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The Ethics of Ethnicity


Whenever you, as a writer of Children’s Television, are called upon to create a fictional ensemble of humans, there is a natural inclination to make it ethnically diverse. For one thing, it’s more interesting. Humans come in all sorts of colors and flavors, which means you have quite a smorgasbord to choose from. Assuming you are in charge of developing a program geared toward a young toy-buying audience, you’d be forgiven for thinking it would be simply a matter of making random choices.

But it’s not. Because — surprise, surprise — money is involved. Marketing is all for ethnic diversity, sure, but they also want to attract eyeballs, and more specifically eyeballs attached to Household Purchasing Power. So they have a whole list of who can go where — except they can’t actually say that, because that would be Wrong. You, as the writer/developer of the show, have to guess. And you can be stubbornly progressive all you want, but if you fill the right slot with the wrong ethnicity, it will come back with vague objections to things like your “writing style.” Eventually you either take the hint or you walk.

So you grumblingly compensate by putting, say, a black character in a secondary role but one with a position of authority. Such as a police captains. (Ever noticed how many TV shows have black police captains? It’s gotten to the point where if I see an episode with a white police captain I automatically assume he will be revealed as corrupt.)

In animation, unless you were lucky enough to be working on a show where all the characters were robots (and, yes, I have been that lucky, at various times) you bumped right up against this ethnic thing a LOT. To make matters worse, you often had Marketing on one side and various FCC regulations and Network Standards on the other, each pushing their own agenda with you stuck in the middle.

I once asked a head producer at Mainframe Animation if they had made the Reboot characters non-human colors to get away from the “uncanny valley” — the slight creepiness CG characters can have if they look almost but not quite realistic.

“God no,” he replied. “It was to get the pressure groups off our back. Which character was going to be white, who would be black, who would be asian; what a pain! Soon as we made them blue and green and purple, it all went away!”

I remembered those words, so when it came time to develop new characters for animated shows, I just stopped pegging single ethnicities and started mixing races. Not only did it make the problem disappear but the designers had more fun. “She’s Scotch-Arabic!” (Dark skin, red hair, green eyes.) “He’s Chinese-Norwegian!” (Almond eyes, blond buzz-cut.)  “She’s Swiss-African-Native-American!” (Adriana Lima.)

And so, drawing on my experiences there, we now have Detective Ysobel Letoa. My original plan was to have her a huge bulky Samoan, but Max drew her like this, and I’ve decided I like it. And at least in this comic, the only Marketing is me.

By the way, on an upbeat note, Max was recently asked to do a cereal ad, and he notes that Marketing specifically wanted an Asian-American as the spokesmodel. Because apparently cool Asian-American kids are now considered to cross a couple of desirable marketing demographics.

Progress! The positive influence of anime, no doubt.

–Bob (Scotch/Irish/Welsh — aka #sunburnseasily) out