Seven White Dudes Spoke On Ethnic Stereotypes, Gender Norms In Animation
It has been noted that, in the past 25 years or so, we’ve seen a surprisingly diverse cast of Disney female leads. The roster includes Pocahontas, Mulan, The Princess and the Frog’s Tiana, and, most recently, the titular Moana.
But, if a recent roundtable at The Hollywood Reporter is any indication, the crew working behind-the-scenes is still mostly comprised of white dudes. On Wednesday, THR hosted a “panel of top toon creators” that involved Byron Howard, Garth Jennings, Travis Knight, Mike Mitchell, John Musker, and Mark Osborne. Seth Rogen was also there, since he was responsible for Sausage Party (the movie, not this panel). The R-rated animated feature made the news circuit when its trailer was accidentally shown to a bunch of unsuspecting kids.
All of the interview subjects were male, and all of them were white. It didn’t help that THR posted picture of the group under the title “Seth Rogen and 6 More on Avoiding Ethnic Stereotypes and How to ‘Break the Mold’ of Princesses.” Potential for internal cringing? Moderate to high.
The absurdity was not lost on some people:
did no one on your staff think to include a woman or a person of color on this panel?— (((celia finkelstein))) (@celiafink) December 14, 2016
Is this a joke? Here's an ethnic stereotype - a table of white dudes self-congratulating on their approach to diversity.— ctrlaltaira (@ctrlaltaira) December 14, 2016
check out my roundtable with the '79 Steelers on how to be a better feminist— Matt Pearce 🦅 (@mattdpearce) December 14, 2016
Rogen, showing some modicum of self-awareness, tried to ease his way out with a self-deprecating tweet:
And indeed there were several…missteps in the interview. For example, it seemed that some of the subjects believe that you can tap into an entire culture/demographic by studying really (really) hard on the matter. Musker, who was one of the directors on Moana, said that his team did their due diligence when it came to learning it up on Polynesia:
I started to read Polynesian mythology and I discovered there was this character, Maui, who was bigger than life, could pull up islands with his magical fish hook and was a shape-shifter and I was like, "Why has this never been done before?" So we cobbled together a story and pitched it to John and he said, "This is great, but you've got to dig deeper, do more research." So we were forced to go to Tahiti and Samoa and Fiji. Our development people arranged a really deep dive into the culture where it wasn't the Tiki bars and that sort of thing. We met with anthropologists and archeologists and linguists and cultural ambassadors.
Musker says that he and his group went above and beyond, adding that it was a far cry from the “research” that had been done in the past:
Our research on Aladdin, it was during the first Gulf War, so for our research, we went to the L.A. Convention Center, where there was a Saudi Arabian expo.
Oof. Did they also go to a textiles convention to do some R&D on flying carpets?
Osborne, who worked on Kung Fu Panda, chimed in with this gem:
That's pretty good. On Kung Fu Panda, we just Googled China. That was as far as we could go.
We understand that Musker and Osborne were lamenting the barriers they faced when trying to do research on their subject matter. But to this we say, why not just hire people with intimate knowledge on the topic? Instead of complaining about flight restrictions, why not tap into the wealth of minority writers and illustrators that we have in this country?
Continuing in the vein of diversity, THR asked Rogen about the criticism he got for Salma Hayek’s casting as a taco in Sausage Party. Rogen proffered a sort of non-answer answer:
You know, our movie is directly about racial stereotypes and how religion divides us and how our beliefs divide us and how we look different divides us and how we speak different divides us. And at the same time, as a lover of Disney animated movies, we took a lot of cues from those types of movies. They don't use it to the same narrative effect, but you look at [Pixar's] Cars and the Fiat is Italian and the [VW van] is a stoner and the tow truck is a Southern guy.
The round-table also dove into the topic of female characters. The results weren’t much better. While speaking on his work with Trolls, Mitchell attempted to talk about how ridiculous beauty standards can be harmful. Instead, he (unwittingly or not) placed way too much emphasis on the female appearance:
Well, on Trolls, we wanted to completely break the mold of the animated princess. Most princesses have big eyes and little bitty waists and little tiny hooves they walk around on. And [with Poppy], we wanted to keep this ugly-cute, big melon head, giant teeth. She didn't have to wear uncomfortable princess shoes, which I think is cool. (To Musker) I don't think your princess has any shoes.
Howard, who worked on Zootopia, said that his team had sat down with female police officers to do research on a female character who wanted to work in law enforcement:
Part of our research on Judy was talking to female police officers who have come up through the ranks over the years in different generations and finding out their struggles as women going into a mostly male-dominated profession. This lieutenant we talked to, she had come up during the 1980s through a California police organization and the guys around her at first didn't trust her — not because they had any direct animosity toward her, but because going out on patrol they weren't sure how to [relate to her]. Can I interact with this person the same way I'd interact with a male? They would actually protect her out on patrol. And she was like, "Don't protect me, let me do my job."
This approach is maybe a step above, say, reading about female police officers in a book. But some were not impressed:
In spite of all the (supposed) dogged research that animators have been doing, the industry still has a long way to go when it comes to faithful representation. While animation has made some gains on the big screen (the recent success of Big Hero 6, which had a diverse cast, attests to this), studios still find themselves in iffy territory. Earlier this year, it was reported that an spec-script for the live-action reboot of Mulan called for the titular hero to fall in love with a "30-something European trader." Of course, this started a huge backlash, with people bemoaning the ongoing trend of white-washing in the film industry. Disney later assured everyone that a white character won’t be shoe-horned into the movie. Also of note: the Disney Channel’s Elena of Avalor is bogged down by a major anachronism. Elena, a Latina princess, speaks Spanish even though the show takes place before the arrival of the Spaniards.
Certainly, these issues won’t be corrected overnight. But one (very obvious) start would be to hire people who fall outside of the white, male talent pool. According to Variety, only 20% of the animation workforce is comprised of women. And of the women who are working in the industry, they're often kept out of the spotlight. Buzzfeed notes that women animators such as Brenda Chapman and Kathy Zielinski (who both worked on The Little Mermaid) were responsible for some of Disney's most iconic moments, but their stories often get lost in the mix.