The Missing Voice in the Diversity Conversation

I’m not sure if I’m going to back to a regular blogging soon (I’m in my last term of college!) but I am bringing this up because it’s a serious issue that effects me personally and persists even today.

When people on social media talk about the need for diversity, there is a huge focus on three groups: people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, and women. And it is true, we absolutely need to talk about the need to represent these groups in a meaningful and positive way. But in these discussions on diversity, there is a huge problem: the focus is ONLY on these groups. You know who gets left out almost all the time?

Disabled people. Autistic people. People who have mental health problems other than anxiety and depression. People who have developmental disorders. In other words, people like me, and the people I work with as a social service worker.

It bothered me for awhile, but after coming across a particular Disney critical blog, I finally pinpointed why this is a big issue. When we talk about how damaging it is to have an all white, all male, or all straight cast (and it is), no one talks about how having absolutely no positive disabled and neurodivergent people can be just as bad. When you go on lengths on why representation for neurotypical and able bodied marginalized groups is important and that there needs to be outrage when none exists, it gives me the unfortunate implication (intentional or not) that disabled people are just supposed to shut up and take it when there are no autistic characters, no characters in wheelchairs, no characters who can’t see or hear very well, etc. Where’s the outrage for people like me when every character is allistic and the only canon autistic characters tend to be stereotypes?

In many discussions about diversity and inclusiveness online people need to be reminded that disabled and neurodivergent people exist and are just as important. They need to be pointed out when a show or movie is ableist. They only add in the need for disabled characters as an afterthought. I have actually seen some people call bigotry a “disease” or “mental illness” a few times. Sometimes if a character is clearly coded to be mentally ill they’ll either completely ignore it or jump over hoops to say they aren’t in order to justify their hatred for them.

The point is, even in places that are supposed to be inclusive, and even when people claim they respect diversity and want representation for all people, disabled and neurodivergent people (again, people like me and the population I serve) typically get left behind, and are only brought up in the most extreme cases or when it is convenient.

This needs to stop. We live in a world where mental illness and disability are depicted inaccurately, as villains and monsters, or as stereotypes. Accurate and positive representation is still incredibly rare, and there isn’t as strong a push for it. Systemic bigotry against women, LGBTQ+ people, and people of color are very real and present in the media, and must be addressed and dismantled. But you need to remember that systemic ableism is also very real and present and needs to consistently be part of the conversation.

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The Problem With Princesses

If you’ve read my thoughts on Moana and Frozen, you know that I am done with new Disney Princess movies. I find that Disney is too focused on making their princess features as marketable and politically correct as possible, at the detriment of telling original, interesting stories and complex characters. But lately I realized that my disdain of new Disney Princesses is a symptom of a larger problem I’ve noticed: the overabundance of princess characters in media.

Princess Peach. Princess Zelda. Xena, Warrior Princess. Princess Serenity. Princess Sally Acorn. Princess Allura. Princess Diana of Themyscira. Princess Leia. Princess Bubblegum (and all the countless princesses in the land of Ooo). Even the great Miyazaki has some of his female characters be princesses when they could easily be ordinary girls. This is just a small sampling of the many, many, MANY princess characters in media aimed at kids. You can find a (possibly incomplete) list HERE. After looking at that list, what did you notice they all seem to have in common?

That, if they are in media aimed at boys, the princess is sometimes the ONLY prominent female character, and if they’re in media aimed at girls, it’s the princess who is the most important character out of all the other girls.

This is a problem for a few reasons. The biggest reason to me being the sheer lack of other roles female characters in kids media get. Boys can be soldiers, knights, kings, pilots, scientists, adventurers, speedsters, plumbers, and even complete average joes and still be important and heroes. Girls by and large still tend to only get the role of princesses, especially if they’re the main female character. Obviously, not ALL kid’s media shoehorns their female protagonists into the role of the princess, but it goes to show that, in a lot of instances, the first instinct is to make her a princess and not, well, anything else.

Let’s go back to Disney for a bit. Take a look at all the Disney Animated Canon films that center on human female characters: Snow White, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, Mulan, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Frozen and Moana (Aladdin doesn’t count because Jasmine is not the focus on the film, and I hesitate to include Lilo & Stitch because Stitch gets all the marketing focus and he carries the central plot). Out of 56 films released so far, only 12 films have female characters as the central protagonist, and with one exception, they’re all princess films. Meanwhile, Disney male heroes get a much wider range of roles like it’s no big deal. (No surprise: most of my most fave Disney movies are male-led because of this.)

There are two other problems with the princess trope. One of them being the sheer lack of positive QUEEN roles. Queens in media are either nonexistent, villains, or only provide a tiny supportive role. In either case, it’s the princess’s father who is more important. There are also situations where the princess is the only person in charge and her parents are either dead or out of commission, but she still doesn’t go by the title of queen. This is still apparently a problem today; in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Luna and Celestia were supposed to be queens, but the marketing team intervened to have them be called princesses instead. The princess role isn’t really that empowering the more you think of it (it’s a role you are assigned at since birth and you’re expected to look and act a certain way as you find a husband) but at least as a queen you get some real power. Apparently that’s too much for some people.

And finally, my big problem with the princess trope is that it kind of reinforces that only princesses get to be beautiful and important. In some cases, the princess character can be harder to sympathize with because they come from a place of immense privilege. Why should I care if you want more when you have everything you could possibly want? But more than anything, any other female character in the princess’s respective media gets left out in the cold so the audience and other characters can coo over her.

I feel like now is the time to introduce girls to other types of female characters. Show them that the they can be more than just princesses. Give us female knights, pilots, explorers, scientists and blue collar workers. Give ordinary, everyday girls the fantasy that they can save the world.

And of course, let’s have more female rulers and leaders that aren’t princesses. In a world where women still struggle to be in positions of power, I think it’s about time we show girls that it’s better to be a president than a princess.

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The Current State of Animation and How We Got Here

It’s the New Year! Am I officially out of hiatus? Not quite. But I have gotten some inspiration back.

Animation has struggled to be taken seriously for a long time, but people forget at the very beginning it was seen as a legitimate art form. The Golden Age of Animation (1920’s and 1930’s) was a time when the medium thrilled audiences of all ages for its ability to show literally anything. You could show action sequences that would be impossible to do with real people, offer political and social commentary, and get away with showing more risqué or scary content. But as the decades passed a chain reaction led to animation’s current state of frequently being seen as kid’s stuff, at least in North America.

First, the Hays Code eventually started to enforce censorship on animation, neutering them. There’s a great Prezi on the history of animation and the Hays Code HERE. This affected feature animation as well. The earliest Disney animated films could get pretty dark, but as time went on they adopted a softer image that ultimately made the edgier theatrical short obsolete. When animated shows became more prolific on television during after school hours, parents groups demanded that they be as kid friendly as possible, launching a plague of cheap animation in the 1970’s. The reinforcement of animation as a kids medium began to rear it’s ugly head in the 80’s, with animated shows being made mostly to sell toys. Animated films were few and far between. You can watch the full history of 70’s and 80’s animation HERE.

The 1990’s was probably one of the better decades for the medium, with Disney, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Warner Bros. creating a plethora of well written and nice looking shows and movies…but they were all family friendly. There was also a distinct lack of competition during this time as well.

Come the 2000’s and there was a boom of cartoons from different studios. Some shows were crap, but there were also true classics like Justice League, Teen Titans, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Samurai Jack, Kim Possible, Danny Phantom, and more. Again, though, they were all family friendly. The only animation for adults were crudely drawn comedies at night. Film animation was still struggling as it was mostly a battlefield between Pixar and DreamWorks.

As for our current decade of the 2010’s? I think it’s a mixed bag. Disney TV has proven successful, with hits like Gravity Falls, Star Vs. The Forces of Evil, Wander Over Yonder, and the new Tangled series. Nickelodeon has been dragging Spongebob Squarepants through the ground, and messed up the scheduling of the better received Legend of Korra. Cartoon Network is practically nothing but Teen Titans Go! aired ad nauseam. For some information on the state of TV animation, I highly recommend Saberspark’s videos. You can find his channel HERE, where he has info on the history and decline of the most prominent cartoon channels in America.

For animated films, it’s great that now there’s now a lot more competition than in the 2000’s, but I feel like since animation is more profitable than ever too many movies are made at too fast a pace. While Disney is doing better than ever and smaller animation studios are crafting some truly awesome films, Illumination, Sony, Blue Sky, and even DreamWorks have garnered a negative reputation for churning out mediocre to downright crappy films several times a year that offer no nutritional value for anyone over the age of 12. It seems that one year we’ll have a bunch of quality animated films only to be followed by a conga line of crap the next year.

At any rate, the damage has been done: too many studio executives see animation as something to make a quick buck out of kids and produce them as quick and cheaply as possible, not caring about actual quality. Now awards ceremonies and most of the general public see it as well.

I was originally going to make a list of animated films that are honest to god works of art to check out instead, but the list was getting too long! (Basically what you really need to know is that you need to forget everything bad you associate with DreamWorks and go watch The Prince of Egypt and Pinocchio is probably the best Disney animated film ever.) Instead, I’ll leave you off with this:

It will probably be several decades until animation is no longer considered cheap or kid’s stuff, so in order to make any real change, you have to actually SUPPORT quality animation whenever you can. Be selective of what you take your kids to in theaters, and don’t be afraid to buy the Blu Ray of that foreign cartoon. Don’t just complain on the situation and do nothing about it. Animation is a legitimate art form, and we need to make production companies realize that with your wallet.