In a clip titled “Bananas” from Oz the Great and Powerful, Finley the flying monkey takes offense when Oscar (who later becomes Oz) offhandedly remarks that he must surely like bananas. Finley calls him out for stereotyping monkeys. Oz tries to make amends by asking whether he likes bananas. To which Finley replies, “Of course I love bananas. I’m a monkey. Don’t be ridiculous. I just don’t like you saying it.” Ba dum bum.
It’s a short scene, a lot shorter than the version of the same joke in Crash (2004). In that one, Peter and Anthony, two young African American men, come out of a restaurant in an upscale L.A. neighborhood. Anthony starts ranting about how all white people assume they must be criminals because they’re black.
Anthony: Do we look threatening? No. Fact, if anybody should be scared around here, it’s us: We’re the only two black faces surrounded by a sea of over-caffeinated white people, patrolled by the trigger happy LAPD. So you tell me, why aren’t we scared?
Peter: Because we have guns?
Anthony: You could be right.
And then they carjack a white couple who just walked by. Ba dum bum CHING. Crash, though, is a movie about the collisions that racial fears cause and it tries to disrupt expectations by alternating between playing to the stereotype and upending it.
In Oz, the joke is a throwaway. It’s funny because it’s harmless: of course monkeys like bananas! Now, Hollywood cartoons have a long history of taking cute animals and giving them human traits that wouldn’t quite pass muster if they were played by people instead of pixels or paint. But as suspicious as it might be that a monkey is being made fun of for being over sensitive, let’s let the monkey go even if he is dressed as a bellhop. Finley is in good company. Lots of other monkeys have played second banana to humans: Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat, Ronald Reagan and Bonzo, Justin Bieber and Mally, Han Solo and Chewbacca (c’mon: he’s a monkey).
If we really want to run with the theme of excessive sensitivity, how about some concern for the humble banana in the joke? Oz tells Finley, “I’ll get that big pile of gold, and you can have that nice pile of bananas.” This lets us know that Oz has some character issues. Gold is a prize, bananas are for chumps. They’re cheap and common and considered the world’s most popular fruit. It hasn’t always been that way, at least in the United States where bananas are not grown commercially.
L. Frank Baum does not have any character, monkey or human, eating bananas in the original book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). At that time, bananas were only just starting to become popular and inexpensive enough to be accessible. Besides, Oz takes off from desolate Kansas. Baum’s book was influenced in part by the time he spent out west in the Dakota Territory in the 1880s and 90s. He lived through a serious drought and experienced firsthand some of the conflicts between debt burdened farmers and the eastern bankers and western railroad men—robber barons all—who made their lives impossible. Some scholars suggest that the Wizard of Oz is one big political allegory about the struggles of the little people against the money power.
Which brings us back to bananas. Railroad magnates and bankers didn’t just expand to the west, they also went south to Central America. In 1899, after a series of mergers of railroad, steamship, land, and telegraph companies, the United Fruit Company was born as a monopoly along the lines of Standard Oil or Carnegie Steel. They brought Americans a steady supply of cheap bananas, but often at a steep cost to the countries that produced them. Ruthless exploitation and political meddling on the part of the company contributed to government instability in a number of countries. Now we think of Banana Republic as a clothing store. It used to be a derogatory term for a country that was really little more than a dependency of a large corporation. UFCO eventually acquired such a negative reputation that, following a 1972 payola scandal in Honduras known as Bananagate, it shed its original name in favor of the cuter and sweeter Chiquita.
These days, Chiquita is a cartoon lady with a basket of bananas and other fruits on her head. In the past, she was actually a banana in a tropical style dress, frequently shown winking or posing seductively, ripe for the plucking. It’s a false suggestiveness. The bananas on large commercial plantations are actually virgin fruits. They have no seeds and are reproduced via parthenocarpy, or asexually. And however abundant the bananas in the hat, they are all depressingly the same. Endlessly propagated from the same genetic material, the type of banana cultivated for export is predictable enough to base a gigantic industry on. The fruits are picked green, packed in refrigerated containers, and chemically ripened at their destination. So Finley, the faithful little friend, can have his pile of bananas. And Oz, the pile of gold.