This morning, a friend on Facebook posted this article by the The Hollywood Reporter, Animation Roundtable: Seth Rogen and 6 More on Avoiding Ethnic Stereotypes and How to "Break the Mold" of Princesses. “This is a real thing. That someone thought was a good idea.” I looked at the picture attached to the article and I saw Seth Rogen and six other white guys.
Seven white guys talking about “avoiding ethnic stereotypes” in the arts. Let’s see how problematic and misguided this would get.
The article began with the interview panel giving some genuinely encouraging advice for young artists, filmmakers, and animators. Those included in the panel are Byron Howard ('Zootopia’), Garth Jennings ('Sing'), Travis Knight ('Kubo and the Two Strings'), Mike Mitchell ('Trolls'), John Musker ('Moana') and Mark Osborne ('The Little Prince'). Adding a star like Seth Rogen into the panel for public interest, and you get seven white men who end up talking about racial and ethnic diversity. There are passable attempts to try and demonstrate a fully empathetic and embodied understanding of diversity in animation. Bryon Howard of Zootopia stated, “What I would say to a new filmmaker — if you're a film student now, if you have a diverse background, if you're female, if you're from a different country, if you don't see yourself being represented onscreen — animation is a great medium to explore films and ideas.” And after watching Zootopia as a first generation, queer Vietnamese person, I was incredibly proud and inspired that an animated movie with a message about the importance of diversity, overcoming stereotypes, and not being consumed by our assumptions of others, was in existence. I never imagined that my classes about the psychology of racism, the representation of minority groups in Hollywood, and the oppression of minorities would be so beautifully encompassed in an uplifting, chewable, yet empathetic film like Zootopia.
However, as I continued to read the article, I was shocked (yet somehow not surprised) by the unapologetic and inherently unaware voices and thoughts by many of the white men on the panel. The interviewer asked the panel this question: “How do you approach different ethnicities and cultures in animation? Are you conscious of running the risk that some group could take offense?” Howard of Zootopia started his answer with a very insightful reflection on his work. “One of the things that I love about animation is that we often ask ourselves, "Why does this have to be an animated film?" And for us what was great about doing a movie about bias and difficulties between groups is that we didn't have to use human beings. You could use different types of animals to be an allegory for what we are experiencing as humans.” He later elaborated on his team diving into “bias” that is engrained in “everything around us.” There was proven thought and an intention to create a story that had a social impact. Go Zootopia.
But with one socially aware animator comes many clueless ones. After Howard’s answer, many of those interviewees discussed their own work and their processes of research and perspective for representing ethnic minorities. John Musker of Moana elaborated on the process of creating his animated film. “We had the challenge in Moana of dealing with this culture that we were really outsiders to in a way. I knew something about the South Pacific just from a distance, reading books set there and seeing paintings by Paul Gauguin and that sort of thing. But after I pitched the idea to John [Lasseter, Disney Animation creative chief], I started to read Polynesian mythology and I discovered there was this character, Maui, who was bigger than life, could pull up islands with his magical fish hook and was a shape-shifter and I was like, "Why has this never been done before?" So we cobbled together a story and pitched it to John and he said, "This is great, but you've got to dig deeper, do more research." I guess this is the expectation of white male artists in Hollywood: come up with an idea that is “culturally innovative” yet actually represents and engages cultures in a trite and lazy manner. How Musker “cobbled together a story” without outstanding research, yet was still given the lead artistic role to produce this story is the repeated success story of what it means to be a white male in Hollywood: apparently giving the Disney Animation creative chief a hastily drawn sketch of a recently discovered Polynesian demigod earns you a $150 million budget to have all your wild and culturally exoticism dreams come true.
But that wasn’t the worst of the interview, in my opinion. After Musker was “forced to go to Tahiti and Samoa and Fiji”- which as an artist and storyteller you have to do legitimate and the expected research, so sorry for being “forced,” he mentioned that his team did engage with the Polynesian culture, continuously working with “anthropologists and archeologists and linguists and cultural ambassadors” to be “faithful to the culture…” Ok, so he actually took the work more seriously. But after this, Mark Osborne of The Little Prince responded, “That's pretty good. On Kung Fu Panda, we just Googled China. That was as far as we could go.” And then, Seth Rogen’s responded to having the actress Salma Hayek play a taco in Sausage Party: “You know, our movie is directly about racial stereotypes and how religion divides us and how our beliefs divide us and how we look different divides us and how we speak different divides us.” These two statements alone are frightening to minorities everywhere. This only justifies how Hollywood only respects an ethnic culture on shallow, Google search standards. If you’re Latina, you will be portrayed as a food of your culture, without any agency for empowerment. Maybe many of these white men should invite (and even hire!) minorities into the room and just listen before animating a restricted representation of them.