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Are Stereotypes in Animation Always a Bad Thing?

26 Feb 2016

Generally, stereotypes are considered to be pretty harmful.  A stereotype is defined as ‘a widely held but fixed and oversimplified idea or image of a particular person or thing.’  So in other words, a stereotype is a false representation of a reality.  Unfortunately this false representation is often harmful, particularly when it relates to depictions of marginalised or minority groups, since it creates incorrect and damaging ideas regarding groups of people.  By utilizing stereotypes animations ‘are teaching children the finer points of racial prejudice before they’ve even learned to read’ as Steve Rose asserts in his article for the Guardian on this topic.

The omnipresence of stereotypes in all kinds of animations is irrefutable. Stereotypes based upon race, gender and nationality have existed in animation since its inception.   The African-American crows in Dumbo are an often cited example of stereotyping.  They are depicted as deliberately ‘ghettoised’; they are poor and uneducated.  Although the crows are ultimately among the heroes of the film, this negative stereotype of African-Americans is what they are most remembered for.  Admittedly, Dumbo was released in 1941 and to an extent this political incorrectness can be understood as an expression of contemporary attitudes.  However, 1990’s The Little Mermaid also makes use of negative stereotype in its portrayal of Sebastian as ‘stereotypically’ Jamaican.  Even as recently as the last few years animated films have continued to rely on stereotypes.  For instance 2012’s Brave, although breaking with gender stereotypes through the character of Merida, conforms to the stereotypical image of Scotland, creating what Graeme McMillan describes as ‘a romanticized Scotland that never existed, one made as much of stereotypes as reality.’  Moreover, looking to the future, Disney’s upcoming release Planes was described by one reviewer, Justin Chang, as ‘so overrun with broad cultural stereotypes that it should come with ethnic-sensitivity training for especially impressionable kids.’

The crows from 'Dumbo'

The crows from ‘Dumbo’

This leads onto the main issue of stereotypes in animation: that they are being viewed mostly, although not entirely, by children of an impressionable age.  As Steve Rose points out, ‘it goes without saying that racism is learned, and how diversity is portrayed on screen is a big part of that learning process.’   So it follows that if minorities and marginalised groups are depicted in animation using negative stereotypes, this will inform children’s opinions of those groups with potentially harmful consequences.

However, not all uses stereotypes are harmful.  As Charles De Costa notes in his essay on Racial Stereotyping and Selective Poisitioning in Contemporary British Animation, ‘caricaturing, which is the bedrock of cartooning, does not automatically sanction ridicule.’  Often, establishing a stereotype and then subverting it can be highly effective in exposing the ridiculousness of the very existence of stereotype.   For instance, although the South Park and Family Guy animated sitcoms both depend upon negative stereotypes for a large portion of their humour, they also provide some interesting destabilisations of stereotype.  For instance in South Park as  Shannon Ridgway asserts, ‘Jimmy and Timmy, who often undertake crazy adventures together, give voice – and even more importantly, action – to disabled children on television.’  Thus, although Jimmy and Timmy are presented as fulfilling a negative stereotype of disability they do subvert this at times, calling attention to the falsity of those stereotypes.   Monster’s Inc and the first two Toy Story films are entirely dependent upon the existence and subversion of stereotypes.  As Graeme McMillan asserts these movies ‘taught us that cowboys could be cowards, spacemen were arguably more stupid than heroic, and monsters under the bed were just doing their job.’  The enjoyment gleaned from these films would not have been possible had the original stereotypes not been established and recognized in the first place.

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Sully looking like a ‘stereotypical’ monster

And so this demonstrates that whether positive or negative, the fact remains that animation is filled with stereotypes.  This is because as a medium it depends upon them.  Animation needs stereotypes because, for better or for worse, they are easily recognisable for audiences.  They enable audiences to understand key facts about the character, saving valuable story-telling time. For this reason, stereotypes will likely remain a feature of animation for a long time and maybe that isn’t always such a bad thing?