We all know by now that diversity is crucial if we’re ever to achieve a rich world of equality. Really good efforts are being made every day, and it seems like more and more stories not centered on cis straight white people are being produced, and doing amazingly well. And the amplification of Black voices is shining through. Just look at Black Panther, which was deemed the second-highest-grossing film of 2018. And how about Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, which got stellar reviews before the book was even released? In the outpouring of support on social media lately for Black creators of all kinds, it shows that these creators have always been here, and now they’re getting the spotlight they’ve always deserved. However, thinking back on the media I most enjoy, cartoons, I’ve realized that even though there’s almost always been at least one Black character in most cartoons I’ve watched, they’re rarely ever the lead.
The first Black character I can remember seeing in a cartoon is Susie Carmichael from Rugrats. She wasn’t even a main Rugrat, though, and wasn’t in all of the episodes. She was the token Black friend of the main characters, something I’d see again and again throughout my childhood. From Mee Mee in Dexter’s Laboratory, Tucker in Danny Phantom, and Numbah Five from Kids Next Door, I’d learned to spot the Black sidekick character who seemed to only be there for diversity points. Even Cyborg in Teen Titans had to share the spotlight with the rest of his team, and didn’t get as many episodes that focused solely on him as the other Titans. Same goes for Green Lantern/John Stewart of Justice League, who, after Hawkgirl, was my favorite character. When a Green Lantern movie was announced, I was actually naive enough to think my beloved John Stewart was getting his own movie. Instead we got a critically panned movie that Ryan Reynolds himself is embarrassed by.
This isn’t to say there have never been main characters that were Black. But when they are the main characters, there’s another issue at play. Let’s look at The Princess and the Frog. Disney’s first Black princess! A huge deal, right? As much as I love the movie, and love Tiana herself, there is one big problem with celebrating this landmark. Sure, Tiana may be the first (and only) Black princess, but she spends most of the movie as a frog. How’s that for representation? Tiana’s not the only Black lead that gets stuck in a nonhuman form. Spies in Disguise, a CGI movie that came out last year, features secret agent Lance Sterling, voiced by Will Smith. And somehow he spends most of the movie as a pigeon. An upcoming Pixar film, Soul, boasts Pixar’s first Black lead character, who seemingly will spend most of the movie as a little blue blob. I’m sure the creators of these movies think they’re telling a good story while earning diversity points, but what kind of message does this send to young Black kids? “You can be the star of the show, too, as long as you erase your Blackness.” Nice.
This isn’t to say all of animation has treated Black characters unkindly. The Proud Family was one of my favorite shows on the Disney channel, which centered on a Black family, with a token white friend/sidekick for once. And of course the first superhero cartoon I loved, Static Shock. Not only was Static the first Black superhero I watched on TV, he was also the lead! Currently, Cartoon Network has a show called Craig of the Creek, which I have yet to watch but looks incredibly fun and wholesome, with the titular Craig being a Black boy.
Women only make up about 25% of the animation industry, and Black women represent a whopping 1% when it comes to directing animated films. What would the animated world look like if more Black people, and Black women, were given the chance to tell their stories? I, for one, am hopeful that the next Black main character will get to actually be a human and not be trapped in some other form.
For now, I will leave you with “Hair Love,” an adorable and heartwarming tale with some wonderful animation.
In addition to cartoon friend groups with only one black friend for “diversity points”, I feel like it was (and still is) also common for shows/movies with Black leads to have a white best friend to not “alienate” a white audience, like Lottie from Princess and the Frog and Chelsea from That’s So Raven. It’s like they expect white viewers would be unwilling to watch these shows unless there was someone to represent us. And yet shows/movies with an all-white cast are expected to have a universal appeal…? Sigh. But thank you for reminding me how great Proud Family was! And I hope we can expect more animation like Hair Love in the (not so far) future. ?
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