With all of the recent news in the US–particularly the disproportionate rates that black Americans experience police violence (3.5 times more likely to be killed by police when they’re not attacking or even have a weapon), it can be strange to write about film and animation.
But I’ve always felt that media is an important tool for helping people understand others. For building empathy, or at least teaching tolerance.
For Example, Accents
Let’s shift gears for a second with a quick example. There are studies that show a disproportionate number of villains in animated shows and films have foreign accents, or had American accents associated with low socioeconomic status.
Accent signaling is also a more subtle form of ethnic stereotyping that can coexist with improvements to the ways in which children’s shows depict the world and the people who occupy it…Why Do Cartoon Villains Speak in Foreign Accents? by Isabel Fattal for The Atlantic
I’m sure there are people who argue that such things are a stretch or don’t impact people as much as we think, and while we’re still learning about these impacts, we already seem them played out. We already know the gender disparity on screen negatively affects young women, with studies showing girls as young as 6 already have gendered beliefs about intelligence. Think about how much we rely on representations in media to fill in knowledge gaps when it comes to other cultures we’ve never encountered? Think about the tropes you see played out for different subsets of characters and differing identities. Animation Complex’s first video covered this a bit too.
People are not born racist or sexist. These things are taught implicitly or explicitly. Absorbed from their surroundings, the systems and society they exist in, the culture they are a part of and consume.
One trope that became a harmful stereotype that I can recall from my childhood is how gay men were portrayed in US media in the 90s. I hadn’t befriended any LGBT+ people until high school, so I remember up until that point, the only things I could associate with them were the color pink and the flamboyant gestures and very specific speech patterns I’d seen portrayed (either parodied, mocked, or with attempted sincerity). An entire group of people, watered down to a few things, and even one ethnicity (white) and body type (thin). It wasn’t an ah-ha moment when I got to high school and was friends with gay men who were white, black, Filipino, as well as a gender fluid friend who later identified as transgender, but it was clear that media was failing me, and more importantly, them.
Often these ideas aren’t ill-intended–they’re just what’s been done before. I’ve seen this again and again with creators adding onto existing stereotypes, refusing to acknowledge their place in these larger cultural conversations. They become part of the problem but plead ignorance, or insist they’re an isolated incident. But no one is. When we can name the number of Indian-American characters in Western animated film and TV shows, we need to be aware of what those characters are collectively saying. That can be frustrating for sure, because I also don’t want to imply that any given character speaks for all of that demographic, because that’s tokenism, and we don’t like that! But until we have more, that these stories are the norm and each one not a cause for celebration but an accepted everyday occurrence, we continue to unfairly rely on a handful of characters to represent huge facets of culture.
Language tropes can have far-reaching consequences, both for kids’ perceptions of those around them and their understandings of themselves. Research has shown that kids use TV as a key source of information about other ethnic groups, as well as about their own ethnic and racial identities. Linguists have also found that not only do people make judgements about their peers’ intelligence and education levels based on language characteristics (with those who speak standard dialects usually being viewed as smarter and better-looking), but also that those judgments often shape how a person or group of people is treated. These patterns imply that when children see a correlation between evil and foreignness, or between evil and low socioeconomic status, there’s a good chance they are internalizing negative perceptions of themselves or other groups.Why Do Cartoon Villains Speak in Foreign Accents? by Isabel Fattal for The Atlantic
All of this to say that film–animated and live-action–is an important tool for media literacy in both kids and adults. The idea of teaching film studies through the lens of media literacy is something I feel is crucial for a more critically engaged society. Creating lessons plans to accompany films is something I’ve been interested in pursuing as a resource on this site, largely inspired by AFI Silver’s Screen Education programs.
Array launched a new series of lessons today though, and it couldn’t be more timely.
Director Ava DuVernay founded her distribution company Array ten years ago, and it has served as a much needed platform and resource for filmmakers of color.
Today, Array launched Array 101, a free curriculum to use along with viewing DuVernay’s 2019 When They See Us, a 4-part miniseries based on the true events of the Central Park 5 case from 1989. It sounds like the plan is to release more lessons surrounding more films in the future.
There’s a learning companion, available either as a downloadable PDF or interactive flipbook with 110 pages of information (ONE HUNDRED AND TEN WOW), and a Field Study Lesson about media bias and data analysis. You can just scroll through the website and explore it all through each of the series’ four episodes.
From the site:
- Episode One explores how the arrest and interrogation process denied The Exonerated Five their rights and humanity.
- Episode Two examines how inequities and limited access to resources affected their ability to mount a defense.
- Episode Three uncovers the many ways their imprisonment harmed their families and communities.
- Episode Four chronicles the hardships inherent in the prison, parole and reentry systems.
“The episodes highlight the devastating effects of wrongful incarceration and underscore the unjust systems and structures that make such overt brutality in America possible.”
Each section of the guide contains:
- Episodic Themes
- Episode Recap
- Objectives and Key Points
- Essential Questions
- Classroom Activities
- Resources for Self-Reflection and Deeper Learning
Participants will be encouraged to:
- Explore systemic injustice
- Reflect on individual, institutional and systemic practices
- Take action to change themselves, institutions and systems
Honestly, the amount of information, resources, and different topics covered is completely overwhelming. There’s so much. I’m so, so impressed.
The works cited PDF alone is 23 pages long!
I encourage anyone to take a look at this resource, regardless of demographic, regardless of if you’ve seen When They See Us yet.
Film Sparks the Conversations
Of course, we don’t need a guide for every film to be able to talk about overt or sub-textual themes present in them. I understand and respect their decision to create this resource to address a systemic problem in the US. This resource is a generous bonus packed with information that I wish would only be used in a classroom or conversation, but could very well help protect someone. And that’s partly why she made this film too, I imagine. This was a known story already. But DuVernay recognizes the power of film of course, to push these stories out wider. To extend their lifespans. To keep the conversation, the outrage, the demands for change going.
Filmmakers want to say things with their films. That’s clear of course. And I think there’s a value in helping people see some of that. Of course, interpretations will always vary, people may run in the complete opposite direction of the creator. Authorial intent comes in to play. But part of this too is learning how to have these discussions, analyzing and interpreting things. I feel a series like When They See Us is straightforward with its intentions. But it might take some extra discussions for someone to understand the systemic issues at play here, someone who may never have heard of the concept of the school-to-prison pipeline. (I didn’t really see a grade or age recommendation for the Array 101 material, but it is rated TV-MA, so, skip this one for the younger ones.)
Maybe a kid watching Inside Out (2015) or Zootopia (2016) might not pick up on the lessons about mental health and prejudice present in each respectively. So then what would that conversation look like? Can you imagine trying to help a young person along in thinking through the stories critically? In seeing them in a new light? Seeing more layers to the stories they love? How would I broach my essay about environmentalism in Wall-E (2008) and Princess Mononoke (1997) with an eight year old? A fourteen year old? A peer? I think the main differences would be the give and take, where with younger people I’d probably be talking at them more, trying to get responses, whereas the older we get the more I’ve expect independent ideas and opinions, more of a neutral discussion.
I remember as a kid I absolutely adored this type of conversation, spurring me to seek out comparative literature and film studies classes in uni. But in grade school, I was all about trying to see the story beneath the story, to understand the true meaning. I loved parables from the Bible for that reason, and fairy tales, and adored shorts written by Ray Bradbury and O. Henry. These turned stories into a game, into a puzzle to solve and understand, to translate. To find the secret message, the hidden meanings, the subtle (or not so subtle) lessons.
It’s because the subject matter of When They See Us is so upsetting and relevant that we owe it to others to engage with it, along with many other resources to help us learn and unlearn things as American citizens. It’s that much more important that we challenge ourselves with difficult concepts, and text, learn other experiences, and learn how we can help improve society. This is just one way to do that, and as a film blog, I wanted to spotlight it specifically.