By Je’den Clark
As the school day comes to an end, Clark’s four-year-old daughter, Aurora, can’t wait to get home, grab some goldfish and lemonade, and watch Ryder’s latest rescue in Adventure Bay. “PAW Patrol,” Ashton Clark said. “Her favorite thing to watch nowadays is PAW Patrol.”
The same can be said for children all around the world who are obsessed with the popular show, but how does its image affect children like Aurora? Minority children. Children of color.
According to Common Sense Media, PAW Patrol focuses on values such as citizenship, courage, teamwork, and critical thinking, illustrating how different types of people use their unique skills to complete a task. While young viewers of the cartoon can enjoy the repetitive songs and images of adorable puppies, they’re also exposed to messages of gender imbalance and lack of diversity within the cast. With only one female character, Skye, depicted as a dog dressed in pink, children are more susceptible to adopting negative and/or stereotypical beliefs and attitudes towards their ethnic background and self-identity.
America’s general population is increasing in diversity year after year, along with their desire for diverse content, according to a story on PBS NewsHour and the UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report. The importance of minority representation on-and-off screen and the lack thereof remains relevant and necessary in the 21st century, but both conversations have to start with the media’s current depiction of minority groups, the repetitive images of stereotyping, and the overall frequency of minority appearances in film. The notion has evolved over time, but the consistent and quality application of marginalized communities taking center stage still has a long way to go.
A great example of this evolution can be found in the study of Disney animation protagonists. Journalist-Isabella Biedenharn- wrote a photo composition story for Entertainment Weekly about how a majority of Disney’s most popular female protagonists did not include minority representation over the last century, highlighting many stereotypes associated with the company’s leading ladies. From as early as 1937, leading women portrayed in Disney films were depicted as young, white, naive, and dependent on men. They also often had little to no parental supervision and their “happily ever after” always involved marriage with a white man. It wasn’t until 1992 when the world was introduced to the world’s first Disney princess of color (Princess Jasmine) that Disney began recognizing the need for minority representation on screen. Slowly, the company’s protagonists not only changed in physicality, but also in characterization, breaking established stereotypes and creating new ways of thinking for Disney consumers.
Erika Laffin, assistant director for The Guild (Directors Guild of America), shared how the premiere of Disney films, The Princess and the Frog and Encanto, impacted her and many others just like her.
“That was just such a milestone. Even when Encanto came out, it was just awesome seeing everyone so excited and little girls being able to relate to it. Disney was a big part of my life growing up, so this is something that makes me feel like I’m seen.”
The same shifts can be noted in the film industry as a whole. Deadline reported that the percentage of characters depicted in films from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups rose to 36.3% in 2018 because of films such as Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians. The 2021 Hollywood Diversity Report found that about 40% of lead actors in films are people of color. The report also showed that films with leads who were people of color or women were more likely to have smaller budgets in 2020 than those with white, male leads. This indicates that there is a correlation between the race and gender of a film’s lead character, the race and gender of a film’s writer, and the size of a film’s budget… despite the fact that people of color account for the bulk of ticket purchases for movies released in theaters. Ultimately, women remain underrepresented among main cast members for most racial groups, particularly among the groups claiming the largest shares of top roles, according to the UCLA Newsroom.
Bel Hernandez, actress and founder of multimedia, entertainment and news company, Latin Heat Media, spoke on the lack of financial support for minority films in Hollywood.
“All of the gains that African Americans, Latinos, and minorities have made in this country have been as a direct result of each group lobbying for themselves. It hasn’t been that Hollywood said ‘you know it’s time that we diversify’. U.S. Hispanics annually spend over $1 trillion in consumer goods and yet, you’re not going to allow them to make movies? You’re not going to want to invest in this consumer group? That’s wrong. You need us to go see your movies. You need our consumerism.”
So the question then remains: who has the power to decide which film projects are green-lighted and whose stories are told? White men.
A key to quality minority representation in film is people of color choosing to write, produce, direct, and publish their own stories. The black community has made significant strides in off-screen production and crew employment. There was a high increase in African American directors who developed movies in the 100 top-grossing films during 2018. Ava Duvernay’s documentary, When They See Us (2019), and Jordan Peele’s thriller, Us (2019) are only a couple of examples of projects that accumulated a large amount of exposure and popularity. A big contributor to minority stories coming to life comes from the involvement and investment of moguls like Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey. It’s because of moments in history such as Perry’s grand opening for his 330-acre film production studio, Tyler Perry Studios, in October 2019 and Winfrey’s launch of her OWN cable network in 2011 that black content creators/storytellers have more avenues to create and tell their stories.
Hernandez says the Latinx community isn’t too far behind in achieving the same strides of progression and there’s power in a community who’s vocal.
“It’s the African American community that has really coalesced and has really come together to speak up about the situation. I would say they are 15 years in front of the Latino community in getting what they deserve. Nowadays, you see an African American movie. I don’t see an African American movie, I see a movie with African Americans in it and we (the Latino community) are still not there yet. But, in the African American community, it’s transcended that because they have been very vocal.”
PBS NewsHour stated that on-screen representation matters for members of marginalized communities because the portrayals of minorities in media not only affect how others see them, but also help determine how they see themselves. Things can progress, but it requires industry leaders to take measures toward producing and broadcasting equitable and inclusive content for all people. A research article from the McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility suggests that there are a lot of benefits to increasing the number of people of color in senior decision-making positions, like producer and writer. By industry leaders ensuring diverse representation in off-screen talent and executives, the efforts to increase transparency and accountability regarding racial equity, find and financially support minority stories, and create independent organizations that promote diversity would be more likely to occur. It would also earn Hollywood more money; $10 billion more each year, according to the McKinsey report.
This is why the conversation of diversity and inclusion remains important and relevant in the film industry; not just to improve industry profits and viewership, but to also positively impact film consumers and creators of all ages and generations, genders, sexual orientations, and cultural backgrounds.
“I want her (Aurora) to know she matters in every aspect of life,” Clark said. “I want her to understand her place in society as a young lady, but also as a woman of color. So, the sooner she’s able to process those ideas, the better. And now, I understand my responsibility as her parent: to introduce her to things that will positively influence her self-value and self-esteem.”
“So yes, PAW Patrol is still where it’s at in the house,” Clark added, while laughing.
“But we can mix in some Princess and the Frog too.”