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Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? The absence of African-American heroes in animation

While channel-surfing our toon-rich airwaves recently, it struck me that TV animation is not as diverse as it should be in the 21st century. Although myriad minorities exist in supporting roles, there are only a handful of animated kids shows featuring African-American protagonists: The Proud Family (Disney Channel), Little Bill (Nick Jr.), Static Shock (Kids' WB!), Fillmore (ABC/Disney Channel) and Da Boom Crew (Kids' WB!).
January 1, 2005

While channel-surfing our toon-rich airwaves recently, it struck me that TV animation is not as diverse as it should be in the 21st century. Although myriad minorities exist in supporting roles, there are only a handful of animated kids shows featuring African-American protagonists: The Proud Family (Disney Channel), Little Bill (Nick Jr.), Static Shock (Kids’ WB!), Fillmore (ABC/Disney Channel) and Da Boom Crew (Kids’ WB!).

What’s even more intriguing is that the paucity of African-American toons doesn’t seem to correlate to low diversity. Anime and Asian-influenced animation remain strong, as proven by successful imports like Yu-Gi-Oh!, which averages more than three million viewers each time out and generates weekly ad sales of US$38.5 million from bellwether clients like Mattel, General Mills and Kellogg. Cartoons with ethnic protagonists have also done well: Dora the Explorer’s Latina heroine continues to draw a huge audience for Nick Jr., and the series has been the top-rated preschool show for the last eight consecutive quarters. Since animation is diverse today, there must be another explanation for the lack of African-American protagonists.

Do creators pitch a proportionately smaller number of shows with African-American stars? Do network executives practice covert or overt racism? Can some viewers not relate to some African-American themes? Or perhaps creators are only pitching low-budget African-American shows that aren’t making it past the networks’ quality-control checkpoints.

Pinning blame on network development executives makes little sense. They are put in a difficult role, being expected to pick shows that will accrue both ratings and revenue. If a developer does not foresee a show catering to the network’s demographics, then it’s the developer’s responsibility to withhold the green light. Most animation networks develop around 3% of all pitches received per year, and they are careful to reflect the composition of their audiences in their schedules. Of those 3% that receive pilots, roughly 50% are developed into series. Since only 13% of the total U.S. population is African-American, it stands that kidnets would produce pilots for less than 0.4% of all pitches featuring African-Americans. Quantitatively, that explains why so few African-American cartoons are on TV, but is it right?

Joyce Pratt, co-chair of public information at the American Association for Affirmative Action, believes that not seeing oneself depicted on TV as a child ‘gives a strong, subconscious message that this media is off-limits to people who are not represented.’ So a limited number of African-American heroes in animation may be detrimental to the psychological well-being of African-American children. But Janice Burgess, senior VP of Nick Jr., disagrees with this supposition. ‘When you’re four years old, a cartoon bunny rabbit can look like you. A diverse representation allows kids to foster a mass consciousness. Kids can recognize themselves as part of society. Their ethnicity, their family structure [or] their socioeconomic class affords them recognition.’

Another problem is that network developers all too often receive pitches for urban cartoons rather than for ones featuring African-Americans. Eddie Murphy’s The PJs, for example, lampooned aspects of inner-city life that few could relate to, like when lead character Thurgood thinks one of his tenants is eating dog food, or when his libido increases after he takes a new hypertension medication. As a result, the show failed to find its footing, only rating an average 1.1 and getting the axe after two seasons and 41 episodes.

Going another way, Bruce Smith, creator of The Proud Family, has sired a cartoon that satirizes real family life, much like The Simpsons. ‘The Proud Family has proven that minority programming can communicate to children of all races, so long as the stories are real and the characters are compelling. African-American culture has always pervaded American culture – you can see that in music and hip-hop. Now we are proving it in animation… I agree that minority programming is not about inserting minorities into shows for the sake of having minorities; it’s about infusing a story with a culture.’

The Proud Family’s success (the show averaged a 4.0 rating with kids six to 11 during the 2003/2004 season) has opened doors for Smith. His new show Da Boom Crew, which he describes as ‘Boyz N the Hood meets Star Wars,’ launched on Kids’ WB! in the fall. Likewise, Bill Cosby has been able to follow up on Little Bill with a new family cartoon called Fatherhood that debuted on Nick last summer. So a handful of creative shows have established the bedrock for continued diversity.

Furthermore, sentiments of globalization and ethnography are permeating developers’ decisions at the powerhouse kids programming conglomerates. Creators and developers alike have started to recognize that national and racial boundaries are eroding, and that a realistic representation for children’s programming means protagonists of all types. The ’90s fallacy that all African-American programming needs to be urban has been refuted. When imagination meets realism, children watch because they are more astute than they are ever given credit for – To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee always knew this.

As cartoon diversity continues to flourish, there are bound to be some lemons along the way. But with this season’s influx of African-American cartoons, a more balanced mosaic of kids programming seems possible. In the meantime, don’t overlook the fact that Green Lantern on Justice League Unlimited is African-American – if that’s not a step towards heightened diversity, what is?

A graduate student from a joint Global Media and Communications program between the London School of Economics and the University of Southern California, Gerard Raiti has been analyzing the animation industry for various business publications for the past nine years.

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