Saturday night, while my husband took Zip to a magic show that we agreed would be too intense for our littler guy, Bee and I headed out for a “mommy-son” date to have some fun of our own. Before dinner we ran a quick errand and he helped me pick out scented tarts at Yankee Candle, sniffing them one by one, wrinkling his cute little nose at anything pumpkin-spice or autumn-harvest-y (“Ewww!”) and dropping the fruity ones into our basket with a nod of approval. After dinner at his favorite burger joint we decided to see a movie. The selection of kid flicks is limited this time of year so Hotel Transylvania 2 chose itself for us.
“How did you like the movie?” I ask on our drive home. “Did the story make sense, or were there any parts that confused you?”
“Well how come there weren’t any brown people in the movie?”
OH. Oh. Oh. Oh. That wasn’t the question I was expecting.
My 5-year-old had picked up on something I had missed – something I’m usually super tuned in to, but on this occasion, entertained by vampires and Blobbies, I had forgotten to pay attention. But he had noticed. All by himself, my sweet boy had noticed. And he wanted to know: Why?
“It makes me sad. Because I’m brown…how come the movie doesn’t have any brown people?”
From the mouths of babes. Insitutional racism 101. If we think kids of color don’t notice when they are missing – left out of books or television shows or movies – we are fooling ourselves.
How do I explain the lack of diversity in movies to my 5-year-old?
I could spew some B.S. about how Transylvania is populated by pasty white people and the movie is historically accurate (wasn’t that the line that justified the same lack of diversity in Frozen?), but let’s face it: “historical accuracy” really isn’t the driving force behind movies about werewolves and invisible people (or super-powered princesses that create their own snow storms, for that matter). And while his question may have been about this particular movie, it could also be about movies in general. Where am I?
So I answer as best I can, in a words he can understand. “A lot of movies are made by white people and sometimes they forget how important it is to include people of all different colors in their movies. It makes me sad, too. And a little frustrated and angry.”
I remind him of the movies that do have people of color in key roles – Big Hero 6 and Home and remake of Annie – but it feels a bit hollow because in most of the movies I can think of, the characters that look like my son are in supporting roles, not central ones, and what does that tell him? I have trouble thinking of examples and the one he comes up with is the villain from How To Train Your Dragon 2.
I explain that movie-makers are starting to realize that diversity is important and that all kids need to see characters that look like them, that we make sure we go see those movies so that more of them will be made.
I tell him that when we saw Rio for the first time, I thought the little boy Fernando who helps the birds looked a lot like his big brother, and that made me happy to see. “Fernando looks like me too!” Bee exclaims, finally smiling. That smile, his reaction to thinking about a movie character that does look like him, says it all.