Updated: Apr 30
This thought began as a thread on twitter, but I wanted to elaborate on it some more.
We hear this a lot in topics about diverse character casts, and why it's so important for kids to see themselves portrayed (positively) in media. And it's true! Mainstream media not only effects how we view others, but how kids of marginalized identities view themselves. It's vital that we all recognize this as truth in the media entertainment industry.
But the conversation doesn't stop there. Diverse characters are great, but we need to look behind the scenes, too. I'm talking about representation in the writers' room, representation in the crew, and especially representation in leadership.
That's why so many of us in animation are calling for more showrunners of color-- it's not about "forced diversity," it's about proving to a generation that we want to see their stories, joy, and success happen on THEIR terms!
Black, Indigenous Artists and Audiences of Color deserve to have more than just one showrunner they can look up to. They deserve to see elements of themselves and their identity as a face of leadership-- to know in their hearts that success is possible, instead of wondering when, or if, the industry will ever come around in time for them.
I say this because I'm positively blessed and privileged to have three successful, modern showrunners who inspire me (and also share my complexion) and reflect elements of my non-binary/sapphic identity: Rebecca Sugar (Steven Universe Future), Noelle Stevenson (SheRa and The Princesses of Power), and Dana Terrace (The Owl House).
Seeing everything they've accomplished, leading intricate shows with sapphic protagonists-- it inspires me. It energizes me. I think, "If they can make it in animation while staying true to their identities, maybe I can too!"
They give me hope in moments where I hold fear as a queer artist in the industry. I wish that everyone could feel inspired and comforted in that way.
But to do that, studios need to be greenlighting more shows led and directed by BIPOC*
*Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color.
That means studios need to devote themselves to hiring more BIPOC in the first place (of myriad intersectionalities-- gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary, disabled, etc!) while providing them with on-site training and opportunities to grow. If they're rarely (or never) given the chance to prove themselves, we'll only continue to see the discrepancy between hiring and promotion grow worse.
Something I wish more studios would recognize is that diverse storytelling is not "too niche" for audiences to relate to. There's a pervasive idea in executive roles that diverse stories are not profitable, even though this has been proven wrong time and time again. It's especially frustrating when white directors are continuously given more chances to tell diverse stories than actual people of color, and subsequently lauded for their work. White directors creating stories with diverse characters is not exactly the problem, but seems as though producers are a little too satisfied with supporting "diverse" shows made by white directors, and benefitting from that without putting in the work to make space for directors of color. Unfortunately, regardless of intentions, this bias in leadership allows white directors to lean on stereotypes, misrepresentation, and inauthentic portrayals of marginalized identities. You'll find these flaws are also common in filmmaking, publishing, and, well, every industry affected by systemic racism.
In the meantime, if you're reading this and thinking no one wants to see your story-- I promise that's not true! I and so many others are positively HUNGRY for new stories, diverse stories, stories about identity and love and conflict and joy that go beyond what we've all seen a hundred times -- you deserve the chance to prove yourself and lead your own stories.
I want to continue this post with some positive news-- let's highlight some wins for the BIPOC animation community, from professional and independent showrunners!
The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder got the greenlight from Disney in February, led by the original series creator/executive producer Bruce W. Smith and co-executive producers Ralph Farquhar and Calvin Brown. "We still had tons of stories left to tell... It’s the perfect time to bring back this show, and we can’t wait to take fans, old and new alike, on this journey with us.” [x]
Directed by Matthew A. Cherry and produced by Karen Rupert Toliver who said, "It was a labor of love. And it was because we have a firm belief that representation matters deeply. Especially in cartoons." [x]
The Casagrandes on Nickelodeon is the first show of its kind featuring a majority latinx cast, heavily inspired by the life and family of board artist and supervising director Miguel Puga. Less than a year after the premiere, The Casagrandes earned a Daytime Emmy award for Outstanding Main Title for an Animated Program.
Amphibia, a Disney hit series by Matt Braly, follows the wacky adventures of a Thai-American girl and her new amphibian friends. As a Thai American himself, Braly said, "From the very inception of the project, she was always going to be Thai, and it was something that where when I was growing up, there just wasn’t any kind of Southeast Asian representation onscreen... I think something this specific was only going to be done by someone who had Thai background." [x]
OK KO: Let's Be Heroes by Ian Jones-Quartey wrapped up it's final season in 2019, making 112 episodes, 12 shorts, and Let's Play Heroes, a stylish fan-favorite game based on the hit series. Ian JQ notes one of his greatest inspirations is his late Ghanaian grandmother, an artist and philanthropist who created and sewed the first flag of Ghana. He says her experience taught him that artists can achieve so much.
"You can work really hard at art and become someone who gives back and does a lot of good." [x]
Canvas, written and directed by animator Frank E. Abney premiered on Netflix this December. This heartfelt short film about loss and creation was inspired by Abney's family, including his grandfather, mother, and niece. On top of its beautiful story, viewers noted the incredible animated details in all the models. We'll also see Abney's work as an animator in Pixar's upcoming film Soul.
"I'm just I'm so thankful to be partnering with Netflix and being able to share it with a broad audience. My ultimate goal is I just want people to be inspired by it and also just understand that there are Black filmmakers out there." [x]
And lastly, three friends from Uganda & Nigeria -- Fikayo Adeola, Hamid Ibrahim, and Tolu Olowofoyeku -- came together to create Kugali Media, an entertainment company specializing in stories inspired by African culture. Disney Animation announced they're teaming up in a unique collaboration with Kugali Media to create a sci-fi, afro-futuristic series Iwájú, coming 2022.
These creators are giving me so much to celebrate and look forward to!
Artist Feature: Kiana Mai
As I said before, the animation industry needs more diverse voices in leadership-- especially intersectional, under-represented women and gender-diverse individuals who deserve the space to tell their own stories.
I reached out to a friend (and one of my favorite artists!) Kiana Mai, a biracial storyboard artist currently working in LA. Her recent experience includes Cartoon Network's The Crystal Gems Say BE ANTI-RACIST campaign and Disney TVA's Big City Greens, where she recently earned the opportunity to direct an episode.
I asked Kiana about her plans for directing or pitching in the future, and how it feels to navigate the industry as an artist of color.
After the initial excitement of getting to board on a Disney show, I started to wonder what my next steps would be. And I genuinely had no idea. I was worried I had peaked too early.
There are so few Black people, Asian people, women and LGBT+ folks in leadership positions in animation. I check all those boxes, and figured that being in a leadership position would never be possible for me.
However, my showrunners apparently see something in me that I don’t and have been giving me opportunities to direct! I finished directing my first episode recently and they told me they’d like me to do it again at some point. And on top of that I’ve been reached out to by several animation studios’ development teams to see if I’d be interested in pitching. All of this together gave me a huge confidence boost and made me feel like I could pursue a position in leadership.
I’m still really young and I know I have a lot to learn before I even attempt leading an entire team to create something. But for now, I really enjoy working on other peoples’ projects and helping them make the best possible product. I’m able to do that as a board artist right now but I would love to be able to do that as a director in the near future!
We'd love that too! Thank you for taking the time to write to me, Kiana. 💖