For better or worse, kids get a lot of their education from cartoons. Since my days of watching “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and binge-watching reruns of “The Jetsons” and “The Flintstones” (before binge-watching was a thing), I have come to view cartoons through a lens of thoughtfulness and consciousness that only time, experience and a new level of being "woke" could provide.
It was in that state of woke-ness, exacerbated by parenthood, that I watched a preview of the animated movie “Sing” with my 6-year-old.
Set to open later this year, “Sing” is described as being “set in a world like ours but entirely inhabited by animals.”
Following the blockbuster success of “Zootopia” and “The Secret Life of Pets,” “Sing” will be just the latest talking animal movie to hit the big screen this year.
The characters — voiced by some of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters including Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson and Seth MacFarlane — take part in an “American Idol”-type singing competition.
Sounds fun, right? Especially since the cast of characters includes a mouse, an elephant, a pig, a porcupine…and Johnny, “a young gangster gorilla looking to break free of the family’s felonies.”
With sirens blaring as Johnny reluctantly helps his family commit a robbery, my daughter, seemingly confused and disappointed, asked why the gorilla is bad. Why is he?
Images, especially animated images that are specifically fashioned and marketed to children, help to cultivate and reinforce a child’s perception of self and those around her.
My 6-year-old isn’t yet privy to the term “gangster” and how often and quickly that term, used interchangeably with “thug,” is commonly used to describe brown and Black people. Nor is she aware of the history of Black people being compared to monkeys. But imagery doesn’t need a manual or dictionary to teach and reinforce stereotypes, as evident by my 6-year-old’s visible and almost immediate process she undergoes using images, voice inflections and language as cues to help her distinguish the “bad guys” from the “good guys.”
During the first 60 seconds of the preview for “Sing,” I sat in the theater anticipating the film’s premiere date. By the 2:45 mark when the police sirens, orange prison jumpsuit, and the word “gang” was uttered, I was breaking movie theatre etiquette. I scoured the Internet for more information on the movie’s characters. I also looked, to no avail, for comments from other skeptical parents — those parents who, despite America’s progress, remember the history of Black people being compared to monkeys; or the countless number of unarmed Black people felled to gun violence to many times later have their memories marred by negative and inappropriate descriptors like “thug” and “gangster rap” as a justified excuse to dehumanize and villainize them.
My daughter's reaction to "Sing" reminded me of the importance of positive role models in children's entertainment.
In the midst of concerns over the cancellation of Disney’s animated series, “Doc McStuffins,” anchored by a Black girl doctor who treats toys and stuffed animals in her “clinic,” I couldn’t allow for that positive representation to be replaced with images — fictional, animated, or otherwise — with what “Blackish” actress and activist Yara Shahidi described in her speech at this year’s Points of Light Conference as narratives that “consciously and unconsciously perpetuate stereotypes by creating characters or casting people based on what a few in power seem to deem as believable.”
Shahidi also noted in her speech, “TV helps to define our collective reality.” This is true for movies as well, and especially with children who haven’t quite learned the difference between fact and fiction. Cartoons like “Doc McStuffins,” showing a girl in a position of power, strength, kindness and intelligence, have helped to shape the reality and perception of children, who because of positive representation, find it easy to imagine a woman president as head of state.
I am certain that the intent behind the making of “Sing” isn’t to regurgitate negative stereotypes or preserve an ugly history, but sometimes intent is short lived under the weight of perception.
Children’s entertainment should aim to be more inclusive, culturally competent and responsible about the images that are viewed by impressionable children who, in part, learn who they are based on what’s presented to them.
And the question in my child’s eyes and confusion on her face was a clear sign that her perception won this battle. There won’t be a rematch at the box office for this film, as my daughter and I will sit this one out.