About Pet Sins Webzine
Skip navigation and go to main content

Pet Sins April 2000 Issue
Animal characters in Western animation - not exactly race neutral

Given the issues around the depiction of ethnic minority characters in animated films made in the West, one might think it is easier to side step issues of 'race' by choosing more animal-centric stories for our juvenile film entertainment choices. But animal characters in cartoons and 3-D animated features are often projections of human racial identities.

There is nothing wrong with a character designer, animator or voice actor channeling a Mexican penguin or an African American donkey. The issue is with certain stereotypical trends, subtle or not so subtle, that influence our children's ideas on how racial dynamics should be. Ethnic caricatures of non-whites were more common in cartoons from earlier periods, but have gotten somewhat more subtle since the late 20th century. Nevertheless, stereotypes of non-whites still continue to be an issue.

Equally questionable is the practice of giving some animal characters obviously European human characteristics (for example, The Jungle Book's red haired, brown haired and blonde vultures) as a way of Mary Sue-ing white characters into non-European settings where they would realistically be absent from the story.

There has been a Hollywood tendency of inserting a white character into a live action movies, originally about people of color, and having that white character usurp the protagonist's role, or, if the white character is not in the main role, s/he still has disproportionate influence by providing the narrative perspective through which the audience interprets events in the plot, that is, being the vehicle for audience identification. Although this has been less of an issue for animated films than for live action films, then temptation for storytellers to try to remind the audience, "Yes, white people are the norm, therefore you can't have a story without us in it, so look at us! We are here!" seems pretty hard to overcome, no matter how unnecessary and pointless the addition of a white-identified animal character is.