It was announced recently that the new version of The Powerpuff Girls would be introducing a fourth member, Bliss (voiced by Olivia Olson), and that she would be black. Reactions were mostly positive, with a few noting that the way she was characterized in the show made her out be a stereotype of an angry black girl and some also saying that her inclusion felt a bit like tokenism. It’s a fair criticism.
I was, like most people my age, a huge fan of The Powerpuff Girls growing up. It was rare to see female cartoon characters who got to run around, fight villains, and save the day as they navigated girlhood. For me, it was a really big deal to see such representation. But I’m white, so I never really felt that I couldn’t be like them, nor did I lack cartoon characters who look like me. So for all her faults, it is something that a major kid’s cartoon is choosing to include a dark-skinned black girl who will also run around, fight villains, and save the day, even if her portrayal is a bit problematic.
I think now, more so than before, creators of children’s cartoons have realized the importance of diversity and inclusion. Representation is especially important for kids, as they start to form their sense of self, and especially for kids who aren’t white, who are disabled, who aren’t straight and/or cisgender, or are otherwise marginalized.
Take a show like Steven Universe. The show revolves around its titular character, Steven (voiced by Zach Callison), who is being raised by three female humanoid jewels (known as the Crystal Gems), and spends his time saving the world and subverting masculinity. There are numerous characters of color, and the show has been widely recognized for its multiple portrayals of queer characters and relationships, non-binary characters, and its ability to frankly discuss consent, gender roles, masculinity, maturation, and anxiety. And yet, the show never really veers into the territory of tokenism, instead letting the identities of its characters simply be a fact of the show. It’s one of the few shows on TV for children that has multiple queer characters, and doesn’t bother with the same tired tropes that most adult shows still haven’t stopped using.
For even younger audiences, there are also shows like Doc McStuffins. The show premiered in 2012 and has been going strong ever since. The premise is that the main character, a young African-American girl named Dottie McStuffins (currently voiced by Laya DeLeon Hayes), who hopes to be a doctor like her mother and practices on her toys that come to life from her magic stethoscope, and who she treats injuries and illnesses each week.
Comedian W. Kamau Bell explained the importance of a show like Doc McStuffins on NPR last year, saying: “And so that’s the thing. It’s not a fantasy…Like, it’s not about wouldn’t it be crazy if I was a doctor? It’s clearly a little girl who wants to be like her mom who is a doctor. And they go to her – and there’s episodes where they go to her mom’s private practice and shows that she’s the leader of this practice, and there’s other black women there…And the dad, who we also see, Marcus McStuffins, he’s always at home, so he looks to be a stay-at-home dad…These are things that break down stereotypes and traditional narratives with, like, yeah, that’s what black dads do. We have gardens of vegetables, and we hand out strawberries. That’s what we do. That’s what black dads do.”
Or, take the show Elena of Avalor, which revolves around a teenage Latina named Elena Castillo Flores (voiced by Aimee Carrero), who rules over a magical kingdom called Avalor. The show is notable not just for having a young Latina protagonist, but also for putting her in a position of leadership, and giving her power, agency, and some cool magic powers. If you’ve ever doubted the power of representation, I’d like to point to this incredibly sweet clip that was floating around Tumblr recently of an actress at Disneyland playing Elena speaking to a little girl in Spanish.
That’s why all this representation matters. It’s not for me to write about it (although that’s a nice bonus), or for people to argue about political correctness or identity politics. Diversity isn’t just some grand idea or social justice buzzword. It’s a real and important way to ensure that young children get to see themselves in media, in positive portrayals, even if they aren’t always part of the majority.