I was watching the pilot episode of the new live-action drama The L.A. Complex. In one scene, a struggling (white) Canadian actress Raquel, tries to bluff her way into an L.A. audition for the “best friend part.” But the producer (also white) says she’s decided “to go another way…we’re going black.” Cut to a wide shot: the waiting room is full of black actresses. The producer says, “I really don’t want an all-white show. You know, it doesn’t really reflect reality.” Frustrated, Raquel inappropriately blurts out, “So you’re making the best friend black. It’s just kind of a cliché, don’t you think? I mean, who has a black best friend?…It’s a TV-only thing.”
It got me to wondering…is the “black friend” a cliché in Canadian animated series or does having a black character in a show’s cast “reflect reality?”
So in honour of Black History Month, I thought I’d touch on the touchy issue of ethnic diversity in Canadian cartoons, specifically black characters. I’ll use the term “black” even though it makes some of us Canadians uncomfortable. We usually use the politer-sounding “African-Canadian” or sometimes the more ethnographically-correct term “Caribbean-Canadian” (as most black Canadians are of Caribbean origin.)
YOU’VE GOT A FRIEND IN ME
Over the past decade, I’ve written for a few series where the black character is pretty much in the “friend-zone.” One was the title character’s best friend.
One was a member of a group of friends of the title character.
And one was a member of a team of heroes – but the leader was a white guy.
So in my experience, when you see a black character on a Canadian animation series, yes, he or she is usually either a friend of the lead or, more likely these days, part of an ensemble of characters.
Until a show creator manages to sell a production company and a broadcaster on a series featuring, say, the daring adventures of a black superhero from Halifax and his “white friend” sidekick, or the hilarious antics of Caribbean-Canadian family in Toronto, for now most black characters are “one of the gang.”
Some might see that as tokenism. But I see it as an attempt to reflect the multi-ethnic reality of North American society.
And I do say North American rather than Canadian society.
According to the 2006 census, the Canadian population was 2.5% African-Canadian, mostly living in urban areas of Ontario and Quebec. On the other hand, Asian and South Asians make up about 11% of the Canadian population. Yet you don’t see them represented as often in Canadian-made animation.
So what’s up with that?
Well, consider that the US is an important market for Canadian animation. Their population is ten times ours with African-Americans making up about 12%. Having a US broadcaster aboard can make the difference between a series going into production, or dying at the development stage.
So from a sales standpoint, it’s good for business if your show reflects America’s ethnic diversity.
It’s interesting to note that in even in preschool animation – which often dodges the issue of ethnicity altogether and broadens their international marketability by having a cast of animals characters or brightly-coloured creatures – sometimes care is taken to give a non-human character a black vibe, for example Custard from The Save-Ums (voiced by African-Canadian actor Jordan Francis) or Tyrone and Uniqua in the US series The Backyardigans. Those producers feel it’s important for young children to have their “reality” reflected vocally.
MORE IS MORE
Of course, I’m not saying we have too many black characters in Canadian animation. What I’m hoping for is that in future, show creators will include even more characters of all ethnicities in their series. I’ve also written for Asian-Canadian and Latino-Canadian and First Nations characters in the past and it would be great to write for them more often. Canadian animation viewers from a non-European background ought to be able to see themselves represented onscreen, especially when TV programming is supported by Canadian tax dollars!
So to all the writers, show creators, production companies and broadcasters out there: Canada welcomes people of all cultures and ethnicities to make this country their home. Let’s help our animation industry reflect our reality.