“Why are they all white?”April 28, 2008
There’s this interesting question I hear a lot of times in regards to manga and anime- “Why are all the characters white?”
This question always fascinated me, because there’s so much anime with POC characters in it. Oh, sure, there’s Sailor Moon and a disproportionate amount of blonde haired, blue eyed characters in both manga and anime, but definitely not much different than what I’d expect from Japan post WW2 and occupation (see also…oh, Latin America?!?). No, what always gets me about the question is that the people asking it are almost always coding ALL the characters -as white-.
The usual point most of these folks like to bring to the table is that all the characters have big eyes. At the same time, none of these people turn and ask of American comics, “Why are they all steroid/silicone breast enlargement junkies?” Oh, that’s right, they’re able to parse and comprehend that this is a style factor of the genre, not a literal representation.
But why is that?
When I look at American comics and cartoons, I see the fact is that all POC are very clearly defined, both in appearance and role. Panthro, Barbecue, Roadblock, Jazz, Blaster, Quickkick, Power Man, Black Panther, Shaman, Warpath, The Mandarin, etc. All simplifications, all filling easy to identify roles- “The black one”, “The asian guy”, tokenized in concept from the get go. (Pixar’s Cars had shown even in 2006 we were going to fall back on easy stereotypes.)
Certainly, though, cartoons and comics are built on the idea of simplified roles- good guys and bad guys are clearly marked, characters are generally as they are portrayed, though it’s interesting to see genre conventions and ethnic markers are put in the same category. This is, in part, because in America, the story being told is from a white perspective- of course the other ethnicities are “roles”, they are spokes added onto the hub of the white narrative which is the assumed heart of the story. The whole affair basically says, “There’s a place for you (in these narrowly defined roles)”.
Coming back to manga and anime, naturally the roles aren’t going to fit, because the Japanese aren’t exactly coming from the same place (though certainly they’re informed a lot based on the white narrative, as keeps cropping up with their images of black and NDN folks). I mean, for step one, very few characters actually fit the asian stereotype of the quiet submissive character. Yet, in many stories, the majority (or entirety) of characters are Japanese, appearances notwithstanding.
Second, it became clear to me over these conversations that for many of these people, if a character wasn’t brown, and otherwise wasn’t clearly marked “asian” (via stereotypical images), they defaulted to white. Nevermind that asian people DO dye their hair “these days” (these days being a couple generations now).
Even with the really fucked up throwback images coming out of Japan, they still produce even non-Japanese POC characters who exceed American standards for breaking stereotypes. The case was, basically that manga and anime remains one of the few places you can find a brown character who is brown NOT to fulfill a stereotype, but simply as a character. In other words, the characters either fall into the worst of stereotypes or not at all, and the latter is so rare in US media I find it nearly impossible to find.
For example, Robotech remains one of the few cartoons (or shows in American television period) in which you had interracial dating AND a relationship of equal power. Many stations cut scenes between Claudia and Roy Fokker, because, in 1985, clearly we couldn’t have our kids minds tainted with the idea of miscegenation. The Japanese would do us one better in 1989 and embrace a brown Egyptian heroine as a beloved tv series icon in Nadia, Secret of Blue Water… While it’s 2008 and Disney is finally getting around to having a black princess.
For me and a lot of my friends, it was a great time to grow up- anime and manga just hit while we were in our teens, and suddenly we had a wealth of stories that involved asian folks who existed outside of sex fetishes, submissive workers, nerds, or martial arts masters. We actually had characters who, like us, came in all types. By the time the later 90’s hit, more and more anime and manga started including brown characters, not enough for sure, but at least they existed outside of being defined by physicality, “sassy” attitude, or violence.
It is sad and pretty damning that foreign media can provide better options in terms of coding than our “melting pot” which only seems to put the heat on one way. Maybe part of the boom is that white folks can code the characters as white, while asian kids can code the characters as asian.
Are the characters all white? Maybe that depends on who you ask. Sort of like this country, maybe it’s not as white as you think.