We don’t often take the kids to see movies in the theater, but I was really eager to take them to see Big Hero 6. We caught a glimpse of the trailers over the summer and the short bits we saw had us cracking up. That alone had me interested. Then I started hearing talk of how Disney had broken new ground with a truly diverse cast of characters. I was excited by the possibility. I’m perpetually troubled by the fact that, when my boys turn on the tv, characters rarely look like them or their dad.
I wanted to see for myself but I admit I was skeptical. Would the diverse cast really be diverse? Would Big Hero 6 live up to the hype?
When a friend who saw the movie opening weekend told me, “I think the main characters were supposed to be Japanese, but they looked white to me. I’m not sure…” I felt my hopes sinking. She tapped into the root of my skepticism: Sure, there are a decent number of kids’ tv shows and movies with diverse characters, but what we see is pretty narrow in its scope. Black characters rarely have dark skin and Asian characters are identifiable only by name and a very slight change in eye shape. It often seems to me that characters are intentionally depicted as racially ambiguous (Sofia the First, anyone?) and perpetuate colorism rather than fight it. Much like in the toy aisles.
And yes, I totally get that people of various races and ethnicities often don’t look like the prototypical images in our heads. But when 99% of the African-American characters in kids’ movies look a particular way, we don’t have true diversity and we aren’t doing justice to the darker-skinned kids out there who need to see themselves on screen too! (Yes, I pulled that statistic out of thin air…but it’s probably about right.) Then there is the fact when people of color do show up in movies they are all too often the bad guys. (Rio is a great example of this – besides the little boy in the movie, the two human “good guys” are white and the black guys are smugglers.)
I took the boys to see it after school last Thursday and I was pleasantly surprised! What I loved about it was that the group of friends was in fact a multiethnic, multiracial group banding together around a common interest: science. On top of that, the characters come off as individuals and defy stereotypes in one way or another.
There is not one but two girls in the group. Hooray for more than a token female! Honey Lemon wears short skirts and stilettos, has hair down to her waist, and appears to be the fashionista of the group. She is also a science genius like the rest, showing that beauty and brains can go hand in hand. Go Go Tomago is tough and edgy and hollers, “Woman up!” which is directed at the group, not at Honey Lemon. There is no side love-story – both girls are important parts of the team, just the like the boys.
Wasabi, the beefy black guy with dreads, is a neurotic rule follower who wears v-neck sweaters. Considering that on-screen African-Americans over the age of 10 are often portrayed as threatening or hip-hop or sports-minded, Wasabi struck me as an anti-stereotype – like here is a black guy who is pointedly not being portrayed as viewers would expect. (Although a bit more on that in a moment.)
Even Fred, the hippie goofball of the group, turns out to have a bit more to him than meets the eye.
Yes, the main character Hiro and his brother Tadashi could easily be mistaken for white guys, if not for their names. But the flip side of this is that they are part of a mixed race family, being raised by their white aunt. (Yes! Inner fist pump here for mixed families on screen!) In this case, their racially ambiguous appearance is in fact part of their story.
And, at no point is the movie about race. It presents use with a diverse cast of characters without flaunting it.
The movie deals with issues of grief and loss, as well as questions about how we choose to use science (for good or evil?), which makes for great discussions with kids. The robot – excuse me, “personal healthcare companion” – Baymax is sweet and adorable and totally hilarious. After we got home from the movie, my almost-5-year-old spent the evening pretending to be Baymax, repeatedly insisting on fist bumps, Tra-la-la-la-la-ing, and asking me if I was satisfied with my care.
Sure, there is still room for improvement:
For some reason the name of the city – San Fransokyo – annoyed me. It felt like an awkward, too obvious mash-up, and a bit like the producers felt the need to point out the melding of Eastern and Western cultures. (The original Marvel comic takes place in Tokyo.)
Asian characters abound, which is awesome, but besides Wasabi, other black characters are MIA. I’ve also read some criticism of how Wasabi is portrayed. While I saw his portrayal as cautious rule-follower as breaking out of a stereotype, others caught nuances I didn’t and saw his portrayal as problematic. On Nerds of Color, Shawn Taylor suggests that in Big Hero 6 the black guy is still blatantly portrayed as “other” rather than a true equal on the team. I have a feeling this will be on my minds the next time we see the movie.
And although the Big Hero 6 are a diverse group, all of the main adult characters – Professor Callaghan, business superstar Alistair Krei, Hiro’s Aunt Cass – are white. Then again, the film is based on a comic book, so perhaps it was staying true to the comic in its portrayal of the characters.
In spite of these limitations, Big Hero 6 still felt like a step in the right direction, especially after the uber-white cast of Disney’s last big hit, Frozen. Now I can’t wait to take the boys to see the remake of Annie next month. Although I have some explaining to do first – we saw the trailer Thursday night and Bee wants to know, “What happened to that other Annie?”
Did you see Big Hero 6? What did you think?