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Tinkerbell's Amazing Ethnic Friends 
8th-Jul-2010 12:01 pm
glockgal asked me to x-post my blog on Tinkerbell and her multiethnic friends here so I'm posting a truncated version of the original post.

There was a lovely little four year old girl with her mom on the bus, sitting across from me today (yesterday). Her mom was reading the Entertainment section of the paper. She pointed at an ad and asked, "Who is this?"

The little girl pointed at the advertisement, too and said, "The AVATAR!" Then she turned to her mom and said, "Is that the REAL Avatar?"

I guess it didn't hit me until today that when kids see animated characters come to life, then that version of the animated character is the "real" version of the character.

So if when animated characters are made flesh, they become real, then what does it mean when an animated character with indigenous ethnicity and an anorak--one of the very few animated female heroines to ever be depicted with dark skin--is transferred into the real world, but looks and is portrayed by someone who is white?

At Racebending.com we hear a lot about what this might mean from an adult perspective, ranging from "racism" to "cultural appropriation" to "nothing to get your panties in a twist over."

But I want to know what it means to a kid. Because children notice skin color. And they quickly notice, from observing how adults treat one another, that skin color clearly matters.

To the point where when you tell an African American kindergartener a story where the hero has darker skin and the villain has lighter skin, the child will misremember the story so that the hero had light skin and the villain had dark skin. The child will change the story to fit the more widely accepted paradigm.

To the point where, when you show kids pictures of cartoon characters with light skin or dark skin, the kids prefer the characters with light skin. Without fail. They label the dark skinned dolls and cartoon characters as nasty and ugly.

Watch this. You will feel sad and awkward.

So what is a child to think when a beloved character becomes flesh and blood--and looks different?

While I'm skeptical of the claim that 'fictional characters do not have ethnicities' (I raise you one Jar Jar Binks), real people most certainly have ethnicities. When an animated character is translated into 'real' by an actor, and it's always actors from the same community...that says something.

I get emails every day that start off with, "The [Avatar characters] are not Asian or Inuit; they are from a fantasy world..." leading to the inevitable conclusion that I am the "real racist" for labeling them with ethnicities or for having the expectation of cultural representation in the media people consume.

Let's look at fairies. Namely, Disney's Fairies. Another franchise kids like, that Five Token Bands it's main characters.

The Fairies are from a fantasy world: Neverland. They're not even human. So, do they have ethnicities?

"Disney Fairies builds upon the enormous popularity of Tinker Bell and introduces girls to her secret, magical world and a new circle of enchanting fairy friends — each with an incredibly diverse talent, personality and look." (Real subtle, Disney.)
Take uh, "Iridessa," for example. Is she an "African American"? A fairy? Both? And that one with dark hair, is she Asian? Asian American? Asian Fairy-an? What about Fawn, the fairy that Disney flat out markets as it's new Hispanic character? So they're saying that fairies can be Hispanic, now? (Yes!)

These fairies don't have accents or dress in kimonos or speak in ebonics or dance the salsa so, like, how did Disney know to cast them this way when they made them "real"?

As an adult there's a certain level of cynicism towards Tinkerbell and her multiethnic friends. Tokenism? The fact that Tinkerbell is still central to all of this? Disney is catering to a demographic of American children, one that is made up of 45% people of color, you don't say?

But I imagine for a kid of color, say, a girl who can't even find a Barbie doll that looks like her at her average Toys R Us--Disney put in a ginger fairy, too!-- it must be fun to get to find a doll who looks like you for once. It is heartwarming for me when I see kids who look like Cinderella playing with and admiring the Asian fairy or the African American princess doll, even though she could have easily chosen a character she more closely resembled. This cheesy franchise affirms that, in a way, that kids can learn to relate with people who look different from them. They find other things in common with these characters. (eg: I may not be Latina like Fawn, but we both like animals!)

If they're fairies and from a fantasy world and therefore raceless, if Disney had cast the "real" flesh and blood models with all white actresses, it would be "reverse racist" to complain?
8th-Jul-2010 07:11 pm (UTC)
*shuffles feet* I don't know; I know it's tokenism with Tinkerbell, but I also think that it's kind of a good thing, too, because even if the fairies don't technically have races, it promotes looking at people as people, whatever they look like. I feel that ATLA was blatantly based on people of real ethnicities, but I think the physical appearances of characters has a lot to do with things, and it's refreshing to see something that takes a very unblatant route in showing kids that, yes, people do look different and do come in different colors. (And yes, if the "real" fairies were all white, I would take issue.)
8th-Jul-2010 07:49 pm (UTC)
I think it teaches kids that "Tinkerbell has diverse friends, so I can, too!" the same way the Power Rangers may have back in the day. What weirds me out is from what I've been able to see on Wikipedia, while Tinkerbell and her friends are pretty diverse, all of the adults in the franchise seem to be Caucasian? 0_0
8th-Jul-2010 07:14 pm (UTC)
I remember some people on ONTD saying how they automatically thought the main characters in books were white...

Kinda ot, but reminded me of this post.
8th-Jul-2010 07:27 pm (UTC)
they automatically thought the main characters in books were white...

A lot of people assume this, because Western media presents white as the 'normal' or the default. The only way a character is not automatically white is if they outright say "Hello, I am not white"....hence so many people being baffled at the concept that the A:TLA world has absolutely no white ethnicities in it!
8th-Jul-2010 07:30 pm (UTC)

Fawn is supposed to be Latina?


I should really get around to watching the Tinkerbell movie. I bought it on a whim.
8th-Jul-2010 07:33 pm (UTC)
Disney says so. Go fig.
8th-Jul-2010 07:34 pm (UTC)
You hit it so spot-on. It's kid's I'm so worried about. Their minds may be conformed to whatever they hear and see. It's mostly media, obviously, that plays significant roles, so isn't our job to allow them to grow up in equality?

My mother is white, my father black/Indian. I always viewed my father as the next president, because was my idol growing up. When my mother went to go get Barbies for me, I always chose the black Barbie, because I felt so bad that they weren't being picked. Of course, I didn't think such a big deal about it. My black Barbie was Rapunzel, Cinderella, the Amazon Warrior. White Barbie and black Barbie were either sisters or friends, taking care of the rest of the family. This all changed when a girl came over to my house and we started playing. She was white and when she picked up one of the few white Barbies I had, she looked at me and said, "Why are there so many black Barbies in here?" Needless to say, it struck a nerve in my nine-year-old self. Why? What was so wrong with the black Barbies? Did that mean something was wrong with my father?

These things are so hard to understand as a child and they don't really talk about it, because it's "Grown Up Stuff" and that's something they "aren't old enough to understand yet". But when they get old enough, their minds have already been conformed and they don't want to talk about it.

The media plays huge roles, I'm not even going to start by naming them off. There's so many factors that extinguish equality for races. It's when generations grow up that it really starts to hurt, especially when people are excluded from the working force or even friend groups because of skin color/beliefs. The day after President Obama was elected (2008), my father was fired from his job. It turns out they've been treating him horribly ever since it was announced Obama was going to run for President. So, it really hurts families, not just a single person. This "color blindness" cannot exist if the media, terrible racial jokes and ignorance reigns.

Oh, please don't tell me I just started a war...
8th-Jul-2010 07:40 pm (UTC)
These things are so hard to understand as a child and they don't really talk about it, because it's "Grown Up Stuff" and that's something they "aren't old enough to understand yet". But when they get old enough, their minds have already been conformed and they don't want to talk about it.

THIS SO MUCH. So many parents decide to just not tell their kids about race and racial differences because either it's just 'not important' to the parents, or they think it's too 'grown-up' to talk about. Too grown-up, really? Because unless the kid if growing up in a completely homogeneous world and consuming only homogeneous media, then I doubt it's really just a 'grown-up' topic.

OMG your story is one that I understand well; your dad's story is just absolutely horrid and disgusting, I'm so sorry.
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8th-Jul-2010 07:42 pm (UTC)
I posted an LJ entry a coupla years ago about a similar discussion I had with my niece (you can look if you like). She, an 11-year-old black girl, from a diverse community, was writing a story - and every single character in the story was white. And when I suggested that she create characters of other races, we got into an argument. As an animation student, I'd noticed a preference for white (and frequently male) characters in the projects of my fellow classmates, but it didn't hit me until I sat down with my niece just how universal this seemed to be.

The "it's a fantasy story, so race shouldn't matter" argument drives me up the wall. Some people just don't understand how important it is for us to see our own races represented in a positive light in the media.
8th-Jul-2010 07:42 pm (UTC)
I think that arguement that the Airbender characters aren't asian because it's a "fantasy world" or whathaveyou is so irritating. Yes, it may be a fantasy world, but it's obviously based on ancient asian culture (and this is confirmed by the creators themselves).

Even though we're considered racist for wanting to see people of color star in films, I think it's more telling that you don't want to see more movies where theyre are the main focus or don't care that a story should obvious starred some other ethnicity (I'm using the example of japanese horror movie remakes that are american, but still filmed in Japan). Especially since so many people pride themselves as being "colorblind" and teaching their children the same values.
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8th-Jul-2010 07:46 pm (UTC) - Casting Call Auditions for Disney Fairies
from Mouseinfo

Seeking females with engaging personalities to portray Disney Fairies, the newest members of our character family. Face Character Look-alikes perform before thousands of guests each day in “meet and greets”, parades and stage shows across the Disneyland® Resort. We are actively seeking performers of all ethnicities! (Paramount, *cough cough*)

Tinker Bell: 4’11”–5’2”
Iridessa, Rosetta, Silvermist, Fawn: 5’2”–5’5”

DisBoards says they get paid $11.25 an hour.
8th-Jul-2010 07:57 pm (UTC) - Re: Casting Call Auditions for Disney Fairies
Why must Tinkerbell be more petite than her sidekicks?? I guess to distinguish her as the novelty among the other misc fairies? Ahahahah strange.

Good thing: at least the names of her sidekicks are NOT 'exotified'.

Bad thing: $11.25/hr for that job? Not worth it. O.o

*facepalm* sorry for all the editing.

Edited at 2010-07-08 07:58 pm (UTC)
8th-Jul-2010 07:51 pm (UTC)
Is this the same Tinkerbell that tried to kill Wendy?
8th-Jul-2010 07:52 pm (UTC)
Yes. They have marvelously rehabbed her image.
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16th-Jul-2010 04:27 pm (UTC)
Gosh, I know. That video makes me feel beyond horrible every time.
8th-Jul-2010 08:59 pm (UTC)
Actually got into a rather heated debate with a guy online about something similar with the 'default white' mentality that's so prominent. He argued that he and his nephews identified with cast of Avatar, so they must be white; and then suggested that I shouldn't harp on matters of race, and look beyond that to connect to the character.

I had to walk away from the PC for a bit at that.

I don't think it dawns on many of the detractors of the racism claim that PoC have almost always had to do just that. We've had to overlook the imagery and connect. (And there's nothing wrong with that - hell, I'm black and my favorite comic character is Captain America.) But when it's even hinted that the reverse needs to take place, it become an issue of being overly sensitive to race. It's just maddening because my little brother is a huge Sokka fan; even going so far as to beg our parents to let him grow his hair out so he can style it the same way. The kid could go on for hours about how cool Sokka is - because he had a hero that he could see when he looked in the mirror. But the movie tells him that what he saw was a mistake, that he can't be as cool as Sokka because the rest of the world doesn't think he's good enough.
8th-Jul-2010 09:12 pm (UTC)
This. Little kids of color are expected to relate to characters like Hannah Montana and Cinderella and they do so admirably! But god forbid, when white kids are expected to relate to a real life Katara who is a person of color, then suddenly it's "This is America" or "Kids don't want to see brown heroes" or "you can't expect white audiences to relate to heroes of color..."

even though Hollywood has expected people of color to do otherwise for decades.
8th-Jul-2010 09:09 pm (UTC) - la la rambling...
But I want to know what it means to a kid.

I can only speak for myself, but when I was growing up in Japan back in kindergarten I remember going to Tokyo Disney a lot. I didn't have any ideas of the "real" character vs the "animated" one because to me the real one was the animated one. I knew vaguely that the people who dressed up in the parks weren't just actors.

That said, I would run up and want to get a picture taken with them because a part of me wanted them to be the real one.

Keep in mind that this only applied to the princesses because I could see their faces and they looked really nice and pretty like their animated counterparts. All of the people who dressed up in animal costumes (i.e. Pluto) FREAKED ME THE HELL OUT because I knew 100% that they weren't the characters they were pretending to be.

As for changing race, this was Tokyo Disney so most if not all of the cast members were Japanese. And I know this kind of goes a little against the whole children notice race thing, but I didn't really notice a huge discrepancy between the animated versions and the Japanese "real" versions. Or if I noticed, I didn't remember. I can say this because a couple years ago I stumbled across a few of the pictures my mom took and I had a double take because I seriously didn't remember the princesses being Japanese.

HOWEVER. I wouldn't point my experiences as the norm because:

a) I was growing up in Japan surrounded by Japanese people. For me at that age, Japanese was the norm. Therefore the princesses being Japanese was normal. Everyone I saw was Japanese, why shouldn't they have been?

b) Both the cast members and the animated versions had the same color skin tone.

c) Many of them were wearing blonde/brown wigs in addition to their iconic costumes, and that meant the most to me in telling one character apart from another.

The weird thing is that I saw the cartoon versions as Caucasian (like myself), but when I saw the Japanese "real" version I didn't think "hey! you're not Caucasian therefore you're not that character." The two ethnicities co-existed in my head and they were both the character.

So... um, yeah. Feel free to criticize anything. I'm just trying to remember my 5 year old logic.
8th-Jul-2010 11:39 pm (UTC) - Re: la la rambling...
I chalk that up to what you thought was normal. I don't think there is a child growing up in Japan that looks at a Japanese cartoon and thinks, "Oh, those are white people" unless it is clearly stated. You probably didn't see what I saw as default when I was younger, which was white. When I read fairy tales without ever seeing the movies, I automatically filled in what I was taught was the default for all fantasy which was all white people. But how would you have known to do that? The stories were read to you in Japanese, the people were speaking Japanese in the movies (I'm assuming), this was your fantasy so you filled in your own default.

I think I would be devastated if I heard that you saw white princesses as normal in Japan. I'm actually kind of glad in your mind they were Japanese people in wigs and contacts.
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8th-Jul-2010 10:23 pm (UTC)
Not really a fan of Disney Fairies on principal (Peter Pan was one of my favorite books). While their diversity seems forced, it is nice since their target audience will see heroes that look like them instead of a cash cow franchise.
9th-Jul-2010 12:43 am (UTC)
Thank you for this post. :)
9th-Jul-2010 02:29 am (UTC)
Thank you for this post! I read the part about Tinkerbell and friends aloud to my mother, who loved to hear it as well.

As for the 'tokenism' ... eeeeehhhh, while YES one could claim it that, at the same time I'm not sure why that's being treated like a bad thing in this case. From what I understand* Tinkerbell's friends are all important supporting characters as opposed to "Let's have a Chinese character for one episode and never feature them ever again." and until diversity in the media is so common that it seems odd to NOT have a cast so diverse, I'm not going to decry 'tokenism' that's actually a diverse cast as opposed to an episode to appease the critics and then back to the same whitewash.

* I myself am a big fan of Tinkerbell as she appears in the original Peter Pan novel, so until I can tell myself That's not Tinkerbell it's someone sharing the same name I'm not bothering with it.
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