Ahead of this week’s "Rio 2" release, Steve Rose, a film writer at The Guardian, asks in an op-ed: “Why are Hollywood’s animated movies full of racist stereotypes?”
It’s a good question. The racial hierarchies in today’s animated movies deserve to be closely examined. Rose points to "Rio 2" as evidence of how today’s films are still stuck in the past.
The two main characters, Blu and Jewel, are voiced by white actors, Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway. The cast of supporting characters are wild and zany relatives and sidekicks from the jungle. The supporting roles are almost all voiced by “non-white” actors. will.i.am provides the voice for Pedro, an adventurous rapper, while George Lopez, of course, plays a romantic Latino toucan named Rafael.
Rose provides a long list of examples of racially insensitive casting decisions from the past, where we learn that Pitbull provided the voice for a “ghetto-pimp toad” named Bufo in last year’s animated film Epic.
At least that’s how Rose describes Pitbull’s role. Actually, Mr. Worldwide himself said during an NPR interview that his character was a “businessman/hustler, entrepreneur,” so you have to wonder whether Rose is projecting his own racial stereotypes where they don’t belong. “Ghetto-pimp” and “entrepreneur” are hardly interchangeable terms.
Rose also calls attention to the (apparently offensive?) stereotypes of "repressed Brits" and notes that, "in time-honoured fashion, the cockatoo arch-villain of [Rio 2] has a British accent."
But back to the original question of: Why doesn’t Hollywood end it with the racial caricatures?
We’re in luck because Dr. Charles Da Costa, a researcher from the UK, is an expert on the very topic of racial stereotyping in animated films.
He talks about villainy, exoticism, jocularity, athleticism, malaise, PEPs and…[this]. He then goes on to say that the “low, expensive, labour-intensive process of producing animation” may be a factor in perpetuating stereotypes.
Da Costa argues that "Decisions on character and performance must be made quickly in order for design and production processes to commence and advance.”
So according to this reasoning, it takes such a long time to do the actual animation that the people in charge of character development just say, “Let’s just wing it real quick and go with the scene called ‘What Makes The Red Man Red’ and have big dudes wearing face paint and headdresses, smoking drugs and saying ‘HOW!’ while playing bongos. That one is reasonable. Now the guys upstairs can get started on drawing everything.”
It all seems overly complicated.
Another possible explanation for the persistence of racist stereotypes in animated films comes from a reader who says he actually works in the animation industry. The comment is worth reading in full, though it's equally important to note that it should be taken with a grain of salt because of the anonymity of the writer. That said, regardless of the unverifiable claims, they are in tune with similar controversies involving inclusion of people of color in artistic fields. Two cases in point: Kanye West's repeated claims that his race prevents him from breaking into the fashion world, and the stereotypical portrayals of black women on "Saturday Night Live."
The anonymous commenter writes that the world of animation is equally non-inclusive, which prevents “a lot of people who come from poorer or minority backgrounds” from being involved.
The way to address racial stereotypes in today’s animated movies isn’t to slap “ethnic sensitivity warnings” onto the label, as Rose’s op-ed suggests. It’s to give more people from different backgrounds a seat at the table throughout the process, and not just as voice actors.
Until then, take pleasure in the fact that real, albeit insufficient, progress has been made since the time that this Siamese cat played the piano with chopsticks while talking about fortune cookies.