How Do Character Artists Work with Or Against Stereotypes and Tropes When Designing, And What Are the Psychological Consequences of Stereotypes on Youth Wellbeing?

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Abstract

This study examines the strategies character artists in animated films use to navigate stereotypes and tropes and assesses the psychological impact of these stereotypes on youth wellbeing. Through a combination of literary review and qualitative interviews with industry professionals, it explores the delicate balance between employing stereotypes for relatability and avoiding their potential harm. The findings suggest that while stereotypes can support character identification, using them in a nonstrategic, and sometimes ignorant fashion risks reinforcing harmful generalizations, adversely affecting young viewers’ self-perception and social understanding. This research highlights the need for a nuanced approach to character design, advocating for more thoughtful representation that can enrich storytelling while fostering positive psychological outcomes in youth audiences. The implications of this work suggest a path forward for creating more inclusive and representative media that supports healthy development and counters stereotypical portrayals.

Introduction

In the animated film industry, a diverse cast often comes hand-in-hand with the use of stereotypes, potentially perpetuating problematic societal beliefs. This necessitates a closer examination of stereotype-driven character portrayals, where stereotypes are essentially simplified assumptions about specific groups, places, or things1. These assumptions become stereotypes when they repeatedly associate certain characteristics with particular groups1.

The journey through stereotyping in animation is nuanced. Some researchers suggest that stereotypes can sometimes enhance a film’s humor2, positing that completely unexaggerated characters may seem dull3. This leads to an intriguing question: Is it possible for artists to utilize stereotypes and tropes effectively, and what psychological effects might this have? This paper aims to investigate the delicate balance artists strike with stereotypes and their psychological implications.

Characters in Media

From Tinker Bell to Ariel, Dora to Doc McStuffins, and a plethora of characters in between, the world of media is becoming increasingly diverse as we venture deeper into the 2020s. Notable additions to this include Mira the Royal Detective, Elena of Avalor, and Ms. Marvel in Disney’s lineup, along with shows like Wild Kratts, Teen Titans Go!, and Steven Universe.  All of the most beloved stories of our time center around characters and their journeys4. These characters are the ones who we see going through perilous journeys and trying quests. Often, these are the characters that children and adolescents who are watching these movies and shows resonate with5. A prevalent example is the vast cast of characters in the film and book series, Harry Potter. Characters give viewers a reason to care about the story’s events6. This stems from the fact that as a human being, one has the inherent need to connect with others7. Characters in media often serve this role as they are, in essence, idealistic versions of real people. Characters make viewers feel like they know them personally and feel more connected to the media as a whole7. Another way in which characters play a huge role in viewers’ overall experience, especially those who are young people, is the idea of wishful identification. Wishful identification describes the phenomenon in which viewers have a desire to be like a certain character7. As viewers get more and more invested in shows and movies, they have deeper desires to know what is going on in certain characters’ lives, their relationships, and more. This can often turn into viewers wanting to live vicariously through these characters, and in turn, wanting to be like them. Implications of this will be explored further in the following sections.

This study differs from others in its field in that it combines topics that have seldom been combined before. The study not only discusses the effect of media stereotypes on youth well-being, which has been discussed in previous case studies and research, but it combines this with a qualitative study including practical recommendations and insights from professionals in the animation industry who have seen stereotypes at play in their day to day work.

Stereotypes

Gender Stereotyping in Animation

As discussed in the previous section, the use of stereotypes in films may have both positive and negative effects. Gender stereotypes can be defined as generalizations about how different genders think and behave8. Filmmakers often incorporate stereotypes not intending to offend but rather to add humor. In the year 2024, we have a plethora of examples that illustrate this point, and one instance involves the challenging of gender stereotypes in the popular children’s television show, SpongeBob SquarePants9.

SpongeBob is a children’s television show revolving around an anthropomorphized sea sponge who lives in the underwater town of “Bikini Bottom”, where he works at a burger restaurant. SpongeBob features an all-male cast of main characters: SpongeBob himself, his starfish best friend Patrick, and their grumpy but endearing neighbor, Squidward. Although the show is dominated by male roles, it defies traditional gender stereotypes in many ways9.

From the second that SpongeBob’s yellow body waddles onto the screen, one forgets about any gender association. SpongeBob, while a square shape, has rounded edges, big, oval eyes, long lashes, and a pronouncedly high-frequency voice. His friend, Patrick, is bright pink and clumsy and arguably has a more high-pitched voice than SpongeBob. These characters, while said to be male, break almost all stereotypes associated with their gender – and are still some of the most beloved and famous characters to walk the screen9. SpongeBob has been running for over 24 years, and the creators have managed to successfully steer away from using any such stereotyping – at least with their main leads. This is one example of a way in which avoiding stereotypes has been successful. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that completely avoiding stereotyping is the only way to create a piece of media.

Another prevalent example that showcases stereotyping is the Disney Princess movies. The movies center around young women and girls, some who are born or married into royalty, and some who never achieve royal status formally. Still, all are considered princesses10. The stories generally focus on some sort of romance between the princess and a price/male lead. While the intended audience for this franchise is young girls, most people have been exposed to the movies, and are familiar with the plots. These movies showcase stereotypes such as simple-minded, emotional, and passive women who are constantly in need of being saved by a man11, and by portraying women this way, they are not only exposing this message to young girls but to young boys, too. In the original stories, most of the ‘princesses’ never fell in love, and most of the princes weren’t even central figures in the stories – they were added in by Disney and other studios11. The presence of the prince in the films makes the princesses seem helpless, passive, and naíve, and it is these traits in characters that lead to broader generalizations about women and their roles in society11.

Racial Stereotyping in Animation

Racial stereotyping manifests itself in animation in many different ways. Racial stereotyping can be defined as overgeneralization of an ethnic group, especially in a context in which one group is depicted as inferior12. Filmmakers frequently resort to stereotypes as a convenient fallback, as the given character may have a more minor role – and it may be more cost-effective and convenient (from the filmmakers’ point of view) to put less research and effort into a character who would be on the screen for less than thirty seconds.

Nevertheless, stereotype portrayals in the media are often extremely offensive and inaccurate. We can once again use the Disney Princesses franchise as a subject of analysis. The Disney Princess franchise consists of about 15 main movies – and counting. They started with Disney’s first feature film, Snow White, in 1937, and these stereotypes have persisted until recently. Although there are only 15 central “princess” movies, almost every female character in Disney is considered a “Disney Princess”. One thing that many of these women have in common is this: Most of them are white, and they’re portrayed as delicate darlings5. For example, princesses Ariel and Belle were “constructed with the classic porcelain skin tone and delicate features of earlier Disney heroines like Snow White…despite a more active physical presence than their early counterparts, continue to be drawn with tiny waists, small breasts, slender…legs, and arms, and still move with the fluidity and grace of the ballet model used for the older Disney animated films.” In Disney, while white women are shown as delicate, beautiful, and small, characters of color, especially women, are shown to be unique or rare. They are “exoticized”, that is, portrayed as foreign, mysterious and somewhat oriental,  per10 which can be shown when they state “Esmeralda, the darkest in the skin tone of all the characters, reflects the trend toward increasing emphasis on physical maturity…”10. Esmeralda, as a character of color in the Disney franchise, is shown as this mysterious, exotic woman. She does not resemble any of the other Disney Princesses, and her “exoticness” is emphasized greatly throughout the film, especially when she’s shot in action/dance sequences, and in the way she dresses10. In summary, the message that Disney sends out is that European/caucasian women are small, dainty, and ingenuous, while women of color are physically mature, athletic, and “exotic”5. They are putting women in these two different boxes, they’re putting people into these two different racial boxes, and by doing so, they’re sending a negative and untrue message to kids everywhere. This is why it’s so important for up-and-coming character designers to work against these stereotypes – or find a way to work with/around them.

Psychological Effects of Gender and Racial Stereotypes in Animation on Young People

As discussed before, the mass media plays a huge role in the societal ideologies of the present day13. Many of these societal ideologies come in the form of gender stereotyping and traditional gender roles. These roles emerge mainly because the media provides “aspirational role models”14, that is, representatives of one gender who are designed to be more attractive/greater than the average person15. Given this, a second thing to note is that in addition, media consumption among children and adolescents, who are also generally more impressionable, is quite high15 Putting these two factors together, it is easy to see why these gender roles affect so many people – especially those who are younger.

Before delving into these theories, it’s helpful to have a basis for thinking about these ideas. One of which is cultivation theory. Cultivation theory is defined by two principles. First, television offers a consistent yet distorted view of the world15, and if such media is viewed frequently, viewers will start adopting these beliefs into their value systems16. Drawing upon these foundational principles, it is reasonable to conclude that how we are immersed in today’s media creates a situation in which we inadvertently start to absorb the ideologies that it presents – and many times, this can be detrimental to not only our psychological well-being but the progression of society as a whole. It is a widely known fact that young children are extremely impressionable. When they see certain characters acting a certain way or doing certain things, they start to think that this is the standard.

Now, let’s apply these theoretical concepts to the realm of Disney Princesses. Disney Princesses have often been seen as kid-friendly and innocent. While they are certainly classic characters whom many grew up with, it is imperative to underscore that they are some of the biggest examples of gender stereotyping in the media at work5. As one gets older, it is easier to see this and make this distinction for oneself. Yet the intended audience, which are young children, are more impressionable, and therefore more vulnerable to the good, and potentially harmful, messages that these films put out5. Disney Princesses do portray good messages to young children, like the value of kindness, hard work, and self-advocacy17, but many times these messages can be undermined by the more harmful and negative stereotypes that lie such as overly nurturing, helpless, submissive, and the ‘damsels in distress’ trope.  Revisiting this in the context of cultivation theory, the more people, especially children, are exposed to these ideologies, the more they will start to believe it for themselves. Young girls internalizing the idea that most women are helpless and in need of a man to help is dangerous, and while the solution isn’t to stop viewing these films altogether, it is important to make kids aware that this stereotype is false so as to prevent its perpetuation into future generations.

 It’s also worth noting that while Disney does have newer princess characters who do not follow traditional gender roles, they often get more feminized in merchandising and official art. This makes it seem like these characters have to be almost “modified” to be popular. For example, the character Merida from Pixar’s Brave. In the movie, she has wild, curly red hair, wide, round eyes, and a simple but iconic gown. Yet, in the two-dimensional renditions of her for different Disney Princess merchandising, it is shown that they drew her wearing makeup and a very extravagant, sparkly dress – which is very contradictory to her character in the movie. This can be harmful because it may show young girls that there is something wrong with not being “done up” all the time.

Cultivation theory can also be applied to racial and gender stereotypes in the media, which is extremely evident, especially in the early days of two-dimensional animation. Most of these stereotypes were targeted towards non-white characters, and while some of this was clearly shown, much of the issue was brought about because of a lack of non-white representation altogether. This in turn contributed to a homogenized cultural perception of individuals who belonged to these communities in reality13. In the case of one study, they discovered that because of the lack of Native American representation in the media, the only references they had to the culture were Disney’s Pocahontas, or the Cleveland Indians mascot. The researchers also found that this made young Native American individuals feel constrained in their self-understanding and psychological development. They felt too constrained to explore ‘atypical identities’ because of this homogenized idea of Native American identity that society had shown them.

An example of cultivation theory concerning gender is the situation mentioned previously. When children watch films and television shows that showcase stereotypes such as those which are shown in Barbie and Princess movies, they start to internalize these messages5. One example in particular are the Barbie movies and Barbie toys. A study conducted by Sherman & Zurbriggen in 2014, cited by Coyne et. al., (2016), shows that as girls play with Barbies, and are increasingly exposed to the films and T.V. shows, the number of future careers that they can envision for themselves decreases5.

The Current Study

The central focus of this paper is the exploration of stereotyping within the context of animation and animated media. It delves into the origins and functions of stereotypes, as well as the insights and strategies employed by experienced designers who are passionate about creating distinctive and multifaceted characters who will create a foundation for more overall diversity in the field. By conducting a comprehensive overview that encompasses a literature review and one-on-one interviews with professionals, this study provides an in-depth analysis of the roles that stereotyping plays in the creative process of real-world animation studios, as well as the effects that these stereotypes have on young viewers. The study objective to gain insight into the challenges that character designers face in their daily lives and the methods they employ to maneuver working with – or avoiding – stereotypical elements in their designs18.

Methods

To collect data, 4, 30 to 45-minute interviews were conducted with experienced character designers and people working in the animation field.  After researching different papers about the field and gathering literature that could be useful to the paper, interviewees started being sought out. The criteria for these interviewees were people who had done their own work or were experienced in the character design field, people who were passionate about character design, and finally, people who had experience in or were passionate about designing unique and nuanced characters. The study involved a diverse group of participants with varied backgrounds in the field of character art. They included a former freelancer who undertook projects for prominent animation studios and even created their own short film. Additionally, a current freelancer specializing in a wide range of character art-centered projects. Another one of the interviewees was a professional employed at a distinguished animation studio. Finally, a freelancer with experience crafting characters for children’s books and educational material. This qualitative method was chosen because it best allowed the widest range of interviewees to be consulted regardless of location, and it ensured their privacy. The study did not require any physical materials from the interviewees, and meeting in an online form also gave them the option to not show their faces if they did not wish to. After the interviews were over, the interviewee was asked whether or not they wanted their responses to be included or quoted, anonymously of course. All of them agreed, and were sent the necessary consent forms after the interviews.

The interviews went as follows. They started with quick introductions, which included a bit about personal background and any other quick introductory questions. The participants were briefed on what the study was about and how it worked. They were then asked how long they’d been working in the field and some of their gender or racial identities. (This question was completely optional, and it was up to participants to choose if they wanted to answer or not.) After this, the research question was framed by asking about eight more questions. Some of these questions included inquiries about their specializations, the role that ethnicity and gender play in their designs, as well as their experience with working around stereotypes in their daily work. The questions were fairly open-ended and unbiased, and this ensured that the participants gave the most authentic answers. Each interview was conducted over Zoom and lasted about thirty minutes. It is also important to note that the consent forms were sent to participants retroactively – however their responses were anonymous, and none of the data was included until they gave consent. The aim was that the interviews would fill gaps that were identified in the literature and that there would be at least 2 common themes among responses. These themes together with the literature would provide a comprehensive understanding of the role of stereotyping in animation.

To analyze the data, a thematic analysis with an inductive and semantic approach was used18. The data was first de-identified and then read over for familiarity. Common facts and ideas, codes, were identified across all 4 interviews, before generalizing these ideas into themes. Three themes were distinguishable – unique cultural experiences, nuanced personalities, and finally, the idea of tropes being building blocks of storytelling. These themes will be further explored in the results and discussion sections.

Results

Acknowledging Unique Cultural Experiences

3 themes were salient when discussing how these artists work with or against stereotypes when creating their art. The first theme was the importance of acknowledging diverse and unique cultural experiences. When tasked with creating an animated character,  artists interviewed emphasized research, and conducting interviews with people who share cultural identities with your character. For instance, in one of the artists’ short films, the central character was of Bangladeshi origin. The artist’s co-creator, who happened to be Bangladeshi, played a crucial role in providing input and ensuring the authenticity of the character’s portrayal. The interviewee went on to say, “It is disingenuous to design a character completely and give them a gender or racial role afterward. Every cultural experience is different.” The characters’ race, ethnicity, and culture and the traditions that make up their culture are just as much a part of their design as their outward appearance. Creating characters who have these traditions is so much more of a lifelike character than one without. That being said, each experience is different. A white character is not interchangeable with an Indian character. Though both are human, their ethnic backgrounds make the characters distinct. Each cultural experience is different. The first step to avoiding stereotypes is acknowledging these differences, and allowing the characters to have these environments, and flourish in them.

This ties into the idea of believable diversity. Believable diversity is creating a realistic group of people that conveys diversity concerning race, ethnicity, geographic origins, and social class. When creating characters, artists expressed that they made efforts to implement believable diversity in their animation process, such that character groups should be mixed enough so that each character is unique and diverse, but not so “diverse” that it is not plausible within the plot of the animated film. Believable diversity is something that so many films are lacking, according to the interviewee. Filmmakers either under-compensate and don’t add any diversity at all, or they overcompensate. While the characters may be diverse, the filmmakers might be spending more time on making the film seem “exotic” and “inclusive” rather than spending time developing these characters. It is also important to note that characters who are meant to be “realistic” are often the most boring. Character design is based on exaggeration – but it’s important to make sure that that exaggeration does not translate into stereotyping.

A phenomenon that was described to me by one of the interviewees consisted of a new idea that has come about in which animation studios feel they need to fulfill some sort of diversity quota in their films. At the last minute, they ask their character designers to “switch out” a white character (as an example) for a Hispanic or Asian one. Because this happens so late in the process, the designers do not always have enough time to spend on re-creating this character in a way that embodies an ethnic-racial identity that differs from the White norm.

A story that one of the interviewees mentioned illustrates this phenomenon perfectly. The client was creating an animated project featuring an interracial couple. These characters had gone through multiple stages of review, and the music video was in one of the last stages before it was going to be published. But one of the leads suddenly felt the idea was problematic – that their video could get canceled, and that they should just stick with a couple with both white people.

Nuanced, Authentic Personalities

Another common theme that was prevalent amongst interviewee responses was the emphasis on internal qualities rather than external appearances, and nuanced personalities when designing characters. One particular quote that caught my attention during an interview was “The inner reality creates the outer form.” The reason that this quote stood out to me so much was that it highlighted not only the idea that a person’s internal traits are much more significant than their outward appearance but that their internal traits can influence their outer appearance and how they appear to others. The same interviewee also mentioned taking into account different settings. A character who has lived on a farm their whole life would have a very different cultural experience as opposed to someone who has lived in a tiny city apartment their whole life. Creating complex and realistic backgrounds for characters is just as important as creating their present selves. A technique that one of the interviewees mentioned using often was creating a character detached from a gender or race first, essentially a list of key traits about them, and then adding in their cultural experiences and biases, and factoring in how those would affect these traits. This creates a unique, nuanced, 3-Dimensional character that viewers can relate to. A character that feels truly real.

Tropes as Building Blocks

The third theme that emerged was the idea of using tropes as building blocks, instead of completely avoiding them. Tropes can be defined as common themes or plot devices found in the media. An example of a common trope is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, which describes an ethereal, quirky female character whose sole purpose is to aid in the character development of the male lead. While many tropes like this are scorned for being so cliché and repeatable, one of the interviewees had a different take on this. They said “Tropes are the building blocks of storytelling. People think that tropes are bad and go against them, [if this is done,] the story doesn’t end up flowing well. They’re repeated for a reason.” This point provided a new perspective – that tropes could add a level of comfort and familiarity to the viewer.

The interviewee went on to mention how tropes can be regarded as “classics”. They are what has already been done and works – a starting point. When viewers can recognize tropes in stories, they can feel more connected. The interviewee provided the example of the Beauty and the Beast story. It has been retold so many times that it is common enough to be generalized into a trope. The interviewee talked about how seeing renditions of different tropes is so interesting, especially when filmmakers can modernize them. Many tropes can be outdated, and that’s when they start to walk the fine line between a classic story or character, and a stereotype. One of the interviewees shared how tropes do not have to be stereotypes, and in fact, were never meant to stereotype at all. They are meant to be common plot devices that can be duplicated across movies and fit the stereotype and characters. Tropes shouldn’t feel inorganic or forced. They should flow in the story perfectly. Tropes aren’t essential to stories, but if they come up, they shouldn’t be repelled, either.

The themes identified in these interviews give insight into the industry and how these decisions occur. While characters and stories are carefully crafted to gain audience reactions, they don’t necessarily consider the implications for viewers. A scene may be funny, but it’s a fine line between humor and harmful. There has been surface-level research into how the media affects young people, and how stereotypes show up in the media, but there hasn’t been much research at all blending all three together and including industry recommendations. Through the interviewees’ points, we can see both sides of the discussion – the implications, as well as what goes on behind the scenes, how all of the decisions are being made, what is being taken into account, and more.

Discussion

To examine how artists work with or against stereotypes/tropes when designing characters, four animation artists were interviewed. Four themes emerged from the data: The importance of acknowledging unique cultural experiences. Moreover, how such tropes and stereotypes in the media could have psychological consequences on youth well-being is also discussed.

The concept of unique cultural experiences describes the idea of diverse and unique life experiences amongst different cultures and beliefs. These experiences could include opinions, biases, behaviors, and more. The media commonly fails to include these experiences in a character, and this results in stereotyping. As mentioned before, these stereotypes can lead to others assuming things about the individual’s traits and experiences5, as well as the individual’s self-understanding being constrained due to a lack of representation. Because there are only a few identities that characters in the media have concerning certain ethnicities, individuals, especially youth, who share these ethnicities may feel as though they have to conform to these homogenized ideologies. This in turn hinders their psychological development and well-being 19. This relates back to the idea of Cultivation Theory, where people start to inadvertently absorb what they see on television. After seeing many of these stereotypes show up in shows and movies they love, in characters they relate to, young, impressionable children will start to believe that these ideas, behaviors, and thoughts are the “correct” way to be.

A future direction of research could be delving into how character designers approach portraying interpersonal relationships among cultures and ethnicities. This is important to note because it not only helps all kinds of people feel deeper connections with characters in stories, but it also exposes and immerses all kinds of people to different cultures – all aspects of them.

The subsequent theme that emerged was the emphasis on internal qualities over external features. The literature on gender and racial stereotypes has primarily examined phenotypic features of animated characters, or how the characters physically appear.  Researchers and filmmakers who are interested in creating nuanced characters should also focus on internal qualities in addition to physical features when animating characters. Interview data revealed that animation artists and filmmakers spend time crafting the background stories, and the wants, needs, and traits of these characters before delving into the external, the appearance of the character will come more naturally, and it will also be more authentic. The reason this is important ties into the idea of creating unique cultural experiences. Because 3-dimensional, nuanced characters create a more compelling, authentic film, and help society step away from this idea of putting people into boxes based on their ethnicities and identities. Media has such a large influence on the ideologies of the current day and age – although the animation industry has progressed significantly in the past few years in terms of diversity, there is still a long way to go.

The final theme was the idea of tropes being building blocks for compelling stories and characters. The majority of the literature on media portrayals of gender and racial stereotypes focused on physical features and mannerisms and failed to discuss tropesAs mentioned before, a trope is a plot device or theme that is common amongst different media In contrast to this, interviews revealed that tropes can function as building blocks for novel characters. Future research could include a deep dive into the differences in audience reactions or psychological markers (e.g., anxiety, self-esteem) to media with tropes in them vs. movies that try to break/avoid tropes. Tropes add a level of familiarity to a movie, which will make people want to watch it again. Aside from that, tropes do not have to be stereotypical. They are purposefully very general so that creators can put their spin on it, and make it into anything they want. Tropes may sometimes include certain stereotypes, but when removing genders or races from the mix, tropes can be useful storytelling tools and can show us how time-old tales can become more modern with the right creator behind them.

For designers who want to combat stereotyping, a few practical recommendations can be given. First and foremost, working on deepening character backgrounds and incorporating more diverse cultural narratives. Most big animation studios already have characters with deep backgrounds, but pairing this with varied cultural narratives would further add relatability and vitality to the characters. This will also educate the through exposure. Many kids may not have even known about certain cultures, but in putting diverse characters into their favorite television shows and films, it helps them learn more. Rethinking tropes creatively, like recreating a time-old story with more unique characters, will allow viewers to feel a sense of familiarity and automatic connection with the story, while still getting to meet these new characters with diverse backgrounds and personalities. Finally, continuously seeking youth audience engagement. Making sure that the stories aren’t putting harmful or incorrect ideas or beliefs into their minds. There is a fine line between comedic exaggeration and a character who can become a bad influence. But when executed properly, animated characters can be amazing role models for children, and can help them learn unique and impactful skills and ideas that will last a lifetime.

Some areas for further research from our findings might be to what extent youth well-being is considered in the film and television industry as a whole, as well as the long-term impact on a child’s development when they continue to consume stereotyped content. Another future direction could be a cross-cultural examination of how these stereotypes and stereotype prevention concepts fare in other cultures around the world. This study highlights the significant impact of stereotypes in animated media on children’s psychological well-being and suggests that animators and character designers reconsider how stereotypes are portrayed, and the audience that they are creating for. This research fills a critical gap by directly linking character design in animation to child development outcomes, offering actionable insights for creating more diverse and nuanced characters. This approach not only enriches storytelling but also ensures that animated content promotes positive psychological development for young viewers everywhere.

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