Asian-American Representation in Cartoons

Animation and specifically cartoons are central in the youths of most American people. It is not only what we all looked to for entertainment in our younger years, but an essential tool in our developments. How many times can you remember watching one of your favorite cartoons as a child and not understanding something discussed or shown in the episode? Wanting to learn the meaning, we go to our parents and ask what was meant by its inclusion in the story. It is moments like this that show the media we consume as children can greatly influence and shape our understandings and future outlooks on the world.

Being a male who was raised in the United States, it’s needless to say that I grew up on cartoons. Much of my childhood revolved around the characters of animated shows on Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Disney. However, I am also an Asian-American male. For much of my youth, I noticed similarities between all of casts of characters in the shows I would watch; they all looked the same. In other words, they were mostly white. At the time it wasn’t something that particularly bothered me, but it was something I noticed. When you’re a child being partially influenced by the media you’re taking in, you want to feel represented in some way.

That’s not to say that Asians aren’t totally undepicted in American cartoons. It’s just that when they do appear, being Asian is usually their entire identity. Some shows such as Jackie Chan Adventures and American Dragon: Jake Long were shows with Asian protagonists. The only catch was that the entire premises of those cartoons revolved around the fact that the characters were Asian and had martial arts backgrounds. While that is by no means a negative thing, it feels like a veiled form of the idea of tokenism. It was rare to see a character in an animated program that was a normal character, unaffected by the fact that they happened to be Asian.

As for where this phenomena can become dangerous and problematic, it can be traced back to the earlier idea of cartoons being a significant influence on children’s development. When children watch these cartoons that do happen to portray Asian culture in the ways that the shows previously described do, it can cause them to pigeonhole what an entire culture does as a whole. In addition to that, it can also have negative effects on the actual Asian and Asian-American children who are viewing these programs and are still in the early influential stages of their childhoods. It supports the idea that their race and in this case Asian is the sole facet of their identity that defines them. Not seeing an animated character that looks like you sounds like an innocent enough problem initially, but when considering the cultural impact of this on a young and very impressionable mind, it runs the risk of giving the wrong information to them.

Cartoons targeted for a younger audience are extremely significant in their developments into adolescence and adulthood. Taking this into consideration, the creators of these programs should be mindful of the representations of not just Asian-Americans, but all races. We don’t want kids to come away thinking that their race is the only thing that defines them as people.


Kung Fu Panda’s Negative Impact on the Chinese Culture

Action-packed choreography, fun characters, and beautiful scenery are commonly enjoyed and found throughout martial arts films. Since the transnational introduction of Bruce Lee’s lively Hong Kong films followed by Jackie Chan and his action comedies, the film world has taken a vivid fascination towards wuxia acrobatic/stunt heavy productions. Thus live action and animated films alike, fight sequences have become widely used for engaging storytelling in a widespread of genres. The Kung Fu Panda series, produced by Dreamworks Animation, a 3D animated action comedy martial arts film, is an example that was influenced by Chinese culture and wuxia martial arts films.

Having a budget of about $130 million USD, the first Kung Fu Panda came out in 2008 and was a national success, topping the box office opening weekend with $60.2 million, and a box office totalling over $631.7million. The film itself was also very well received in China, becoming the first animated film in China to earn more than 100 million yuan.

An American published film by American creators of Chinese culture, which was well received by both the US market as well as its international markets, especially the Chinese market, the origin of its influences. A great movie with great success, wouldn’t you think so? Yet as you may see, this post is about how the series has negatively impacted the Chinese culture. More specifically, its major role in setting China on its path to becoming a major player in becoming the next target of the film industry.

Upon its major commercial success in China, it led to a lot of national introspection from commentators and critics as to why such a film as KFP was not produced in China itself, as it was a film about its very culture and was popularly received by the international world. We can answer this by looking at how the Chinese government is structured with its peculiar restrictions of how their country is represented, as well as not enough budget nor resources to pull off such a production.

As a Chinese-American growing up in the US country brought up with a conservative traditional Chinese upbringing, it is rather second-nature to be able to recognize Chinese culture and link medias to its corresponding influences. Similarly is it easy to recognize the vast amounts of international influences the Western market has in China and its fashion, films, and entertainment industry. Watching the Chinese market grow increasingly fascinated with the “American dream” and the “successful Americans” has pivoted majority of the nation into becoming obsessed with speaking English, consuming American and Western content, and essentially be seen as hip and cool as a “Westernized” person (and I use “Western” to define any culture outside of the China and Southeast Asia). The obsessive fascination has led to increasingly messy markets of piracy, illegal, and other off-brand content of copyrighted materials.

It becomes a frenzy to make money off of Western content. When KFP became popular, the iconization of pandas became a trademark image of “Chinese culture,” further imprinting pandas into become “Chinese.” The 2008 Beijing Olympics character JingJing resembles a panda, and became one of the most popular characters during the Olympics both nationally and overseas, second to red character HuanHuan, the most featured character due to China’s preference to its national color.

KFP became successful to the point where production companies like Paramount and Sony realized the financial impact the Chinese audience has. Greater steps are taken to allow for further transnational collaboration between the US film industry and Chinese film industry. The 2016 Great Wall monster movie directed by Chinese director Zhang Yi Mou was poorly acclaimed by US critics, but was financially successful in China, as Chinese people were ecstatic and nationally prideful having been able to be apart of a production internationally recognized with famous faces and names. However little do they realize they are falling into the exact scheme of what Hollywood and its film industry wants – money. Having realized its success from the Chinese market, it furthers works to generate more in hopes of making more money.

China as a nation has grown increasingly successful in generating revenue and become more financially stable in the last few decades. The major flaw to becoming more financially successful in making globally recognized content, is because of China’s dependency and default of looking up to the US market instead of forging their own content and brands. This isn’t to say China does not have a chance to create something as successful as KFP of its own culture. China just has yet to – it’ll just be awhile while the Western market continues to profit and makes money off of Chinese culture before the Chinese nation itself will realize its potential.

romance in disney animated movies

Everyone growing up watched Disney movies. They’re all classics. My family especially all loved anything Disney. I loved the princesses and princes and the love stories. Everything I wanted out of a movie was found in all these Disney classics as a child.

With everything going out in Hollywood today about females in the media and how they are represented, it has made me reflect on every film and television show I have watched and has made me think back to how these females were represented.

We got into an interesting conversation in our Animated Perspectives class the other day about females especially in animated Disney movies. There were points brought up about why does the princess always have to end up with a prince? Why is the female always just looking for romance and not something more out of life? I felt as if my favorite childhood movies were being criticized for misrepresenting females. This conversation stayed with me for a while. I am all for women being empowered, strong, and not just being looked at for their appearance and body. I also believe on the other hand, that everyone wants romance. Why can’t we have both?

Disney movies to me aren’t just about the girl getting the guy and they lived happily ever after. I feel like that ending is important though because it made me dream of finding a real love and that does exist in the world. Maybe it is because I am a hopeless romantic, but I always loved the happy ending and romance in Disney movies. I feel like every person looks to find that special someone and I don’t think having this idea in Disney movies is a negative at all or an attack on female empowerment.

I feel like the romance in Disney movies doesn’t take away from the main character’s objective. I feel as though yes, there is romance, but there is also a different goal. I have thought a lot since this conversation in class about how females are represented in Disney movies. Disney puts out films that appeal to all audiences. They would never make a movie that made females seem weak. I think having a strong and independent princess as the main character is actually a great thing. It inspired me not to just aspire to be a princess and get married, but I see all these Disney princesses also going out seeking other things in life.

Princess Jasmine didn’t even want to get married. The entire movie she relentlessly tells her father how she doesn’t want to be traditional and find a husband. Ariel just wants to be on her own and not be under her father’s watch all the time. She just wants to explore being on land. Does any of this directly correlate to romance and finding a man? I don’t think so.

Some could argue this young love in these movies also sends the wrong message to little girls but I disagree. I think if anything, it shows you to want to create your own path and journey, as all these Disney princesses do. If you meet the love of you life along the way great, but it’s not a requirement to being happy, it’s a bonus.

I think Disney movies are actually positively influential on young girls and aren’t sending the wrong message. I think these movies can be inspiring for girls to be strong and that you don’t need a guy to be happy, but also if you find a true love, it can be truly magical.


Standing on the Shoulders of Totoro: Studio Ponoc’s Struggle

It’s a well traveled road to posture Hayao Miyazaki as the father of today’s cartoon stylistic convention, as is it to panic that he is finally retiring and the influence Studio Ghibli has held for decades is finally coming to an end. But with what seems to be the final gasp of Ghibli upon us, many die hard fans continue to seek the familiar comforts of this trademark style in new upstarts.

I had the chance to see Mary and the Witch’s Flower in theaters last month, and being an animation student who  grew up with the films (I discovered the VHS tape of Spirited Away in my library when searching for the Dreamworks film Spirit) I was drawn in mostly by nostalgia for the look of the film. From the trailers alone, it is not quite clear that it is even from a studio other than Ghibli. However, as all the animation-savvy know, this movie comes from Studio Ponoc, a group of ex-Ghibli animators striking out on their own after the company announced its hiatus. However, from the advertisement and style choices, it is not clear how much the team is attempting to distance themselves and how much they are playing into the marketability of the Ghibli style.

Abroad, Ghibli is considered one of the few mass-marketable ‘anime’ studios. After the success of Sailor Moon, Speed Racer, and Power Rangers, it became clear to executives of children’s media in the United States that there was a lucrative business for adaptation of Japanese media for a young american audience. However, because of the differences in opinion of animation in the west, much of the anime culture doesn’t ‘translate’ for the demographic studios see animation being suited for, leading it to be a mostly niche interest Stateside. Ghibli seems to  be one of the few immune to this misinterpretation- due mostly to their standalone nature, and the lack of regional misunderstandings- there is nothing in these films that the audience MUST know about Japanese culture to understand the basis of the plot or to enjoy the movie.  Because the studio  found its way into a deal with Disney for American distribution, the way for success was paved. Ponoc may have stylistic similarities because of the creators’ past at the studio, but it is not an accident that they make frequent mention of a studio that already has a mythology in the United States.

Although branding was an added bonus for Ponoc’s history with Ghibli, critical eyes were on them to find a way to break out of the shadow. Mary and the Witch’s Flower  does this surprisingly in its appeal to western audiences. There is an undeniable appeal  to the Harry Potter loving population, from the western style narrative and the mystery plot in a magic school setting. The style also makes an appeal to  the more anime-inclined in it’s few stylistic divergences from tradiorinal ghibli artwork; artists emulate angular shape  deformations rather than round, gooey movements of fluid objects in movies like Spirited Away.

The story itself is comfortably predictable. The setups and payoffs all play through as expected, and in most cases take a backseat to the visuals. The only major issue that seems to shine through is the lack of characterization of the two young leads. Mary herself suffers from the ‘generic tomboyish lead female’ archetype. Her main flaw is her clumsiness, and she is self conscious about her looks despite having little visual distinctiveness (her hair is described as being curly, but is drawn in straight shocks out of her head in much the same way her broom is drawn.) The male character, Peter, is similarly under characterized, being a bully to Mary for the first five minutes of his screen time and suddenly a friend out of  nowhere to her in the rest. Although the leads are lackluster, the supporting characters present fun new iterations of kitschy witch culture. There are two cat farmillairs, a pair of bumbling villainous headmasters, and a gentle elderly ex-witch, who all bring excellent characterization and whimsy onscreen and  steal the stage.

The most interesting element of the film is the titular “witch’s flower’, a naturally occurring blossom that grants the user magic for one day. At times the loss of the abilities the flower grants her makes for an interesting challenge for Mary, and at the film’s climax she must face off with only the strength of her own conviction. This moment left me with some sense of suspense, but the certainty that characters, according to the Ghibli law, had to end up enjoying natural scenery and interacting in mundane situations in a comforting after credits sequence defeated this suspense in its infancy.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is unsurprising, and it is not hard to see why. The lack of international accommodation has left the film with a very niche release. Ponoc had to stay on formula to emulate the success that Ghibli generates today, much less try to create the buzz of the classic films from its heyday. However, no one can fault the film, as it delivers on exactly what the trailer promises; it is a lighthearted romp that is stylistically similar to studio Ghibli’s films, but told through a western lens.


This attempt  to gain an audience may have actually critically failed the film. Much of the freshness of the core Ghibli films was their allegiance to an eastern story arc, and an eastern aesthetic. In America, the style of storytelling alone was enough to surprise newcomers to the style, and the beautiful visuals made them as much of a staple in pop culture as disney characters. Chihiro, Kiki, and Nausicaa all captivated audiences as female leads because they underwent vastly different arcs, but we’re all still totally believable characters. Mary is not as powerfully written as these ladies, and the world she lives in sloped dangerously near derivative at times.

In spite of this, there is reason to believe that Ponoc will begin to not only find their own style, but that they will flourish when new initiative is taken in the writing direction for future films. By their own admission, Ponoc was created for the express purpose of continuation of the Ghibli style in feature animation. However, the beautiful visuals, promise of the supporting cast, and standout moments of real storytelling skill prove that here is a ‘witch’s flower’ of ability within this studio. We are all cheering for Ponoc, and I  personally hope they can make their magic last much longer than one night.