Cartoons and Representation: How Animation has Evolved to Include Diverse Voices

Kenny.b
5 min readJan 23, 2023

The representation of minorities and diversity in cartoons has evolved, with early animation depicting a minimal picture of marginalized groups.

In the early days of animation, most cartoons were created by white men and featured white, cisgender, heterosexual characters.

Cartoon characters of color were often portrayed as stereotypes and were not central to the story.

In the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, animation studios began to take representation and diversity more seriously.

During the 1970s, animation started to become more inclusive. Shows like “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” “Josie and the Pussycats,” and “Jabberjaw” featured diverse characters and dealt with themes of representation and diversity.

In the 1980s, shows like “ThunderCats” and “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” featured characters of color in leading roles.

Additionally, “The Simpsons” in 1989 featured the first animated family of color.

In the 1990s and 2000s, there were more shows featuring diverse characters, such as “Recess,” “Kim Possible,” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

However, representation and diversity still have a long way to go.

Many shows still fell back on stereotypes and tokenism, and people of color owned few animation studios.

In recent years, representation and diversity in cartoons have seen a significant improvement, with shows like “Steven Universe,” “Star vs. the Forces of Evil,” and “The Legend of Tarzan” featuring diverse characters and storylines.

However, there’s still a long way to go to achieve true representation and diversity in the animation industry.

How Minorities were Portrayed In Classic Cartoons

In classic cartoons, minorities were often portrayed in stereotypical and demeaning ways.

Characters of color were often depicted as lazy, dumb, or criminal and were not given leading roles.

For example, in the Tom and Jerry cartoons, the character of Mammy Two Shoes, Black, was portrayed as a stereotypical “mammy” figure who was always cleaning and cooking for her white employers.

Similarly, in the Looney Tunes series, the character of Speedy Gonzales, a mouse of Mexican descent, was portrayed as a comical figure who spoke in broken English.

Characters from other marginalized groups were also often portrayed in stereotypical ways.

For example, in the Disney classic “Peter Pan,” the Native American characters were portrayed as savage and primitive and were not given any real characterization or development.

Similarly, in the Looney Tunes series, Pepé Le Pew, a skunk of French descent, was portrayed as a comical figure who spoke with a heavy accent and was always trying to court female characters.

These stereotypical portrayals of minorities in classic cartoons reinforced harmful stereotypes and perpetuated societal discrimination.

They also denied these characters any real humanity or complexity, reducing them to one-dimensional caricatures.

This lack of representation and stereotype portrayal in classic cartoons led to a lack of understanding and empathy for minority groups in the broader society.

The obstacles that creators and studios face when trying to include diverse characters and themes

There are several obstacles that creators and studios need help with when trying to include diverse characters and themes in their cartoons.

Some of the main challenges include:

Lack of representation and diversity within the animation industry:

The animation industry is still largely dominated by white, cisgender, and straight men, making it difficult for creators and studios to accurately and respectfully represent diverse characters and themes.

Limited access to funding and resources:

Animation is an expensive and time-consuming process, and creators and studios may need help to secure funding and resources to produce shows with diverse characters and themes.

Fear of backlash:

Creators and studios may be hesitant to include diverse characters and themes in their cartoons due to fear of backlash from viewers who may be uncomfortable with change.

Pressure to appeal to a mainstream audience:

Many creators and studios may feel pressure to appeal to a mainstream audience, which can lead to the exclusion of diverse characters and themes to avoid alienating potential viewers.

Limited representation in mainstream media:

The lack of representation and diversity in mainstream media may make it difficult for creators and studios to find role models, inspirations, and references to base the diverse characters and themes.

Societal biases and stereotypes:

Societal biases and stereotypes can also influence the representation of minorities in cartoons, as creators and studios may inadvertently perpetuate negative stereotypes and discrimination.

Limited knowledge and understanding of diverse cultures and communities:

Creators and studios may need more knowledge and experience, leading to better representation and misunderstandings.

These obstacles can make it difficult for creators and studios to include diverse characters and themes in their cartoons.

Nevertheless, these obstacles can be overcome with the right support, resources, and education.

https://www.verywellmind.com/the-importance-of-representation-5076060

References:

https://www.psychologyinaction.org/psychology-in-action-1/2020/3/5/why-diversity-in-childrens-media-is-so-important

Sesame Street: Julia Latest Muppet to Promote Diversity | Time. (2017). Retrieved February 28, 2020, from https://time.com/4706631/sesame-street-julia-autism-diversity/

Tukachinsky, R., Mastro, D., & Yarchi, M. (2017). The Effect of Prime Time Television Ethnic/Racial Stereotypes on Latino and Black Americans: A Longitudinal National Level Study. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 61(3), 538–556. https://doi.org/10.1080/08838151.2017.1344669

U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: United States. (n.d.). Retrieved February 28, 2020, from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045218

Ward, M. L. (2004). Wading Through the Stereotypes: Positive and Negative Associations between Media Use and Black Adolescents’ Conceptions of Self. Developmental Psychology, 40(2), 284–294. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.40.2.284

Abrams, J. R., & Giles, H. (2007). Ethnic Identity Gratifications Selection and Avoidance by African Americans: A Group Vitality and Social Identity Gratifications Perspective. Media Psychology, 9(1), 115–134. https://doi.org/10.1080/15213260709336805

American Academy of Pediatrics Announces New Recommendations for Children’s Media Use. (2016). Retrieved February 28, 2020, from https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Announces-New-Recommendations-for-Childrens-Media-Use.aspx

Books To Read

  1. “The Cartoon History of Animation” by Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald. This book provides a comprehensive history of animation, including information on representation and diversity in early animation.
  2. “The Representation of Ethnicity in American Animation: A Critical Study” by Karen E. Murrell. This book provides a critical examination of the representation of ethnicity in American animation, including a look at the portrayal of minorities in classic cartoons.
  3. “The Racial Politics of the Cartoon Network” by Kristal Brent Zook. This article explores the representation of race and ethnicity in Cartoon Network programming, including an analysis of the portrayal of minorities in classic and contemporary cartoons.
  4. “Race, Ethnicity, and Animation: An Overview” by Dr. Sarah Nilsen. This article provides an overview of the representation of race and ethnicity in animation, including a look at the portrayal of minorities in classic and contemporary cartoons.
  5. “The Changing Face of Animation: A Journey towards Representation and Diversity in Cartoons” by Dr. Sarah Nilsen, a research article that provides a comprehensive look at the evolution of representation and diversity in animation, including examination of how minorities were portrayed in classic cartoons and the obstacles that creators and studios face when trying to include diverse characters and themes.

--

--

Kenny.b

Hi there! My name is Kenny, and I am a massive fan of animation, cartoons, and all things creative. Can visit my site for more: https://cartoonvibe.com