutaway segments titled Silly Songs With Larry "the part of the show where Larry [the Cucumber] comes out and sings a silly song," most famously, "The Hairbrush Song."
The relative absurdity of the entire premise of anthropomorphic vegetables teaching Bible stories has brought about a number of internet memes and commentary, falling alongside many other nostalgia/revisionist-memory memes of "oh god remember when we watched that thing when we were kids, that was so weird."
Born in the early 90's, the show featured a fair amount of self-referential humor, self-parody, and fourth wall breaking. Most of this being recognition of the whole vegetable thing.
I mention VeggieTales's religious connections because it would be disingenuous to erase that, but the religious element doesn't play into what I will be looking at. Excepting a sign-off message at the end of episodes where Bob the Tomato says "Remember kids, God made you special and He loves you very much!," most episodes could be mistaken for fable, fairy tale, or even vegetable-retellings of Shakespeare plays (excepting some of the direct-to-video releases that get a little more preachy).
What I want to look at today is the episode "The Bunny Song," released in 1998.
"The Bunny Song"
This episode takes the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Book of Daniel). In the Bible story, the three characters refuse to bow down to a giant statue of King Nebuchadnezzar and are punished by being thrown into a furnace. But some God stuff happens and they don't burn.
In the VeggieTales version, the three are forced to bow down to a giant chocolate bunny and sing "The Bunny Song" or fear being thrown into a furnace.
It's horrifying even when they're veggies.
The story plays out the same: the three refuse to worship the false idol; they are thrown into a furnace; they don't burn; we all love Jesus.
The titular song is what I want to focus on, which, topic aside, was weirdly controversial during its release.
The song is a bad guy song. It's a song from a villain telling people to do bad things. It's also weirdly catchy. So catchy that the creators started getting angry letters about kids singing it at home. Because of this they had to re release it twice with new lyrics. Gotta love that meta-textual connection between media and audience.
Here's a mini doc on that mess:
I should also probably plug the original song too if y'all haven't seen it yet.
It is important to know that VeggieTales will often use high production value musical numbers in its storytelling. Like most musicals, these numbers are asynchronous - the characters aren't 'aware' of the singing or the lighting or dancing - save a fourth-wall break or two from Larry the Cucumber.
In this musical number, we get three background singers that aren't present anywhere else in the episode. They're part of the musical number and disappear afterward.
So where am I pulling racial coding from?
Well, I've got three points that hint it to me, and that was enough for me to warrant this essay.
Though please understand that I'm talking about the effect of the presentation. I am by no means saying that VeggieTales was intending on coding the characters this way. They might have, but I have no way of knowing. The only primary source I have is that mini doc where they mention that they just threw the backup singers in as a way to enrich the song.
So, to bluntly state my thesis and outline my points:
The anthropomorphic asparagus background singers from VeggieTales's "The Bunny Song" are functionally coded as black which can be seen in it's similarity to En Vogue, use of bi-lighting, and hair (#stretch?).
1. En Vogue Reference.
If you listen to "The Bunny Song" you'll note the musical style of the background singers. Their lines are short, quick, and clustered close together. This is not far off from the bridge in En Vogue's, "My Lovin' You're Never Gonna Get It."
En Vogue's song came out in in '92, so I don't think that it'd be unheard of for VeggieTales to reference it five years later in '98.
Part of me wants to say that it's an outright allusion, but I also recognize that this could just be a reference to generic 90's background singers.
But in turn, at the time En Vogue was in the popular cultural sphere, so reference to the generic could still be unintentional reference to that specific.
They sound similar alright?
At the bare bones of it, black people have darker skin than white people, and in a white-dominant film-making sphere, this means that scene-lighting is still very catered to light skin.
Scenes in dark areas like bars and night-clubs can be tricky when filming dark-skinned actors. At Tribeca film festival, Ava Duvernay, director of Selma gave a talk on the matter.
"Often folks are afraid to put darker hues against darker backdrops because it's just going to be teeth and eyes," she says.
One solution that has become prominent is colored lighting, often pinks purples and blues. Think of all the promotional material for Moonlight.
Youtuber KyleKallgrenBHH discusses this in his video-essay on bi-lighting, which goes further in discussing it's use as symbolic coding for sexuality, color theory and the natural color spectrum, and coding of the Other.
Going back to "The Bunny Song," we see a plethora of bi-lighting. Frankly, this might be a coincidental parallel issue of dark hues on darker backdrops (somebody give me an essay on the historical trends of film lighting vegetable subjects). Doubling down on En Vogue, "My Lovin' You're Never Gonna Get It," features a fair amount of monochromatic blue lighting.
I'm not gonna push this one too far because 1. I'm white, 2. I'm not an expert on hair politics 3. a skimming of this article could lead someone to believe that I'm saying that black people look like asparagus.
On the pro side - the way the animators have modeled the hair of the background singers appears more like black natural hair than any white equivalent.
On the con side - there are many asparagus characters in the VeggieTales canon that aren't racially coded, so there isn't any internal consistency.
At best I can say that this is an element that, within the presence of the other two features, enhances the coding. On its own, definitely a stretch, together, maybe not so much.
Titling this essay with the phrase "Black Coding" is a grey area. Ideally I would say "En Vogue Coding" as I think this is more of a direct reference to a musical group than some animators saying "hey, what if we turned the asparagus into black people."
While the gorillas in Sing! are more of a generic black coded racial stereotype reflecting racist traits (see Andrea S Moore hot take on that here)
The VeggieTales background asparagus are a specific reference mirroring a black musical group.
So anyway, go listen to some VeggieTales nonsense, support black film makers, follow En Vogue on YouTube and eat your vegetables.