What about Me!?: Animation and the Lack of Diversity
Am I about to cry? This seemed to be so as my eyes watered and a sniffle came from my nose. The most tragic moment of my eight-year-old existence had just happened. The overbearing yet doting Mufasa had taken his last breath after being trampled by a stampede of wildebeest trying to save the overzealous Simba. Scar, you bastard!
For many 90’s kids, this image brings back the simple nostalgia of the Disney Renaissance. But for me, this was the precise moment I knew that some way, somehow, I was going to have a career in the arts. That film only confirmed an already healthy (or borderline unhealthy by “normal” standards) obsession with animation. Whether on the movie screen, television or video cassette, I had to feed my obsession. I breathed, ate and slept animation. I constantly researched about Walt Disney, Don Bluth, and Hanna and Barbera. As much as I loved the medium, there was always one nagging question: where were the characters that looked like me?
As a kid, I would every Saturday morning in my parents’ living room watching my favorite cartoons and eating my favorite cereal. It was euphoria for me after a full week of grown-up programming. One thing I did notice was that most of the characters were either anamorphic characters, inanimate objects, fantasy creatures or just obviously white humans with their peachy/porcelain/flesh-tone skin. Brown and black characters (or any ethnicity for that matter) were few and far between in my Saturday morning fun ride. But there was a moment that stuck out to me now. The first time I saw a black character in an animated series it stunned me. I had to do a double-take at this brown-skinned character talking on my family’s television. It was Philo Quartz on The Flintstone Kids voiced by black child actor Bumper Robinson. This was a revelation for a four-year-old who worshiped at the temples of Bugsy Bunny and Mickey Mouse. Up until now, I didn’t realize what his presence in the medium of animation meant to me. Philo was the smart black kid with glasses who spent his time inventing Stone Age gadgets or reading a book. He was the animated version of me, and my little nerdtastic soul loved every minute of it. He let me know it was okay to be me (even though I didn’t fully realize it until years later). But he was an anomaly for me as I didn’t see a lot of representation that looked or sounded like me on animated television.
The only other character I vaguely remember at that age was Franklin from Charlie Brown. But Franklin’s presence made me sad as he never got to be anything other than a token or a splash of color amongst the sea of whiteness in the Peanuts gang. I only heard him speak a few times, and on two occasions, he was interrupted mid-sentence. Watching Franklin take what little scraps the production team would give him frustrated me. I made me angry to see someone of color being treated as an afterthought rather than a full human being. All I could think about was how white people wanted people of color especially black to be seen and not heard in their presence. I related to Franklin in the way of being the “black friend” in a group of white elementary school friends who tried to raise his voice only to be quelled from expressing his thoughts.
These little moments of color were huge steps compared to the milquetoast, white-is-right approach of the big screen. The older I got the more I noticed a lack of diversity in film. Being a black boy in South Carolina, animated films seemed to barely acknowledge my presence. My undying admiration. My allegiance to the animation medium. Being that Disney and Bluth were two of my biggest idols, I grew up somewhat disappointed by the lack of color in my favorite films like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Anastasia and Toy Story. I’m a huge fan of all these classics and understand some were derived from European folklore and history, but that didn’t dull the sting anymore to an eight-year-old wanting to be in the animation business. This realization made me feel so invisible and unacknowledged by a medium I loved and enjoyed. The only exception to this perception was Sebastian the calypso-singing Jamaican crab voiced fellow black South Carolinian Samuel Wright in 1989’s The Little Mermaid. He served as the voice of reason to Ariel’s irrational teenage impulses. He was a great character, but harken back to the ‘magical negro’ archetype of old Hollywood films, which caused a love-hate relationship between him and me.
On the other hand, I did see some splashes of color occasionally. My dad would take on trips to the local video store every weekend where I would constantly rent the likes of Jungle Book, Aladdin and Bebé’s Kids. I loved watching these black and brown characters on my television screen. These were the few films that had characters that looked and sounded like me. But even my love of them was tainted by the stereotypical treatment many of them were dealt with in the animation universe. When it came to diversity, Disney seemed to have two schools of thought — either make the characters exotic or mythical. The company seemed to whitewash these amazing stories for mainstream consumption without truly acknowledging their cultures outside of skin color and clothing (or lack thereof). On the other hand, Bebé’s Kids was both delightful and cringe-worthy even at a young age. I have fond memories of the film, but a part of me always felt that the portrayal of the characters fed into stereotypes many white Americans already had of blacks being ghetto, loud, obnoxious and unruly.
Something else happened around the time of these films — the proliferation of animated children’s television programming. As a kid, every channel had a block dedicated to animation whether it was early morning, weekday afternoons or Saturday mornings. And I loved every single minute of it so much that I felt the need to draw every character I saw pop up on my screen. I became a better artist for it. As my artistic side began to flourish, I noticed more and more shows striving for inclusion. Nickelodeon dipped its toe in the water with the creation of childhood favorites — Rugrats. The introduction of Susie made me jump for glee as there was finally a regular character on television that looked and sounded like me with a family just like mine. She was friendly, strong-willed and moral, which was everything I strived to be as a kid. It was refreshing to see a little black girl taking on spoiled brat Anjelica Pickles with no trepidation whatsoever. I felt proud as a little black boy watching her on television.
As I watched Rugrats’ Susie, I found another positive image in the form of Captain Planet’s Kwame voiced by Star Trek: TNG’s Levar Burton. I sat in front of the television admiring him for just being an African guy chosen to save the planet alongside a diverse group of heroes. He was an environmentalist (when that was an ugly term). The leader. The voice of reason. Friend. Mentor. Kwame was everything I wanted to be growing up in the post-Jim Crow American South. Seeing a black teen male lead a team made my heart sing with pride as he wasn’t a stereotypical thug or suave ladies’ man — he just an average guy keeping pollution at bay.
Even with positive roles, my view of representation was an emotional rollercoaster. At the same time, the 1990s were progressing, channels like Cartoon Network were showing older shows that spoke a prevalent but ancient language to me — racial stereotypes. During my youth, acknowledging the past was both a good and bad thing. I felt shows like Fat Albert and Super Friends were great to see, but at what cost to the diversity call. All of them in some way were caricatures that fed off poor research and bad stereotypes that only reinforced negative views of people of color. Every time, I watched Black Lightning on Super Friends, a part of me cringed a little over the invisible token sign flashing above his head. On the flip side, I enjoyed watching re-runs of Josie and the Pussycats because once again the intelligent mechanical wiz happened to be black tambourine player Valarie. In my head, she was the true brains of the operation but never got much shine amongst a group of white faces. She wasn’t stereotypical but served the same purpose as Black Lightning. I blame that on the racial quota cartoons of that era seemed to implement (for better or worse).
But the past didn’t influence the diversity trail being blazed for the new generation. Weekday afternoon programming was a magical treat for an animation lover in like me. As the 1990s wound down, there were more characters on the verge of adolescence like me. The most obvious example was DC Comic’s Static of Static Shock. Every day after school, I ate, did homework and surfed the internet while watching these respective shows. I got so much joy from watching young black people doing their best to save the world from evil forces. Static gave me a sense of pride as the first black superhero with his own show. Outside of being a show about a teen with superpowers, I reveled in the fact the show tackled social issues affecting the black community in a non-after-school-special way. It was a refreshing change from the token vibes of Black Lightning.
Around the same time, my television screen was starting to see me, the films I was seeing and geeking out over were starting to be more reflective of the American population. The more I went to the cinema, the more films featured characters of color in lead roles. As an animation fan, I rejoiced at this change, but I still felt unseen by companies I dreamed of working for like Disney and Dreamworks. I mean Native Americans had Pocahontas. My South Asian friends had Prince of Egypt. My Southeast Asian friends had Mulan. But no lead roles that had wide noses, brown eyes, shades of brown skin or natural, curly hair like mine. I wanted to see me saving the princess from the evil wizard or go on an adventure across continents in search of treasure. Unfortunately, it would be years before that would happen, which leads to a can of worms in itself. But even some films like Prince of Egypt had all white voice talent with no person of the respective cultures having a lead, supporting or minor roles. Learning this was very disappointing to me as the studios wasted these opportunities in not casting people of color in those culturally significant roles.
Despite the hypocrisy of animated films, the small screen was making strides in my eyes to reflect me more. Cartoon Network partnered with the DC universe to create one of my favorite shows of all time — Justice League. Watching Justice League (and its successor Justice League Unlimited) was like a cleansing of my eyeballs from the tragic stereotypes of Super Friends with its mature subjects, adult relationships, and cynical, dark humor. By this time, my teenage palette was ready for something with more teeth and grit than the average CN and Nickelodeon fare of sea pineapples and surfing. I was both shocked and overjoyed to see Martian Manhunter and John Stewart version of Green Lantern (voiced by African American actors Carl Lumbly and Phil LaMarr, respectively) be a part of the “founding members.” Hearing two familiar voices behind these groundbreaking characters gave me a sense of self as my career path in animation became clearer. The follow-up series expanded to include even more characters of color, which let me know that the future of animation was going to be a cultural hotbed. Being a casual fan of comic books, the series was a life-changing moment for me in terms of creating fully-dimensional portrayals void of stereotypes or caricatures while allowing black people a chance to take on content usually reserved for white leads.
At that point in my life, there was no turning back — animation was my life partner (whether it cared about me or not). The more fascinated I became, the more I felt like a secret boyfriend waiting for my lover to finally acknowledge me — in public. Even though I was on the outside looking in, I still had ideas, stories, and concepts swirling around in my head of shows and films that showcased the melting pot of the United States. But there was always the doubt of not being seen or heard in a mainstream-obsessed industry. That did not deter me from wanting to create a great contribution and leave behind a more inclusive world.