Series: Disability in Children’s Animation
Spoiler Warnings: No explicit spoilers
Trigger/Content Warnings: None that I can think of
This week, I looked at disability in children’s animation. Now, I will point out that I was focusing mostly on movies and TV shows that featured characters who were disabled. I didn’t look for movies with minor characters who were disabled, or even ones with villains who were generically “mad” (although one of those did show up). But I noticed two big things about disability in children’s animation this week:
1. Disabled characters in children’s animation are rare.
My knowledge of children’s animation is by no means comprehensive, but I didn’t exactly have trouble narrowing down my choices. In fact, at times I struggled to find enough content to fill a week. It does seem like there may have been something of an increase in representation in recent years–but on the other hand, my search was skewed towards those years.
2. When disability is portrayed in children’s animation, it is generally done better than in other media, particularly media aimed at adults.
Again, what I saw was almost certainly skewed. However, most of what I looked at did a pretty good job. My Little Pony has done very well with their representation. Finding Nemo, Frozen, and How to Train Your Dragon also did great job, although How to Train Your Dragon 2 had some issues. Wreck-it-Ralph did some things wrong, but it also did some things very right.
I think the reason for this second point is that people who work on children’s media are often more conscious of the message they’re sending than people who work on media aimed at adults. At its worst, this results in preachy, condescending media, but at its best it results in content that is intelligent and aware. Of the shows and movies I looked at this week, Adventure Time was the only one that actually angered me. Adventure Time makes no secret of the fact that while it’s marketed to children, it’s not strictly speaking written for them. Usually this is a good thing, in my opinion: it means they don’t talk down to kids. In this case, it may have resulted in the writers giving less consideration to the implications of what they wrote than they might otherwise have.
This awareness might also factor into the first point: doing things right takes effort. If the people behind the scenes acknowledge that something needs to be done right, they may be less likely to do it.
The exception to all of this is, of course, the generically “mad” villain. Whether portrayed as “mad” or simply described that way, I would have to say this is still pretty common. As I said in the How to Train Your Dragon 2 review, this trope is hugely damaging. It reinforces a stereotype that is extremely harmful. This trope may be less common in children’s animation, it may not–but it is definitely there, and it needs to stop.
Children’s media is some of the most important and powerful media we have. Kids pick up lessons everywhere, and a lot of this media will stick with them for their entire lives. They may even show it to their kids. When you make media aimed at children, you are accepting a huge responsibility.
Disabled children need to be able to see themselves in media. They deserve it. They will have plenty of adults telling them what they can and can’t do, who they are and aren’t, ignoring their feelings and their attempts to communicate. A good piece of children’s media can help to counteract that. And it might even worm its way into their parent’s brains, too.
Kids who aren’t disabled need to learn that disabled people exist. They need to learn that disabled people are people, not objects or curiosities. All children, disabled or not, need to learn that disabled people can be heroes.
So what do we need to show kids?
- It is not “disabled” or “normal”. Disabled people are normal.
- Disabled does not equal violent or evil.
- In particular, mentally ill does not equal violent or evil.
- The only person who can define your abilities is you. No one else can know better than you what your limits are or aren’t.
- You shouldn’t have to hide who you are.
- You are allowed to be in pain.
- You are not worth any less because of a disability.
You canbe a hero–your own, and someone else’s.
- There is hope.
Watch My Little Pony, watch Frozen, watch How to Train Your Dragon, watch Finding Nemo. Watch Wreck-It-Ralph, even. Show these things to your kids. Watch them with your kids. Talk about them afterwards. They are good, and entertaining, and the messages they contain are, for the most part, good ones. Support this media: it is what the next generation sees. This is the world that today’s children are growing up in, and the world that tomorrow’s adults will remember.
Pay attention to it.