Considering my previous posts about Kiri Davis and the beauty standard, Mattel’s Dolls of the World, the Cheetah Girls, and the Bratz dolls, I’d like to point out a trend in tween consumerism: multiculturalism. (See also this post involving a Hilary Duff music video)
What is multiculturalism? Wikipedia provides a comprehensive summary of its history, but it’s basically the idea that modern societies should “embrace and include distinct cultural groups with equal cultural and political status.” Basically, it’s the ‘melting pot’ (or more recently, ‘mosaic’ or ‘salad bowl’) ideal of American society that I know I grew up learning about in school. The multicultural idea posits that a society should not only ‘tolerate’ different cultures, but that people can in fact benefit from diversity, as we saw in the examples of “Cheetah Sisters” and Bratz the Movie.
The multicultural phenomenon in popular culture really took off in the mid-1990s in the U.S., which makes sense demographically, given the rising numbers of immigrants, especially from Latin America and Asia–remember when Madonna wore a bindi? And remember the macarena? Well, a decade later, we have ample evidence that marketers have kept multiculturalism in mind while creating products for tweens to consume:
- May I point out the more obvious examples from the 90’s, Pocahontas and Mulan? And Princess Jasmin, Aladdin’s one true love?
- More recently, Disney announced plans to create its first black princess, Maddy, featured in the upcoming movie The Frog Princess. Set in New Orleans during the Jazz Age, the film will be Disney’s first hand-drawn one since 2004. Reappropriate and Racialicious both express hope and some apprehension about this. On one hand, why didn’t this happen sooner? And will this end up being stereotypical (Racialicious mentions the possibility of “jive-talking frogs and voodoo priests”)? But on the other hand, isn’t putting a black lead character that girls from all backgrounds will presumably relate to (since Disney will no doubt market it as best as it can) a step in the right direction?
- Also recently, Nickelodeon has announced plans to create an animated series called “Ni Hao, Kai-lan,” in which viewers will follow young Chinese-American Kai-lan around as she interacts with the world and with her multigenerational household. According to this article that describes the process that found the voice of Kai-lan (to be played by Canadian 10-year-old Jade-Lianna Peters), the show will be “about what it’s like to be bicultural in America.” And much like Dora the Explorer teaches kids basic Spanish, Kai-lan will teach kids Mandarin Chinese.
So through these examples (which are just a limited sample of a much bigger field), I can see two beneficial effects of consumerism. For one, it seems like the use of ‘multicultural’ characters, no matter how big a role they play (though ideally, different characters could play the lead no matter what their background was), can positively influence the development of young nonwhite girls. It seems pretty simple: seeing yourself represented on screen (or as a doll, or in a magazine) tells you that you exist, and that people like you matter. This applies not only to race, but also to different body types and personal styles. By incorporating this ‘diversity’ into media in a nonstereotypical manner (e.g. without Kai-lan and her family being portrayed as the ‘yellow peril’ about the take over America, or without fat women in the media always being portrayed as crazed for sex), society can come closer to making everyone feel welcome and appreciated.
But critics will ask, ‘Why does it matter if there’s a cartoon character of such-and-such race? Doesn’t that just promote the idea that people should only relate to people who look like them? Why can’t they relate to the characters we have already?’ First of all, nonwhite people have been expected for so long to ‘relate’ to white people when it comes to media representation, much as women have been expected to ‘relate’ to men when it comes to things like reading books with male versus female lead characters. There is evidence that this actually can be damaging to a person’s self-development on a racial basis, as we saw with Kiri Davis’s “A Girl Like Me.” So why shouldn’t nonwhite children finally be able to see characters who look like them on television and on screen now? To be shown that they actually matter? Secondly, why can’t white people ‘relate’ to nonwhite characters? If race really shouldn’t matter as you say, then what difference does it make if network and cable television suddenly have a whole lot more color?
Which brings me to the other beneficial point of multiculturalism that I see: people in the majority role (white people, skinny people, feminine girls, whatever) can, in fact, benefit from it. Everyone benefits from it, especially children. Exposure to people who look different from themselves from a young age may cause children to ‘normalize’ difference, and thereby hold less ill will or fewer stereotypical notions of those groups. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that this can only happen if multicultural representation is non-stereotypical, by which I don’t mean that a character can’t hold on to some aspect of his or her cultural background, but rather that these characters are as fully fleshed-out as the white/majority-background characters. For example, Kai-lan is Chinese-American, which is important to her identity, but hopefully it won’t be the only thing that determines who she is as a person. This is important not only so that white children won’t hold on to stereotypes (e.g. Kai-lan’s grandfather is a spy for the Chinese government), but also to the children who identify with that cultural background–after all, they see themselves as part of their culture, but also as human beings, and that’s what media representation should reflect.
“Ni Hao, Kai-lan”:
It’s important to keep something in mind about multiculturalism, though: above everything else, it’s about money. Companies sell the Dolls of the World in part because they know there’s an ‘ethnic’ market for them. This applies to things like Princess Maddy as well. And because companies know they’re getting this money, they might crank out products that don’t actually mean much, and which are supposed to placate ‘ethnic’ consumers or the ‘politically correct’ crowd: behold, the phenomenon of tokenism. As a result, multiculturalism might lead to a narrowly-defined standard of what it ‘means’ to be of such-and-such background, or it might lead to nonwhite characters being there but simply not mattering to the storyline at all (see Lisa Turtle of Saved by the Bell). Then critics will say, ‘What are you complaining about? You already got the black guy and the Asian chick! And a lesbian mom!’
But even above that, multiculturalism is a way for minority consumers to buy into the current capitalist system, which, if you’re not a big fan of our consumer culture, seems like a step down. But within the current system, it is definitely ’empowering.’