It’s been an interesting year. As we have now past the one year anniversary of COVID-19 lockdown, it’s worth a look back how we as human beings stayed connected, six feet apart. Online video games boomed, to no one’s surprise, as we used apps like Zoom and Discord to laugh and create new memories over the internet. One game that became vastly popular was Among Us, a game where you and up to 9 friends attempt to complete tasks before two imposters kill enough members or the wrong people are voted out. I have fond memories of meeting people through a weekly Campus Ministry game night, where we would make wild accusations, flee in terror from the killer, or otherwise attempt to win amongst utter chaos. However, for every good memory I have of playing Among Us, I recognize there are many experiences other players have had, where friendships and/or relationships are tested due to playing this game together. Furthermore, party games in general provide the foundation for fun game nights to devolve into screaming matches, temper tantrums, and broken bonds. So…why the hell do we play these kinds of games?
While there can be enjoyment from tricking your friends into trusting you, without any serious intention of malice, Among Us can be risky. If you are an Imposter, you have the role of not only convincing your crewmates that you are trustworthy, but also someone else is an Imposter. As such, players will swear on their graves or argue to save themselves from being voted out. Insults are thrown, arguments become heated, and vocal cords are shredded. To worsen the situation, some players become so convinced of their intelligence that they pressure everyone else into choosing whomever they think is Imposter. Combining each ingredient, Among Us has the potential to emotionally and mentally destroy relationships, leaving players red in the face, crying, or throwing up many middle fingers.
One set of games that has developed a longstanding reputation for testing friendships is Nintendo’s Mario Party series. With eleven installments in the main series, Mario Party features characters from the Mario franchise in which up to four local players or computer-controlled characters compete in a board game interspersed with minigames and attempt to collect as many stars as possible. For many players, this is where immense stress and anger can come from: no one is 100% sure that they will win, despite assurances of their victory. In addition, the game’s features can switch players’ fortunes, including the chance for the player in last to switch places with the player in first. With elements such as these, plus difficult minigames, vocal outbursts can become increasingly common, as well as awkward pauses until the next display of anger.
My third and final example is another game from the Mario franchise: Mario Kart, where characters from Nintendo series, such as Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and Animal Crossing, compete in go-kart races while using various items to gain advantage. While these items can grant speed boosts, create hazards, or attack opponents, one particular item has gained notoriety: the Blue Shell. This item’s purpose is to target the racer in first place and explode, slowing them down and often costing whomever it hits the race. However, the Blue Shell often comes to people farther behind, e.g. 5th-9th place. While this arguably gives the other players a better chance to catch up, the action of throwing this shell can demonstrate a person’s pettiness. Despite their almost-certain loss, a player could choose to cause misery, unafraid of the consequences, for the satisfaction of meddling with someone’s happiness. Presenting the chance to improve one’s placement in the race, the Blue Shell can turn a test of skill and luck into a every-man-for-himself type deal.
So why do we continue to play these types of games? This kind of anger and spiteful actions could be linked back to something called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where lower-skilled individuals are likely to overestimate how good they are at something, like a video game. Often, players can “rage quit” when by themselves, but in a group setting, that anger can be a result of players’ behaviors during the game. One example could include where one player succeeds and is close to victory, so the other players choose to work together and prevent that outcome. Ganging up on another player can also happen if the others find enjoyment out of causing them angst. This cycle of allying against a fellow player can repeat endlessly and could eventually cause the recipient to lash out.
However, people still play party games. If I had to speculate as to why, my personal experience tells me that it’s through this cycle of suffering and causing suffering that the strongest friendships are created. When players recognize that there will be a chance for them to return the favor of embarrassment, they can mellow out and laugh at their own expense for their time being. The point of games, apart from being fun, is to bring people together, regardless of any labels we attach to each other. Whether it’s a video game, cards, or physical activity, bonds are created when we choose to use these games as a chance to relax and let down their walls. Furthermore, party games especially succeed at giving players an opportunity to vent their stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, we can develop a competitive streak, but, at the end of the day, we can just shake it off and keep playing. As a graduating senior, I’ve raged, laughed, cried, and slapped my head when playing any sort of game. I’ll probably forget what game I was playing when, but I’ll never forget the good times spent and the better people I played with.
Streaming sites are ushering in the next golden age of animation. This may seem like a lofty claim, given the history of the Disney Golden Age of the 40s-50s and the renaissance of animation in the 90s, but with increased investment in animated content of all sorts from streamers such as Netflix and HBO Max, this golden age is not too hard to believe. The investment of streaming sites into animation, both original and already existing properties is pushing the industry into exciting directions and opening the doors for a greater variety of stories. This conclusion can be made through the increased job market and demand for animation, the increased accessibility of international animated titles, and a sincere push towards more diverse storytelling through on and off-screen representation.
Increased Job Market & Demand
Firstly, the demand for animation created by streaming sites, combined with increased viewership during COVID-19 in particular has catapulted the animation industry into an exciting direction. With streamers comes more stability, typically asking for more deliverables than television networks, which are characterized as being less committed to projects.
Chris Prynoski, President and founder of Titmouse, an independent animation house, comments on this difference, saying, “Usually it’s like, OK, we’re doing this 10-episode season…” But Netflix asks for 10 times that amount” (Marsh).
With this demand for content, and the fact that animated content can be both cheaper to produce and contains re-watchability, the amount of animation work and projects green-lit has skyrocketed. Back in 2017, for Titmouse in particular, over half their projects were for web-based platforms and the studio expanded to 500 employees (Marsh). So not only are we entering a golden age for audiences, being delivered a variety of engaging content, but also for the people working within the industry too, especially under the uncertainties provided by COVID-19.
The ability of these online platforms to reach multiple different audiences has led to streamers investing in a range of projects, from adult animation to family, rather than just sticking to one. With increased popularity and reliance on streaming platforms within multiple homes, and less so on cable, these streamers offer larger budgets that open the door for more jobs and creative possibilities. Barry Ward, President of Canadian animation studio Bardel, notes that the possibilities provided by streaming sites allow for both quality and quantity.
Ward comments that, ““These platforms are going toe to toe with the major terrestrial entertainment companies. With Netflix in particular, from day one you could tell that they were going to give television a run for its money. It was high-quality programming. Until that point, budgets for internet-based content were low, as was the quality. But now the budgets are as high or higher than what you find on [linear] TV.” (Marsh)
With these factors in mind, a new wave of creative possibilities and freedom can be ushered in, not to say the approach of these companies is completely open-ended. Nonetheless, the inclusion of older titles on these sites, which may have had relative success when aired on television, has allowed for these series to receive new audiences and fresh takes, such as the “Clone High” revival coming to HBO Max, previously aired on MTV from 2002-2003.
Increased Availability of International Animated Content
Secondly, an exciting aspect offered by streaming sites is the availability of international animated films and titles, introducing people beyond American animation to include titles from Japan, Ireland, France, China, and more with relative accessibility to the general public. Through my own experience, I was lucky to see an international animated feature film through a GKIDS screening or festivals such as the Animation is Film Festival is Los Angeles, and most of the people who attended would not be considered with the average movie-goer or viewer. Overall, the exposure to the general public of international animation had remained rather limited until streaming. This cannot be more true for anime, which has seen an increase in viewership and general popularity over the years. Instead of having to pirate episodes on repost websites and pray I do not get a virus, or record the few anime episodes offered through cable, anime, or Japanese animation itself has become available with a simple subscription.
I’ve been astonished by the variety of anime titles picked up by Netflix, Hulu, and more, along with original anime series for the streamers, given that growing up, I had to wait weeks for an episode to be released with subtitles, and feeling somewhat guilty watching them on sites were the creators don’t receive a penny for my viewership. Furthermore, to see Japanese animation embraced even more in the mainstream has been a shift undoubtedly influenced by streaming platforms, which allowed for titles such as “Attack on Titan” and “Demon Slayer” and more to be available to audiences quickly and around the globe. Seeing HBOMax, for instance, partner with international animation distributor GKIDS in order to include Studio Ghibli films and that work of experimental Japanese director Masaaki Yuasa, was a lovely surprise.
According to The Wall Street Journal, on Netflix alone, more than 100 million households watched at least one anime title within 2020, growing 50% from the previous year (Tsuneoka).
While there was a market for anime before streaming, it has become far more popular due to accessibility, and older titles are finding new fans. For Toei Animation Co. in particular, revenue generated from overseas distribution/viewership more than doubled in the past year, in thanks to their properties such as “Dragon Ball Z”readily available on sites like Hulu (Tsuneoka).
The increase of international titles available has ushered in more global collaboration as well, with Netflix developing sixteen projects in their new Tokyo based office. One of Netflix’s recent Oscar-nominated features, “Over the Moon,” was produced and released by the streamer in collaboration with Pearl Studio, a Shanghai based production company, and animated by Sony Pictures Imageworks. The film itself took many direct Chinese cultural inspirations and involved many Asian and Asian-Americans in its creative process and casting.
Investment in Diverse Storytelling
The flexibility of streaming sites allows for more creative freedom and inclusion, as the restrictions typically provided by television are not applicable to OTT media. As a result, streaming sites have become a platform for representation and for newer creatives. This is not to say that more inclusive media is not being developed within television, just look at Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe, arguably a pioneer in that department, but I have noticed an increase and dedication, at least on Netflix’s end, to diversifying content both on and off the screen.
For example, “She-ra and the Princesses of Power,” a modern reboot of the She-ra series from the 1980s, spearheaded by DreamWorks Animation & Netflix, throughout its five seasons has included positive representations not only of people of color, but also queer romance and identity. The show runner Noelle Stevenson herself is part of the LGBTQIA+ community , making it even more impactful to have a far-reaching platform to share her own experiences in an authentic manner that involved actual queer people in its development . In 2021, the series won a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Kids and Family Programming. With She-Ra in particular, there’s not just one token queer character, a majority of the cast is confirmed to be within the LGBTQIA+ community, and their identity is important but not the only thing that defines them. Some of these characters include main cast members Adora, Catra, Scorpia, and Perfuma, who are in on-screen, canonical relationships with women, along with bisexual characters such as Bow and Glimmer, transgender characters such as Jewelstar, and even non-binary characters, such as Double Trouble. What’s great about this example in particular is how there is not one single way a queer character should look or act, they are all different in their own way. This is a great representation for especially younger kids, the target audience, seeing queer people confident in who they are and capable as heroes in their own right. With the red tape that can come with airing specific episodes featuring on-screen kisses and explicit references to LGBTQIA+ experiences in different countries, allowing for certain elements to be hidden in the background or cut out completely, it’s nice to see representation so open on platforms.
As someone who remembers seeing the final season of “Legend of Korra” include bisexual characters, only for it to be online only, at the time it felt rather limited. Networks such as Cartoon Network and even Disney TV, for which on screen queer representation is visible, but not as explicit as examples in streaming series, has made strides, but the amount of inclusion and the rate of its increase seems to be more available due to streaming sites. Furthermore, these sites are willing to take more risks, with the mentality that there is a market for all sorts of content. Even Disney has started to use streaming services to promote more explicit representation through Disney+ in which “Out,” a Pixar short with a gay lead, was released.
Due to arguably the more open mentality of streaming platforms and the freedom of content, streaming sites have become platforms to uplift LGBTQ+ and BIPOC content creators and leaders within animation. “Danger & Eggs,” a children’s animated series on Amazon Prime, became the first children’s cartoon to feature an openly transgender show runner, Shadi Petosky. This allowed for her to delve into LGBTQ+ topics authentically and accurately in episodes, one of which featured a transgender character Zadie, at a pride event, serving as the episode’s center. The increased visibility of diverse characters and intersectional approaches to characters and their identities is setting a new standard for general representation in animation, and proving that there is a market for this authentic content full of heart.
As for more adult animated content, “Great Pretender,” an animated crime-comedy series created by Japanese animation studio WIT Studio in partnership with Netflix, has been embraced not only for it’s style and compelling scenarios, but also it’s diverse set of characters, including Black and Latinx characters, in ways similar to “Cowboy Bebop.” Especially within anime, a genre that is known more for its inclusion of East Asian and White characters, this was seen as extremely refreshing by fans. Additionally, the inclusion of women in prominent roles beyond romance was another great addition. When writer Ryota Kosawa was asked about his inclusion of non-Japanese characters, he had this to say:
“This time I was conscious about giving balanced roles to both the male and female characters, as well as giving diverse roles to characters across different races. I took care to ensure that even the villains aren’t defined by their nationality or race, and I tried as much as possible to make the characters hard to hate. In the end, for better or worse, what’s important is whether the characters stand out or don’t stand out.” (Morrissy & Loveridge)
Coming from live action experience, when asked about Netflix’s involvement and how that was different than a normal television broadcaster, Kosawa mentioned how working with Netflix made it easier to include multicultural speaking parts, as the talent pool in Japan is more limited and the Netflix budget that helped finance these details, hence forging a supportive creative environment (Morrissy & Loveridge). More representation and diverse stories is not non-existent within television, but clearly there’s a creative push amongst streaming platforms to support these creatives and go beyond the limitations of broadcasting, creating an exciting future for the future of animated content.
Overall, I’m personally looking forward to the variety and fresh animated stories that are being brought to the forefront by streaming platforms. This is uncharted territory for animation, and perhaps the next best thing for the industry as a whole. This is not to say that streamers cannot do wrong and that this process will be perfect, the fear of monopolies and the conglomerates that have formed through the streaming wars, such as AT&T acquiring HBO Max, or Sony owning the popular anime streaming site Crunchyroll, as areas of concern. However, with streamers such as Netflix spearheading campaigns to shake up the American animation industry and provide some competition as well as a platform for up-and-coming creatives and newer stories, is an interesting shift to keep an eye out for.
Chappell, Caitlin, and . “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power Set a New Standard for LGBTQ Rep.” Comic Book Resources , Valnet Inc. , 1 June 2020, www.cbr.com/she-ra-set-new-standard-lgbtq-representation/.
Deerwater, Raina. “EXCLUSIVE: ‘She-Ra’ Creator Noelle Stevenson Talks to GLAAD about the Final Season, Queer Representation in Animation, and Watching ‘Killing Eve’.” GLAAD, GLAAD, 19 May 2020, www.glaad.org/blog/exclusive-she-ra-creator-noelle-stevenson-talks-glaad-about-final-season-queer-representation.
Marsh, Calum. “Surge in Streaming Services Leads to Animation Job Boom.” Variety, Variety Media LLC, 27 July 2017, variety.com/2017/artisans/production/netflix-amazon-animation-jobs-1202506357/.
Morrissy , Kim, and Lynzee Loveridge . “Interview: Great Pretender Director Hiro Kaburagi and Writer Ryota Kosawa.” Anime News Network, Anime News Network, 14 Dec. 2020, www.animenewsnetwork.com/interview/2020-12-14/great-pretender-director-hiro-kaburagi-and-writer-ryota-kosawa/.167355.Tsuneoka, Chieko. “The World Is Watching More Anime-and Streaming Services Are Buying.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 14 Nov. 2020, www.wsj.com/articles/the-world-is-watching-more-animeand-streaming-services-are-buying-11605365629.
Divided we stand. Or, wasn’t that supposed to be ”United we stand…divided we fall”? Unfortunately, these days it appears that we are standing divided.
My grandparents would say this is not new… they have seen this division before. But of course, since I was not there, I can only rely on the visual stories, and depictions portrayed in media, film, animation, and the popular culture of that time. And when studying those media representations, I can understand why America has such a negative view of Black Americans. It is my belief that past misrepresentations of the Black culture have not only perpetuated negative portrayals of current society, but they continue to have a profoundly adverse impact on our country’s ability to see past skin color.
REPRESENTATION GUIDES BELIEFS:
Representation matters… But why? What difference does it make that you see images that are clearly over exaggerations and misrepresentations? Unfortunately, it does make a difference, because what you see can quickly turn into what you believe. The very long history of continuous over exaggerated and stereotypical caricatures of Black people in all forms of media has systematically programmed society to perceive Black people in a negative light. It’s like people have been trained to believe this stuff. It has fostered racist ideals and acts of racist violence for decades.
I am not trying to suggest a tone of anger here. But I believe that tolerance comes from understanding, and simply by educating those who may not truly see the hurtful symbolism in misrepresentations just might change their minds. Additionally, those of us who are artists and creators may consider the impact that their own creative works might have in a deeper level.
In a discussion like this, unfortunately, we have to bring up the obvious. Yep, it started with slavery. Examples of stereotypes can be seen as far back as the times of slavery. From various decades of American and world history to the current times. In the documentary Ethnic Notions by Marlon Riggs, it was argued that certain depictions were created as an attempt for America to reconcile itself with the paradox of claiming to believe in a Constitution of equality while, at the same time, founding itself on slavery. Pretty deep, right? This contradiction of morals was addressed by using media to highlight and exploit differences between Black people and the America that enslaved them. While I am sure these images are challenging to see, I would encourage everyone to view them, especially those of us who are artists committed to changing the narrative of separation in our world.
And, if that isn’t enough, for those who didn’t know, there are actual terms connected to those stereotypes:
Donald Bogle, author of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, lists out categories of Black stereotypes as:
-the servile, avuncular “tom”
-the simple-minded and cowardly “coon”
-the tragic and usually female mullato
-the fat, dark-skinned, docile and happy-to-serve “mammy”
-the irrational, hyper sexual male “buck“.
“the “picaninny” which would represent an unkempt haired, dirty clothed Black child or baby who was often the subject of some sort of peril, usually food for an alligator or being killed in some presumedly humorous manner
(Images from Ferris State University)
AND IT SELLS, TOO…ADVERTISERS JOIN IN:
Anything to sell a product, right? Marketing media has contributed to perpetuating negative stereotypes as an appeal to promote sales. Even brand names that portray what might be considered by the dominant culture as more palatable stereotypic images have continued to line store shelves for years. I mean, everybody knows about “Aunt Jemima” pancake mix…and probably never thought twice about how damaging the image on the box was. Jemima was the persona of the “mammy”, that was important during the post Civil War period of Reconstruction. She represented the jolly, happy-to-serve, non sexually threatening matriarch who would raise white children for her master/employer, and happily prepare all their meals. Kinda makes one feel like….ehhh..maybe not all enslaved people were unhappy…….really???!! That, my friend, is the point.
(image from Ferris State University)
THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY …AND OTHERS:
Now, who would have thought that Disney, the most family oriented brand ever, might have some deeply disturbing racial portrayals? Certainly not me. I love me some Disney! But, I stand corrected. Images of misrepresented characters can be seen in many of its films. One that comes to mind is Disney’s Dumbo. This endearing film has its own racist personas portrayed in the crows shown near the end of the movie. The colloquial dialect used in their speech was directly tied to the dominant culture’s perception of what a typical conversation would sound like, coming from the outcasted, rowdy crows. Writer for the Jim Crow Museum, Alex Wainer noted that the Disney animator, Joe Grant, argued that his crow characters were “good in the midst of a lot of bad characters “in the film”, and that “It seems strange that racial offense should be discovered in their depiction: is it somehow alright to caricature whites but not blacks? That surely is a very deep racism, far deeper than anything in the friendly portrayal … of the crows… although perhaps naming one of them Jim Crow was a little questionable.”
Dude! Yes, it IS a very deep racism, and the fact that Grant even knew in his soul that naming a crow ‘Jim Crow’ was questionable, simply confirms his own conscience. His statement sounded strangely familiar as it reminded me of a common retort to Black Lives Matter……that “All lives matter”. They definitely do. But when enough evidence clearly proves that the lives of people of color appear to matter less, that is when clarification is required. Even the physical stance of the character aptly named “Jim Crow” was the exact image of T.D. Rice’s original Jim Crow figure of black-face minstrel success.
(sidebar note: as of October 2020, Disney has a general warning on their website about harmful depictions in their content. Thanks Disney)
And media representation isn’t limited to adults. As children, my parents really enjoyed cartoons known as Merry Melodies. But, those toons were no better. Bob Clampett’s 1943 cartoon parody “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs” (yeah, it’s actually spelled that way) portrays multiple negative depictions of the Black culture. From the purposeful misspelling and improper colloquial language of the title, to the over sexualized persona of the Black girl, and her assumedly dimwitted merry minions, including a cast of stereotypical characters, this toon hits them all. With children as the target market for this racial mockery, the cartoon entertainment medium promoted demeaning attitudes about Black people and culture, so the programming included kids.
The definition of what is considered ‘beautiful’ when it comes to depictions of Blacks in animation and other media has been a source of contention within the Black community for some time. Again, the use of over emphasized caricatures to distort the facial features, the natural hair, the body shapes were another means of separating Black people from the dominant culture’s standard for beauty. (For Twilight Zone fans, you gotta check out Season 2, Episode 6 Eye of the Beholder and watch it to the end! Mind bomb!)
Remember those ‘pickaninny’ images of Black children? Sometimes they would be shown with hair in African based hairstyles, which clearly, were either humorous or objectionable to dominant culture of that time period. This demeaning imagery would come to affect Black culture for decades, and still causes much divide even within the Black culture today. Noted Body Freedom Advocate Karma Raines has moderated numerous roundtable discussions regarding Hair Envy and colorism. Raines clearly acknowledges the jealousy and division within the Black community that is still in existence today regarding the varied textures of hair and skin color. Raines firmly believes that “colorism is a result of racism in white supremacy”, and this affects how Black people view themselves. Raines research has shown that the dominant culture feels “the wavier and looser your hair is, the more pretty you are, the more manageable your hair is. The tighter, the rougher, the nappy your hair is, the less manageable it is.” She attempts to dispel this age-old myth.
From Karma’s own personal experience, she was told that “I was lesser than in the Black community. I needed to be fair, I needed to be light-skinned, I needed to look mixed, I need to able to pass for white because then it was going to be easier for me in society”. She has confirmed that this belief permeates the Black community.
(image by Ferris State University)
No doubt, these pictures have had a negative affect on not only the culture that perceives Black people, but how Black people perceive themselves. Even within the Black culture, there is division and confusion about what is considered beautiful.
Raines says her title as a Body Freedom Advocate is her way of “empowering anyone that feels silenced in their own skin”, and she feels that with regards to weight “people instinctually only think of the actual number on the scale and don’t understand that your image can be affected not only by your physical size, but….there are so many complex layers to what body image is and how to start to normalize all the aspects of our bodies.” Her work has impacted positive change in challenging the old racist images of the Black body.
Also, even as recent as this past September, representations concerning what is beautiful or acceptable/normal for Black hair caused an uprising in South Africa in protest of a hair care product line.
To top them all, one of the most explosive depictions that permeates the world stage, and particularly the American landscape is that of the Black man portrayed as the irrational, hyper sexual, dangerous, brute male buck…1915 releasing of
The Birth of a Nation by DW Griffith.
(image by Ferris State University)
Saved for last because it screams representations that affect us today. It was arguably the most incendiary and wide reaching portrayals of Black men as beasts, which fanned the flames of the Ku Klux Klan movement. And there were many others. Those fires, though often not as visible to the naked eye, continue to burn throughout history, and are likely the quiet protagonist of racial violence in today’s society. Ideas that would lead a police officer to believe that kneeling on the neck of a Black man for 8 minutes and 46 seconds was either necessary or acceptable had to originate somewhere, and I believe the long standing history of repeated images of these negative portrayals over time programmed racism into our culture.
WHY BRING THIS UP….AGAIN?
Ok, I know some believe…’Alright, we get it already. These were bad, but that was a long time ago….let’s agree that it’s time to move on’. Some even argue that we should erase these images, as if they didn’t happen. Clearly, I disagree. I believe that exposing these images is necessary. And that is why I am sharing them here. I also agree that it is imperative that we use what we learn about these depictions to redirect our mindset towards more accurate and acceptable representations of people of color. And unfortunately, we can’t just move on, because it still happens today. And, strangely enough, as Karma Raines stated, it often happens within the culture being misrepresented. We have to retrain ourselves, as well.
Yes, the unacceptable depictions viewed by people today cause discomfort in most audiences, or even disgust or anger. But the reality is, it is important that all people, white and non-white, learn from the past in order to positively affect the future. We learn by what we see and hear, and we have a responsibility to represent the truth as much as possible.
As artists, animators, filmmakers, advertisers, we have a tremendous power at our fingertips. We can overwrite the narrative. The long history of production in media, film, animation, for the most part, did not include people of color at the development stage. I believe that we need to increase in the people of color in the creation component of all forms of visual art will undoubtedly increase the truthful representation of people of color in the content. It matters.
So, was this surprising, enlightening, frustrating, motivating? Thoughts…
Media acts as a reflection of the society it inhabits. The entertainment we consume is not created within a bubble, it is created with the biases, prejudices, and influences that exist within a given society. Many of the prejudices within our work is communicated implicitly and may not even be the intention of the writers and directors, but the message is still absorbed by viewers. Even the most progressive works have issues within them that we as a society have yet to tackle, so it’s important that we continue to critique the works we see to move forward toward a more inclusive and equitable depiction of society.
With that said, one trope that I had unconsciously noticed growing up but never registered until last year was the double standard and racial bias that occurred in the treatment of BIPOC character story arcs. I noticed that in a lot of shows and movies, white characters or characters who were oppressors were given better outcomes than BIPOC characters or characters who had been oppressed when bad deeds were committed. It was a difficult trope to capture because it is so ingrained in our collective psyche and it exists in even the most progressive pieces of media. What this communicated to me, was that our implicit biases need to be continuously checked because it puts a great amount of pressure on populations of color.
Avatar the Last Airbender is undoubtedly an amazing show. It is incredibly inclusive with various disabled characters, an exploration of various Asian and indigenous cultures, and a lesson in the way war affects every aspect of life. It has done wonders in being both educational, entertaining, and progressive, however there does seem to be some implicit biases that presented themselves in the fabric of the story. The colonizers of the show were given better outcomes than their victim-turned-villains. Specifically, Zuko and Iroh were given much more sympathy than Jet and Hama when it came to the outcomes of their bad-deeds, and in general were written with more likeable characteristics than their counterparts.
Zuko was given a three-season redemption arc that allowed us to empathize with him throughout the entirety of the show despite him being an antagonist for most of it. He was undoubtedly traumatized both by his upbringing and brainwashed by the ideologies of his nation, but he was given the opportunity to heal and change his ways throughout the show. He was beloved as a character, so even when he made mistakes that hurt others his character was given just as much space to do good deeds to help us like him. I personally love Zuko and I think his redemption arc was the best in cinematic history. However, I can’t help but notice that the same care and attention to the writing of Zuko’s character and arc was not paid to Jet.
Jet was also created as a likeable character. He acted as a father figure to the freedom fighters and protected them like family. He was also traumatized by his past when the fire nation killed his parents, so he used that pain to fight the fire nation. After some time had passed and he realized the error of his ways, he attempted to turn his life around. This was around the time that Zuko was beginning his transformation. When Jet attempts to expose Zuko, we are conditioned to side with Zuko even though Jet is technically right. From Jet’s point of view, a fire bender entering Ba Sing Se, the last safe haven for refugees, is incredibly dangerous. Technically, he was right to try to report him. A fire bender entering Ba Sing Se could signal an attack by the fire nation. After this incident, he is again traumatized by being brainwashed before dying while fighting Lee Feng. Although his character was given the opportunity to be redeemed by helping Aang, he still dies before we can see a fully-fledged healing process from him. I am not condoning his actions. He was wrong to profile every fire nation person as evil and view the earth kingdom town as collateral damage during his freedom fighter days. However, I think the way his story arc was written did a disservice to the discussion on how victims of systemic trauma should be handled as characters. In the beginning he was portrayed as deceptive, when he was trying to heal he was portrayed as crazy or the antagonist to Zuko’s redemption, and in the end he had a brief moment of clarity where he was able to help the Gaang. He died after that brief moment, but he was never truly given a chance to heal. RIP Jet.
I think the strongest comparison is Iroh versus Hama. Iroh is literally a colonizer. He was a fire nation general who led the most successful attempt at the siege of Ba Sing Se before Azula’s infiltration. The only reason that he stopped playing his part in the war was because he lost his son in that battle. Throughout the show he is depicted as wise and having already learned how his nation’s ideologies are wrong. He is essentially fully formed and mainly present to help the next generation. He also never pays for his war crimes and lives the rest of his life owning a successful tea shop. I love Iroh, but this is a bit unfair considering how Hama was treated. Hama was a water-bender in the Southern Water Tribe who fought countless battles against the fire nation. Their sole purpose for attack was to capture and imprison water-benders to relinquish their threat against the fire nation. She was the last water bender in her tribe before she was captured and tortured for years. She learned to blood bend to free herself before settling in the fire nation in secret. Her character was written as evil and vengeful. I think it was completely the wrong move to paint Hama’s character as evil beyond return because ultimately her trauma was on par (if not worse) than Aang’s. I’m not condoning her actions, but I think it’s telling that the show writers decided to depict an indigenous woman’s coping strategy as unleashing evil on random fire nation villagers. More often than not, real oppressed people’s response to trauma is to stay away from their oppressors rather than seek out revenge because they are aware that the power structure is in favor of murdering or torturing them. To me, the way her character was written felt like an oppressor’s fear more than an actual outcome of trauma. It’s unnerving because if this same story were set in the context of our world, I think we would be much more aware of how problematic that story arc actually is.
Another instance of this implicit bias we have that make BIPOC characters irredeemable villains while white characters are inherently good is actually in Black Panther. This is another case of a movie that I absolutely love, that has done so much for positive representation and diversity, and that is ultimately a love letter to Pan African culture. However, I couldn’t help but notice that Killmonger’s motives and Ross’s presence in the movie felt strange. I’ll start with Ross.
Ross is a CIA agent who sides with T’Challa to help save Wakanda. There is so much wrong with the fact that a CIA agent is helping to re-stabilize a foreign nation. The CIA is the antithesis of positive development in foreign nations so his place in the story is just honest to God propaganda. If you don’t believe me, here are links to the history of CIA involvement in foreign governments. This is not an exhaustive list:
Killmonger’s motivation and the outcome of his story arc are of importance because they are essentially another version of dreamt up fears that colonizers have had throughout history. Slave owners in the antebellum period would fear that enslaved peoples would rise up and do onto them what terrible atrocities they had done to their slaves. It was a gut-wrenching fear that in-part caused them to be even more cruel to relinquish any desire to overthrow the established order. This fear still exists in circles that endorse the ‘race war’ theory and those who fear the prediction that the white population will become the minority in a few decades. Black Panther the movie was obviously not written by a person who endorses these beliefs or fears, and there was an obvious social commentary that was taking place. However, I wanted to interrogate how his motivations and arc contrasted with Ross’ in a way that may be implicitly communicating the wrong message to audiences.
Killmonger’s character was written as a traditionally disadvantaged black kid in the U.S. He was poor, his father died when he was young, and he was taught everything about the disadvantages and hardships he would face because he was black. His character’s motivation was coded as Black Panther Movement inspired, but went a step further. In the film, he aims for imperialism. He says ‘the sun would never set on the Wakandan empire’ which evokes the British imperialism that started this problem in the first place. It’s veiled as Black Power and respirations, but executed as violent colonization. I found it interesting that they chose to have a villain with this motivation because it reminds me of the Hama issue I spoke of earlier. Usually, oppressed peoples seek equality. The Black Panther Movement was about ending police brutality and giving jobs to black people. Their main contributions to society were popular community social programs, including free breakfast programs for school children and free health clinics in 13 African American communities across the United States. They were demonized by the FBI and deemed “one of the greatest threats to the nation’s internal security” despite being a small group who protected their community and instituted social programs. The FBI worked to dismantle the free breakfast programs for school children program because it was a ‘threat’. This type of community advocacy is the opposite of the message that is typically taught to us about POC fighting the power. A violent overthrow of white civilization via POC is a dreamt up fear by white slave owners that still exists for racist people today. So, the choice to make Killmonger so radical that he became a colonizer himself was an interesting choice.
Black Panther was released during the Trump Era. Border Walls, America First, and fascist propaganda that demonizes POC was at its peak. The message to lend aid to other nations and open up rather than be isolationist was a social commentary that was being made. It is a valid question as to why Wakanda would decide to remain isolated and quiet while African brethren were being stolen and enslaved. We are made to question who was actually right in this instance, because Killmonger makes a valid point. The issue is that despite him making a valid point, his trauma is still used as a ploy to make him irredeemably evil. Another point that was made was why T’Chaka chose not to bring Erik back to Wakanda. There was an air of ‘if he had, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess’. In essence, if Erik hadn’t experienced all of the hardship that he did, if he had grown up in Wakanda and been safe and un-radicalized he would not have become so twisted. Which again, plays on how systemic trauma could make someone so angry and vengeful that they would turn the tables on the current order. Marvel chose to have Killmonger’s plan as a repeat of history so it would be undoubtedly wrong, but provoke enough thought to end with the social commentary that rich nations have a duty to help poorer nations. This choice seems like more bias against oppressed groups. It seems like we are again being told that systemic trauma that is not forgiven can manifest as vengeance that is irredeemable, even though that doesn’t happen in reality. It was an interesting choice, especially when coupled with having Ross, the United States CIA agent, help Wakanda re-stabilize itself.
Now, not every character has this same outcome. In ATLA, admiral Zhao met his end justly. Also in Black Panther, Shuri calls Ross a colonizer which points out their awareness of his presence in the movie. There is awareness of the real world implications of their choice in writing. However, I think that most of these issues are done implicitly so even the methods used to mend the situation are a bit too small in comparison. Admiral Zhao and Hama were both examples of people who used their power and resources to cross a sacred boundary. Zhao killed the moon spirit which would alter the balance of the spirit world to the physical world. Hama blood bent and took away the bodily autonomy of the people she controlled. Both of these actions are evil, however I can’t help but note that the circumstances and motivations are vastly different. I’m not condoning either one, but Zhao came from a place of privilege while Hama did not. Zhao was greedy and selfish. He didn’t care about the balance of the spiritual world, he just wanted to be remembered in history books so he committed terrible atrocities. Again, I don’t condone it, but Hama was acting out of trauma. I still think its problematic that the writers wrote her character to cope this way, but she was acting from a place of extreme trauma. It doesn’t excuse her actions, but I personally think a person who has gone through so much and started out disadvantaged deserves more than just being locked up again. Zhao deserved to die off because he was rancid to the core. With Black Panther, the ‘colonizer’ comment was just too little given the large role that Ross played in stopping the Vibranium from leaving Wakandan Borders. He is held up as a hero as well because he chose to endanger his life by staying to destroy the planes despite an enemy plane shooting directly at him. That comment does too little to rectify the reality that the CIA should not be painted in a positive light in this instance (if at all).
I don’t think that this tendency to over-value white / opressive characters over POC / oppressed characters is always explicitly intended. I think much of the time it is an implicit bias that makes its way through the medium. Regardless, we have to be able to question why writers wrote characters and story arcs in a certain way. I think having these conversations makes us more critical of the media we consume and make us more aware of the message we may be implicitly internalizing. Black Lives Matter Protests were portrayed by the media to be angry uprisings that were incredibly dangerous when in reality most of them were peaceful marches. News outlets called the protests ‘riots’ and made them seem dangerous. The national guard was called and in general there were strong police responses to these protests. However, the protestors were the ones who were in real danger. Police would respond with tear gas and flash bangs while the insurrectionists at the capital were let inside. So, why was Killmonger demanding a violent overthrow of the established order while Ross was allowed to be a hero? Throughout history, POC have called for racial equality and access to the same opportunities and protections as white citizens. Generational trauma and poor experiences with racist people have led many POC to avoid encounters with police and racist people. BIPOC activists work to educate and advocate for POC in response to their trauma, it’s very rare to see people of color actively seeking out revenge on white people. (If anything, it’s more often a white person committing a hate crime against POC) So, why were Hama and Jet coping by going out of their way to hurt random fire nation civilians?
These distinctions are important to make because they inform how we view reality as well. It’s important to view media with a critical eye and demand more POC in all areas of power for production. We need people of color in the writers room, producing, being directors of agencies, and everywhere in between. We need to be aware of cultural studies theorists because much of the problems we see today have been discussed by theories already. We also need to analyze why we keep pushing this narrative because it paints a picture of reality that is simply not there.
Much of America as we see it has slowly come to accept the LGBTQ community. The biggest accomplishment to note is that states across the country are slowly but surely granting marriage equality rights to same-sex couples. However, the struggles of the queer community doesn’t stop at marriage. An issue often overlooked within the terms of the queer community is how exactly LGBTQ characters are portrayed in our favorite books, movies, and shows.
Queer characters in television shows that are targeted to a more mature audience are more likely to have a much higher inclusivity, and when looking at shows targeted towards children and tweens, the representation is less blatant. This is because those outside the queer community often equate the identity directly to sex, which is most likely why LGBTQ characters are avoided in children’s programming–but this misconceived notion hurts youth more than it helps due to eventual identity issues and lack of acceptance of queer youth.
As we all know, representation matters, and representation includes reoccurring, positive, and blatant representations of queer characters in children’s cartoons that can help children feel comfortable about who they are and how they identify, as well as create a more accepting world for all children.
It wasn’t until 1933 when the first known effeminate male stereotype was shown in cartoons. Flip the Frog’s last episode “Soda Squirt” can be explained by The Big Cartoon Database as: Flip opens his own drug store, complete with a soda fountain, in Hollywood. On the opening night, all of Hollywood ‘s biggest stars come out to enjoy Flip ‘s new treat. There’s a spotlight and a red carpet. The four Marx Brothers drink with individual straws from a single soda. Flip makes a total fool of himself over Mae West. A delegate from San Francisco (who makes Liberace look like Tom Cruise) shows up swishing his handkerchief, and Flip mixes him a “Mickey” that turns the fruitcake into “Mr. Hyde”! He wrecks the place, and scares the Hollywood celebs away! Flip squirts him with “Pansy Spray,” which returns him to normal. This stereotype is commonly called “The Sissy” and is used to degrade gay men as weak and weird because of how they “act like women” which is a problem very prevalent in our society.
Eventually tropes of effeminate men would bleed into the higher ranks of animation, becoming a key characteristic for supervillains. Perhaps the most noticeable trope of Disney’s most popular villains would be femininity in men. TVTropes is a good directory for any trope in existence, the database calls effeminate villains the “Sissy Villain” trope defining it simply as, “Due to social stigmas against male femininity and ‘unmanliness’, there’s a strong tendency in fiction to assign effeminate traits to villains…” With high regards to their look, lisps, high voices, and theatrical nature, villains like Scar from The Lion King and Jafar from Aladdin to Stewie Griffin from Family Guy and Him from The Powerpuff Girls–these characters are what many queer people grew up with today.
And as a queer person who personally grew up with all of these characters, I can’t express enough the need for more representation in children’s media. Seeing a gay person on television as a kid would’ve been an incredibly positive thing for me, and would’ve absolutely allowed me to accept my sexuality at a younger age. There are, however, a few shows that are making great strides towards representing queer people in children’s media.
The Legend of Korra, for example, was successful in finally including a canonically queer couple between two women of color in its season finale in 2015, it also hit a road block in only being able to display it when its slot on television was moved to online only. The show however, appealed to the now slightly older audience of Avatar: The Last Airbender, to which to story of The Legend of Korra follows. There is one show in particular that has really pushed the boundaries for queer characters everywhere, and the queer community as a whole. Cartoon Network’s show Steven Universe, created by Rebecca Sugar. It’s not only the one show on Cartoon Network that has a woman behind the genius, it’s also the only show successful in really showing truly remarkable queer characters and themes without being offensive or too over the top. The show focuses around nonbinary, female presenting gem-based aliens and a young boy born from one of those gem based beings, as it follows him and the crystal gems through adventures around the city and missions through gem destinations.
It’s shows like these that are proving to viewers worldwide that queer representation in children’s media is not only okay, but should also be promoted and accepted, so that our queer youth can finally feel comfortable in accepting themselves, because at the end of the day, children are going to feel like they’re queerness is ‘wrong’ if they’re never shown in media that it’s right.
If you’ve been on the internet in the past month or so, you may have heard of the terms NFTs, or maybe even seen your favorite artist selling NFTs (see: Gorillaz, Halsey, the Weeknd, and others) as part of their brand, much to the dismay of their fans.
Why are people mad about this? Well, let’s learn a bit about NFTs.
When I first heard about NFTs, I assumed it was one of those passing trends that would come and go and ultimately be something I’d never have to worry about. Bitcoin has been a relatively new thing, and the most I’d heard of it before the NFT trend was that it took obscene amounts of energy to complete transactions and nothing more.
But to learn anything about NFT, we need to know what “bitcoin” is in the first place. Simply put, it’s a virtual currency created around 2009 (but in more primitive forms beforehand) that is created by a complex, decentralized process called “mining”. Bitcoin isn’t owned by any country around the world. One of the early incentives for Bitcoin was that they were untraceable, but as expressed by companies in recent times, they are now traceable.
Check out this short video for more information:
Now that we know what they are, why have they become so popular recently? Well, different sources have different answers, but many attribute the sudden surge to the recent pandemic. When stock market IPOs suddenly dove in value in March 2020, many found it an opportune time to diversify their portfolio and invest in bitcoin as means of possibly striking it rich in the future. Huge companies such as Tesla also invested in cryptocurrency which pushed the price upwards. The price of bitcoin is extremely volatile in general, but after being recognized by larger companies, the overall price surged from buyer’s support.
So what’s an NFT? NFT stands for Non-Fungible Token: what that means is that it’s a unique piece of information that no one else has that is attached to the token in the transaction. If you were the owner of an NFT, it means that you have a unique key to that image/video/file. You can attach anything: A youtube video? Yes! A picture of the first tweet ever? Yup. But there are some setbacks.
No, it doesn’t mean that only you own the file. No, it doesn’t stop others from saving the exact image you paid $5000 for as their own for the low, low price of free. So what’s the point of taking part in this?
As the market surges and the price for any one piece can go for as high as 69 million dollars, the conversation around the environmental impact of cryptocurrency has moved back into the spotlight as the popularity of the new format rises.
Check out this video from Matt Lohstroh(@lohstroh). This physical farm that they’ve created mines bitcoin using fossil fuels:
I have no idea if this was common knowledge or not, but it’s simply never occurred to me that we as a society create Co2 emissions when we surf the web. Through the use of the internet, our carbon footprint can literally be calculated into grams of CO2, thanks to the heat and energy required to run internet servers around the world.
After I gathered more information on our carbon footprint via the web, here are some (maybe not so fun) facts about the way we use the internet:
– The average 1-megabyte email creates about 8g of CO2.
– The average Australian uses about 81kg of CO2 every year.
– As of 2019, the average Google user uses about 8 g of CO2 emissions a day: That’s “25 Google Searches, 60 minutes of Youtube, A Gmail account, and other services one might use…”
Let’s compare that to the energy bitcoin uses :
– Bitcoin consumes a similar amount of power to the Netherlands annually.
Outside of the environmental impact, there is also a problem with what people are doing with them: people are stealing other’s artwork and using bots to farm other people’s work off of popular social media sites such as Twitter.
For someone like me. who constantly posts online in order to get her work seen, this is terrifying. Digital artists are already seen as “less than” traditional artists because we do work on a computer rather than an actual canvas. Now that people are attempting to steal our work and make thousands of dollars off of it, it becomes more and more difficult to make a living for ourselves in the online world.
Some bigger artists embrace this trend and sell their own works in order to make a quick buck. Other artists claim that they’re utilizing the NFT book to help donate to underprivileged communities and “help them”. Of course, this opportunity might help poor and underrepresented communities financially in the immediate future, but as global warming continues to be a larger problem, the very communities that these artists say they want to help are going to be hit the hardest.
If you truly want to help these communities, I suggest giving back directly to charity organizations that have a track record of helping these communities directly, not investing in something like NFTs.
In 1969, Fred Rogers testified in front of Congress in order to save the funding for PBS. He believed that if “public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service”. Mr. Rogers attempted to do so with his show in 1968 because the content that children were watching were mostly violent and lacked substance. The cartoons that children were watching didn’t teach kids anything. After the long and very successful run of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, many children’s shows started to become more and more educational. Today, animated children’s shows are catching up and helping children deal with their feelings as well.
Steven Universe, created by Rebecca Sugar, is a prime example of a children’s animated tv show that teaches kids how to calm themselves and deal with their emotions. In an episode called “Mindful Education”, Steven and his best friend, Connie, can’t keep focus and have trouble fusing due to something weighing heavily on Connie’s mind. Upon noticing this, another gem, Garnet, sings a song that encourages them to “Take a moment to ask yourself if this is how we fall apart?” Later in the episode, Connie and Steven must be honest about the way they feel and let those feelings play out. This isn’t the only time Rebecca Sugar has touched on this subject. She has also done it with other characters in the show who learn to overcome abuse and anxiety, and even in the spin off show, Steven Universe Future, where Steven has to overcome his PTSD and depression due to all of the trauma that he experienced in his youth from fighting an intergalactic war left behind by his mother.
The Legend of Korra, a show created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, also touches on this subject. In the fourth season of the show, Avatar Korra struggles with PTSD from all of the trauma she endured in the first three seasons. Even after three years of healing her body physically, Korra still struggles with her spiritual self. She is unable to fight enemies she would have once taken out without a problem due to her mental block. The only way she could help herself was to accept what happened to her. When she was told to “Accept what happened to you. Don’t fear what might’ve been”, she was finally able to connect with her Avatar spirit and become whole again, which is something she didn’t think was possible the entire season.
Another show that does this is Infinity Train. In an episode called “The Cat’s Car”, Tulip Olsen is forced to confront her feelings about her parent’s divorce in order to overcome them. In the episode, a suspicious cat forces Tulip to watch a tape of her memories in order to trap her in them. At first, the memories of her and her parents are good and Tulip thoroughly enjoys them. However, when her body starts to become overrun by tv static, she starts to see how the memories actually played out. The harsh memories of her parents leading up to their divorce were being changed by her own mind. When she finally accepted those memories and let them play out the way that they should, she was freed. Tulip continues on during the rest of the show trying to overcome her issues by accepting what happened to her.
The 1996 show, Hey Arnold, created by Craig Bartlett, had an episode called “Helga on the Couch” where Helga, Arnold’s long-time bully, goes to see a child psychiatrist. After witnessing Helga bully Arnold and many other children countless times, the principal orders Helga to see the psychiatrist every Tuesday and Thursday. Helga thinks it’s a waste of time and her angry father, who barely notices Helga, tells her that the “Pataki’s don’t talk about things. We sweep them under the rug”. Although Helga is determined to keep all of her feelings hidden, she ends up really enjoying getting her feelings off of her chest about Arnold and her parents. Immediately after the session, Helga feels great and refrains from punching a kid in the face. Helga’s friend even tells her that therapy is acceptable and useful, and that there is nothing to be ashamed about.
Children’s animation has come so far from the cartoons that were shown in the 40’s and 60’s like The Bullwinkle show, Looney Toons, and Tom and Jerry. Now, the characters in children’s animation are doing and talking about much more than silly pranks, chases, and explosions. Many people would say “Well it’s just a cartoon. It doesn’t have to talk about important issues”. Although that may be true, it is important that children are watching things that will have a positive impact on them rather than a negative one. All of the shows mentioned above are still entertaining and action packed while still being able to address important issues. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Shows today are more educational and teach both children and adults how to deal with their emotions and take care of their mental health.
I, like many other people, grew up watching cartoons. From Blues Clues to Phineas and Ferb, cartoons were there for me no matter how old I was. Cartoons taught me my ABCs and gave me childhood adventures from the comfort of my living room.
However, once high school hit, I could not help but notice the large gap between what is considered a “children’s cartoon” and an “adult cartoon” and the night and day difference of maturity and storytelling between the two here in the West.
It seemed like the older I got, the less variety there was with the kinds of stories being told. Most adult animation was either a sitcom with dark humor and profane language or an action show with graphic violence and sexual content. Content that would overall be highly inappropriate with children.
Despite being a current 21-year-old college student, I can’t help but prefer children’s animation to those produced for adults. Even though I have long grown out of its targeted age demographic, I can’t help but connect with the stories and characters of children’s programming more, as often times I feel like adult animation lacks (ironically) maturity with their storytelling and craft.
However, when you look at animation from other parts of the world, this large divide between children and adult programming is not as prominent. In Japanese anime, programming isn’t split between just children and adults. Anime is seen as something that everyone, regardless of their age, can enjoy. That is why in recent years, anime has quickly grown in popularity here in the West, especially with young adults.
My first exposure to mature storytelling within western animation was with the 2005 Nickelodeon series Avatar the Last Airbender. Inspired by Japanese anime, the show, despite being targeted towards children, tackled a lot of mature themes such as female empowerment, genocide, imperialism, and philosophical questions regarding destiny and free will. The show was ambitious, even by today’s standards. But despite having come out over 15 years ago, Avatar paved the way for more diverse and mature stories to be told in children’s animation.
Within the past decade, we have seen more ambitious forms of storytelling within animated programming. From Adventure Time exploring themes of existentialism to Steven Universe prominently featuring same-sex relationships alongside themes of love, it seems that animated programming has started to grow up alongside its audiences.
After experiencing all of these wonderful experiences of storytelling within animation, you can only imagine the disappointment I felt when I realized that there was hardly any animated programming like this for adults here in the West.
I’m not saying that all adult animation is immature and oriented around sex, drugs, and violence. In recent years, there has been an effort by the industry to create more adult animation with sophisticated themes incorporated within them.
The series Love Death and Robots, despite being an anthology series, gives its audiences a sampling of the capabilities of the animation medium when not constrained to its usual family-friendly fare. Each short is free to explore any theme or genre, providing a Twilight Zone of animated shorts.
Other shows like Genndy Tarakovsky’s Samurai Jack and Primal show that not all adult programming has to be full of crude humor, and can actually be forms of art (with its fair share of bloody violence and action). Adult animation can even be experimental as seen with Pendelton Ward’s The Midnight Gospel, a crazy visual podcast come to life.
Even adult animated sitcoms like Bojack Horseman and Tuca and Bertie show that you can have an animated comedy that is more than toilet humor and can handle pressing topics such as substance abuse and depression.
In recent years, there has been a growing interest to create more “Young-Adult” oriented programming in order to bridge this gap. Streaming services like Netflix has already made efforts by producing series such as Voltron: Legendary Defender and Kipo: the Age of the Wonderbeast. Even newer streaming services like HBO Max have released shows like Infinity Train and Close Enough.
It seems to me animation in the west is finally able to grow up with its audiences and I am excited to see what the future will bring.
I’m sure if you’re reading this, you’ve heard of Cyberpunk 2077 – simultaneously the biggest disappointment in gaming history to some… and yet still the best-selling game of all time to all. Simply put, it’s a controversial topic. People love to love it, people hate to love it, people love to hate it, and people hate to hate it. If that last sentence was confusing, then I’m sure you can envision just how much of a migraine this entire ‘debate’ is.
Interestingly enough, we’re not here to talk about the video game itself. You see, that’s a topic for another time and another not-so-biased writer. While I’d love to write about the shortcomings and the successes of the game, we’re here to look at the world of Cyberpunk (and Cyberpunk-related settings like Blade Runner) and see how it stacks up to ours. We’re not living in a dystopia, are we?
Well… let’s start with some facts.
We live in a technocracy. Technology has been improving at an absolutely exponential rate. Tech, for the most part, rules our lives. I’ve spent a year in quarantine and would have fully lost my marbles months ago if I didn’t have a computer. Like it or not, our lives are governed by the Net™. If you tell someone from a century ago that our lives would be built around a machine and an invisible force that connects us all, they wouldn’t believe you for a second. You’d probably be labeled various harmful words like “insane” or “silly”. Trust me.
Anyways, let’s get back to the matter at (cyber)hand. Let’s ask ourselves a question: What defines a ‘cyberpunk’ setting?
Low life, high tech, a superficial, ad-infested, corporation-run society, and finally, wealth gaps.
Starting off, we have to face the music: a huge number of people on planet Terra (that’s a fancy way of saying Earth) are living at or below the poverty line, barely scraping by and struggling to survive. A bit of a grim turn, but it’s a reality that we have to grapple with. People are suffering. There are still some of us who are going hungry, thirsty, living in war-torn countries, in the middle of revolutions, tumultuous times and just generally harmful situations. Low life? Check.
Next, we have high tech. We’ve covered that. I’m sure 30-year-old David from 1924 would look at our world and call it science fiction (or that time’s equivalent). Now, you may be asking: “Hey, Mr. Cynical Writerman! Cyberpunk is about cybernetics and cyborgs and pretty neon lights! Where’s that in our world?”
Well… we can check that off the list, because we’re pretty damn close.
Enter Neuralink: a company (that of COURSE Elon Musk is part of) whose mission statement is “designing the first neural implant that will let you control a computer or mobile device anywhere you go”. The first NEURAL IMPLANT. Wanna see a terrifying image that is being used on their website right now?
Yeah. Terrifying. Cybernetic implants? (Eerily close to) check! Of course there are more augmentations such as prosthetics that help the disabled. These are much less unnerving and a whole lot more wholesome – but what’s stopping strides in these fields from eventually allowing Mary to get herself a brand spankin’ new chromed-out arm? Nothing but time and money.
“Pffft. You’re telling me we live in a superficial and ad-ridden society?”
Yeah. I doubt this needs to be discussed. We as a species and society are (mostly) selfish, self-absorbed, and self-interested. Self, self, self! How can I be better? How can I get richer? How can I get everybody to love and respect and treat me as the GOD amongst PEASANTS that I am?? Ahem. Excuse me, got a little ahead of myself. As for ads, I can’t go an hour without seeing a video, image, or block of text showing me a product or service that I really, really, don’t give a crap about. This also factors into the corpo-run society we just so happen to find ourselves living in. Companies rule the world… and there’s no way around that either. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat OWN your information and we all, pretty easily, let them. I’m sure we’ve all seen bizarrely specific ads tailored to us directly. I can’t be the only one to have seen an “Only REAL Garfield girls are born in March” type shirt, right? …right?
Wait, what’s that sound? Oh wow! It’s Bill™ Storytime™! This is going to sound like something way outta left field, but bear with me here. This happened about a year and a half ago and is what spurred my absolutely rational and unbridled hatred for ads. So here’s the thing. I’m a surrogate kid. That means my mother is not my biological mother. I have never, EVER told that to anybody over text, on social media, over chat in a videogame, or on a blog post article for an animation class at LMU (…wait a minute). Exposition over. So, one day I was scrolling through Instagram after I had posted a drawing as a humble offering to the almighty Mark “Herald of R’lyeh” Zuckerberg and what did I see? An ad for a mug, but not just any mug.
“I know you’re not ‘technically’ my mom […]”
Now you get to see this affront to privacy. Orwell would be rolling in his grave.
Three cheers for surveillance capitalism! If that’s not dystopian as all hell, I don’t know what is.
Alright, onto heavy wealth gaps. Elon “TechnoJesus” Musk. Bill “the Despoiler” Gates. Jeff “Literally the Devil” Bezos. What do all of these rich straight white men have in common? Yes.
See, we live in a world where people have such exorbitant amounts of money that the human brain can’t even comprehend the number (https://futurism.com/what-is-a-billion-2). We also live in a world where denizens of “the greatest country in the world” can’t live with a roof over their heads. How do we deal with this on Earth? Spikes on benches in the UK, hostile architecture pretty much everywhere, and virtually nothing to help them get back on their feet (I’m talking about the majority, I know for a fact that there are people and organizations who selflessly help those who are in need). Also, wanna know a fun fact? In some cities in the United States of America, it is illegal to be homeless (https://www.chn.org/voices/fact-week-u-s-cities-made-illegal-homeless/). Messed up, right?
Oh, you can’t afford overpriced living accomodations, lost your job because of Covid-19 and can’t get by while the government does the equivalent of sit back and watch with a bucket of popcorn? Sorry, that’s illegal! Take a hike, freeloader!
All of this is starting to sound pretty dystopian, isn’t it?
“The year is 2089, and life isn’t free.
We’ve got ads that know unshared private information, overwhelming police brutality, and corporations that run your life and know everything there is to know about you – but hey, kill the pain with mental implants that let you control your phone wherever you go. Whether you like it or not, you’re living in their world.
All we’re trying to do is survive… and that still costs you a pretty penny.”
Want to know the only difference between that campy word-spew from a young adult dystopian novel and our world? The date.
Do yourself a solid and think about what our world would look like to an outsider. It’s not a good look, is it? We’re quickly hurtling towards enacting our best impression of the setting for Dystopian Dreams 2: Revelations Reloaded: Fates. Joking and totally fictitious titles for YA novels aside, that’s not somewhere you want to live. It sucks to live in dystopian settings, but that’s the point.
Alright – we’re almost at the finish line here, so I’ll leave you with some words from renowned tabletop RPG legend Mike Pondsmith, one of my favorite creators of all time (who created the Cyberpunk setting as we know it back in the 80s).
He recently said that “Cyberpunk was a warning, not an aspiration.” I couldn’t agree more. Sure the lights are pretty, the cybernetic upgrades are flashy and something I’d love to have, but the side effects of that drug cause more than it cures.
Why not take a second and ruminate on some of his more unsettling words. Step back and ponder “what it means to look out your window and see too much of the dystopian future […] become the dystopian present.” I mean, the first iteration of his RPG system was called Cyberpunk 2020.
In the past year, animation has emerged as a boon for the entertainment industry, some live-action productions going so far as to complete their seasons with animated episodes, like NBC’s The Blacklist. HBO Max recently announced three new adult animated shows to be produced for the platform and is expanding their partnership with Cartoon Network to create more content. Netflix is committing to releasing six animated films a year in an effort to compete with other studios. Film and television demand more animation, and I am all for it.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the workplace immensely, and even a year later, many traditionally in-person industries are still using remote frameworks to abide by local guidelines. One thing that the pandemic has proven in the past year is that office workspaces are not a necessity, but rather a matter of convenience, often easing communication. But, for many industries, remote work has shown itself to be just as, if not more, productive. Amidst the shortage of live-action productions, animation has shown itself to be one such industry.
There are definitely positive consequences to remote work, including heightened flexibility and the ability to work outside of a specific mile radius. However, there are also drawbacks that I think susceptible artists could find their way falling into, especially when it comes to separating work and life.
Within the animation industry, there are many accounts of overworked young artists with a desire to prove themselves and meet their deadlines, who sacrifice their time and health to do so. I think with the increase in remote work, for some the line separating work and leisure may become blurred because the physical barriers of a studio separated from the home are no longer present. The animation industry is also rife with accounts of unpaid overtime, less than ideal sleep schedules, and a lack of work-life balance for entry-level artists. However, with remote work, there is even less of a separation of work and life.
While remote animation may open up doors for many artists and can be a more flexible, and in some cases safer way to work, I think artists must stay extra vigilant in discerning their work patterns and habits, so as not to blur the lines between work and leisure. There needs to be more emphasis placed on taking care of oneself in approaching work, but for studios who care only for bottom lines, junior artists must be attentive ones, especially if the push for remote work continues.