minorities tooned out

World-renowned Canuck animation companies churn out white-only characters while racially sensitive Yanks mix it up for young viewers


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Rather than watching cartoons, I should be doing something adult with my Saturday morning — balancing my cheque book, finishing the last 10 or 20 chapters of Ulysses or, like everyone else, sleeping off Friday night (a hangover might be preferable to reading Joyce).

But here I sit at 30 doing what I did at five. The only concessions to age are a bowl of all-bran cereal instead of Fruit Loops and a seat on the couch instead of on the floor 2 inches away from the TV screen on the floor.

Yet I have grown up, and the Canadian animation industry — with earnings estimated at well over $350 million for 1999 alone, a combined slate of more than 100 programs and piece of the action in 168 markets worldwide– has, too.

But bottom lines are the last thing I’m interested in as I click my way through six Canadian broadcasters’ inventory of Canuck cartoons.

Although the diversity of product, from preschool love-ins to rough ‘n’ ready adventure series, is astonishing, a closer look reveals a striking similarity.

With few exceptions, the characters on these shows are white.

And crazy as it sounds, many of the animal characters, with their blue eyes, flowing tresses and anglo voices, are even whiter. We’re talking Wonder Bread with the crust cut off.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has a mandate to enforce Canadian content, but on the issue of multiculturalism it seems the country’s official media watchdog isn’t as demanding.

According to its director of media relations, Denis Carmel, “The CRTC has no regulations regarding racial representation in children’s programming.

“Section 3-D of the code allows for a general complaints process where people can ask us to investigate a particular show, whether adult or children’s, for racism.”

So the responsibility to ensure that Canuck kids see their own faces reflected in toon town is in the hands of no one in particular — a pretty shocking state of affairs when you consider the way the cartoon economy has blossomed.

The once non-existent Canadian industry is now the world’s second-largest, thanks to tax cuts and a devalued dollar, both of which drive animation the same way they drive the moviemaking that snarls T.O. traffic with lines of white trailers and orange pylons.

“Canadian animation is very well known, very well recognized and very well respected,” says Paula Parker, VP in charge of production for the T.O.-based broadcaster YTV.

Like most of the industry’s bigwigs, Parker has just returned from the international trade show for kids’ television, MIPCOM Junior, in Cannes, France, where, she says, the room was abuzz with talk of Canadian programming.

YTV is heavily involved in the development of animated series, and commissions about a third of the 27 Canadian shows it runs. “We are thrilled to be involved in Canadian production and have been very aggressive in coming up with good-quality material.”

But when I ask her why two of YTV’s latest commissions, The Twins and Mona The Vampire, both created by Canadian animator Cinar, have no visible-minority characters, Parker’s enthusiasm wanes. “I’m sorry, I’m just not comfortable with that (question),” she says. “I don’t go around putting people in boxes.”

Ryerson’s head of TV and video arts, Clive Vanderburgh, says he thinks it’s unfortunate no one is mandating inclusiveness.

“The way to ensure that children of all races are represented in the country’s cartoons is to ensure that producers, directors, writers and performers in the industry are of different races,” says Vanderburgh.

“If you look at the pool of workers in the field, would they be predominantly white? Yes,” says the former TVOntario producer, answering his own question. “Still, there is a strong economic value in diversity. People will watch shows they can see themselves in.”

According to Vanderburgh, of the Toronto stations that provide children’s entertainment, CBC and TVO are most committed to airing diversity-conscious programming.

But they’re like church mice compared to fat-cat private broadcasters with the cash to underwrite Canadian animation to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. “TVO is only putting in 5 per cent of the production money in most cases,” says Vanderburgh. “You don’t call the shots when you put up 5 per cent.”

YTV and Teletoon, the four networks to the south and, increasingly, Europe’s private broadcasters do call the shots.

“Those who have the dollars will drive what animated series are being made — those who can run commercials around the product,” says Pat Ellingson, creative head of children’s programming for the province’s public station. “But I think we do a pretty good job at being diverse here.”

Yet even at TVO, quality control isn’t exactly A-one as far as racial diversity in animation goes. Of its current crop of nine home-grown series, only two feature a visible-minority child as the lead, and only one is still in production — Corduroy, based on Don Freeman’s picture book about an African-American urbanite and her teddy bear.

Still, shows with human protagonists — black, white or brown — are few in comparison to those like Pumper Pups, Elliot Moose and Rainbow Fish that feature animals and more fantastic creatures given the power of speech.

These are the mainstay of any broadcaster’s preschool schedule. But animals with non-WASP characteristics are absent. With creatures like the blond, blue-eyed unicorns of Kleo The Misfit Unicorn, these allegories, though adorable, do not mirror multicultural reality.

I feel a little like Gargamel out to snare some unsuspecting smurfs as I walk into the studios of Canada’s largest animation company, Nelvana, hidden away in T.O.’s trendy business park, Liberty Village (aka Parkdale).

After passing room after room of 20- and 30-somethings — mostly white — hunched over their computer screens, I’m escorted into the office of Clive Smith, co-founder of the animation company whose logo, a polar bear under a rainbow of stars, has closed credits for more than 1,400 cartoon episodes since its first appearance in 1971.

“Really, the story (most often a children’s picture book) still drives everything,” says Smith as we sit down to talk in an office crowded with memorabilia from some of the company’s cash cows — Care Bears, Beetlejuice, Franklin, Rupert and Babar.

Why, I ask this partner in a $91.6-million business, does Nelvana, with product in more than 160 countries, have only one series in production where a visible-minority character is the lead? The guy was expecting softball. I wasn’t expecting to feel like the hunter who nailed Bambi’s ma.

“We understand that there is a broad audience out there, and we don’t want to be seen as biased in any way,” says Smith. “Often we are working with authors and their characters, who have already been developed as a book. Obviously, we have to take our lead from what is already there.”

But Nelvana is capable of creating fantastically diverse cartoons if directed to do so, as it was when American publisher Scholastic Books had The Magic School Bus transferred to the small screen. The show, lauded for having four visible-minority characters as leads — two blacks, one Hispanic and one Asian — was a mainstay on America’s public broadcaster, PBS, before production was stopped in 1998.

On the phone from New York, PBS communications director Donna Williams brags about the broadcaster’s great race rep, although she’s preaching to the converted. (When Goldie finally wore me down and I made my “six monthly payments of $20 U.S.” to PBS Buffalo station WNED, I opted for the Elmo T-shirt and not the Lehrer Newshour mugs. Sorry, Jim.)

“Our programming for children has always been about showing the many faces of America,” says Williams. “People expect us to be diverse.” And PBS is.

Its award-winning programs — from Reading Rainbow, starring Levar Burton, to Todd’s TV, featuring Hispanic culture — bear out Williams’s boast. Its American-produced cartoons like Dragon Tails, Clifford and The Book Of Virtues not only star visible-minority characters but also use minority accents to deliver their words.

A York University professor of child psychology says that visible-minority kids thrive on the “heterogeneity” of PBS-like programming.

“Even at the preschool period, children are attuned to the characteristics of their own culture, so the more they can identify with characters who have those particularities, the better the lessons will be learned,” says Gerald Young.

A reporter for Toronto’s South Asian Voice, Umber Mansoor, wishes she’d had those PBS programs when she wore pigtails, but says the kids in her T.O. community are still without media role models. “Because there is so little media recognition of people who look like us — in cartoons there’s nil — South Asian kids grow up feeling like the other in Toronto,” says the Gen-Xer, whose beat, all events Pakistani and Indian in the GTA, keeps her connected with the 330,000-member community.

“The TV image of Indo-Asian Canadians is of the convenience store owner or the taxi cab driver — the person who serves everyone else and does it with some silly accent,” says Mansoor. “It would be helpful if in a cartoon, at least, kids could see someone named ‘Ali’ who’s just normal, and his race wasn’t made an issue.”

(In the cache of Canadian kids’ cartoons, there is one such “someone” — “Rikki,” sidekick to his show’s white character, Action Man, produced by Vancouver’s Mainframe Entertainment. )

Over at D-Code, a Toronto-based animation company, VP of development Beth Stevenson tells me it’s almost a given that she’ll tinker with a book in the development of a series. She tells me about Rainbow Fish, based on the book by Swiss author Marcus Pfister, and how she needed to expand on Fish’s world to eke out 52 episodes.

One way the book was expanded was by the introduction of Sea Filly, a sea horse with a red ponytail, blue eyes and the face of a white girl, who provides the human representation for this preschool program set in tropical waters.

But white bias isn’t limited to D-Code’s preschool programs. Its most successful show, Angela Anaconda, a cut-and-paste computer-generated program for the tween market, has one minority character, who appears once in the three episodes I’ve watched. The rest of the cast is white.

Stevenson points to the expense of production (about $13 million for 26 episodes) and the need for international partnerships as possible reasons for the lack of diversity she herself sees in the industry.

“Some of the international and European communities are a lot more difficult to pull into the idea of diversity,” says Stevenson. “The German market, for example, is an extraordinarily difficult one.”

Ironically, it’s our neighbours to the south who are the most conscientious about inclusivity. “The issue of good racial representation comes up in discussions with American broadcasters and animation companies like the Henson Company all the time,” says Stevenson.

There are no excuses for the lack of colour in Canadian cartoons, according to Itah Sadu, T.O. storyteller and author of the popular Christopher series of picture books, the first of which is titled Christopher, Please Clean Up Your Room.

She tells stories in public schools and says that by grade one children already hold ideas about racial superiority.

“It’s amazing. I’ll tell the kids a story about a Haitian princess. I’ll repeat several times that she is black, that her family is black, that Haiti is black,” says Sadu. “But when I’ve finished the story and ask them to describe the princess, the kids say she’s blond and blue-eyed.”

My last call of the day puts me in touch with the only real challenger to Nelvana for the title of big man on the Canadian animation campus — Cinar Entertainment.

While Cinar’s 1,900 hours of accumulated programs is about 800 short of Nelvana’s and its number of series currently in production is eight to Nelvana’s 16, its shows Arthur and Caillou are two of the industry’s biggest.

Arthur, based on the Marc Brown picture book about an aardvark, now holds PBS’s coveted after-school time slot. In stores near you, you’ll find an Arthur doll.

When I start in on my lack-of-diversity shtick, president in charge of entertainment Peter Moss gives me his take on the subject. “When you entertain children, the experience you present for them should reflect the reality they see,” says Moss.

“They don’t see an all-white schoolyard, so they shouldn’t see an all-white schoolyard on TV.”

But that’s pretty much what kids in over 50 countries do see when glued to the TV for a half-hour of Arthur — an all-white schoolyard.

With one exception, all the regular characters appear to be “white” animals — straight hair, blue eyes, fairer skin, North-Americanized accents — and although Arthur is bald, his mom, sis and grandma have caucasoid hair, as do all but one of his female classmates and friends.

That’s what this jaded journalist sees when he turns on the tube, but what about an eight-year-old?

The next Saturday morning, I cut off my TV in the middle of Fred’s yabba-dabba-doing and head over to Higher Marks Educational Institute on Bathurst to show some of its weekend students a collection of Canadian toons and promotional pics.

The school — offering courses in math, science, English and history from an African-centred perspective — has seen more than 6,000 students, most of them black, pass through its doors since opening in 1979.

In the lunchroom, I spread out my research material, hang out my shingle and call in the first subject.

Grade one student Tristan Nurse takes a seat at the table covered with promotional photos. I point to Sullivan Entertainment’s Anne Of Green Gables and Tristan says she’s most definitely white, as are D-Code’s Angela Anaconda and Sea Filly from Rainbow Fish.

So, too, are the characters from Nelvana’s Cardcaptors and the mice with English accents from Redwall. Cinar’s Arthur, despite his brown skin, is also white, says Nurse.

“I’m black,” says a second-grader, Miranda Henry, as she munches on a cheese and tomato sandwich. The characters from her favourite show, Cinar’s The Country Mouse And City Mouse Adventure, are whites, she says. Mainframe’s frog creatures on Weird-Ohs are also white, she adds. Anne is white, although Lisa from Corduroy is black.

When I point to the picture of the aardvark and his family, Henry pauses to think and to take another bite from her sandwich. “Arthur is black,” she pronounces. I point to Arthur’s sister, B.W., and to her straight brown hair. Henry is resolute: “Arthur is black.” Next!

And so it goes for the better part of the day and a total of seven subjects.

When it’s time for me to leave, I debate whether or not to burst Henry’s bubble and tell her what Cinar’s executive in charge of creative development, Cassandra Schafhausen, let slip on the phone.

“But there is an African-American character on Arthur,” Schafhausen said. “Darlene (a friend of a friend of Arthur’s) is supposed to be black, and she is voiced by a black actress.”

If Darlene is, in fact, the show’s one person — or rather, one creature — of colour, what does that make Arthur and the rest of the gang?

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