Mahatma Gandhi has had a hard time of it lately. Lad mag Maxim recently featured illustrations of the revered activist being beaten up by an oversized jock -- choice images for the magazine's "Kick-Ass Workout" feature. "Teach those pacifists a lesson about aggression," exhorted the copy, as Gandhi was hoisted, stomped on and thrown around. Mayhem ensued when Maxim received more than 5,000 complaints, prompting the magazine to issue an apology defending its "edgy sense of humor, laced with irony."
Those who have read Maxim might find that last defense particularly funny: Any magazine that treats gadgetry and women's erogenous zones with the same button-mashing enthusiasm has no sense of irony.
And according to at least 150 Indian hunger-striking protesters last week, Gandhi has suffered yet another indignity. MTV's new animated series Clone High USA showcases a teenage, attention deficit disorder-addled Gandhi clone who loves partying and eating junk food.
The trouble is, the South Asian activists haven't been able to watch the show, which only airs in the United States. Newspaper reports and Internet articles about Clone High USA helped stoke the flames of anger that Maxim first ignited -- and it's too bad. If people had the chance to actually watch the show, perhaps they could see that Gandhi isn't being singled out for disrespect; Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln and Cleopatra, among others, suffer the same fate. Clone High USA practices equal-opportunity icon baiting but is never mean; it has an irreverence informed by affectionate familiarity with the historical figures it spoofs.
Plus, it's really funny.
This might not be a surprise to those who remember MTV's animated show Daria, with its deadpan, much-too-intelligent high-school lead. Daria droned through her day, remarking on the stupidity of her school and her dysfunctional family. Clone High USA draws on that angst, but couples it with the manic energy of The Simpsons: Absolutely everything is mocked, with a million sight gags in each frame. And like The Simpsons, the show has a sweetness that keeps it from being too snide.
Stocking a high school with clones of assorted historical figures sounds odd -- and it is. The school is run by a mad scientist turned principal. (Aren't they one and the same, really?) He in turn answers to a board of menacing, shadowy figures who seem to want clone soldiers out of the deal. But for all the strangeness of the show's premise, using clones of dead, famous people is an amazingly effective way to paint the spectrum of high-school personalities. Joan of Arc is the goth chick. John F. Kennedy effortlessly wins sporting events and spends his time "auditioning" girls to be in a film. Cleopatra is the annoyingly perfect girl -- a brainy, vain overachiever with a gravity-defying bosom -- and crush object of the drippily sincere Abe Lincoln.
By saddling each kid with a famous "clonefather" or "clonemother," the show's creators get at the teenage struggle to assert a nascent identity, or at least break away from parents. G-Man -- our Gandhi clone -- is hilarious, a freaky little rapper wannabe who tries so hard to be cool. And he has completely folded under the pressure of being Gandhi's clone; instead of resisting colonialism and practicing nonviolence, G-Man spends his time hatching stupid schemes to draw attention to his life-of-the-party self. I knew that kid -- the frivolous, rap-spewing, desperate-to-be-"in" child of a saintly mom free of superficial longings -- and, watching the show, I found myself groaning, and laughing, in déjà vu.
That familiarity rounds out characters who could otherwise be reduced to one-note riffs on their clone parents. When the school decides to hold a film festival, Abe reveals both his wimpy sweetness and his inherited clone traits while directing his entry: "I want your voice to weep with honesty and goodness," he says. Joan of Arc expresses her mad, unrequited love for best friend Abe through film, and is mortified by what she thinks is a bald confession of her feelings. To everyone else, of course, the movie is just a hideous pastiche of nonsensical images. But after viewing it, Sigmund Freud's clone cackles madly, saying, "It's so obvious!"
Meanwhile, G-Man has enlisted the very serious and peanut-obsessed George Washington Carver to appear in Black and Tan. "Check this out," says G-Man. He wants to be "Tandoori Jones" in a Jackie Chan-like odd-couple action movie. George doesn't buy it, as his rather race-underplaying clonefather wouldn't have either. That genre of film "perpetuates racial stereotypes," George says. G-Man, meanwhile, combining his own idealistic naivete with his clonefather's devotion to social justice, thinks such a movie is about "dissing racial stereotypes." "Black and Tan will prove that even though we're different," he says, "we're ultimately a hilarious combo!"
Clone High USA's creators nail teenage relationships with the same accuracy that they depict each character. I was hooked by Joan's unrequited love for Abe: It takes the pain of being the asexual best friend to its absurd limits. "Don't worry, bro," says Abe to Joan. They have the kind of relationship where they can "sleep in the same bed and never touch or kiss." Right, "amigo, buddy, fella?"
MTV seems to have removed the show's information from its Web site -- perhaps a way to lay low until anger over the G-Man character dies down. I hope, however, that this doesn't mean that the show itself is endangered. It's too funny, too wrenching to die only a few episodes in. If only the protesters had a chance to watch the show, perhaps they could see that it isn't about trashing great historical figures or heroes. For all its clone origins, Clone High USA is about the horrible and hilarious reality of growing up -- something that faces even the most normal of us.
Noy Thrupkaew writes about culture for The American Prospect and TAP Online.