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Cartoon Critters and the (Mis)representation of Race

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Cartoon Critters and the (Mis)representation of Race

by: Sequoia Pinterits

From Looney Tunes to Spongebob, anthropomorphized animals have long been a staple in children’s cartoons. But while these non-human protagonists are certainly fun and entertaining, there are weighty implications behind their fuzzy facades. Namely, these animal characters allow show writers to subvert the conventions of racial representation. This basically has two main outcomes.

  1. The show can skirt around any racial/ethnic tensions and differences

OR

2. The show can lean into racialized tropes without appearing overtly racist

The first type is exemplified in shows like Arthur where there are different species, but those differences are inconsequential. The diversity is there but not in any realistic sense. The writers can thus can incorporate generic moral lessons without risk of alienating any group of viewers. This isn’t heinous, just unimpressive.

Ethnic and cultural differences exist, which is something to be explored and celebrated rather than pushed to the periphery. Should children’s series be tasked with engaging in this sort of dialogue? That may be asking a lot. However, if these shows are educational, they should attempt to reflect the wide range of diversity in our communities and the teachable moments that come with it.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have shows like Babar which are rife with racist subtext. The origin story is immediately suspect: Babar the baby elephant flees from the jungle to the city after his mother is killed by a human hunter. In the city, he is looked after by “The Old Lady” and conforms to human lifestyle, donning a strapping green suit and walking bipedally. Soon after, the rest of the elephants join Babar and assume human mannerisms.

The story came from a French book published when the country still had several colonies around the world, so it’s fair to interpret the plot as a justification of colonialism. If humans like The Only Lady represent the French, and the elephants represent colonized African subjects, maybe you can see how this story pushes the White Savior complex. Just replace the elephant with a human character and the racism becomes clear. The benevolent Old Lady helps a jungle orphan achieve dignity by teaching him civilized manners. The only reason Babar has avoided being relegated to the category of regretfully racist childhood favorites is because animals are standing in for human characters.

And look, I’m not saying that every children’s show should be “woke”. But I do think that we should be conscious of the meanings behind non-human characters because kids pick up on this stuff.  This is going to sound surprising, but a series called Rastamouse gives us an example of good representation. Crime fighting reggae playing rodent squad “Da Easy Crew” are visibly Rastafarian and speak in Patois dialect. While some parents have taken offense to the show, I think creator Michael de Souza is taking a step in the right direction by featuring an underrepresented group and honoring a dialect that is usually looked down upon. All in all, the future starts with the kids, so let’s give them the funny, sweet, and diverse entertainment they deserve.

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