7 April 2014, 13:21

Hollywood animation: racism detected?

Hollywood animation: racism detected?

These are supposed to be progressive times for movies and people of colour. Django Unchained was a hit action movie about slavery. A black director just won the best picture Oscar for 12 Years A Slave), and a Mexican won best director (Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity).

Hollywood is finally starting to reflect the ethnic makeup and sensitivities of its national and global audiences, the Guardian's Steve Rose wrote in his column. However, things seem to be different in modern animation, the columnist believes. "Maybe we've dropped our guards because talking animals are the lingua franca of innocuous cuteness, but we seem to have got to a point where these movies are teaching children the finer points of racial prejudice before they've even learned to read", he writes and illustrates his point.

Disney has a long history of racially dubious movies, he states, the lazy, African American crows and illiterate, dark-skinned labourers in Dumbo; Sebastian, the workshy Jamaican crab in The Little Mermaid;the darker-skinned "evil" Arabs in Aladdin; the hyenas in The Lion King; the Native Americans in Peter Pan; the list goes on.Then Rose looks ar the recent release, Rio 2 about the last surviving pair of talking blue macaws where he finds national prejudices. "For a start, the lead characters (Brazilian parrots) are voiced by white Americans while the couple's long-lost jungle relatives are voiced by non-white actors (just as James Cameron did for his blue-skinned indigenous people in Avatar), Rose writes, adding that the film's singing, dancing, comic-relief sidekicks are primarily voiced by African-American actors. Here, the notorious Song of The South, Disney's 1946 musical depicting happy black slaves singing with cartoon birds on a southern plantation, comes in mind. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) called for a boycott of Song Of The South and issued a statement condemning the film's "dangerously glorified picture of slavery". It would be another half-century before Disney atoned with a black heroine, in 2009's The Princess And The Frog.

Then come Hispanic stereotypes and Rose reveals ones in Despicable Me 2 where the villain is a grossly caricatured Mexican Eduardo (voiced by Peruvian-American Benjamin Bratt) – he is fat, big-nosed, sentimental, wears an open-necked shirt exposing a large medallion over his hairy-chest and runs a Mexican restaurant. And in the Oscar-winning Happy Feet, the street-dancing, pleasure-seeking underclass penguins speak in Spanish accents.
The Guardian quotes Dr Charles Da Costa, a British lecturer who has written on racial stereotyping in animation. He places these portrayals within the context of what he calls "PEPs": Problem Contexts, Entertainment Contexts and Performance Contexts. "Within PEPs, black people and other genotypes have to be associated with vexing circumstances," he says. "Strive to pacify, make others happy and be exceptional or extraordinary – far from 'normal'. Villainy, exoticism, jocularity and athleticism are common indicators of this malaise. Images of ethnicity do not need to be conveyed within the narrow scope of PEPs."

The slow, expensive, labour-intensive process of producing animation could also be a factor, suggests Da Costa. "Decisions on character and performance must be made quickly in order for design and production processes to commence and advance. So regarding representations of ethnicity and epidermal type, family animation often finds itself in a bind. It consciously and subconsciously weighs financial against moral obligations, then unconsciously opts for the 'safe' representational defaults – stereotypes."

There's possibly another imperative here. In today's global cinema market, movies such as Rio and Despicable Me 2 can expect to make twice as much overseas as they do in the US. So there's the desire to be slightly more outward-looking, but not to the extent that domestic white audiences are turned off, Rose writes.

Put all this together and what you often get is an apparently globalised story peddling lowest-common-denominator racial shorthand, Rose concludes saying that recent animations have hit upon a new way to circumvent this problem: get rid of people of colour altogether, like Disney's latest smash-hit Oscar-winnig animation, Frozen.

For campaigners such as the NAACP, Frozen represents a step backwards, says Robin Harrison, of its Hollywood Bureau. "It was just a few short years ago that we were finally introduced to the first African-American Disney Princess, Tiana, portrayed by Anika Noni Rose," she says. "We had hoped this was a turning point for the industry. Unfortunately, what has now become the most successfully animated feature of all time, Frozen, is probably the least diverse. There is still much work to be done in all areas of film and television animation created for children and adults."

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