In Toon with the Times: Diversity in American Commercial Animation
Mihaela Mihailova / University of Michigan


Diversity in new animation
Contemporary series bringing diversity to animation.

In December 2016, The Hollywood Reporter published a roundtable on the topic of “avoiding ethnic stereotypes and how to ‘break the mold’ of princesses” in the animation industry featuring seven White men. The backlash was instantaneous, addressing the inherent absurdity of inviting this particular group of “top toon creators” to reflect on questions of diversity and highlighting the glaring omission of obvious candidates such as Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who directed Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) and co-directed its sequel, or Gina Shay, who produced Trolls (2016). While this animation “manel” is part of a larger problem, it is directly indicative of systemic issues in the American animation industry, wherein women make up only 20% of animation creatives, despite comprising 60% of animation students.

While demographic data on animation labor equality remains undeniably grim, questions of diversity and inclusion in animated productions — often conspicuously absent from broader cultural discourse on media representation — are worth a closer look. Firstly, because even though contemporary commercial animation often features more diverse casts than live-action films, this tends to fly under the radar of most critics. And secondly, because common misconceptions about the medium — from outdated notions of its target audiences to a narrow understanding of the scope of its content — often preclude a serious consideration of animation’s potential as a platform for inclusivity.[ ((There are, of course, exceptions. See, for example, Johnson Cheu, ed., Diversity in Disney Films: Critical Essays on Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality and Disability (McFarland & Company, 2013).))]

Even animation critics are not immune to this tendency to marginalize the artform by overstating the implications of its otherness. Take, for instance, this response to the aforementioned roundtable debacle, which describes diversity in animation as a “tough concept to nail down.” According to the author, animated films are a “different matter altogether” because their “marked separation from reality” ensures that “any traits of diversity are capable of going unnoticed unless they either made explicit [sic] or designed that way to begin with.”

Let us put aside the fact that animation’s relationship to reality is the subject of an entire disciplinary subfield, animated documentary studies[ (( Annabelle Honness Roe, Animated Documentary (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).))]; the use of medium specificity in an attempt to render one of the most pervasive media forms of our time immune to pressing social justice concerns begs the question — is diversity in animation really such a complicated matter? Or can toons — in all their colorful, kinetic, sometimes anthropomorphic glory — reflect the experiences of underrepresented groups and celebrate marginalized identities just as meaningfully as live action?


Netflix’s Tuca & Bertie, an animated example of marginalized experiences and identities finding screen space.

A little Bertie told me that they can. Lisa Hanawalt’s Tuca & Bertie (2019), an adult-oriented Netflix show that centers on the friendship between a toucan and a song thrush, has recently made waves for being a rare breed — a female-centric, woman-led show in an animated TV landscape dominated by men. Voiced by stars of color (Ali Wong, Tiffany Haddish, and Steven Yeun), and celebrated as an “ode to female friendship, healing, and survival,” Tuca & Bertie has simultaneously modelled animation’s potential to feature diverse acting talent and its capacity to tackle topics commonly sidelined in mainstream productions, or else rarely presented from a feminist perspective (as sexual harassment and trauma are, in this case). While this particular show is addressed to grown-up viewers, a number of recent kid-friendly animated programs have contributed enormously to gender and LGBTQ representation in children’s media, highlighting the ways in which animation’s broad reach can bring inclusivity and diversity to the forefront of youth culture. Noelle Stevenson’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (Netflix, 2018-present), which features a predominantly female cast, offers a family-oriented take on female empowerment and sisterhood, while also depicting the loving relationship of a main character’s two dads. Steven Universe (Cartoon Network, 2013-present) has been praised for continuously dismantling gender norms, celebrating non-binary identities and queer icons of color, and depicting the first same-sex wedding in a mainstream children’s show. Finally, Amazon’s kids-oriented Danger & Eggs (2015-17), broke ground as a queer-inclusive cartoon co-created by Shadi Petosky, the only openly trans showrunner in American animation. The series, which features several queer characters voiced by LGBTQ talent, culminates in a season finale set at a Pride celebration, during which a young girl (voiced by trans rights activist Jazz Jennings) sings a song about her first day attending school “as her authentic self,” marking a milestone for trans inclusivity in animated TV.


Danger & Eggs's Pride Parade finale
Amazon’s Danger & Eggs Celebrates Pride.

While these shows are all produced by streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon or TV channels such as Cartoon Network, in the past decade, online crowdfunding platforms have enabled independent animation creators — women and people of color in particular — to directly respond to fans’ desire for a greater variety of diverse content in the medium. In 2013, Natasha Allegri’s Kickstarter campaign for Bee and PuppyCat (2013-present), her manga-influenced show about a young woman and her magical four-legged companion, raised almost $900,000, demonstrating the need for adult-oriented animation which “puts [women], their experiences, and their tastes first.” More recently, Hair Love (2019), an animated short about a Black father learning to do his daughter’s hair, attracted nearly $300,000 on Kickstarter, exceeding its original funding target fourfold. Despite being conceived as a festival short, the film has since been picked up for distribution for Sony Animation, playing in theaters ahead of The Angry Birds Movie 2 (Van Orman, 2019). Creator Matthew A. Cherry has explicitly linked the overwhelmingly positive response to his project to the importance of representation, specifically the film’s positive portrayal of Black fatherhood.


The Kickstarter-funded Hair Love (2019) exponentially exceeded its funding goal.

Despite this recent push for more inclusive content, animation is not immune to many of the issues that have plagued commercial American media’s approaches to diversity and representation, including queerbaiting, tokenism, and other half-hearted, superficial gestures towards representation. The recent fan outcry against botched LGBTQ representation attempts in Netflix’s Voltron: Legendary Defender (2016-18) productively illustrates the intensity and breadth of impact (both positive and negative) that a TV-Y7 cartoon can have on marginalized audiences of all ages. During a much-publicized San Diego Comic Con panel ahead of the show’s seventh season, showrunners Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery revealed that Takashi “Shiro” Shirogane, one of the show’s central characters, is gay, and teased a storyline involving his former partner, Adam. This news was greeted with an outpouring of fan enthusiasm, which quickly turned to accusations of queerbaiting and references to the “bury your gays” trope as soon as the season aired, never exploring their relationship and revealing that Adam had died while Shiro was away. To make matters worse, in an attempt to smooth things over through what has been aptly described as an instance of “epilogue representation,” the series finale’s post-script features a tacked-on wedding between Shiro and an extremely minor male character. This insensitive, perfunctory approach to queer representation ultimately sparked important discussions of authenticity and pandering, becoming a warning to creators to “stop preemptively outing their characters” in a manipulative attempt to generate positive buzz.

Whether drawn or filmed, representation matters — and its absence can be keenly felt. After Netflix unexpectedly (and inexplicably) cancelled Tuca & Bertie after its first season, fans of Hanawalt’s cartoon quickly took to twitter to express their dismay and outrage on behalf of a show that focuses — with a notable degree of honesty and compassion — on women’s experiences in a way that remains rare to see on the small screen. In particular, tweets by women, such as the one pictured below,


Tweet supporting Tuca & Bertie
An example of the strong social media outrage at Tuca & Bertie‘s cancellation.

commonly noted the dearth of female-oriented content available to them, while highlighting the show’s importance from the perspective of representation. At the same time, Tuca & Bertie’s cancellation brought renewed attention to a larger Netflix trend of prematurely “axing shows led by people of color and women,” serving as a sobering reminder that, in the broader context of diversity in contemporary TV, one bird show does not a summer make. Still, as even a relatively cursory overview of feminist, queer-inclusive, and race-conscious animated content can demonstrate, diversity in animation is not a tough concept to nail down. Women, people of color, and queer creators have been nailing it.



Image Credits:

  1. New series bringing diversity to animation. (Bee and PuppyCat image from Polygon; Steven Universe from The New York Times; She-Ra and the Princesses of Power from Decider; Tuca & Bertie from Deadline)
  2. Netflix’s Tuca & Bertie, an animated example of marginalized experiences and identities finding screen space.
  3. Amazon’s Danger & Eggs‘s Pride Parade Finale.
  4. The Kickstarter-funded Hair Love (2019) exponentially exceeded its funding goal.
  5. An example of the strong social media outrage at Tuca & Bertie‘s cancellation.


References:




Queer Female Superheroes: DC Comics Bombshells Tell Their Own Story
Christina M. Knopf / SUNY Cortland


DC Comics Bombshells
DC Comics Bombshells

In 2013, DC Collectibles introduced a line of statues by artist Ant Lucia called the DC Comics Bombshells, which rendered fans’ favorite female superheroes and villains in the style of pin-up models from the 1940s (see below). In 2015, writer Marguerite Bennett used Lucia’s character designs as the basis for a new, feminist, queer, comic book series DC Comics Bombshells. Bennett was praised for “low key pulling off a level of representation still largely absent in most mainstream films and TV shows.”[ (( Riley Silverman, “Bombshells and Batwomen: An Interview with Marguerite Bennett,” SyFyWire, June 15, 2017, accessed August 23, 2019, https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/bombshells-and-batwomen-interview-marguerite-bennett. ))] Bennett’s own female, queer identity is significant in this regard because she is not creating diversity but offering representation, noting, “I might just not know how to write anyone straight.”[ (( Quoted in Silverman, “Bombshells,” paragraph 4. ))] And queer female readers appreciate seeing familiar characters in stories more specifically “for” them.[ (( Silverman, “Bombshells. ))] In the words of Bennett’s Aquawoman, “I am the teller of my own story. I belong to myself alone.”[ (( Marguerite Bennett, Laura Braga, & Mirka Andolfa, DC Comics Bombshells, Volume 2: Allies (Burbank, CA: DC Comics, 2016). ))] DC Comics Bombshells, with its all-female starring cast, established by an all-female creative team, exemplifies the validation of women’s experiences and self-expression, offering a retro comic book variant of #MeToo — women telling women’s stories.


DC Collectibles Ant Lucia Art

The series used the changing role of women during World War II as its premise. Bennett’s allohistorical universe followed the exploits of established but reimagined female superheroes, anti-heroes, and supervillains as they joined the war effort as part of a female paramilitary organization called The Bombshells. Despite their pin-up stylings, characters were defined not by their sexuality but by their wartime roles: Batwoman played for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Supergirl and Stargirl were Russian bomber pilots in the Night Witches regiment. Wonder Woman joined the Army while Aquawoman worked reconnaissance with the Navy. Zatanna was a cabaret performer in Germany and Huntress a member of the German youth underground. Catwoman and Poison Ivy were smugglers in the European black market. Harley Quinn was a doctor in a London psychiatric hospital. (See image below.) Additionally, the characters represented different sexual orientations, gender identities, colors, nations, faiths, ages, and economic backgrounds, all of which were revealed subtly through the contexts of the stories. Bennett’s writing thus managed to represent the variety of women’s experience without resorting to the comic book formula of using one or two women as archetypal stand-ins for all women.


The DC Comics Bombshells cast
The DC Comics Bombshells cast.

“In this story, in this universe,” Bennett said, “I wanted the women to be the ones to define what heroism is going to be for this coming century.”[ (( Vaneta Rogers, “DC Comics Bombshells Creates World Where Women Were Heroes of World War II,” Newsarama, July 24, 2015, accessed October 15, 2016, http://www.newsarama.com/25336-dc-bombshells-creator-creates-world-where-women-were-heroes-of-world-war-ii.html, paragraph 7.))] Therefore, the heroines exist in a world where they are not derivatives of male superheroes but are instead heroes in their own right. The allohistory was created without the real-world constraints faced by women of the past (or present). Though prejudices are found in the Bombshells universe, they do not limit the activities of the women. Bennett explained, “I don’t want to see them first have to prove that they’re allowed to be heroes. […] I wanted to move society ahead [so that] when girls pick up these books, they can see these women […] living up to their fullest potential.”[ (( Quoted in Rogers, “DC Comics Bombshells,” paragraphs 11-12. ))]

The Bombshells story is a response to, and enabled by, heightened attention to contested public spaces with active debates about who is/not allowed to participate in civic life. The alternative version of WWII offers a reminder that the contributions of women in the past, and present, is often undervalued or dismissed. Commander Amanda Waller describes her Bombshells unit saying, “While the good gentlemen are relying on traditional warfare — we have engaged an independent organization that makes use of ‘unexpected and unsuspected resources’” — women (emphasis added).[ (( Marguerite Bennett, Mirka Andolfo, & Laura Braga, DC Comics Bombshells, Volume 3: Uprising (Burbank, CA: DC Comics, 2017). ))] WWII, with its apparent clarity of purpose, is a popular media frame for subsequent conflicts.[ ((Ex., Andrew Crampton, & Marcus Power, “Frames of Reference on the Geopolitical Stage: Saving Private Ryan and the Second World War/Second Gulf War Intertext,” Geopolitics 10, no. 2 (2005): 244-265. ))] Bombshells thus offers a useful parable for exploring the social changes of the present day; shifting gender roles of the 1940s works as a metaphor for the shifting gender identities of the 2010s. In 1941, the workforce became gender integrated; in 2016, bathrooms did. In 1943, women were allowed to serve in all branches of the military; in 2010, gays were allowed to openly serve, and in 2016, combat jobs were opened to women.

The second series of DC Comics Bombshells, “United,” was introduced in late 2017 and featured the Japanese internment camps that held over 100,000 Americans between 1942 and 1946. In 2018, immigration detention centers in the United States held about 40,000 people per day. The parallels between these institutions were introduced in April 2016 when Bennett featured the mayoral campaign of Harvey Dent, reimagined as a war-era Donald Trump. While Trump was promising to “make America great again,” Dent promised to “make Gotham golden once more.”[ (( Bennett, Andolfo, & Braga, Uprising. ))] Both campaigns promoted stricter immigration as a means of improving the economy and reducing crime and civil unrest. And, both campaigns made visible the white, patriarchal hegemony of American power structures by making explicit a desire to return to an era of exclusively white male privilege (see below).[ (( Andrew O’Hehir, “America’s First White President, Salon, December 10, 2016, accessed January 24, 2017, http://www.salon.com/2016/12/10/americas-first-white-president/; Andrew O’Hehir, “Fake News, a Fake President and Fake Country: Welcome to America, Land of No Context,” Salon, December 3, 2016, accessed August 10, 2019, https://www.salon.com/control/2016/12/03/fake-news-a-fake-president-and-a-fake-country-welcome-to-america-land-of-no-context/. ))]


description of image
Frames from the Bombshells’ Trump allegory.

It is arguably WWII’s iconicity in American cultural fabric that makes the diversity and situated truths of Bombshells narratively and commercially successful. Its historical context and vintage aesthetic work within the nostalgia economy that supports the superhero industry.[ (( Carol Tilley, “Superheroes and Identity: The Roles of Nostalgia in Comic Book Culture,” in Reinventing Childhood Nostalgia: Books, Toys, and Contemporary Media Culture, ed. Elisabeth Wesseling (London: Routledge, 2018), Kindle edition, 51-65. ))] Authenticity was established through use of retro art styles and media formats. Each story acts as a separate chapter focusing on a different heroine, each given her own generic formula: Wonder Woman, a war film; Supergirl, a propaganda reel; Catwoman, a noir; Zatanna, a Hammer horror; Aquawoman, a romance; Harley Quinn, a comedy; and, Batwoman, a pulp radio serial.[ (( Rogers, “DC Comics Bombshells,”; Barksdale, “DC Comics”; Amy Ratcliffe, Marguerite Bennett discusses WWII female heroes in ‘DC Comics Bombshells’,” Comic Book Resources, July 29, 2015, accessed October 26, 2015, from http://www.cbr.com/marguerite-bennett-discusses-wwii-female-heroes-in-dc-comics-bombshells/. ))]


Batwoman's Pulp Aesthetic
Batwoman’s Pulp Aesthetic and the Moment She Prevents the Creation of Batman.

Batwoman, aka Kate Kane, was the series’ lead heroine. As a Jewish-American lesbian fighting Nazis, her identity was central and organic to the story. By comparison, the CW’s new Batwoman (2019-present) television series has been criticized for “riding the feminist train” and ostracizing “the very people who they need to keep the ratings going, 18–45-year-old males, especially white males who are the significant purchasers of comic books” by featuring a queer superhero played by a queer actress (Ruby Rose),[ (( Bobbie L. Washington, “The Batwoman Controversy,” Medium, May 21, 2019, accessed August 23, 2019, https://medium.com/@screamingbear/the-batwoman-controversy-a18c94dfb8d. ))] and for being a mediocre show unremarkable aside from its queerness.[ (( Alex Cranz, “The Mediocrity of Batwoman also Feels Like One of Its Biggest Strengths,” Gizmodo, July 18, 2019, accessed August 23, 2019, https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-mediocrity-of-batwoman-also-feels-like-one-of-its-b-1836505759. ))] Whereas the Bombshells Batwoman exists independently of a male counterpart, even preventing the crime that instigated the creation of Batman in canon, CW’s Batwoman is a replacement for the inexplicably-absent Batman, offering a thin foundation for what some fans have perceived as needless male-bashing in the trailer (below). Likewise, the trailer’s revelation of Kane’s sexual orientation is perceived as clunky at best.[ (( Washington, “The Batwoman”; Susan Polo, “The CW’s Batwoman Pilot Gets the Most Important Thing about Batwoman Right,” Polygon, July 18, 2019, accessed August 23, 2019, https://www.polygon.com/tv/2019/7/18/20698871/cw-batwoman-review-sdcc-2019. ))] The combined effect may be undermining the series’ morals about integrity and privilege.


CW’s Batwoman Trailer

The main message of Bennett’s Bombshells, which is also found in the CW’s Batwoman, and in the queer, Muslim, black, and Latinx characters throughout the CW Arrowverse, is captured by the words of a Bombshells Batgirl: “You’re allowed to be happy in your own skin, in your own home.”[ (( Bennett, Andolfo, & Braga, Uprising. ))]



Image Credits:

  1. DC Collectibles Ant Lucia Art (YouTube)
  2. DC Comics Bombshells.
  3. The DC Comics Bombshells cast
  4. Frames from the Bombshells’ Trump allegory
  5. Batwoman’s Pulp Aesthetic and the Moment She Prevents the Creation of Batman
  6. CW’s Batwoman Trailer (YouTube)


References: