Yesterday one session at the Cinekid film fest being held in Amsterdam sparked some controversy. The gathering at ‘Creating Modern Heroes’ evolved into a somewhat spicy debate about gender representation and imaging in kids programming.
Leading the speaker lineup was Maya Gotz, who heads the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television. She presented a study called Boys and Girls and Television: A few reminders for more gender sensitivity in children’s TV, which really got the audience’s PC juices flowing. (I’ll post a few excerpts later on, but the gist is that there are too few female characters in strong & positive roles in kids shows, and that the way their bodies are distorted in animation creates unrealistic models for impressionable girls to aspire to).
Next up were scriptwriter Robert Alberdingk Thijm and director Ella Lemhagen, two very talented Euro filmmakers who specialize in live-action kids films that tackle serious issues like teen pregnancy and underage drinking. And then, Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko hit the stage to talk about Avatar, an obviously more commercial animated series that features a healthy dose of martial arts and some female characters that have somewhat exaggerated body types, though not in the conventional sense. I think they were a bit thrown off by the tone that had developed in the room by virtue of the nature of the speakers that had come before them, but they held their ground when challenged about Avatar’s femme fatales. They contended that animators often have to distort the physiques of characters of both sexes to make them affordably renderable. Konietzko also made the point that kids audiences often prefer exaggerated characters who are nothing like them – kids simply find such fictional characters more interesting to watch.
Also earlier today, Pixar supervising animator Mark Walsh picked up on this theme in the Q&A part of his presentation on Ratatouille. An audience member asked whether Pixar was planning to get in on the animation trend towards creating ultra-realistic human characters. The answer was a categoric ‘No.’ Walsh shared an favorite analogy from Brad Bird’s to illustrate: Why bother making an orange out of dogshit for millions of dollars, even if it’s a perfect replica, when you can just go buy an orange for a dollar. He then added in his own words, ‘Audiences like caricatures.’
Over and out from Amsterdam!