Linda Christensen’s “Unlearning the Myths That Bind Us” strongly resonates with me. As an aficionado of animated television programs, I have, for the past few years, been looking at cartoons and children’s programs from a similar lens. In fact, I’m kind of programed to observe such details regularly in the shows I watch (much to the annoyance of my mother who often just wants to sit back and enjoy them, especially after a long day of work; and who doesn’t particularly want to hear me rant about why [inset show title here] really dropped the ball on that subject or how those characters on [insert show title here] are presenting negative stereotypes).
Like Christensen’s students, I have also looked back at the programs that have influenced me; but unlike her students, I did not struggle with this. It’s pretty clear in my life how television programs have shaped me. When I was obsessed with Dragonball Z, I was always frustrated that of my dozens of action figures, I had only three girls (Android 18, Bulma, and Gohan’s girlfriend Videl or something). While my cousin would flaunt his Vegeta toy, the characters I had were clearly inferior on the show, so when we played his toy would go “Super Saiyan” and defeat mine with ease, as the only one that even stood a chance was Android 18.
But I loved action shows; so when Powerpuff Girls and Kim Possible came into existence, I was thrilled to have female-led superhero shows to fall back on. And while both shows likely have their instances of negativity, they also have episodes that packed powerful messages. On Powerpuff Girls at least (which I have recently rewatched), there are at least two episodes that had strong, feminist messages. One involved a female thief who tries to convince the sisters to hate men in order to get away with stealing Susan B. Anthony coins; not only are the girls taught a lesson by three of their female role models, the episode also provide a history lesson about Susan B. Anthony and her quest for equality (the episode is called “Equal Fights”). Further, in another episode called “Members Only” had the girls attempt to prove themselves to their heroes in the Association of World Super Men (AWSM), only to have the misogynistic group turn them away (despite besting them in each challenge).
If you watch the clip, you’ll see the beautiful exchange as the girls best the stereotyped household gender roles. The episode ends with the AWSM being unable to defeat their opponent and the girls having to save them and the planet. At the end, the AWSM begs the girls to join their team.
When she discusses the newer Disney animated films, I nodded in agreement; regardless of how enjoyable Aladdin and Pocohontas are, I can see their problematic parts. I did, however, want to read more about her analysis of Mulan, as it remains my favorite Disney film, and I’m interested seeing which aspects she finds troubling.
Her section on the Black Cinderella brought to mind several thoughts. She explains the negative messages of Cinderella, but also gives an example of an improved (though still far from perfect) modern rendition of Cinderella staring Cindy Ellie, which is more culturally and socially conscious. Her description made me want to read this story, but it also makes me want to write my own retelling of Cinderella in which the central message isn’t how-to-get-your-man and that beauty-is-everything. This section also reminded me of a made-for-TV version of Cinderella that I still have yet to see, but which stars a multi-racial cast. Thus far, I have only seen gifs from it (via Tumblr), but the parts that I have glimpsed look (at least slightly more) promising than the original Disney version.
[start at four minutes in until about five minutes in]
It also made me think of another modern retelling that starts a male person of color and has a completely different (better) message.
I like that Christensen then transitions into what to do with this newfound knowledge. After all, it’s true that knowing there are problems but not knowing how to go about making change is frustrating. Wisely, she first describes her students’ irritation with seeing through the glass screen (see what I did there? Tying it back to class? Yup, I’m that good); she then explains how she helped them channel their outrage in productive ways.
While I enjoyed the article, I would like to emphasize that while most animated programs have some kind of flaw in depiction, there do exist some exceptions. While I watch all shows with a critical eye, there are moments when I’m quite proud of the messages the shows are producing. For example, while Gravity Falls could use more characters of color, there is a scene at the end of the first episode (after siblings Mabel and Dipper defeat their adversary together) in which the twins are allowed to each pick whichever item they’d like from their great uncle’s shop:
And Mabel (proving herself more than two-dimensional) choses the grappling hook, which I especially approve of because she isn’t defined by gender roles. She likes wearing her bright colored sweaters and cute outfits but she also will chose a grappling hook over a doll without any difficulty.
Indeed, one show (recently cancelled, go sign this petition to save it please!) that typically displays both a decent amount of female characters, persons of color, and presents characters from various socio-economic backgrounds is the show Young Justice. First season, the leader of the team is Aqualad (Kaldur, a person of color), and another one of the leads is Artemis, who is half Vietnamese (and also from a low income family, as evidenced when she receives a scholarship to a prestigious prep school and attends to make her mother happy, despite feeling very uncomfortable in her new setting). The character Rocket (also a woman of color) appears several times at the end of the season. Better, in the second season we’re introduced to a variety of new leads, including Jaime Reyes (Blue Beetle) and Karen Beecher (Bumblebee), and if the show progresses we will be seeing much more of Virgil Hawkins (Static Shock), whom we’ve only met briefly thus far.
Only a the first season characters are included above, but the characters Young Justice includes are typically reasonably varied and diverse; and when they divide into teams, I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t at least one person of color included (whether it be Jaime, Kaldur, or Karen); and while they could include more female characters, the ones they do include at least portrayed well and not as token females, like many other shows. Animated programs do have a long way to go, but they are (slowly) progressing.