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Tinkerbell's Amazing Ethnic Friends

There was a lovely little four year old girl with her mom on the bus, sitting across from me today. Her mom was reading the Entertainment section of the paper. She pointed at an ad and asked, "Who is this?"

The little girl pointed at the advertisement, too and said, "The AVATAR!" Then she turned to her mom and said, "Is that the REAL Avatar?"

I guess it didn't hit me until today that when kids see animated characters come to life, then that version of the animated character is the "real" version of the character. So, for example, when I went with Ken's family to meet Cinderella at Disney World, to his five year old niece, it was like meeting the real Cinderella. The one in the flesh.

So if when animated characters are made flesh, they become real, then what does it mean when an animated character with indigenous ethnicity and an anorak--one of the very few animated female heroines to ever be depicted with dark skin--is transferred into the real world, but looks and is portrayed by someone who is white?

To an adult it could mean any number of things, I suppose, ranging from "racism" to "cultural appropriation" to "nothing to get your panties in a twist over."

But I want to know what it means to a kid. Because children notice skin color. And they quickly notice, from observing how adults treat one another, that skin color clearly matters.

To the point where when you tell an African American kindergartener a story where the hero has darker skin and the villain has lighter skin, the child will misremember the story so that the hero had light skin and the villain had dark skin. The child will change the story to fit the more widely accepted paradigm.

To the point where, when you show kids pictures of cartoon characters with light skin or dark skin, the kids prefer the characters with light skin. Without fail. They label the dark skinned dolls and cartoon characters as nasty and ugly.

Watch this. You will feel sad and awkward.

So what is a child to think when a beloved character becomes flesh and blood--and looks different?

I know what detractors of Racebending.com, even M. Night Shymalan himself would say. Counter to repeated claims by people who worked on the series, they would say that the characters of animated series did not have an ethnicity, that they are ambiguous. They would ignore that society and that Hollywood is not-so ambiguous when it comes to preferring certain races and certain genders.

While I'm skeptical of the claim that 'fictional characters do not have ethnicities' (I raise you one Jar Jar Binks), real people most certainly have ethnicities. When an animated character is translated into 'real' by an actor, and it's always actors from the same community...that says something.

I get emails every day that start off with, "The [Avatar characters] are not Asian or Inuit; they are from a fantasy world..." leading to the inevitable conclusion that I am the "real racist" for labeling them with ethnicities or for having the expectation of cultural representation in the media people consume.

People like to use Lord of the Rings as an analogue to Avatar: The Last Airbender. Middle Earth is an analogue to European fantasy; Four Nations to Wuxia fantasy. Gandalf the White is white. But let's look at fairies. Namely, Disney's Fairies. Another franchise kids like, that Five Token Bands it's main characters.

The Fairies are from a fantasy world: Neverland. They're not even human. So, do they have ethnicities?

"Disney Fairies builds upon the enormous popularity of Tinker Bell and introduces girls to her secret, magical world and a new circle of enchanting fairy friends — each with an incredibly diverse talent, personality and look." (Real subtle, Disney.)
Take uh, "Iridessa," for example. Is she an "African American"? A fairy? Both? And that one with dark hair, is she Asian? Asian American? Asian Fairy-an? What about Fawn, the fairy that Disney flat out markets as it's new Hispanic character? So they're saying that fairies can be Hispanic, now? (Yes!)

These fairies don't have accents or dress in kimonos or speak in ebonics or dance the salsa so, like, how did Disney know to cast them this way when they made them "real"?

As an adult there's a certain level of cynicism towards Tinkerbell and her multiethnic friends. Tokenism? The fact that Tinkerbell is still central to all of this? Disney is catering to a demographic of American children, one that is made up of 45% people of color, you don't say?

But I imagine for a kid of color, say, a girl who can't even find a Barbie doll that looks like her at her average Toys R Us--Disney put in a ginger fairy, too!-- it must be fun to get to find a doll who looks like you for once. I know that it was a little heartwarming for me to see Ken's niece choose to play with an Asian fairy doll (instead of just going for Tinkerbell, who she more closely resembles) at Disney World. She was experiencing something I never experienced growing up--playing with a doll with Asian features. She was affirming, in a way, that kids can learn to relate with people who look different from them.

But they're fairies and fantasy and therefore raceless, so if Disney had cast the "real" flesh and blood models with all white actresses, it would be "reverse racist" to complain, right?


You put into words that weird situation that I've been struggling with for a while - namely, the whole fantasy vs reality thing, particularly when it's tied to marketing.

Like, this--
Is she an "African American"? A fairy? Both? And that one with dark hair, is she Asian? Asian American? Asian Fairy-an? What about Fawn, the fairy that Disney flat out markets as it's new Hispanic character? So they're saying that fairies can be Hispanic, now? (Yes!)

YES. YES INDEED. Introducing people of colour into fantasy destroys the whole pervasive, systemic and INCREDIBLY insidious white = default mindset out of the fantasy genre. And dammit, this is a good thing!

On the marketing side, obviously Disney marketing saw they could cash in on making 'diverse' fairies as Tink's friends, a nod to people of colour that they exist (even if only as sidekicks and 'friends' to the more important blond white one). Paramount marketing OTOH, was convinced that they could only cash in on changing the ethnicities of the main characters.

Once again proving that:
a) TV and small franchise does (slightly) better in showingdiversity than movies
b) movie industry is still convinced that only white leads can make money

Fascinating post, dude. I ask for repost on the racebending comm! <3

But the Tinkerbell franchise isn't small. I mean, it hasn't had a silver screen movie but according to the Disney site I linked above, it's :

Unaided Top 10 Favorite with Girls 9-11
98% awareness with Moms of Kids 2-5 1
98% awareness with Girls 9-11
85% awareness with Girls 6-8

Disney's "Tinker Bell" Movie was the #1 DVD of 2008, and #1 Debut on the Disney Channel

That's pretty big. Disney's most successful franchises are Mickey, Pooh, and Princess but I can imagine Fairies is close behind.

Also, I believe the voice actress for Tinkerbell also happens to be the voice actress for Katara.
I guess I was looking at the Tinkerbell franchise in terms of mainstream movie release? Tink is so heavily marketed towards young women, I figured that overall, it's considered a somewhat 'niche genre' (which I know is completely silly; but marketing is convinced that men's money is worth more than women's). I used 'small' for lack of a better word. :)

Mae Whitman is awesome. I'll always remember her as Anne (or 'Bland') from Arrested Development. Girl has some serious comedic timing.

Oh, yeah, I know what you mean. Tinkerbell is a "girl franchise." For some reason, Hollywood is dumb and insists on making A:TLA a boy franchise, even though the creators have strived to make it appeal to both demographics.
I guess our silly girl minds are just willing to shell out for franchises like A:TLA because we want to impress our all the dudesbros in our lives. I know that's the only reason *I*would spend money on any entertainment that doesn't have to do with shopping!
Oh, and here's the scandalous question:

Do the fairies only have ethnicity because there is a *baseline* to compare them to, and that baseline is Tinkerbell (the caucasian, blonde fairy?)
Like, if you have different fairy ethnicities, what is THEIR world like? Do they have histories of oppression/slavery/colonialism/imperialism/conquering/supremacy between ethnicities? Is there nationalism and/or patriotism for different fairy groups? Do they even recognize each other's skin colours? Do they even HAVE different cultures assigned to their skin colours?

Or is it just a general "*hand-wave* well of course they get along; they're fairies" consensus? Are these fairies the ideal 'colourblind' (coded: white) world that we humans are striving for?

Edited at 2010-07-08 06:19 pm (UTC)
Having not seen the movie but having heard a snarky retelling of the first movie, apparently the fairies are communists ruled by a Queen (who is also a Caucasian/blonde fairy?) and each fairy is born to do a specific task. When Tinkerbell dabbles in water magic or animal magic she is scolded for not sticking to tinkering magic.

The redheaded fairy apparently has a Southern accent. Where did that come from? And how come they don't have British accents?
I want to find whoever parented those last two girls and give them medals, man. That's a lot of moral fiber for anyone their age, much less girls, who are commonly socialized to be diffident. "Because that's what you do. You judge people how they act, not what they look like." That's a definitive statement of an opinion in face of contradictory views: not a question, and no maybes about it.