Diversity Fail–This Is How this Works

This weekend, while watching Big Hero 6 (yes, I’m occasionally suckered in by inflatable vinyl robots who stroke plump, animated kitties while calling them hairy babies, anywho), I saw a preview for a Disney offering slated for 2015: Inside Out

Inside Out  Fear, Sadness, Joy, Disgust, Anger

Inside Out
Fear, Sadness, Joy, Disgust, Anger

Seems innocuous enough: the story of the emotions inside of one girl’s head and how they battle for control.  So let me ask you this, can you spot the diversity fail?

The first question that you might ask is how is diversity at play at all here?  I mean you have the purple guy, the blue gal, the peach (maybe) gal, the green gal, and the reddish guy.  In the image above, you have from left to right: Fear, Sadness, Joy, Disgust, Anger, and one of those characters, in terms of appearance, very clearly is not like the others.  Joy, tall, slender, with a skin color that is closest approximation to a recognizable skin tone, stands apart from her counterparts. Even with her alt blue hair she is a pretty standard representation of rather problematic ideas of normalcy, and she is the one that kids are supposed to want to be. The appearance of the other emotions, the plumpness of Sadness, the russet color of Anger, take on the negative associations of the emotions.  They are something to be rejected in favor of the relatively normative characteristics associated with Joy.  Now, I’ve not seen the movie but I can say this: even if the movie ends with the sort of expected moralizing that it’s okay to feel all of these emotions every once in a while, the existing advertisement literally and figurative center Joy, making her the star.

I wanted to blog about this particular fail because it is a perfect example of the way that even animation that doesn’t confront diversity issues in a head-on fashion can still function to normalize certain traits, appearances, and narratives.  Too often, when people think diversity, they only think along the lines of race.  But diversity means representing the spectrum of experiences, body types, identities, etcetera.  When a film personifies Sadness (for instance) as a short (relatively) round girl, in a nation that so often equates happiness with thinness, that narrative is reinscribed.  When a film makes this same character a sidekick to the character who more readily embodies certain normative qualities, that narrative becomes more firmly entrenched.  This is how, from very young ages, children are inculcated to all of the sorts of -isms that true diversity should help to dismantle. It’s insidious because it’s seemingly harmless.

So how could they have done this differently?  So many ways.  Don’t differentiate Joy so greatly from the other emotions in terms of her appearance.  Make her equally short and plump and uniquely colored.  Switch it up and make sadness tall, slender, and wan, and Joy short, round, and orange.  Ultimately play against type and thereby destabilize type.

So what about you, dear reader.  Does it seem like a fail to you?  Why or why not?

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