Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Cartoons and representation [GIFs]

I have a history of cartoon obsession.

When I was very very young I was into The Smurfs (who knows why) and Woody Woodpecker (I liked the theme song). Interestingly, I dressed up as a Smurf for Halloween when I was about five. And even more interestingly, I wasn't Smurfette--I thought she was annoying--and I didn't even choose a particular Smurf to be. Just some random Smurf. I was very excited about it.

Me with my little sister, who's dressed as a witch.
I didn't actually have a favorite Smurf. I think I just liked that there were different personalities and magical adventures. Then, as I got older, I developed other cartoon obsessions--some of which were extremely long-running. I was into the Popples cartoon for a billion years (still have all my toys!), and my favorite was little Potato Chip.

She's the yellow one who's smaller than the others. Hmmm.
And I was into Rainbow Brite, and my favorite was Rainbow herself for some reason. I'm not sure why, but take a look.

I guess Rainbow was the only one that basically looked like me. I'm sure I didn't consciously decide "I like that one because she's a white girl with long blonde hair," but that's where my kid brain went.

And I wanted to be an Ewok princess but let's not talk about that.

I loved She-Ra, Princess of Power. She-Ra was a blonde white girl. I loved Jem and the Holograms. Jem (well, Jerrica, when she wasn't being Jem) was a blonde white girl. I loved Inspector Gadget and I wanted to be Penny. Guess what?

Blonde white girl.

Good thing I had a ton of characters to choose from, huh? Blonde white girls are everywhere, and though there were some exceptions to my interests and they diversified a TON when I got older, when I was a young child I mostly identified with characters who looked like me.

If you scroll up and look at that Rainbow Brite cast shot, you might see that if you're a brown girl, none of the color kids look like you except Indigo (and she probably doesn't look like you unless you're a very specific type of brown girl). Well, it turns out that's ridiculously common. What's up, She-Ra?

White girrrrrrrrls.

And hang on, what's up, Jem and the Holograms?

Oh wait, looks like they did better. Why?

There was still a tendency to tokenize the non-white characters in the 1980s shows, but it sure was nice that Jem had an Asian girl (Aja), a black girl (Shana), and a Hispanic girl (Raya), though it kinda makes you raise your eyebrows when you realize that Jerrica (white girrrrrl) is the lead singer and the leader of the band AND her family literally took the black and Asian band members in as foster children. But to be honest, for some kids, just seeing someone like you on TV in a fairly regular, central role is nice, though I'm sure it was probably disappointing that they were almost never the "leaders" or "primary/central" characters.

Some shows did a good job getting more representation in for stuff like chronic illness and disability, but they were usually featured as a Very Special Episode and seemed more like a chance for the protagonist(s) to show they care and spread "different is okay!" messages. And you can pretty much forget anything that depicted relationships that weren't hetero. Relationships between girl or boy characters were strictly friendships even on up into shows aimed at teens, but even tiny child characters could be presented as having a crush on cross-sex partners.

Now let's skip to today. There's a ton more diversity on television now, but what's come along with it is massive accusations of "pandering" and "PC police." People sometimes get upset about this--that if there is enough diversity on television that we're starting to notice how not-white or not-straight or even not-cis the landscape is looking, then it must be because the liberal agenda is corrupting the mainstream and trying to push an unrealistic "diverse" population that doesn't truly reflect our world. A while back I was in one of those fun Facebook arguments where someone was arguing a point like this, and that person said in REAL life our groups of friends do not tend to have mixtures of races and non-cis genders and non-straight orientations and various disabilities, and that if we present them as such, it comes off like a "college recruitment poster with forced diversity." Uh, well, no.

My friend group happens to be pretty diverse, actually. When we went to Disney together, it wasn't like we said "hey, let's make sure we have white, black, Asian, and Hispanic ancestry going on here, and let's feature a variety of body types, and let's throw one of our members on a scooter to make it look even more diverse." But when friend groups (and family groups) like this are presented consistently as other, as weird and "forced," then that's what the mainstream is going to see, and that's how we're going to build our brains around these relationships. I didn't actually realize that we "looked like a diversity postcard" until that Facebook conversation happened and one of the other people in this photo pointed out that he in fact does consistently hang out with a pretty mixed group as far as race goes.

I'm gonna depart from cartoons for a second (forgive me!) because I don't have anything else to make this example, but let me tell you about a show called Huge. It only ran for one season and that's a shame, because the representation on it was great, and what's more is that it generally was not tokenized. The most obvious thing is that nearly all the featured characters were fat (because it took place at a weight loss camp, but that aspect was rarely focused upon), and that finally gave fat characters a chance to be something other than the fat one. My goodness! They got to have personalities! And not just limited to being the funny one!

They all had different relationships with their bodies and comfort levels with being fat (Will was there against her will and referred to the attitude there as body fascism, while quite a few of the others wanted to lose weight), but they also had a ton of other things going on. The casting choices were really interesting and the writing was amazing. Without going into too much detail (because, you know, I wanna talk about cartoons), they didn't fall into casting the black girl as the loud sassy friend; she was actually kind of a bookworm and the biggest nerd at the camp (all the way into LARPing), and there was a Jewish character who didn't define himself as "the Jewish one." Most interesting, I think, is Alistair.

Now, he used male pronouns on the show and I don't know if he was supposed to be canonically transgender, but he definitely said some things that suggested he thought of himself as having an inner self that was female, and what's amazing is that this was not his entire character arc. Something unrelated was introduced about him first, so the audience got to know him and got to understand him as a person, before the gender hints were introduced and enriched the character more instead of singularly defining him. They don't even come out and say Alistair is trans or not; it's okay that they weren't explicit, because honestly he may not have even known. Usually with trans characters, if they're not pitched as a joke, they're very clear about their identity and there's no room for a questioning, unsure young person who's possibly closeted or confused. It's also clear he's attracted to men, but it's not explained whether he is attracted to men as a gay man or as a straight woman (or something else if he likes more than one gender or isn't strictly a man or a woman himself).

Which brings me back to cartoons. (Whew.) Can we talk about Adventure Time? Oh I think you know where I'm going with this.

The character to the left here is known as BMO (or Beemo). Adventure Time presents him as a living video game system who lives with the main characters Finn and Jake. And there are a ton of great episodes featuring BMO, making him a huge fan favorite, before it becomes clear that he sometimes calls himself she for no particular reason and no one thinks it's weird at all. (There are plenty of extremely weird things BMO does that other people DO think are weird.) So basically, BMO is canonically gender fluid. And it's not this big point they make, where he'll stick a bow on his head and now he's a girl or something. Sometimes BMO is just she and it's fine, and not at all the point of the episode. Of course, one could say that we could use better gender-fluid representation than a living video game system, and I would agree there, but considering everyone on Adventure Time is some kind of bizarre creature (except Finn, the last human), I don't see it as particularly problematic. And I've noticed that creators tend to slide these things in in contexts where those against "the agenda" will have less ammunition to declare them inappropriate for children. I think they kinda know what they're doing there. But kids growing up gender fluid might see this and go "oh, there's someone like me," and not feel that BMO being a sort of robot invalidates it.

There's also been a lot of noise about how two of the characters on Adventure Time are gay. I don't know if "gay" is the right word (because who knows, they could be bi or pan, or might not have considered their relationship romantic, etc.), but it's pretty clear that two female-identified characters had an intimate relationship of some sort before the events of the show. Does it really matter that one is a demon/vampire and the other is a princess made out of bubblegum?

The subtext is pretty obvious with them, especially if you listen to Marceline sing about PB. But since they don't explicitly say anything about them "being gay" or show them kissing or anything, this can still be shown in places that don't allow non-straight relationships to be presented to children. But they can still admit that Princess Bubblegum has one of Marceline's tee shirts. That she wears to bed. And sniffs sometimes. And keeps in her closet with a photo of the two of them.

But here's the thing: Adventure Time has tons of complicated relationships. Most of them aren't romantic. This is just another one, presented as a normal part of these ladies' past that they're struggling with, and they all have multiple issues like this. Finn has to get over liking someone older and uninterested in him, and finds someone his own age but is still incompatible in some ways. Marceline has a weird relationship with someone who took care of her as a child and is now a huge jerk that she feels like she owes something to. And Jake the dog, with his relationship with a rainicorn (half rainbow, half unicorn), seems to have the most well-adjusted romance on the show, even if it's visually kind of disturbing.

Lady Rainicorn is pregnant here. Jake's the dad.
Google their puppies. They're pretty weird looking.
And despite revolving around two male characters, there are a ton of good female characters. I especially like that Princess Bubblegum, despite being super traditionally feminine and a princess and BRIGHT PINK, is also an obsessive scientific genius. And it's not played as a joke. She's consistently science-oriented and makes useful and brilliant things. Great message for girls who frequently see messages that if they want to be interested in science and math, they are therefore more boyish or should present as such.

Now let me touch on The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. The most striking thing about this pair of shows is that there is not a single white person in the cast. NONE. And despite being made for American audiences BY American creators and run on an American network, it didn't have to be whitewashed to succeed. I'm sure some people interpret some of the characters as white because they're used to it, but they're all clearly alternate-universe versions of East Asian and Inuit folks. There are no people with light-colored hair unless they're elderly (unless you count Yue, but her hair was turned white for a very specific reason). And though most of them have light eyes, it seems to be an artifact of their living in an alternate universe where people control elements, so people from the Water Tribe have blue eyes, people from the Earth Kingdom have green eyes, Fire Nation has gold/amber or red-brown eyes, etc. (I don't think it's a rule, but it's common.)

Many of the most powerful characters are women/girls, especially when we get to the second series--Legend of Korra, where the central character is a teenage girl who is dark-skinned and not incredibly traditionally feminine (especially since she's shown to be muscular, the way a fighter generally would be).

And though they do occasionally tackle things like sexism on the show (with men underestimating girls or oppressing women), it's not really in your face about it, and women/girls are understood to be worthy, respectable people in this world. So not only do you have a really unusual ALL POC CAST, but you have good female characters who are a variety of different things that incorporate their feminine identities into who they are (rather than, say, having a rough-and-tumble girl who's presented as being that way despite her femaleness). And as if all that wasn't cool enough, you have a blind character who is integral to the plot as something other than a blind person (though they do kind of subscribe to that trope where her blindness is sort of canceled out by a special ability, even though there are situations where her blindness does limit what she can do realistically). Toph occasionally uses her blindness as a way to poke fun at others or herself, but it's also pretty cool that she generally isn't presented as "wow you totally forget that she's blind!" You really don't--it's part of her character, but not the central, defining aspect of her. It's nice to realize there really isn't a central, defining aspect of any of these folks. And even though I'm mostly talking about messages that work well for kids hoping to see themselves in media, it's actually pretty refreshing to see lots of older characters who aren't just shoved into the plot to be parents or wisdom dispensers for the young characters. They have their own story arcs, and some of them occupy that nice middle ground between elderly and young adult, which is also unusual to see (especially in a cartoon).

Lin and Suyin Beifong, awesome badass silver-haired sisters with a troubled history!
Oh, and let's not forget that on Korra, they have canonically bisexual characters. Both of the women who later have a relationship with each other have expressed and demonstrated attraction to men as well. Some of the fans were annoyed that the lady/lady relationship literally came in the last moment of the series and then you didn't get to see them really exploring it or continuing to show their representation, but some were happy that it happened at all.

Some people freaked out about how a "kids' show" is "pushing the queer agenda," but nobody thought it was inappropriate on the previous series when preteens expressed their love for each other; that was a heterosexual relationship, so it was sweet and relatively innocent and totally appropriate for children's television. They're used to seeing that boys and girls get together, so it makes sense that they get to kiss while they're busy saving the world. For some reason even very slight hints of romance between same-sex characters imply GAY SEX while an actual kiss between cross-sex characters is not implying any sex at all, except in the way that all simplistic heterosexual relationships in this context imply that innocent birds and bees "happen" offstage and that's all fine and good to make reference to.

Aang and Katara got to kiss. Asami and Korra just got to hold hands.
But children, even if they're not going to be same-sex-attracted teens or young adults, need to see that it happens and that it isn't bizarre or ridiculous or the sole defining factor of any complicated characters we come to love throughout these shows (and, by extension, being same-sex-attracted doesn't define you or limit you necessarily).

And then we come to the latest addition in my already overflowing cornucopia of cartoon faves, a lovely thing that is taking the world by storm these days: Steven Universe.

First, I've written a lot here about positive messages for girls and women, but let me talk about the Steven character here. He's a little boy whose mother ceased to exist when he was born (long story, and I'm not gonna tell it), and his mother's friends from space look after him. So he has three mother figures. But this is a fantasy/SF show so of course he's also helping save the world, and he happens to have access to some of the powers and tools his mother had. Basically, Steven is the only male fighter in this group, but everything from the style to the function of his role in the group is traditionally feminine. All his tools are pink and/or related to flower imagery, and they are mostly protective; he has shields and healing abilities and bubbles to stop others from getting hurt.

And meanwhile the feminine-coded characters all have offensive weapons--Amethyst has a whip, Pearl has a spear, Garnet has gauntlets that let her punch the hell out of things. Interesting that they're presenting this sort of thing with a boy as the hero but presenting a surprisingly gentle way of fighting that is all based on the same love and protectiveness his mother had, and interesting that the show's narrative and characters never suggest this is surprising or unusual for a boy. (He also does traditionally boyish things too, like collecting action figures and craving "adventure," without any apparent dissonance.) So that's a nice little dose of a less traditional masculinity for little boys who watch--especially if others were to follow the example of not telling similar little boys in their real lives that their interests or inclinations are "for girls."

Now I'll get to the alien characters in a minute, but in this show there are a ton of human characters who are from various cultures and are different races, and just like with some of the other cartoons I mentioned, their variety and diversity is actually incorporated into who they are without being the focal point of their characters.

Steven's crush on the show is Connie, a dark-skinned little girl with glasses and very strict parents. The family's last name is Maheswaran, which is Indian. They don't specify anything about their national origins; they just show the characters. They also have the mother working as a doctor and the father working as a security guard, and they are addressed as "Dr. and Mr. Maheswaran." Nobody suggests it's odd at all for Steven (who presents white) to have a crush on a non-white character. They're a lot more worried about what her strict parents are going to do if they find out his unusual living situation involves living with space creatures.

And then we have the Pizza family, which has an interesting dynamic; the mother is not present, and the twin girls Kiki and Jenny are parented by their father and grandmother. Dad and Grandma are immigrants from Ghana and have obvious accents, while the girls (surprise) sound more American. It's really refreshing to see that a show like this casually includes not only non-token people of color, but gives them a history that doesn't define them even though it's clearly part of who they are. These guys aren't front-and-center characters, but they feature prominently in a few episodes. There are plenty of white or ambiguous-race characters too, but the background population of Steven's hometown Beach City is appropriately diverse in my opinion, and when you see groups of people, you generally aren't going to see just a sea of white faces as if white is the default.

The cool kids from Beach City
Now as for the characters who take care of little Steven, they use female pronouns and definitely are coded as feminine by our standards, and all have female voice actors, but technically they appear to be a sexless species. It's unclear whether any of their species might look masculine, or whether "she" is just some kind of default pronoun amongst them because that's what they all happen to look like in some form or another, but I don't knock it. I like seeing the primary characters as ladyish beings.

Of the three characters who look after Steven, two of them look like they are coded as women of color. And all of them are voiced by women of color. On top of that, they present with a variety of body types (which is especially interesting because their race can shapeshift, so you know they are more or less choosing to look the way they do). And even though their bodies have a lot of feminine signifiers, they pretty much never present as sexualized even when they stand or pose in a way that's traditionally "girl being attractive," which I find really, really interesting. (Probably has something to do with the smart choices made by the female creator of the show.)

So here you have a skinny, not-at-all curvy body type; a short, chubby body type; and a very tall sort of small-waist-giant-hips body type (or, er, whatever that is). None of them actually appear to have breasts, which is appropriate since their species isn't mammalian, and even though they're all quite different, they still seem feminine in their own ways. (Doesn't stop fan artists from drawing them with more traditional and sexualized bodies, of course, but what can you do?) The character design shows so many different ways to be a lady, all equally valid. It's a far cry from so many other animation projects that stick boobs and long eyelashes on female non-human characters (even animals!) to distinguish them from male characters (while male characters don't need any signifiers to be assumed male).

And there is also the cool fact that the character to the left here is the team leader. Garnet is just incredible in so many ways. She's the character who has the most signifiers of being a black woman (despite being basically a sentient rock from space, guys), and you usually don't see superhero teams that are led by black women; this is a far cry from all the teams and groups that might let one black gal in but she's always backup, always tokenized, and almost always there to be strong and sassy. But even though her being the most powerful of the group would usually suggest that she'd also be incredibly aggressive in a possibly stereotypical and problematic "angry black woman" way, she doesn't come across that way at all. She's recognized as the boss, and she provides a good bit of the intelligence of the group due to her long history of leadership and her having "a sort of future vision," and she's always the one who's most reluctant to speak and says the least--in a sort of mysterious soft-spoken way that delivers quiet strength.

And she'll just do this instead of telling you she hates your music.
I think I love that GIF a little too much. Sorry. In case you were not aware, Garnet is easily my favorite.

It's pretty great that the group's fearless leader doesn't have to be a loud or "sassy" stereotype to still be read primarily as a black woman on the show, but they don't feature black characters by entirely subverting the tropes either; you see both common and uncommon depictions of characters of color. And they also manage to make them really complex and multi-layered; I mean, most of the time my fave Garnet there is extremely stoic, but there are moments of real intimacy and emotion even with her, though when she actually puts on an expression other than cool cucumber even her companions don't know how to react. (There's even a very complicated scene where Steven's guardians admit to themselves that they don't really know what to do when it comes to raising him.) It's really nice to see people--even cartoon aliens based on rocks--behaving more like real people than most characters do, showing off different ways to have family relationships and handle the difficulties that arise.

There are a few other really cool character choices on the show. Like that Steven's dad is kind of at a loss as to how to bring him up without his mother but is still presented as a caring, non-deadbeat dad. And like when one of the kids who has trouble making friends is NOT a sweet, intellectual nerdy kid with a heart of gold; they instead portray him as a sort of judgmental, borderline bullying type himself. But my favorite thing is definitely the relationships Steven has with his guardians and their relationship with each other. There is clearly jealousy and sorrow and resentment and love happening between all these characters, which sounds funny because if you look at the art style it appears to be slapstick and cartoony, and cartoons of that nature usually lack the kind of depth I'm talking about here. But trust me, it's there.

And speaking of relationships . . . yes, this one also has some pretty incredible same-gender relationships too, if you allow that the Gem characters are all the same gender (and look feminine to viewers). One of Steven's guardians had what appears to be a very strong attraction to and devotion to Steven's mother before she disappeared (though it's unclear if it was reciprocated), and in one powerful episode at the end of the first season, two characters were depicted searching desperately for each other and kissing joyfully when they were reunited, leading to other awesomeness.

What's really notable about all these more recent cartoons that I adore so much is that they aren't about representation. It's casual and just part of the world--like it should be part of ours, and actually is if you know where to look. People who aren't white blonde girls can find themselves on TV, and families that aren't nuclear can find examples of their members thriving, and people who don't have traditional heteronormative relationships can see that sometimes that happens in the world--and hopefully it isn't as much of a fantasy as, say, sentient space rocks and waterbending powers and dogs that can shapeshift. They can see themselves, and everyone who watches can learn that people they're not familiar with don't have to be marginalized, othered, or treated like perverts.

And even though we aren't saving the day on a global scale like our cartoon heroes, we could be saving lives and building confidence with these inclusive messages. I certainly want the cartoon world to reflect leaders who aren't white blonde girls, women who don't have to be passive or sexualized to be considered women, and groups of friends who don't all look the same and sometimes have same-sex relationships or non-binary genders. 

But it has to be done from the ground up--it can't be tacked on with "hey, we added a new token character!" or it will feel inorganic. Authenticity is key when providing representation of diverse populations in media, and it must be built into the foundations of the work. It should not be an afterthought or a deliberate attempt to mollify progressive audiences that the creator thinks are bullying them into doing it. It should be presented inclusively because that's how the world actually is. Regarding the straight white cisgender non-disabled male character as the default unless there's a plot-relevant reason to change them to something else is the root of this problem, despite what Nickelodeon writer Matthew Klickstein will tell you. The cartoons I profiled here are doing it right, and if more creators do it right in the future, we'll hear less of the "IT'S ABOUT TIME!" commentary from the marginalized folks who are just so relieved to see themselves reflected, and we'll also hear less "YOU'RE DOING THAT BECAUSE DIVERSITY'S HOT NOW!" from the critics.

It should have been "hot"--and natural--all along. I'm looking forward to when the people who still uphold the status quo will be routinely forced to question their sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, transphobic ideas in groups where they are outnumbered by people who support realistic diversity, but we're not there yet. I'm glad, though, that the dialogue has been opened enough that such people are condescendingly calling it an agenda. That means they've realized there's something being said, and that like it or not, they're going to have to listen.

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