It’s officially the lazy season, prime time for people to sink deep into their sofas at the mercy of their television screens. Like thousands of viewers, I’ve singling out the golden films to lose myself in over the Christmas period. While streaming platforms battle to provide the dusty classics alongside the shiny premieres, I sat up and questioned one issue with the selection at our fingertips. Spending my December’s humming along to carols from “The Polar Express” to “Arthur’s Christmas” I’d blinded myself about the lack of diversity between festive characters in animated films.
Let’s go back to 2003 with me as the beady-eyed child gazing up at Tom Hank’s moustache on his journey to the North Pole. ‘The Polar Express” was a magical film for many 12-year-olds daydreaming alongside the snowy mountains and steaming hot chocolate. But reflecting back on the 350 million dollar blockbuster, I feared other kids' connection to the story could have differed.
We’ve often seen middle-aged white men portrayed as Christmas spirits in movies. Dating all the way back to 1947, ‘Miracle on 35th street’ was the historical Big Apple tale when Kris Kringle took center stage around the world. It’s no wonder then, after centuries of casting white male leads, that modern cartoons are delayed in portraying the minority. One of the most popular Christmas movies of all time is about a rich white boy who is left behind in an enormous house.
The New York Times reviewed Disney’s ‘Princess and The Frog’ stating, “People think that kids don’t catch subtle messages about race and gender in movies, but it’s quite the opposite.” There’s no doubt about it, cartoons are the main source of education for children. Disney has been identified as an important storyteller as its movies are among the first stories young viewers use to learn about the world. Would I have been more educated about an equal racial society in witnessing the train conductor in ‘The Polar Express’ as a black male? Ward (1996, 2002) stated that Disney movies are an important moral educator with narratives promoting moral values. Could we see damaging efforts of not portraying a more diverse cast of characters for our future viewers?
Looking at more recent adaptations of festive movies for children, ‘Klaus’ was released in 2019 by Netflix, again representing an all-white character squad for the picture. Don’t get me wrong, the movie has wonderful messages of hope, love, and kindness to enlighten children. But wouldn’t they be learning more about our multicultural world from seeing mixed races within these tales? Why haven’t we seen Christmas movies with a black female or male protagonist battling to save the day? This year we’ve seen promising statements from the likes of BBC, committing £100m to increase diversity on TV. Now it’s time, around a season of reflection and joy, to see racial equality in front of younger generations' eyes.
Patel, the director of ‘Sanjays Super Team’ told Buzzfeed that when he was growing up, he “never saw any depictions of characters like [him]” not just at Pixar but the American animation industry in general.
‘I never saw somebody of color reach this opportunity to even tell a story that had a minority represented. I just felt like I got this subtle message that because you don’t see yourself reflected in media, you don’t matter. Your stories don’t matter. I think it’s just a subconscious message that you get from pop culture at large.’
In no way am I stating that the directors of these cartoons are racist, the market out there for Christmas movies is huge and the world has a history of feeding many audiences. Soraya Roberts looked at racial stereotypes in advertisements around Christmas, reviewing the wealthy families representations overcoming minor setbacks within their luxurious homes, “Love Actually and The Holiday are thus reappraised each year, ignoring similarly situated (and higher-grossing) all-black stories, such as The Best Man Holiday, Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas, This Christmas, and The Preacher’s Wife. The Hollywood machine dreams of a white Christmas, so we do too.”
That’s not to say all animations haven’t achieved cultural harmony. In 2018, Miles Morales protected New York City as Spider-Man, the first Afro-Latino boy to wear the webbed suit. Why does Spider-Man have to be too white? The Hollywood Reporter stated:
“Miles Morales proved to be a huge win for biracial visibility, one praised by Stan Lee for being a role model to children of color.”
Not only did the character transform racial diversity in the Marvel franchise, but the film pays homage to his Mexican culture, speaking spanish to his mother on the phone and bopping his afro to hip-hop on the streets of Brooklyn. Now imagine a Christmas animation reflecting our varied British cultures, one that millions of children can relate to and feel united within their cinema seats.
This year has alerted us we still have a long way to the finishing line. In November, Britain saw the backlash of Sainsbury’s festive advert being slashed with 24,500 racist comments because of their portrayal of a British black family. The supermarket gladly released a statement commenting,
“We want to be the most inclusive retailer. That’s why, throughout all our advertising we aim to represent a modern Britain, which has a diverse range of communities. We have three stories of three different families in our advertising.”
If anything this Christmas, we want to feel connected together after a turmoil of isolation and lockdowns. Festive movies undoubtedly provide us with a glimpse of happiness with their simplest narratives of cheesy relationships by finding one and another around the kitchen table. Whatever the reason we seek these cozy wintery tales, it’s time we reflect on the families depicted in the tale and make way for a new era of racial equality that teaches children we can all align side by side!