For the ~15 people who still read this site ;), this may or may not stir up a hornet’s nest of trouble, as it has done in other places. But it’s a fairly active topic of discussion in other circles, and thanks to the Racebending movement and fascinating and apt blogs like Racialicious and Sociological Images, I’ve become more aware of these issues, and really feel the need to say something.
On several recent occasions, I’ve noticed PoDW fanart (illustrated or created with doll-making software or through other means) where the characters were depicted with light, or lighter, skin.
This is problematic.
The show’s protagonists, as well as many of the antagonists and supporting characters, are dark-skinned. This is one of the many things that has made the show so unique: a serious animated show aimed at teenagers and adults, with real plot and character development, not to mention a cast of characters that is not white or a stereotypical image of a minority.
Pretty much every single character has a subtly different skin tone, and (with the exception of Jenna and an occasional background character) all those skin tones are unmistakably brown! How cool is that? As a result, PoDW brilliantly avoids the horrid “light=good, dark=bad” stereotypes that have pervaded popular media. (If you haven’t noticed it, just look at your average action-adventure/fantasy flick, and pay attention to what roles the dark-skinned characters play. Really egregious examples: the live-action “The Last Airbender,” “Prince of Persia,” even “Back to the Future” (the Libyans, who are Hispanic and spouting gibberish instead of Arabic), and the “Indiana Jones” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies and others that feature random shots of dark-skinned “untamed savages” randomly attacking the good (and typically white) heroes. Once you start seeing it, you can’t unsee it…and that’s a good thing, because awareness is the first step in making lasting change happen.)
The biggest counterargument, especially in these “racebending/whitewashing” arguments around fantasy series, is that you can’t claim that the characters actually are Asian or Middle-Eastern, because the races and ethnicities in our world don’t exist in theirs.
Yes, races as they exist in our world do not exist in the PoDW universe. However, you can’t deny the ethnic influences throughout the PoDW universe, put there by the people who created this world. Fans I’ve talked to over the years, and fans attempting to match up actors with the characters, have referred to them as Latin, Jamaican, East Asian, Indian/South Asian, Turkish/Middle Eastern, and more. And there’s a reason for that–they have recognizable features and character/clothing designs that derive directly from those cultures. Even the conceptual artist behind the show, Floro Dery, attested that Tula’s clothing design was derived from Turkish influences.
In our society, whiteness has come to be the “default” skin tone. While whites are the majority population in the west, that’s an unfortunate mentality. I mean, I’m American, and I’m brown: a 100% Indian-American female, but I’ll often see “nude” and “natural” as labels for a default skin tone that’s markedly lighter than what is physically the “nude” and “natural” skin tone that describes my coffee-colored skin.
Also, how cool is it to have strong, relatable characters in a world where skin tone not only does not matter, but is unmistakably diverse? I really related to Tula growing up, because she bore a pretty strong resemblance to me and was a fantastic role model for me (well, minus the whole “double-crossing you guys for my own cause” thing, but it all worked out in the end!). And while I also related to light-skinned characters, I definitely noticed when there were characters that Looked Like Me.
It’s so easy for people to play this all off as just being fantasy, as just being random crap on TV and magazines…but when it’s everywhere, when it’s all you see, a part of you can’t help but grasp onto it and start believing and internalizing it. And it is everywhere–again, check out the above blogs for example after damning example. The subtle racism that plays into people subconsciously favoring light skin is really dangerous, in part because it’s just not questioned and it’s accepted blindly, and it leads to a lot of subconscious perceptions and actions that people don’t even realize are fueled by societally-induced racist tendencies.
Anyway, long story short: detail is important. And it’s not cool to default “ambiguous” (or even unambiguous) characters to white, or even to assume that light-skinned characters look “better” than dark-skinned ones. It doesn’t matter if they’re real or fictitious, live-action or animated: that still perpetuates a “light skin is better than dark skin” mentality that is not acceptable.
So, yeah. The characters have dark skin. Please respect that trait as being part of who they are, and please depict them appropriately.
Thanks for reading. :)
- Smitha, your cheerful female brown crusader for equality and goodwill for all