Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Portrayals of Characters of Color in Cartoons


I wasn't going to write about this topic, but as I "researched" (meaning I googled the topic for 40 minutes), I can be silent no longer.

My husband and I were thinking about how when our daughter draws herself she insists on using just the right shade of brown. This brought memories of my experiences with Crayola crayons (early 90s) and how I only had two choices: brown and "burnt sienna." If a child had fairer skin, she had the choice of "flesh," peach, tan, pink, and beige. The problem back then was the only way I could color my loved ones was to vary my pressure with my brown crayon. Lighter-skinned black people were out of luck.

Of course, that was then and this is now. My daughter can now choose sepia as her "right" shade of brown.

We know that every ethnicity from Irish and Spanish to African and Chinese has a variety of skin tones within that ethnicity. It's known but how much is it acknowledged?

Our discussion of crayon colors led to another point. How accurately do cartoons show the variation in skin tones in their characters? We then came up with cartoons that showed characters of color from every skin tone: The Proud Family; Boondocks; Ni Hao, Kai-Lan; Little Bill; Dora the Explorer; Dragon Tales; Maya and Miguel; and Static Shock. Of course, I do believe that people of color were involved in the production of these shows so I don't know how much progress this is. I mean, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids were doing this way back in the early 70s. This is not an exhaustive list, but one that brought up another point: How are characters of color shown on other cartoons where people of color aren't the ones responsible for the show's production?

This led us to Family Guy, South Park, The Cleveland Show, The Simpsons, and Avatar the Last Airbender. (I tried to throw in some other Nick Jr. shows but the other ones are mostly either live action or have anthropomorphic animals [?!?]. The remaining ones that had human or humanoid characters featured only token characters of color.) These shows are ensembles that portray more than just a token character of color.

Sigh. Let's take Family Guy. All the black characters are the same shade of dark brown. There's almost no exception (I say "almost" because a background character may have slipped through). Will Smith is the same color as Cleveland. Huh? (I was going to include side by side pictures, but blegh. I don't watch this show any more than I have to.) The same is true for The Cleveland Show and Southpark. Dark brown means black and only dark brown. The Simpsons is a little better nowadays-- Dr. Hibbert and his family were all the same color, but recently guest stars and background characters that are people of color are accurately shaded.

Avatar the Last Airbender, while not completely corresponding to real world cultures, does borrow heavily from Asian cultures and features characters of all the complexions expected of people from those cultures.

I'm not sure what it says about the people who make these shows. On Family Guy, you can clearly see that all the white people are varied in their skin tones, from pale to deep tan. Do the character designers think that any ethnicity other than white is homogeneous? Is this ignorance or is it laziness?

About the link at the top of this post: they can all suck it.

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