Rutgers–Camden Researcher Reflects on the Power of Diversity in Animation

Professor Humes comments on the  push for more inclusive storytelling

Ida B. Wells Barbie from Mattel

Children around the world love animated films, but until recently, the majority of the movies portrayed the central characters as white males. Children who didn’t fit this demographic rarely saw images that reflected their own life experiences.

This is slowly changing, but we need more comprehensive inclusion, stated Holly Blackford Humes, professor of English at Rutgers University–Camden. As part of Rutgers–Camden RePRESENTation Matters monthlong storytelling project, Humes spoke to the role of films in both validating children’s identities and providing windows into other lives and experiences.

Humes discussed the significance of cultural representation in children’s films and how they shape our perceptions of ourselves and others.

“It’s not just the dialogue in the film itself,” she said. “They are using the text as a springboard for some really interesting critical thinking,” Humes said.

“(Children) are seeing themselves, they are seeing family conflicts, communities, meetings, traditions and festivals that are integrated into their cultural realities.”

–Holly Blackford Humes, Ph.D.

The animation giants in filmmaking distribute dozens of children’s movies every year, but until now, very few had women or people of color represented prominently. Perhaps because of current events, this tide is changing. Movies like Moana, Coco, Soul, and Encanto are now focusing not just on people of color, but on the culture and lifestyles that accompany the characters.

Humes said contemporary works and remakes have advanced beyond representation as a “flat symbol” toward a narrative model that brings “depth, complexity, and three-dimensionality” to these characters and their lives. Rather than tapping into “broad-based archetypes and stereotypes,” she said, they deliver richer, more nuanced characters through themes around attachment, abandonment, existentialism, and other vulnerabilities.

The resounding success of these films reveals just how hungry audiences are for stories like these. The Disney movie Encanto, for example, has been nominated for three Academy Awards and taken in $237 million worldwide, proving the idea that diversity pays at the box office.

Holly Blackford Humes, professor of English

Holly Blackford Humes, professor of English

Holly Blackford Humes, professor of English

When asked how consumers and industry professionals can support this progress, Humes spoke to the need for animators and creators to look at other secondary worlds, how audiences have responded to those worlds and missteps to avoid repeating. A single moment of cultural inconsistency, she said, is enough to alienate viewers.

“I do think viewers have a lot of impact, in terms of what kinds of secondary worlds reflect them and what do not,” she said. “They can use that to leverage and push forward the kinds of stories they want to see.”

ABC 7 NY reports on 2-year-old Kenzo seeing him self represented in Disney's Encanto

Throughout Black History Month, Rutgers University–Camden's RePRESENTation Matters project is highlighting faculty experts and stories that spark conversation about why representation matters in the effort to overcome systemic racism.

My hope is that the RePRESENTation Matters project sparks conversation about why representation matters in the effort to overcome systemic racism.

–Chancellor Antonio D. Tillis

All photos of Soul courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Creative Design: Douglas Shelton