Tag Archives: diversity

10 Reasons ATLA is Amazing

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If you can believe it, it’s been 10 years to the day since Avatar: The Last Airbender sprang onto TV screens and made an impact. This show is one of my absolute favorite animated shows ever and this milestone is worth celebrating. Thus, I’ve created a list of the top ten reasons why Avatar: The Last Airbender is both revolutionary and also quite amazing. Enjoy!

atla flower crowns

1. The cast is incredibly diverse.

Despite what the white-washed movie adaptation may have you believe, ATLA does a remarkable job of being diverse. Each nation draws from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, resulting in wonderfully diverse characters of all molds. The Air Nomads are based on Tibetan monks. The Fire Nation draws from many Eastern cultures, most prominently imperialist Japan. The Water Tribe draws from Inuit and aboriginal cultures, among others. The Earth Kingdom is mainly based on China, but also contains other influences, since it’s the ‘melting pot’ of the four nations.

This diversity extends to the cast. For example, Katara and Sokka, our two secondary leads, are people of color. Toph is blind. Teo is in a wheelchair. But just as Sokka and Katara’s skin color does not define them, Toph and Teo’s disabilities do not define them. Toph learned to use her other senses to enhance her bending experience and fight in a way that no one had ever considered, while Teo uses his inventiveness to fight and navigate without ever having to use his legs.

atla teoatla toph's bending sense

And while the scales were a bit unbalanced gender-wise in season 1, season 2 turns the tide and introduces us to a stream of amazing female characters. And by the end of season 3, the final Gaang is split 3:3 gender-wise.

ATLA’s diversity is absolutely one of its biggest strengths, but it’s not its only strength.

2. The show routinely tackled hard topics with grace.

For being a children’s show, ATLA tackles a lot of heavy topics. Some examples:

Katara tackles a cesspool of sexism in the Northern Water Tribe in order to gain a waterbending teacher, while Sokka overcomes his own internalized sexism and learns to see women as equals.

Aang must deal with the genocide of the Air Nomads, and his own feelings when a group of non-benders attempts to rehabilitate one of the Air Temples, essentially erasing parts of his culture from existence in the process.

Sexism, abuse, the harsh realities of war and warfare, genocide, culture erasure…the show tackles so many amazing things, and it tackles them with such class and an unflinching strength.

It doesn’t forget that the main characters are survivors of a Hundred Year War: rather, it hones in on what they’ve lost, and how the war has shaped them as individuals.

Everyone’s lost something. Katara and Sokka have lost their mother to a Fire Nation raid and their father left to fight in the war, leaving them adrift to raise themselves. Zuko was banished from his home and lost a mother and a cousin. Aang has lost his entire culture.

Something else important the show also doesn’t forget: the characters aren’t just fighting a losing war. They’re children fighting in a losing war.

There’s this amazing line in the second episode of the show, when Zuko and Aang encounter each other, and Zuko is shocked that Aang of all people is the Avatar. Since the Avatar has been missing for 100 years, he was expecting a frail old man. Instead, he finds a determined preteen.

“You’re just a boy,” Zuko says, a look of disbelief on his face.

Aang, unnerved, retorts, “And you’re just a teenager.”

The main cast is made up of kids, and like most kids, they don’t always know what they’re doing. They’re lost. They don’t know how to cope with the harsh reality of their situation. They make huge mistakes, and they fight, and they can be immature and insensitive. But ultimately, their youth is also a benefit, because they have a hope that the older generation, hardened by years of conflict, doesn’t share. Their hope and determination is what turns the tide and wins them the war, and it’s what saves their world from utter annihilation as well. Pretty good for some kids trying to fight a war, huh?

3. There was no black and white, only shades of gray.

In tackling war in media, it’s easy to be very one-sided, and focus on good vs. evil, rather than fleshing out both sides.

ATLA focuses on both sides of the war.

While Firelord Ozai is undisputedly the absolute worst, the show time and time again proves to us that the Fire Nation itself is not purely evil. Characters like Zuko and Iroh show us grayer members of the Fire Nation, and season 3 takes time to give us a glimpse of Fire Nation citizens and show us the propaganda that fuels the war, and that not everyone is all for it.

The show also takes time to show us that the other nations aren’t always purely good either. Antagonists like Long Feng and General Fong are opportunists, who use the war and the main characters for their own purposes to further their agenda. Other characters, like Jet and Hama, seek revenge against others for wrongdoings, but in ways that aren’t always morally right.

Even the main characters are forced to deal with morality. For Aang, deciding whether he can kill the Fire Lord or not to end the war is one of his biggest moral dilemmas. For Katara, it’s deciding what to do when she finds out that her mother’s murderer is still alive. Even Zuko is forced to decide more than once between his family and his beliefs. Their decisions help shape who they are as characters, and showcase their own mortality.

4. The show is inspired by Eastern culture and mythology, rather than Western culture and Western myths, giving it a distinct and unique palette.

One of the fascinating things about ATLA is that unlike many shows, it’s inspired mainly by Eastern culture and mythology. Bryke (aka  Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, the show’s creators) purposely wanted to tackle a different side of the world on their show, and focused on Eastern philosophies and mythology in order to craft the world of ATLA.

The three main Eastern philosophies ATLA draws from are Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. The main idea of the show is actually derived straight from Hindu mythology. The term “Avatar” comes from a Sanskirt word (Avatāra) which means descent. Why is that important? Well…

“In Hindu mythology, deities manifest themselves into Avatars to restore balance on earth, usually during a period of great evil” (Influences on the Avatar series).

Hmm, now that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? That’s the entire concept of the show. 😉

The four elements the show focuses on are also exactly the same as those used in Hinduism, although the fifth element, space – or the Aether – is different than energy. However, the concept itself is quite similar to an element introduced late in the show: energy-bending. And let’s take a look at something Aang sees while exploring his chakras:

atla spaceeee

The imagery is very cosmic, which might be a reference to space. Creative little shout-out to where the writers got their inspiration from.

Speaking of chakras, the concept of chakras comes from both Hinduism and Buddhism. Chakras are centers of life force and energy, and guess what? That’s one of the issues Aang deals with as an Avatar: unblocking some chakras in order to unlock the Avatar State freely.

Guess what else is inspired by Buddhism? The process of finding the new Avatar, surprisingly enough, which reflects that of finding the new Dalai Lama. Items are presented to, and choosing the right ones unearths who the future Dalai Lama is. There’s a similar situation shown on the show, when Aang is told of his Avatar status: the monks tell him about how they presented toys to young Airbenders, and Aang picked the four that belonged to past Avatars, thus showing his connection to them and his familiarity with them.

Taoism influences a lot of the characters’ ideals, including the ‘go with the flow’ mentality waterbenders hold dear, the concept of chi as energy, the Taoist concept of wuwei (“doing nothing” or rather, acting without direct action), which both Bumi and Toph utilize, the existence of a spirit world, and the concept of yin and yang (Influences on the Avatar series).

atla tui la

Pretty interesting, how ideals can shape a show into something so diverse.

5. The bending!

Like I mentioned above, there are four main elements that the characters can manipulate: water, earth, fire, and air. Each facet of bending comes with its own unique traits and strengths – and, going off of that Eastern influence, each style is based on a different style of Chinese martial arts. Bryke even consulted a martial arts expert, Sifu Kisu, to make sure that each one was portrayed accurately and to find styles that would ideally fit the style of the bending and element itself.

For Airbending, the creators chose Ba Gua, also known as “circle walking.” Essentially, this means airbenders use circular movements when bending. This causes the style to be more about defense rather than offense.

atla goading zhao

atla aang zuko fight 2

Since they’re always moving, no one can get in a hit. Air could easily be a deadly element, so thankfully it’s wielded by pacifists like Aang. 😉

 

Waterbending draws from Tai Chi. It’s “less about strength, more about body alignment, structure, breath, and visualization” according to Sifu Kisu. Water is used like a whip. Waterbending is such an interesting element, because it can heal, but it can also hurt.

atla healing

atla katara's water arms

Katara herself is both a warrior and a healer, and manages to represent both sides of water: its beauty and its strength.

 

Earthbending is mainly influenced by the HunGar style of Kung-Fu. It’s a style “known for its strong stances and its rooting to the ground.”

atla earthbending bumi

atla toph

Interestingly, we also get a second style – Chu Gar – used for Toph. Because of Toph’s blindness, she uses her other senses to compensate and thus bends in a way that other earthbenders don’t. She listens and then acts, using her other senses as a sort of Spider sense or echolocation in order to root out attacks before they happen. It’s quite fascinating to watch.

 

Finally, firebending draws inspiration from Northern Shaolin Kung-Fu. It’s a “strong, dominant style that uses powerful hand and leg movements” and “[emphasizes] long-range techniques; wide stances, quick advances and retreats, kick and leaping techniques…” along with “quickness, agility, and aggressive attacks.”

atla firebending

atla zhao

Fire is often painted as an element of aggression, but bending lightning, a much harder sub-skill, is defined by peace of mind.

atla azula

Much like waterbending, firebending has dual sides to it. Both aggression and peace are required, and keeping emotions in check can be handy, but knowing how to unleash them is just as necessary. Zuko has plenty of issues with this, especially when it comes to conquering his temper. Lucky for him, he has the master of Zen to instruct him, who is willing to put up with his outbursts (and offer him tea.)

atla calming jasmine teaatla zuko season one

 

 

6. The fight scenes!

Okay, this might seem directly connected to the point above, and it kind of is, but every time I rewatch this show, the fight scenes suck me in. They’re choreographed in such a masterful, beautiful way, and whether it’s an Agni Kai, a water-fire duel, or just two swordsmen sparring, it’s beautiful to watch. Instead of going on a long ramble, I’ll just post some glorious gifs, so you can see what I mean:

atla blue and orange agni kaiatla fire dancing

atla threeway fightatla threeway fight continues

atla mai katara fightatla katara mai fight

atla katara-pakku fight (1.18) atla ty lee's fight style

atla suki tylee fightatla katara season 3

Beauteous, isn’t it? You know what aids those fight scenes? The show’s score.

7. The score!

The score of this show is so, so pretty. There are intense instrumentals for fight scenes, somber sounds for the show’s darker moments, lighter-hearted melodies for when things are going good…

The score of the show is something that really defines it. It really fits the Eastern high-fantasy epic feeling of the show, and certain bits come to mind whenever I think of the show. In order for you to get the ATLA score experience I’m posting one of my favorite bits of the score below. Enjoy! I hope it leads you to search for more. 😉

 

8. The writers showed us all kinds of women.

ATLA’s dedication to developing its female side of the cast and giving us lots of amazing, diverse ladies is one of my absolute favorite elements of the show. We get all kinds of women on ATLA.

atla ursaatla sibling fun

Grandmothers. Mothers. Daughters. Sisters. Wives.

atla spabendingatla spabending part 2

Girlfriends. Best friends. Girly-girls. Tomboys. Fierce warriors. Ruthless antagonists. Stoic women, who hide their emotions behind a mask.

atla ty leeatla mai's knife twirlingatla azulaaaa

Emotional women, who aren’t afraid to let people see them cry. Strong women – and not just Strong Female Characters.

I’m talking about women who are strong in all sorts of ways.

Women who are physically strong: the ones who can lift mountains and channel lightning through their veins, or the ones that fight with fans and knives and bare hands, not letting their lack of bending deter them from success.

Women that are emotionally strong: the ones that are the rock of the group, and hold everyone together when the world is falling apart around them. These are the women whose strength lies in their compassion and empathy for others.

Women who are mentally strong: whose determination and wit and peace of mind allow them to be more than anyone could ever imagine. Smart women, who bury themselves in books and plot and manipulate and influence the world in profound ways. They’re the ones who stop and think before they act, and thus keep others out of harm’s way.

The women of ATLA are all these things and more!

9. The characters!

I have such a strong love for the characters on this show. Everyone is so wonderful and so fleshed out and so just…ugh, I have so many feelings about them. I could probably write a whole meta about the characters, but I’ll try and be brief here.

In ATLA, every character has a purpose. More importantly, every main character has a point. Just like the Golden Trio in Harry Potter, each member of the Aang Gaang holds the group together and brings something to it that would leave a void if they were gone. For the sake of avoiding a ton of spoilers for those who haven’t watched the show, I’ll stick with the main trio that we start out with in season 1.

Sokka is the group’s strategist. He calls himself “the plan man” and really, that’s what he is, because without him, they would be ambling around without much direction. He has a very analytical mind, which leads him to spot things that others can’t. He can also think on his feet, which is a very handy trait to have during conflict. It helps that he’s handy with a boomerang. He’s also the humorous one, although his wit tends to be more sarcastic than anything, and people don’t always quite get it.

atla sokka calculating

Katara is the one who holds everything together. She’s the hopeful one. She’s a healer. She’s compassionate. She’s the one who always tries to find the best in people, no matter what, and refuses to give up on the people she loves. Without her, there’s a lot that wouldn’t have happened. She’s also an amazing waterbender, who basically teaches herself and ends up becoming a waterbending master and teaching the Avatar himself the intricacies of waterbending. She’s stubborn, motherly, and wonderful. Like Hermione, she can be a bit of a know-it-all, but even she’ll fold when she’s wrong and admit it.

atla katara as the painted lady

Aang is our hero, but he’s so much more than that. He’s the innocent pacifist caught up in a Hundred Year War, with great power waiting to be unlocked. As the Avatar, he can bend all four elements, which is pretty handy, except at the start of the show, he hasn’t learned them all yet, which is part of why he ends up with Katara and Sokka in the first place. Aang is impulsive and naïve, silly and kind-hearted, with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Without Katara and Sokka, Aang wouldn’t have a support system, and he’d also be missing out on some pretty amazing friends as well. 😉

atla aang

The Aang Gaang holds each other together and aids each other in amazing ways. And the more members they take on, the stronger they grow and the more they learn. But enough about that. Let’s get to the last element…

10. The shipping!

The shipping on this show is actually really cute. The main canon relationships are built up in a wonderfully healthy, unique way, and all three main ships are slow-burn to some degree. During the airing of the show (and even now, I’m pretty sure), people got fired up about their ships. Zutara or Kaatang? Taang or Tokka? I’ll admit that I wasn’t too bad in the shipping wars, and I’ve grown to the point where I accept all ships. Well, except the incest ships, which kind of give me the willies.

So I’ll give a quick glimpse of my favorite ships.

Katara/Aang (which makes Kataang) is one of those ships that gradually grows on you over time until the cuteness gets to you and you finally give up and start waving the shipping flag for it. It’s slow-burn (aka, it takes them forever to get together), but the slow-burn effect works well, considering all that’s going on in-show. They’re a very cute couple, and they’re unique in a way because it’s one of those few ships where we get an older female character with a younger male character. Also, just look at these two!

atla cutiesatla babies

atla kataanggggatla cave kiss

I shipped Zuko/Katara as well, mainly because like Mic, I sometimes like shipping those characters who start out disliking one another and grow to understand each other. The fact that they’re opposites in a lot of ways, but also very similar in others, makes them an interesting match to me. And they have some great moments together.

atla zutara face touchatla zutara hugatla zukoandkatara

Suki/Sokka is one of those underrated ships that everyone seems to like no matter what, and I’ve really grown to appreciate them when re-watching the show. Suki is a character who’s very confident in her sense of self. She’s a warrior who is proud of her femininity and finds strength in it. She’s also the one that knocks some sense into Sokka and takes his ego down a notch, which leads to him respecting her and also starting to respect women in general more than he did before.

atla sokka gets pwned by sukiatla sokka freaking out

atla Sokka-and-suki

Like Aang and Katara, their relationship is a slow-burn one, and it takes time for them to find their way back to one another. But once they do, it’s a beautiful thing.

atla fan and sword

atla george

ATLA handles their relationship in a wonderful way, especially in consideration of Sokka’s previous relationship, and makes it less of a competition and more Sokka learning how to get past what happened with Yue and finding love again with Suki. It’s very sweet and realistic, and in the end, very adorable.

It also leads to hilarious moments like this:

atla awkwarddd

What do you think guys? If you haven’t seen the show: has my post inspired you to check out Avatar: The Last Airbender? If you’re already a fan: what is your favorite aspect of ATLA? What are your ships? And who is your favorite character? Let us know in the comments!

Remember, you can follow Animated Meta on Tumblr and Twitter. I hope you all have a happy Saturday!

Cheers,

M&M

Works Cited

Influences on the Avatar series. (n.d.). Retrieved February 20, 2015, from Avatar Wikia: http://avatar.wikia.com/wiki/Influences_on_the_Avatar_series

(Note: the quotes used in #5 were all derived from the ATLA: Creating the Legend videos embedded in the post.)

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People of Color in Animation

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Today we’re going to talk about people of color (POC) in animation. POC, for our purposes, refers to anyone who is not white.

Here is a compilation of POC characters in animation:

  • Pocahontas [Native American] [Disney]
  • Esmeralda [race not identified] [Disney]
  • Tiana [African American—but not officially identified] [Disney]
  • Little Creek [Native American] [Dreamworks]
  • Chel [a native of Central or South America] [Dreamworks]
  • Lucius/Frozone [presumably African American] [Pixar/Disney]
  • Lilo [Hawaiian] [Disney]
  • Aladdin [Arab] [Disney]
  • Mulan [Asian] [Disney]
  • Kuzco [Incan Empire/Native South American—modern day Peru] [Disney]
  • Tiger Lily [Native American] [Disney]
  • Mowgli [Indian] [Disney]
  • The Prince of Egypt [Dreamworks]

(Note: I’ve included Native Americans and Hispanics in the list because Native Americans are currently a miniscule population due to atrocities committed during the forming of this nation and Hispanics currently face great hardships like immigration laws. I’m also including Lilo because “Hawaiian/Pacific Islander” has its own box on job applications/standardized tests/etc. Also, if I didn’t, there’d be, like, no one on this list.)

(Other note: I’ve not seen Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt, so I don’t feel confident talking about it.)

This discussion has been building for a very long time. Disney has faced criticism for their all white casts and the usual defense has been, well, these stories take place in Europe back in the day, so everyone was white.

Yeah, no.

I’m here to burst your bubble because: you can see people of color represented in Medieval European art and considering the Iberian peninsula was conquered by Muslims in the 700s, I’d say Europeans were no stranger to people of color. Marco Polo traveled to Asia in the 1200s. And if you still doubt, my Tudor era professor confirmed that England, namely London, was already a mixed metropolis in the 1500 and 1600s.

To curb this backlash, Disney released The Princess and the Frog. I enjoy this film and the return to 2D, and I love the humor. However, this offering was meant to halt the criticism, but it only spurned more. Our first black princess and she’s a FROG for 70% of the film?

reaction do you feel the judgement

I don’t know if any other animation house has faced as much backlash as Disney. Presumably they are the target because they are the most successful and influential. However, it appears Disney may have the best track record compared to some of the other houses—though there is room for drastic improvement. Tallied from the above list, Disney has 10 characters of color. That’s a minuscule number compared to their collection of 50+ films, but when Disney does utilize diversity, they do so richly and create compelling stories (mostly, we’ll see exceptions below).

In addition to mounting movement in the animation world, this meta was also brought on by the senseless shootings of unarmed black adults and children at the hands of police officers.

From 2006 to 2012 a white police officer killed a black person at least twice a week in this country. [x]

I am saddened and angered by what’s been happening around us. This meta was always coming, so lets get to it.


The most shocking thing I noted was every story featuring a person a color is extremely dated.

  • Pocahontas = Age of Exploration (specifically 1607)
  • Esmeralda = Hugo’s novel was published in the 1800s, though the book is set in the 1400s
  • Tiana = 1912
  • Aladdin = unspecified, but based on the very old One Thousand and One Nights (though the genie loves his pop culture references)
  • Mulan = I really don’t know because the Huns were burning shit since the dawn of time, but Mulan first appeared in poems between the 300s and 600s
  • Kuzco = 16th century
  • Little Creek = Around the time railroads were being built, so 1800s
  • Chel = Age of Exploration (Spanish conquistadors—1519)
  • Lucius/Frozone = CONTEMPORARY (FINALLY)
  • Lilo = CONTEMPORARY (YAY!)
  • Mowgli = date unknown
  • Tiger Lily = exists in a world where time does not pass, but The Darlings’ interaction with Pan happens in the 1900s

The majority of stories being told here are set in very vivid time periods, as if the only story worth telling of people of color are their trials and tribulations in history, which are clearly over now because we live in a post-racial, globalized world. We know this is untrue. There may not be Jim Crow laws or homelands being overrun by industrialization, but there is still plenty of injustice.

Many Disney films give off old timey feels, but none are really held back by their time period. Beauty and the Beast has no identifying marker of what year it is, nor does the very recent Frozen, or Lady and Tramp, or Cinderella (in my opinion). But when you throw in the Age of Exploration, that dates your film. That sets the story firmly in one universe.

Next, lets look at who the protagonists of these films are:

  • Pocahontas, check
  • Tiana, check
  • Lilo, check
  • Mulan, check
  • Aladdin, check
  • Kuzco, check
  • Mowgli, grey area, but check
  • Tiger Lily, no
  • Esmeralda, no
  • Little Creek, no
  • Chel, no
  • Lucius/Frozone, no

Pocahontas owns her story and while Tiana is a frog for most of it, she does not cease being black (literally, she’s green, fine, but her character does not change). Kuzco is the male Tiana (or a prototype of Naveen, since those two are more similar) where he’s stuck as a llama for the majority of the movie.

emperor's new groove llama face copy

Lilo and her sister Nani are too wonderful for words (best sisters ever–sorry Anna and Elsa) and make me sob, sob, sob.

lilo and stitch sad copy

Aladdin is populated with other people of the same race. And Mulan just needs no introduction.

mulan tea

The fact is, only seven cases can be made for an animated movie led by a person of color. Maybe even four if you don’t want to include The Princess and the Frog, Emperor’s New Groove, or The Jungle Book.

Esmeralda plays an integral role in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, for sure, but it’s not her story. Ultimately it is about Quasi learning how to love himself and be confident. Little Creek, likewise, is super important in Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, but it’s not his story, either. The film is about Spirit making his way home and becoming a leader. If you catch my drift here, Chel’s role in The Road to El Dorado is one of a love interest and ally to the two main characters. Lucius/Frozone is a wonderful friend and sidekick, but he’s absent for the entire middle portion of The Incredibles.

They are players, but not major players.

Pocahontas, Lilo, Tiana, Aladdin, Kuzco and Mulan: Taking Names and Kicking Butt

pocahontas indignant lookliloprincess and the frog tianaaladdin copyemperor's new groove dancingmulan

 

Disney gave us six POC leads. Each of them are strong, flawed heroes. We have a very diverse list of races/cultures/ethnicities here: Native American, African American, Hawaiian, and Arabic. In addition, we also have supporting characters to reflect this, too.

It’s clear when Disney sets a story within a particular framework, they usually go all the way to actualize the worlds.

In Pocahontas we see the Powhatan tribe farming the land and praying to spirits for guidance. Healing practices, transportation, customs and homes are all shown to us. Their way of life contrasts with the settlers so starkly. Pocahontas teaches John Smith many things, most importantly that land is not something to own. But she also teaches him about her culture, such as how their tribe says hello and goodbye.

Lilo and Stitch takes us to Hawaii, where we have Lilo, Nani, and David and wonderful world building. The perception is that contemporary stories are easier since there is no fantasy world or past to explain, but that’s not true. Contemporary stories require just as much work to get right and Disney was not afraid of the challenge.

lilo and stitch 2

In addition to our sisters and a couple aliens, we have the social worker, Cobra Bubbles. He is darker skinned than the others and clearly holds a higher position of power (I point this out because of the power structure in Frog). Surfing and hula are all integral to creating Lilo, Nani, and David’s pastimes. David and Nani work at a resort and tourism has the biggest influence on the GDP of Hawaii. I’m sure this movie taught everyone the meaning of Ohana and several other Hawaiian words. Nani also sings a song in Hawaiian when she’s forced to say goodbye to Lilo.

lilo and stich hands

The flowers they send into the wind are also the same flowers shown on leis throughout the film.

Next we move onto The Princess and the Frog, which may have the weakest world building of them all. This is not a surprise if Tiana’s skin was colored just to appease outcries. Mardi Gras really grounds the city as New Orleans and jazz and gumbo tie us back to the African American culture. But that’s really all that can be said, sadly.

princess and the frog exhausted

As for supporting characters, Dr. Facilier is clearly not white and Mama Odie, Tiana’s mom (and dearly departed dad), and Prince Naveen are all dark skinned.

princess and the frog reaction  basic bitch

This is offset by the white characters like Charlotte, her father, and Naveen’s evil minion, Lawrence. We are presented with a diverse New Orleans, brimming with French influence and lively jazz. Frog presents us with the uncomfortable image of an all white power structure: Charlotte’s dad being rich, the two men Tiana wants to buy the restaurant from being white, and Tiana’s mother working as a seamstress. As mentioned above, this is not the case in Lilo and Stitch, a film made before Frog. However, Frog is set about hundred years before Lilo, so that could be one argument in favor of the movie.

Then, we have Aladdin. We open on a desert, which right away sets the story. The marketplace, the sand, the palace, they all present a clear picture. The strength in Aladdin’s world building really comes from visuals: clothes, places, animals. There’s nothing that the characters do that really identify them, besides, to say it again, their clothes. The custom of a princess needing to marry does not differentiate it from other princess films. The art of the movie is really what saves it.

Mulan trumps all in terms of world building.

mulan reflection

The fact that Mulan is Chinese is very important to her story. Mulan, like Pocahontas, is a historical figure so it is not shocking her race matters to the story. Chinese culture is presented to us everywhere: praying to the ancestors, the matchmaker, the clothes, the writing. Gender roles, especially, and honor thy father all influence Mulan’s arc and the story Disney is telling. Mulan and Gender Roles is its own meta, but Disney consciously created a Chinese character and set her in her world, effectively showing us a new culture and race.

Finally, there’s Kuzco. While Aladdin sets us up visually and The Princess and the Frog is relatively weak, but still a decent effort, Kuzco isn’t anything special. Yes, he’s a native South American, but the only cultural addition to the film are llamas. Of course, there’s jungles and nature and the contrast between poorer homes on the hilltops vs Kuzco’s palace. Besides the llamas, though, this film could be set anywhere and it wouldn’t matter. Props to Disney for reimagining Mr. Andersen’s Danish fairy tale in this way, but the world isn’t strong enough.

I haven’t spoken much on The Jungle Book. Mowgli is Indian, but besides his name and the names of all the animals around him, that’s not very obvious. He certainly does not have an Indian accent, nor does he even possess any understanding of the concept of “Indian.” The girl in the village wearing the tilak (or bindi) at the end of the film is the only real connection we have to this culture.

Esmeralda, Little Creek, Chel, Lucius: Lets Be Honest, Taking Names and Kicking Butt, Too

hunchback seeing him spirit little creekel dorado chel idiots face incredibles frozone

Esmeralda is the leading female of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. She is one of my all-time favorite characters. She’s idealistic, loyal, brave, kind. As a gypsy, she’s hunted by Frollo and made to feel unworthy.

I don’t know if you would listen to a gypsy’s prayer… Yes, I know I’m just an outcast, I shouldn’t speak to you…
–God Help the Outcasts

She represents discrimination and persecution. She’s hunted for being a gypsy, for being a woman, and for being a person of color. But she’s prepared to become a martyr, to die for what she believes in.

She’s Quasi’s first example of a decent human being and becomes his first human friend (gargoyles, anyone?). She helps bring him out of his shell and quell his fears about being feared. She would know, too, since she’s used to mothers frequently telling their children not to go near her (see: the beginning of the film).

Esmeralda is another example of a Disney woman saving her man, but her and Phoebus may also be the first interracial couple (and they make me swoon)!

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a very brave film. It doesn’t shy away from personal issues like religion and hate and sexual undertones. But it also tackles race and bias and unfair persecution. Esmeralda is an amazing character, she’s strong in the best sense of the word and brings amazing representation to the Disney animated universe.

I’ve been talking about Disney a lot, so lets turn to Dreamworks.

Little Creek is my baby. He’s a Lakota Native American and we first meet him when Spirit is captured by US soldiers. Little Creek was caught trying to free the cavalry’s horses and as the film shows us, Little Creek and his tribe care very much about horses. They don’t want to see them saddled, branded, or whipped. When he and Spirit escape, Spirit is brought back to Little Creek’s tribe and nourished back to health after The Colonel tried to starve him that way he would become milder and easier to tame (spoiler alert: not happening).

Little Creek becomes the most important human Spirit meets. He is the embodiment of kindness and they become good friends. He is the opposite of the regiment’s men, the ones who want to destroy the land and nature and build roads and railways. He wants to train Spirit, but he also is in awe of his power and respects him.

spirit 5

who wouldn’t be in awe of Spirit? look at that pretty horsie

Little Creek’s version of training is of course very different from the soldiers, but when Spirit still resists, he lets go. He does not try to wield power over Spirit. And when Spirit sees that, that is when he lets Little Creek ride him.

spirit 3spirit who could not be broken

In the Road to El Dorado, we meet Chel. She is not a Disney princess, but like most of them she has dreams of going on adventure and discovering something new. In fact, the first time we see her she’s running away from home with some gold she stole.

el dorado chel copy

She’s native to El Dorado, the city of gold, somewhere in Central or South America. Where The Emperor’s New Groove failed, El Dorado excels. El Dorado is a fully real, actualized city. There is an opposing ruling force and tension within the community (the chief vs the high priest), distinct artwork and games that are played. Visually, also, the movie stuns, creating a rich world to contrast with Spain.

Chel’s role is fairly straightforward. If this was Disney, she’d have an “I Want” song and a love song with Tulio. She doesn’t have either of those here, though they are important aspects of her character. As the story goes on, we see her helping Miguel and Tulio pass off their con about being gods. She is vital to their success, filling them in on customs and traditions and getting them out of sticky situations.

el dorado chel idiots face

Chel’s face every time the idiot boys don’t listen to her

And when the chance to leave El Dorado and travel with them to Spain is presented, of course she’s ready to go for it.

el dorado end

Lucius/Frozone is a wonderful bestie in The Incredibles. His scene at the end of the film–

incredibles wheres my super suit

–is one of everyone’s favorites. His wife is never seen, but even she’s legendary (I am the greatest good you are ever gonna get). There’s nothing about him to emphasize his race, but it doesn’t matter because that’s how life is. Your friends are your friends. We know all kinds of different people.

Also, the list of black superheroes is slim. Frozone does have a small role, but he is a splash of diversity in an otherwise all white film.


Do I think this is suitable? Of course not. More can and should be done to bring diverse characters into the mainstream animation houses. As we’ve seen with Mulan and Aladdin and Lilo and Stitch, amazing movies happen!

But, I wanted to highlight the fact that Disney, who largely faces the most criticism for their all white stories, have brought us people of color in their films. They’ve given us the biggest majority of POCs as protagonists, too.

I left out the film Brother Bear by Disney because there’s not much to add–it follows the standard interpretation of Native Americans we’ve seen in Pocahontas and Spirit, plus POC being an animal for most of the film.

brother bear new in town copy

I also left out Ice Age by 20th Century because 1, I forgot about the nomadic tribe, and 2, because they are a tiny facet of the film. But by the nature of the film, it dates itself back millions of years, which ties into a point made above. Also not mentioned are The Croods, which follows the same logic for Ice Age. The Book of Life, I have yet to see, but it seems Hispanic culture plays a bigger role there than Emperor. Big Hero 6 features an Asian protagonist, but I’ve not yet seen it yet, either.

People of color have stories to tell! Historical OR contemporary, their lives matter. Their lives in reality and their lives in art and animation.

If you take anything away from this post I hope it is either:

  • Disney has given us the most diversity of any animation house
  • But: we should still be critical of Disney and encourage more diversity among all animators
  • The majority of stories about POCs focus on historical aspects, which is great, but there needs to be more of a balance between past and present

Leave your thoughts and opinions below! How do you feel about diversity in animation?

Cheers!
-M&M